On Page 3 and in-fighting in the feminist movement

The Sun's Page 3 is awful and outdated, and hating it doesn't mean that you hate sex, say Rhiannon and Holly of the Vagenda.

The feminist movement has always been plagued by in-fighting. If you need any convincing of that, just take a look at Tanya Gold’s recent article in the Spectator, where she recounts several notable lady-scraps - the most vicious of which involves Camille Paglia allegedly calling Julie Burchill a ‘pig-fucking cunt’.

At its most negative, pigs aside, it has boiled down to factions from one side telling the other that they aren’t even ‘qualified’ or ‘allowed’ to call themselves feminists at all, whatever that means (an accusation that has been levied against us). And while the inability of feminists to just get along like the nice, polite, cuddly little sisterhood you’d surely expect a group of women to be has often been used as a stick with which to beat the movement, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Feminism is made no different from any other political movement merely by being mostly populated by women, and expecting it to be so is frankly ridiculous. While we’re not calling for a repeat of ‘pig-fucking-cunt-gate’, we’ll acknowledge that controversy in the ranks isn’t about to end - and, that settled, we might just stick our own oar, very briefly, into the murky waters of intra-feminist debate.

The New Statesman’s own Martin Robbins is up for our ire this week, with his decision to put forward an anti-anti Page 3 article. It showed a pro-nudity but not exactly pro-Page 3 stance that relied mostly upon a personal attack on the creator of an online petition. Rather than do what most people do when a petition they disagree with comes around (shrug and not sign it), Robbins levied an unnecessary tirade about the petition’s creator, Lucy Holmes, calling her supposed anti-nudity stance ‘sinister’ and arguing that the solution to the Page 3 conundrum would be to put more nudity in newspapers instead. Most of his article took issue with the fact that Holmes once apparently said sex should be ‘beautiful’, which he then extrapolated to mean that she probably wanted to ban all porn. Then he ended on the idea that we should keep Page 3, and ‘add some cocks in too’. Awesome.

At the time of writing, the No More Page 3 petition has 44,000 signatures, many of whom, if Robbins is to be believed, are puritans disgusted by the sight of a naked human body. This is one of the most problematic aspects of Robbins’ argument, because it assumes that everyone joins movements for the same reasons, when in fact the opposite is true. Any movement comprised of 44,000 people is going to be made up of varying points of view and insights and experiences. In this sense Lucy Holmes’ own (assumed) personal views on nudity cease to be of central importance. Enough people felt that boobs were not news to sign on the dotted line. Some will inevitably find nudity somewhat offensive – this is England, after all – but just as many will be signing because they don’t want their kids to grow up in a world in which they have to witness what one commenter described as ‘the normalised commodification of the female body'. As they pointed out, it’s the casualness, the ordinariness of that commodification which is disturbing, and which many object to. It perpetuates shitty ideas about women everywhere, not just those posing in their best French knickers on a printed page.

This is something many women know, and understand. They have spoken out about the effect that seeing Page 3 has on their confidence, their wellbeing, and the way they perceive their place in society – as sex objects, as the receptacles of men’s egos and gazes and penises, routinely ogled over buttered toast, normalised. Those women’s voices are important, and should be heard. We wouldn’t accuse Robbins of ‘mansplaining’ – a word used by some feminists to indicate a man preaching to women about the nature of their own oppression in a patronising manner – mainly because it isn’t a very good word, but we will tentatively tout the idea that he is speaking from a position of male privilege, and that those (varied, complex) feelings that women experience when they look at Page 3 are likely to be somewhat alien to him. 

We welcome men as part of the feminist movement – we love men – but we need them to listen to us, to our histories and our ideas and our plans, and take these into account, and think about them before accusing us of being sinister or striving for sexual hegemony. The wonderful thing about this new wave of feminism is that many different groups are campaigning on different issues, and that people can take their pick of causes to support. We’re busy, and in-fighting just wastes our time and yours. In the time that we have taken writing this smackdown, we could have been doing something much more productive, like banning porn for ever (ha ha, got you there, didn’t we, Martin?)

The saddest thing about Robbins’ argument was that he pointed out all of the negative, misogynistic parts of Page 3 - ‘dehumanising acts of mockery’, in his own words, that ‘hilariously’ juxtapose complex political views next to scantily clad women, where the joke is that females with breasts might actually have something to say about the Higgs Boson - then dismissed the anti-Page 3 campaign as a ‘slut-shaming’ exercise that aims to force everyone into the same expression of sexuality. The anti-Page 3 campaign is actually wonderfully simple. Page 3 is awful and outdated, it’s regressive and disrespectful, and we urge you to sign the petition. Not because we hate tits or nudity or doggy-style sex with handcuffs on, but because the context of those tits is important, whether you like it or not.

This is something most feminists agree on, and with good, robust, valid (varied, complex) reasons. It’s good to have a concrete target (for once). So let’s make the most of it. The black feminists may be angry at the socialist feminists, and the socialist feminists may be angry at the radical feminists, and Paglia may hate Burchill, but at least they’re all angry at men, right?

Just joking. We’re angry at you, Martin. You and The Sun.

 

The photo used above is from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence. You can find the original here.

Lovely. Photo: Flickr/Hankzby, used under a Creative Commons licence

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser