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

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.