Same generation: Girls cast members at a panel discussion in Pasadena this January
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Privilege and post-feminism: Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger

Like the US TV series Girls – but for people who went to Cambridge.

Eat My Heart Out
Zoe Pilger
Serpent's Tail, 304pp, £11.99

Ann-Marie is in a state. Not only has the 23-year-old protagonist of Zoe Pilger's fearsome debut novel, Eat My Heart Out, had her heart broken by her first love, but she has dropped out of university, having failed her exams, and is now living in a fetid Clapham flatshare with an in-the-closet public-school-boy-turned-artist called Freddie. And she is completely skint. The situation is a mess, and being adopted (or, perhaps more accurately, kidnapped) by the legendary feminist Stephanie Haight fails to help matters. Haight is convinced that if she can teach Ann-Marie, a post-feminist, the true nature of female oppression, she can transform her into the voice of her generation; but all Ann-Marie seems to want to do is eat offal, read Nietzsche and fall in love.

Indeed, in this perfectly pitched satire of intergenerational conflict, Ann-Marie’s belief that romantic love is the answer to all her problems seems to be the biggest disconnect, both in terms of the era of feminists that came before her and her own sex life (in one scene, she lets an old man she met at the restaurant where she works as the “door bitch” go down on her in a hotel room, then is sick in a bin outside).

I did not enjoy this book at first, despite belonging to the same, post-feminist, “f**k it” age group. The blurb describes Pilger (the daughter of the film-maker and NS contributor John) as being “like a foul-mouthed Nancy Mitford for the Gawker generation”; I would describe it as being more like the cult American TV series Girls, but for people who went to Cambridge. I didn’t go to Cambridge and I don’t roll with the privileged crowd this novel satirises, so I struggled at times to work out what Pilger was getting at.

There are lines that made me howl with laughter and recognition, though. “Freddie says you love Beyoncé because you went to a black school and that is sick,” the odious public-school runaway Samuel says to Ann-Marie at one point. As the novel progresses, we learn that Ann-Marie is more of an outsider than she lets on. Later, another character describes the all-female college she attended at Cambridge as “a shocking place, full of sexless pain. Full of the impotence of eunuchs.” Such disgust is palpable throughout.

Some reviews of Eat My Heart Out have pointed out how the book lacks likeable characters, and again in this sense it resembles Girls. Depictions of post-adolescent, warts-and-all, drunken femininity seem to be in vogue; the forthcoming novel
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth has been described by Caitlin Moran as “like Withnail and I but with girls”. Yet Eat My Heart Out differs from other works of the moment in that there is no real engagement with the dynamics of female friendship. (“Where are her girls?” I kept wondering about Ann-Marie.) Nearly all the women in this book are cruel and unstable, and the only one who could have been described as a friend smears Ann-Marie’s bedroom walls with human excrement.

In the end, I read Eat My Heart Out as a tongue-in-cheek dystopian vision of what happens when you become so overly engaged with pop-cultural visions of mass femininity – so obsessed with what men want and how to give it to them – that you forget there are living, breathing women out there who might have your best interests at heart. They might even be willing to take you out for a drink, if only you would let them.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.