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

Another Man
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Harry Styles’ starring role in Another Man magazine proves he is the perfect teen idol

Nostalgic, androgynous and fresh – One Direction’s most famous face is as traditional a heartthrob as it gets. Music critics should know better than to write him off.

In As You Like It’s famous “seven ages of man” speech, Shakespeare splits the everyman’s life into seven parts. Three central, youthful ages stand out. The schoolboy, “with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like a snail / Unwillingly to school.” The lover, “sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’ eyebrow”. And the soldier, “full of strange oaths,” with a patchy beard, brimming with ambition.

Today, an equally significant work made its way into the world – the most recent issue of Another Man magazine, which stars Harry Styles in three separate editorial shoots, as well as interviews between him and Paul McCartney and Chelsea Handler, and an essay on his youth written by his sister, Gemma Styles. In each shoot, Styles bears a resemblance with each of these three Shakespearean stages – in one, he sports a boyish bowl cut outside his old school, another casts him as a wistful, long-haired lover decked out in red, the third sees Styles with a new, short crop (done for the upcoming film Dunkirk, in which he plays a soldier), more masculine tailoring and barely-there facial hair.

The photoshoot marks something of a milestone in Styles’ career – something he seemed to confirm himself when he preceded sharing the magazine’s three covers on his Instagram feed with three blank posts (now, when you click on Styles’ Instagram page, there is a clear white line between his pre and post- Another Man pictures). This is his first interview and photoshoot since he left One Direction, and cut off all his hair for an acting role, and aside from the odd grainy fan picture or long-lens pap shot, fans have hardly had a glimpse of him since.

So, if this is a statement about a decisive moment in Styles’ trajectory, what does it actually say? Do the three different styles of shoot represent the ghosts of Harry’s past, present and future? Is his sheer versatility a way of presenting the former boyband star as a full-blown actor? In terms of the magazine’s written content, we don’t really discover anything about Styles we didn’t know before.

In his short phone interview with McCartney, Styles’ questions (“When you first went from being in a band to being on your own, what was the creative side of that like?” and “How did you find going from touring with so many people around you, to going out doing songs you’d written every word of?”) suggest he plans to write and perform solo music, and he briefly discusses his acting work with Chelsea Handler (“It’s a challenge, but it feels good to be out of my comfort zone”).

But the rest of the issue feels firmly nostalgic. Styles reiterates how much he loves returning home to Holmes Chapel (“that’s one of the places for me where I feel like I disappear the most […] I go back to Cheshire a lot and walk around the same fields”), the rush he had performing with his former bandmates (“there’s no drug you can take that gives you that same high”), while his sister reflects on his moments spent boiling pasta, playing with the family dog, and running baths for their mum. “It’s cool to have such specific moments in your mind to look back on,” Styles tells Handler.

The three shoots are nostalgic, too. This latest issue of Another Man follows one themed around Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones and the “heirs to his throne”. As Styles is his most obvious successor (often compared to Mick Jagger in both looks and charisma), two of these shoots feel almost as though they were intended for that previous issue. Both the boyish, Sixties Beatles and Stones-inspired shoot – “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, shot by Alasdair McLellan – and the ragged rockstar story, “Anything That’s Part Of You”, shot by Willy Vanderperre – reference specific Jagger photographs and his general vibe.

On seeing the new covers, the Guardian proclaimed: “Harry Styles proves the heartthrob is dead: long live the artthrob”. It saw the shoots, with their high fashion aesthetic, and placement in a niche fashion magazine, as well as Styles’ ability to move from boyband star to actor to potentially authentic singer/songwriter as proof that the old concept of a heartthrob has died. The article says he is “not just a teen dream any more”, “revelling in a context that couldn’t be further from his One Direction past”, and adds: “To win hearts in 2016, you now have to offer artistic value. And you have to hustle.”

But what these visual callbacks to Jagger emphasise is that Styles is, in fact, a very traditional heartthrob – his very appeal may be due to the fact that he is the most traditional heartthrob we’ve had in years. Like McCartney, John Lennon, David Bowie, Jagger, Marc Bolan, or Kurt Cobain, Styles is creative, interested in fashion, androgynous, boyish and followed around the world by a stream of enthusiastic fans, who are mostly young women. And, perhaps in no small part due to that last detail, like all of them, he has been dismissed as a cheap fad by music writers who should probably know better.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, TS Eliot said that a truly “traditional” writer is that which has “a sense of the timeless, as well as of the temporal, and of the timeless and of the temporal together”. This is also what makes that writer contemporary, and aware of his own specific moment in time. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”

If we apply that logic to the long list of teen idols, Harry Styles ticks all the boxes. Nostalgic, androgynous and fresh – Styles is as traditional as it gets. May he retain his place in the canon for centuries to come.

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