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Feminism doesn’t mean learning to play the game - it’s a total game-changer

Women shouldn't have to "emulate male behaviour" to get ahead.

A couple flirting beside a Christmas tree, December 1955
A couple flirting beside a Christmas tree, December 1955. Photograph: Getty Images

Another day, another columnist demonstrating just how warped the public perception of "feminism" is. 

Today in The Guardian, Hannah Betts revealed that "Feminism and flirtation are by no means unlikely bedfellows". Thanks Hannah. I’d no idea.

Apparently, joint research from the University of California, Berkeley and the London School of Economics demonstrates that women who use "feminine wiles" get ahead better in life – to be exact, used in negotiation, the use of these "wiles" improves one’s "prospects of brokering success by up to a third". So far, so depressingly uncontentious; Betts herself refers to Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital - a book which, like Betts’s article, does nothing to challenge gender norms, and everything to teach women how to play the game.

According to Betts, an ability to play the game and deploy "the theatricality of femininity", could "prove one of feminism’s chief weapons" – if only the dour, naysaying, “dungaree”-wearing crowd would just let us chicas get our flirt on.

So what’s the issue? Should the dungarees just slip into something more sexual?

Short answer, no.

Firstly, this type of reductive, lazy stereotyping is debate at its most disingenuous. Betts creates and dispenses with her mythical adversary by undermining her – and, by extension, anyone else who actually genuinely exists and genuinely disagrees with Betts’s argument. "Oh, you disagree with me?" Betts snidely says. Well, I’ve dealt with your sort – you’re that mythical ‘Seventies’ feminist, and I’ve already pointed out that you’re too vested in your dungarees to bother arguing with – you’ll ‘never be happy’.

Betts’s choice of words is telling here – she doesn’t say that this type of feminist will never agree, she says they’ll "never be happy" with the type of "feminism" she proposes. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. By presenting those who oppose her version of "feminism" as unhappy rather than disagreeing, she undermines the position from which they disagree. It is presented as emotion, rather than logic – women are emotional and illogical – where have I heard that one before? Or maybe it was here? Even more insidiously, Betts’s image of the unhappy feminist in a shapeless onesie buys into the decades-old patriarchal dismissal of feminists as joyless, sexless crones, who exist only to ruin everyone else’s fun. So, who wants to align themselves with illogical killjoys? No, me neither. Betts / Patriarchy 1: Feminism: 0

Betts quotes research director Dr Laura Kray, who said that, “Feminine charm is a strategic behaviour aimed at making the person you are negotiating with feel good in order to get them to agree to your goals.” Betts extrapolates from this:

"According to Kray and her team, charm evolved to meet the vexed issue that, while being perceived as too masculine is disapproved of in women, failure to meet masculine norms means that they are considered less competent. A little light flirtation allows women to emulate male behaviour, while creating an alluring diversion."

So, Betts reasons, by being critical of this type of behaviour, feminists are preventing women from getting on in life – and who could argue with that?

Let me try.

The fundamental problem with Betts’ argument is that she has a woefully short-sighted vision of what feminism could achieve. Feminism isn’t against women using sex because feminists are sexless, feminism is against women using sex because it is indicative of the prevailing inequity which means that women have to use sexual attraction in order to "divert" men, and enable them to "emulate male behaviour". Betts points to the use of flirtation by Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher – two women who, against all sexist odds, came to power. Betts herself says of Thatcher, "If Alan Clark and his cronies were going to objectify her, then she was going to work it." And that "if" is crucial: Thatcher flirted because they objectified her. It was a tactic, deployed in order to deal with sexism. So the use of "feminine wiles" by these two women is not something to be celebrated; it is something to be deplored.

Betts attempts to illustrate the reasonableness of her point by presenting flirting as the female counterpart to "rhetoric". She says that like this ‘”manly” art', flirtation relies on sprezzatura. But Betts is being disingenuous here – and she must know it. Rhetoric was one of the key elements of Renaissance Humanism; it was, and remains, intensely cerebral, and the dichotomy between male rhetoric and female flirtation harks back to the ancient principle that aligned the man with the mind and the woman with the body. Using rhetoric displays your mental agility, your ability to dazzle your adversary with your words; flirting relies on your sex-appeal. Therefore, Betts’s clumsy attempt to use Camus’s assertion that ”Charm is a way of getting the answer yes without asking a clear question” is, like her throwing around of Butler and de Beauvoir, in itself a diversionary tactic – designed to distract us from the reality that her argument merely rehearses centuries-old gender disparities, rather than attempting to challenge their foundations. If she were dead. Butler would be turning in her grave to be thus co-opted.

Betts is not wrong to suggest that feminine "wiles" help women get what they want. But she is wrong to suggest that this type of behaviour should be the natural ally of feminism. Feminism doesn’t mean learning to play the game: it’s a total game-changer.

Caroline Criado-Perez has just completed at degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is about to start a Masters in Gender at LSE. She is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and tweets as @WeekWoman