Reviewed: Fifty Shades of Feminism

Woman’s hour.

Fifty Shades of Feminism
Edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach
Virago, 336pp, £12.99

In 2013, feminism is at a crucial moment. In the west, the dreaded “30 per cent problem” is looming: because some gains have been made, there are fewer stark, staring injustices to stir the troops to action. (It’s named after the idea that once female representation in a particular area reaches a third, many people feel that that’s fair – or even that there are too many women around.) In countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, meanwhile, there is a struggle to articulate a women’s rights movement with its own identity, one that cannot be dismissed as an imperialist import. And for God’s sake don’t even mention pornography or prostitution: ask three feminists for their views on those and you’ll get four opinions.

On to this battlefield strides Fifty Shades of Feminism, a book that is resolutely unembarrassed about taking its name from an oldfashioned romance novel, albeit one with lashings of BDSM and terrible dance-based metaphors. I should say that I love the idea of this book and I love that it got published. It feels as though there’s a greater energy to the feminist movement now than I’ve experienced before in my adult life; there’s a critical mass of women who just won’t shut up about the things they care about.

That said, there are a few, perhaps inevitable, problems with a collection of this kind. First, there are several references to how quickly it was pulled together and the book seems to have lost count of its contributors somewhere along the way. Instead of 50 shades, the back cover lists 56 names and there’s a further essay by a young, feminist prizewinner tucked away at the back. Hey, who cares? Maths is for dudes, anyway. (This is a feminist JOKE. Don’t write me letters.)

The bulging list of contributors suggests that the editors might have had to cope with some high-level ego-management; and, because of the format, there are some crunchy gear changes. (Try going from Camila Batmanghelidjh ending a piece with “I’m a drunken whore with alternative boobs!” to Bidisha’s stern list of woman-hating behaviour such as “belittling and victimblaming” for a taste of the varying tones of contemporary feminist discourse.)

There are also occasional chapters that a harsher editor would have rejected: Shami Chakrabarti’s disjointed list of heroines and Liz Kelly’s technical, footnote-heavy description of the cases of Jimmy Savile and Julian Assange are the most obvious. That Kathy Lette has been enlisted to provide the “funny bit” also tells its own story.

But enough carping. Where this book excels is where its contributors approach the topic from an oblique angle: where they show, rather than tell. In this vein, Meera Syal’s reflections on playing Beatrice in a Bollywood-inspired Much Ado About Nothing are exquisite. The Chinese author Xinran’s chapter, showing the sexist assumptions behind the construction of five Mandarin written characters, is revelatory. Ahdaf Soueif’s bittersweet story of her Sri Lankan housekeeper’s return home undermines the easy narrative of the developing world’s aspiration to be more like the west. I also loved the novelist and video games writer Naomi Alderman’s comparison of the unabashed male domination of the tech world with the subtle sexism of publishing – but then it could have been written specifically for me.

It is intriguing that although the book is filled with quotations and illustrations, there is relatively little formal experimentation in the texts. A rare example comes from Jeanette Winterson, who juxtaposes her misgivings about porn with quotations from X-rated websites. The other surprising experimental highlight was the long free verse by Laurie Penny, of this parish.

Previously, I would have said that a feminist poem sounded about as appealing as a Vogon one but Penny’s scalpel-sharp observation is here complemented by some rhetorical fireworks: “There are more of us than you think, kicking off our high-heeled shoes to run and being told not so fast . . . who dared to dance until dawn and were drugged and raped by men in clean T-shirts and woke up scared and sore to be told it was our fault . . . who were told all our lives that we were too loud too risky too fat too ugly too scruffy too selfish too much . . .” It could have been excruciating; instead, it’s intoxicating.

Overall, the three editors of Fifty Shades – Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach – have made a conscious effort to keep their feminist church broad and their contributors are a diverse bunch in terms of age, race, sexuality and nationality. (Although, given their inclusiveness, the absence of a transgender writer does seem pointed.)

What does this book tell us about modern feminism? That it can be angry and warm and witty and wise; that there are more feminists than you might think and they care about an astonishingly broad range of topics; and that, as all women know, there aren’t enough bloody hours in the day.

Meera Syal’s reflections on playing Beatrice in a Bollywood-inspired Much Ado About Nothing are exquisite. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era