Lena Dunham with the cast of Girls.
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Laurie Penny on Lena Dunham's Girls: it can't represent every woman, but shouldn't have to

In mainstream culture, white, straight, middle-class women don’t get to speak about their experience without having it universalised and made meaningless in the process - but black women, poor women and queer women usually don’t get to speak about their experiences at all

Hey girls, we're all the same, aren't we? At least, that's what they’d like us to think. We are living through an unprecedented time of narrative richness, when people from an enormous range of backgrounds, including women and people of colour, are finally beginning to share stories about their lives across boundaries of class and distance in numbers too big to ignore. But you wouldn't know it from the mainstream press, which still reserves a very few places for female creators, who are expected to represent all womenkind, then excoriated when they inevitably fail to do so.

Take, for instance, the three-year storm of publicity around the HBO show Girls, which follows the lives of four young white girls living in Brooklyn. I am often asked if I relate to Girls. Well. I’m a white, middle class media professional in my mid-twenties living and dating in a major western metropolis. Of course I relate to Girls, and I think it’s smart and funny and fun, although there are still bits that don’t speak to me at all. What's more important is whether or not any piece of art to which some women relate – particularly women from a certain privileged demographic – can be considered definitive. 

The vivisection of Girls, and of its creator, Lena Dunam, has become a cultural project involving hundreds of writers, critics, blogs and TV pundits worldwide. Alongside serious issues of race and representation, there have been articles obsessing over whether Dunham’s jawline was tightened in her photoshoot for Vogue. There have been interminable debates over the nudity in the show, and whether it’s necessary. There has been barely disguised rage that a woman who isn’t a standard Hollywood beauty is allowed to display her body in public, to place her less-than-perfect flesh at the centre of her show, to play a character who sleeps with good-looking men. 

The popular blog Jezebel offered $10,000 for un-airbrushed images of the Vogue photoshoot, as if  having one's hips narrowed in post-production were hard evidence of betraying the sisterhood, of not being that perfect poster girl for global feminism who has, to the best of my knowledge, never existed, and who would need to be destroyed if she did. As Dunham told the Huffington Post in 2012: “The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd.” But the reactionary trend of taking any rich young white girl's story and making it a totem for young womanhood everywhere is bigger than Dunham, and it's a brutal beast to battle.

Nobody is saying that Lena Dunham doesn’t deserve critique. Debate and discussion is part of the life of a piece of art, particularly when it comes to episodic television, which has replaced film as the dominant medium of collective storytelling. What is curious is that no male showrunner has ever been subject to quite this sort of intense personal scrutiny, this who-are-you-and-how-dare-you. No male showrunner has ever been asked to speak to a universal male experience in the same way, because “man” is still a synonym for “human being” in a way that “woman” is not.

Men do not experience the personal being made universal. When men direct honest, funny television shows about young men living their lives, it’s not “television that defines the young male experience”, it’s just television. When men write  “confessional literature”, it’s just called “literature”. Male artists and writers produce deeply personal content all the time, but as Sarah Menkedick once wrote at Velamag, for them “it’s called ‘criticism’ or ‘putting yourself in the story’ or ‘voice-driven’ or ‘narrative’ or ‘travelogue’ or ‘history’ or ‘new journalism’ or simply a ‘literary journey’”.

Forbidding any woman simply to be an artist, forbidding us from speaking about our experience without having it universalised and trivialised, is the sort of broad-brush benevolent sexism that undermines the real threat that a multitude of female voices might otherwise pose. It comes from a culture that puts up endless barriers to prevent women and girls expressing ourselves honestly in public and then treats us like fascinating freaks when we do. Is still so rare, so unbelievably, fist-clenchingly rare, to see young women depicted in the mainstream media with anything like accuracy, as human beings rather than pretty punctuations in somebody else’s story, that as soon as it happens we want it to be more than it is. So Girls is asked to speak for every young woman everywhere, and then torn apart when it inevitably fails to do so, because nobody can, because nobody ever could. And that’s the problem.

In 2012 Kendra James, a black writer with a similar social and educational background to Dunham, wrote a heartfelt piece entitled simply “Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist,” in whish she asked “why are the only lives that can be mined for “universal experiences” the lives of white women? Why, indeed? In mainstream culture, white, straight, middle-class women don’t get to speak about their experience without having it universalised and made meaningless in the process - but black women, poor women and queer women usually don’t get to speak about their experience at all. (In 2013, only one black female director released a major film.). Essentialism is as racist and classist as it is sexist. It is always reactionary. The idea of girlhood as a universal story is a great way to stop individual women's stories being heard. And it’s treacherous territory to negotiate.

Last week, I filed a blog about the politics of short hair. It was response to a viral piece by Tuthmosis of the anti-feminist site Return Of Kings, and was intended as something lighthearted, about how, in my experience cutting your hair short can change the way men treat you.  I wasn’t expecting it to go viral, and I was absolutely overwhelmed by the response - the piece got a lot of positive comments, but was also called out for largely overlooking the experiences of black women with regards to hair and beauty. 

I didn’t set out to write the definitive article about what short hair means. But just because I didn’t mean to make my experience universal doesn’t mean that it didn’t read as such. It’s easy to forget that, as a white girl working for the mainstream press.

The mainstream media  still tells a single story about what women are and what they do. The internet, by contrast, allows us to tell many stories. My own work and writing comes out of the blogosphere, out of livejournal and blogspot and status updates, and my first jobs in journalism were for small, independent publications. Sometimes I forget that writing for publications like the New Statesman and the Guardian comes with very different overtones -  the attitudes of the mainstream press are changing, especially online, but for a lot of people they still represent a culture whose idea of femininity is horribly monolithic. 

The telling of many stories, the sharing of different experiences, is part of what’s creating a sea-change in our cultural understanding of gender and power. I see that happening everywhere. But sometimes just seeing isn’t enough.

The politics of cultural representation are riven by rage for good reason. This is still a sexist, racist society, one that reserves a very limited number of places for female writers and artists – fewer still for women who are not white, straight and middle class – and then demands that they speak as women first and as human beings second. Those who by chance or privilege manage to attain those few, totemic positions become lightning rods for the understandable anger of those who were not chosen, who do not see big-budget dramas made about their lives, who are only called on, if at all, to describe what it is like to live as “other”. 

Only white, straight, cis girls get to be Everygirl. That's just one more reason that the idea of Everygirl is bullshit. It hurts every real person trying to live her own story within the limits of imagination permitted to us.

Feminism will have achieved something huge when one artist isn’t expected to stand in for every young woman everywhere. We will be on the cusp of something magical when women are actually permitted to be artists, to create fiction, to make mistakes, to grow up, to be flawed and human in public. If there’s one thing about the phenomenon of Girls that does speak to a universal female experience, it’s the spectacle of being crushed by impossibly high expectations.

The really scary truth about the universal girl experience is that there isn’t one. The truth about young women that nobody wants to acknowledge is that we are all unique, and the number of stories that haven’t been told about our lives is vast, particularly if we are poor, or queer, or if we are not white. It is the telling of many diverse stories, rather than the search for the perfect archetype, that will really challenge the narrative of patriarchy, and want to see more women's stories told, not just online, but in mainstream, high-stakes media. I resolve in future to be a more useful part of that great retelling.

To paraphrase Bakunin, there is no such thing as a perfect poster girl for feminism - and if there was, we'd probably have to destroy her. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?