Glossing over: women’s magazines are “as intent as the average sexist in the street at making women feel bad”
Show Hide image

Germaine Greer: the failures of the new feminism

“Feminism in Britain has had two strands: as a media phenomenon and as an academic discipline. The vast realm of reality that lies between remains unaffected by either.”

The Vagenda
Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Square Peg, 296pp, £12.99

Everyday Sexism
Laura Bates
Simon & Schuster, 384pp, £14.99

The most curmudgeonly old feminist has got to be glad that in February 2012 two young women set up a blog raging about the insidious nastiness of the women’s press and got seven million hits in its first year of operation. The hope springs up that there might be sufficient angry women out there and they might be sufficiently angry to bring about actual change. But then we’ve thought that before and before any difference could be made to anything, we were told that it was over and that feminism was a dirty word again. Feminism in Britain has had two strands: as a media phenomenon and as an academic discipline. The vast realm of reality that lies between remains unaffected by either.

Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who set up the Vagenda blog, have now uttered a book of the same name. The title was meant to be an ironic version of the portmanteau words adopted by the lower end of the women’s press – a compound of “vagina” and “agenda” – but, like much of the wordplay on the blog and in the book, it doesn’t really work, being neither amusing nor informative. “Vagina” is a vile name for any female orifice, because it means “scabbard”. No feminist could in conscience adopt it despite the never-ending afterlife of the ghastly Vagina Monologues. A similar insensitivity besets The Vagenda, the book. The jacket design is as offensive as anything ever seen in print. It is based on the logo for the blog but with a hideous refinement; the image of a nude female from waist to nearly knee, now photographic, has a chunk ripped out of it, extending from hipbone to hipbone to below the mons pubis, forming a gaping black triangle, in which appear the words “The Vagenda” in Barbie pink. The page design is almost as brutal as the cover.

The writing style of the book takes its cue from the hyperbole of the magazines that are under attack and struggles to outdo it. Baxter and Cosslett (who also write the V Spot blog on the New Statesman website) tell us that, in their personal experience, “Losing your hymen is about as pleasurable as having someone rap your knuckles with a frozen veggie sausage.” Do they seriously wish us to believe that their hymen somehow got lost and that they were aware of its getting lost at the time? That is no more likely than that someone, anyone, would have rapped them on the knuckles with a sausage of any kind, much less vegetarian, much less frozen. To refer to a first episode of penetrative sex as hymen loss reveals a level of ignorance that is positively medieval.

For both writers then to cast themselves in this fictitious double devirgination episode is part of a pattern in which they allege their own behaviour as evidence for the rightness of their arguments. They know! They’ve been there, they chorus. “Let’s face it,” they shriek, “the absence of a bra only feels like freedom if you’ve got the kind of boobs that can stand on their own two teats.” What is the meaning of “stand” here? What is it we’re being asked to face, exactly?

Baxter and Cosslett have no doubt that, “A lot of lactating women do want to get jiggy with it, whether or not they accidentally squirt their sex buddy in the eye while changing positions” – a vision that seems to be derived from the behaviour of playful farmhands in the milking parlour. (The human breast, like the bovine udder, will not squirt unless compressed.) “Of course we all know that [a particular] kind of mock-satin static-inducing pants . . . would have your vag steeped in crusty discharge faster than you can say pH imbalance,” they yelp. Can these two young experts really believe that “crusty discharge” is caused by pH imbalance, as if the vaginal introitus were packed with potting mix?

As the reader flounders through a morass of soiled underwear, amputated body parts, obscure beauty treatments and minor surgery, the figure of the target male, like Moby Dick, appears only to disappear again. He is blamed for all of it, when he is probably as unaware of most of it as Moby Dick would be. Men did not make women wear thongs or Louboutins or false eyelashes or breast implants. Men don’t make women spend money on Glamour magazine or even Cosmo. Men exist in The Vagenda solely as mute sexual partners, sometimes mentioned as “the boyfriend” or “a boyfriend”.

Baxter and Cosslett took a leaf out of the golden notebook of Arianna Huffington when they accepted submissions to their blog and published them without payment or full credit (the Vagenda’s policy is to include the author’s initials but not their full name). When the Huffington Post was sold to AOL for $315m, a small group of investors, including the Stassinopoulos family, shared the money; the army of unpaid bloggers who helped to create the asset received nothing. Some writers for the Vagenda blog have challenged Baxter and Cosslett on their insistence on contributor anonymity. The six-figure advance paid for the book will presumably not be shared with those who helped to build the brand. Well, as the late great black feminist Florynce Kennedy used to say way back in the 1960s, if you’ll fuck for a dime, you can’t complain when somebody else gets a mink coat.

The Vagenda will hit the bookstalls at the same time as Everyday Sexism. This book, too, began life as a blog, set up in April 2012 by the “diminutive, blonde, beatifically lovely” (in the words of the Telegraph) Laura Bates, born in 1987. Bates invited women to upload their experiences of sexist behaviour and by December 2013 there were 50,000 contributions. The thesis of Everyday Sexism, according to the cover copy, is that: “From being harassed and wolf-whistled at on the street, to discrimination in the workplace and serious sexual assault . . . sexism had become normalised.” This is not what the blog revealed; it revealed not that sexual assault was an accepted part of daily life but that behaviour defined as criminal was rife. All the examples given were of men invading women’s personal space, touching them, intimidating them, assaulting them and raping them.

Though gay men are far more likely to be viciously harassed, bullied and assaulted in the workplace than women, they were not invited to contribute to the Everyday Sexism project. Gay-bashing is regarded in many communities as a rite of passage and the perpetrators are unlikely to be viewed as criminals even when the facts of the case are known. That is true normalising.

Sexism should mean discrimination against any individual on the grounds of sex. Women haven’t abused men solely because of their sex since the legendary Amazons bit the dust; nowhere in the real world are women in a position of sufficient power to enable them to persecute men just for being men. Only women suffer discrimination on the grounds of their sex (as distinct from their sexual orientation) and not only from members of the opposite sex.

Sexism is here a misleading name for misogyny, which is distrust, hatred and contempt of women. And it’s not just men who feel these feelings and act on them. Women persecute other women, humiliate them and discriminate against them. They may not grab their tits or threaten to rape them; women have more effective ways of doing other women in. “Horizontal hostility”, another gem from the Flo Kennedy thesaurus, is a by-product of oppression. Oppressed people don’t dare denounce the actual oppressor; instead they betray the people alongside them. They see their shared suffering as the consequence of a defect within themselves. What should be anger becomes guilt and self-blame.

This process can be discerned clearly and repeatedly in the caseload of the Everyday Sexism project. Though much of what is reported is criminal behaviour and not normalised at all, as the victims persist in imagining that whatever happened was their fault, there can be no access to redress. They should be furious but are terrified and ashamed instead. As long as a rape victim is considered to need anonymity, she is expected to shoulder shame and self-hatred as a consequence of someone else’s behaviour. Enough. Enough. Simply coughing up outrage into a blog will get us nowhere.

This curmudgeonly old feminist has argued for years that victims of sexual assault should refuse to feel shame and should not avail themselves of offered anonymity. She has also argued that, because under the present code the burden of proof is too onerous and guilt too difficult to establish, sexual assault should be reclassified under the general law of assault. If you turn up at a police station with a black eye, you are not going to be asked what you were wearing or whether you consented to the assault, but then your assailant won’t be sent away for ten years either.

What Bates’s book should demonstrate is that offences against women are not outrageous or extraordinary; they are par for the course. They are committed with total impunity and at the same time made to appear exceptional. A man who cops a feel on a crowded Underground train does nothing special but he tells himself that he is a helluva fella who has pulled off some kind of a coup. Mere fiddling about becomes exploit. What is truly weird about the degree of impunity assailants enjoy is that everyone is carrying a mobile phone; there are surveillance cameras everywhere and still the offenders get away with it. How hard can it be to track them down?

A woman who is insulted should be prepared to talk loud and draw a crowd, to kick ass and take names (Flo again); she should also be supported by the women around her. Unpacking your heart with bitter words to an anonymous blog is no substitute for action. Years ago I suggested that women who had been abused on a date denounce the perpetrator online. (Remember that most – almost all – rape victims know their assailant.) The immediate response was that the accusations might not be true and innocent men might suffer. (The remedy to a false allegation would be a face-to-face confrontation.) What I was pretty sure of was that most of the individuals who would be named would be repeat offenders; the point would be to protect women from the hazard represented by such men, which is also the most compelling reason for reporting sexual assault to the police.

Everyday Sexism, with its iterated narrative of bewildered pain and grief, is a hard read. Vile behaviour to women has become a fashion among young men and there are some who blame “equality” as the cause. But sexual equality has not been achieved and sexual liberation has not even been glimpsed. As Baxter and Cosslett remark in The Vagenda, “The feminist revolution never came. We are in no way a post-feminist society.” We are still caught in the nightmare of bitterness and misunderstanding that leaves two women a week in Britain dead at the hands of their partners or ex-partners.

The emergence of three young women who are not afraid to give voice to rage could be a sign of a mass movement on the way. In the first half of 2013, sales of Cosmopolitan fell by 15 per cent, of Glamour by 14.8 per cent, of Vanity Fair by 12.2 per cent, of Grazia 11.6 per cent, of Elle 10.2 per cent and of Marie Claire 9.4 per cent. So far the downward trend appears to be continuing. Part of the explanation of the fall in hard-copy sales has been a rise in digital sales but those figures, setting out as they do from a low base, are no match for the lost hard-copy sales.

Women’s glossy magazines are as intent as the average sexist in the street on making women feel bad. We can do without both. What we need is a women’s press that interprets the “malestream” information for its female readers – that explains how Cameron’s gift to working spouses leaves unsupported mothers at a crushing disadvantage, how Amanda Hutton came to let her four-year-old child die, why so many women are given custodial sentences for minor offences, why there is never sufficient funding for care homes or for carers whether for children, the infirm or the aged, or why a woman is six times more likely to die in childbirth in Britain than she is in Estonia or why it took so long to stop Shipman. Bitching and whingeing have their place but without the truth we never shall be free. We need a genuine women’s press. Now that it can exist online, we could afford to run it without having to pimp for the glamour industry.

Germaine Greer’s most recent book is “White Beech: the Rainforest Years” (Bloomsbury, £25)

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

Show Hide image

Paul Mason: How the left should respond to Brexit

It's up to the labour movement to rescue the elite from the self-inflected wound of Brexit.

For the first time in a generation there is a tangible split between the Tory leadership and the business elite. Forget the 41 per cent poll rating, forget Theresa May’s claim to have moved towards “the centre”; the most important thing to emerge since the Tory conference is a deep revulsion, among wide sections of normally Conservative voters, at the xenophobia, nationalism and economic recklessness on display.

Rhetorically, May has achieved a lot. She quashed any possibility of a soft Brexit strategy. She ended 30 years of openness to migration. She scrapped the Tories’ commitment to balanced books by 2020 – though she neglected to replace this keystone policy with anything else. And she pledged to stop constitutional scrutiny over the Brexit process from Holyrood, Westminster or the courts.

Yet in reality she achieved nothing. May’s government is not in control of the crucial process that will define its fate – the Brexit negotiations. And on Scotland, she has triggered a sequence of events that could lead to the end of the UK within the next five years.

In the light of this, the left has to be refocused around the facts that have emerged since the referendum on 23 June. Britain will leave the EU – but it faces a choice between May’s hubristic nonsense and a strategy to salvage 30 years of engagement with the biggest market in the world. Scotland will hold its second referendum. Labour will be led through all this by a man who, for the first time in the party’s history, cannot be relied on to do the elite’s bidding.

Brexit, on its own, need not have caused a great shift in British politics. It is the new, visceral split between Tory xenophobia and the implicitly liberal and globalist culture in most boardrooms that makes this a turning point. It is a challenge for the left as big as the ones Labour faced in 1931, when the gold standard collapsed; or in 1940, when the reality of total war dawned. It represents a big opportunity – but only if we jolt our brains out of the old patterns, think beyond party allegiances, and react fast.

Let’s start with the facts around which May, Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd constructed their rhetorical body swerve at the Tory conference. Britain is £1.7trn in debt. Its budget deficit cannot be eradicated by 2020 because, even on the steroids of quantitative easing, growth is low, wages are stagnant and its trade situation deeply negative. Austerity, in short, did not work.

With sterling weakened, by next year we’ll begin to feel the pressure of imported inflation on real wages, re-creating the economic pain of 2011-12. On top of that, by attempting a “hard Brexit”, May has created damaging uncertainty for investment that no degree of short-term positivity can mitigate. Even if the range of outcomes only widens, investment will get delayed – and with May’s commitment to hard Brexit the range of outcomes will get significantly worse: 7.5 per cent lopped off GDP, according to a leaked Treasury assessment.

Civil servants believe Britain’s negotiating position is so weak that it will have to leverage its intelligence-providing services to Europe and concede “free movement of high-skilled workers”, just to persuade the French and the Germans to cut any kind of decent bilateral deal. Yet in the two years of brinkmanship that begin when Article 50 is triggered, the EU27 will have no reason whatsoever to concede favourable terms for bilateral trade. By adopting hard Brexit and hard xenophobia, Theresa May has scheduled a 24-month slow-motion car crash.

To orient the Labour Party, trade unions and the wider progressive movement, we need first to understand the scale of the break from normality. Labour already faced deep problems. First, without Scotland it cannot govern; yet many of its members in Scotland are so dislocated from the progressive Scottish national movement that the party is bereft of answers.

Next, the old relationship between the urban salariat and the ex-industrial working class has inverted. With a vastly expanded membership, Labour is the de facto party of the urban salariat. Its heartland is Remainia – the cities that voted to stay in Europe. Its electoral battlegrounds are now places such as Bury, Nuneaton, Corby and Portsmouth, where the “centre” (as measured by the Lib Dem vote) has collapsed, to be replaced by thousands of Green voters and thousands more voting Ukip.

This was the known problem on the eve of Brexit, though layers of Labour MPs and councillors refused to understand it or respond to it. The solution to it was, even at that point, obvious: Labour can only attract back a million Green voters and hundreds of thousands of Ukip voters in winnable marginals with a combination of social liberalism and economic radicalism.

The alternative, as outlined in the Blue Labour project of Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas, was an overt return to social conservatism. That cannot work, because it might win back some ex-Labour Ukip voters but could not inspire Labour’s new urban core to go on the doorstep and fight for it. On the contrary, it could easily inspire many of them to tear up their membership cards.

A new strategy – to combine social liberalism, multiculturalism and environmentalism with left-wing economic policies aimed at reviving the “communities left behind” – was, for me, always the heart of Corbynism. Jeremy Corbyn himself, whatever his personal strengths and weaknesses, was a placeholder for a political strategy.

Brexit, the attempted Labour coup and the Tory swing to hard Brexit have changed things all over again. And Labour’s leadership needs to move fast into the political space that has opened up. The starting point is to understand May’s administration as a regime of crisis. It is held together by rhetoric and a vacuum of press scrutiny, exacerbated by Labour’s civil war and the SNP’s perennial dithering over strategy to achieve Scottish independence. The crisis consists of the perils of hard Brexit combined with a tangible split between the old party of capital and capital itself. The elite – the bankers, senior managers, the super-rich and the ­upper middle class – do not want Brexit. Nor does a significant proportion of Middle Britain’s managerial and investing classes.




All this presents Labour with a series of achievable goals – as an opposition in Westminster, in London, as the likely winner in many of the forthcoming mayoral battles, and at Holyrood. The first aim should be: not just oppose hard Brexit, but prevent it. This entails the Labour front bench committing to an attempt to remain inside the European Economic Area.

The wariness – shared by some on the Corbyn side, as well as the Labour right – is born of the assumption that if you commit to the single market, you must accept free movement of labour. The party’s new spokesman on Brexit, Keir Starmer, expressed perfectly what is wrong with this approach: first it’s a negotiation, not a finished relationship; second, you start from the economics, not the migration issue.

Leaving the single market will be a macroeconomic disaster, compounded by a social catastrophe, in which all the European protections – of citizens’ rights, labour rights, consumer and environmental standards – will get ripped up. That’s why the Labour front bench must commit to staying inside the single market, while seeking a deal on free movement that gives Britain time and space to restructure its labour market.

John McDonnell’s “red lines”, produced hurriedly in the days after Brexit, embody this principle – but not explicitly. McDonnell has said Labour would vote against any Brexit deal that did not involve some form of single-market access, and preserve the City’s passporting arrangement, where banks are authorised to trade across an entire area without having to be incorporated separately in each country. Freedom of movement is not included in the red lines.

May, meanwhile, insists there will be no parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiating stance, or of the outcome. This position cannot stand, and overthrowing it provides a big, early target for Labour and the other opposition parties. They should use their constitutional influence – not only in Westminster but at Holyrood, Cardiff and the mayor-run cities, to bust open the Conservatives’ secrecy operation.

By declaring – formally, in a written pact – that they will refuse to ratify a Brexit deal based on World Trade Organisation tariffs, the progressive parties can destroy May’s negotiating position in Brussels overnight. Let the Conservative press accuse us of being “citizens of the world”, undermining the national interest. They will dig their own political grave even faster.

In parallel, Labour needs to lead – intellectually, morally and practically – the fight for a coherent, pro-globalist form of Brexit. In order for this to embody the spirit of the referendum, it would have to include some repatriation of sovereignty, as well as a significant, temporary retreat from freedom of movement. That means – and my colleagues on the left need to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.

In response, Labour needs to design a proposal that permits and encourages high beneficial migration, discourages and mitigates the impact of low-wage migration and – forgotten in the rush to “tinder box” rhetoric by the Blairites – puts refugees at the front of the queue, not the back. At its heart must be the assurance, already given to three million EU-born workers, that they will not be used as any kind of bargaining chip and their position here is inviolable.

Finally Labour needs to get real about Scotland. The recent loss of the council by-election in Garscadden, with a 20 per cent swing to the SNP, signals that the party risks losing Glasgow City Council next year.

It is a problem beyond Corbyn’s control: his key supporters inside Scottish Labour are long-standing and principled left-wing opponents of nationalism. Which would be fine if tens of thousands of left-wing social democrats were not enthused by a new, radical cultural narrative of national identity. Corbyn’s natural allies – the thousands of leftists who took part in the Radical Independence Campaign – are trapped outside the party, sitting inside the Scottish Greens, Rise or the left of the SNP.

The interim solution is for Scottish Labour to adopt the position argued by its deputy leader, Alex Rowley: embrace “home rule” – a rejigged devo-max proposal – and support a second independence referendum. Then throw open the doors to radical left-wing supporters of independence. If, for that to happen, there has to be a change of leadership (replacing Kezia Dugdale), then it’s better to do it before losing your last bastion in local government.

The speed with which Labour’s challenge has evolved is a signal that this is no ordinary situation. To understand how dangerous it would be to cling to the old logic, you have only to extrapolate the current polls into an electoral ground war plan. Sticking to the old rules, Labour HQ should – right now – be planning a defensive campaign to avoid losing 60 seats to May. Instead, it can and must lay a plan to promote her administration’s chaotic demise. It should have the ambition to govern – either on its own, or with the support of the SNP at Westminster.

To achieve this, it must confront the ultimate demon: Labour must show willing to make an alliance with the globalist section of the elite. Tony Blair’s equivocation about a return to politics, the constant noise about a new centrist party, and signs of a Lib Dem revival in local by-elections are all straws in the wind. If significant sections of the middle class decide they cannot live with Tory xenophobia, the liberal centre will revive.

The best thing for Labour to do now is to claim as much of the high ground before that. It must become the party of progressive Brexit. The worst thing would be to start worrying about “losing the traditional working class”.

The “traditional working class” knows all too well how virulent Ukip xenophobia is: Labour and trade union members spend hours at the pub and in the workplace and on the doorstep arguing against it.

All over Britain, the labour movement is a line, drawn through working-class communities, which says that migrants are not to blame for poor housing, education, low pay and dislocated communities. For the first time in a generation Labour has a leader prepared to say who is to blame: the neoliberal elite and their addiction to privatisation, austerity and low wages.

It was the elite’s insouciance over the negative impacts of EU migration on the lowest-skilled, together with their determination to suppress class politics inside Labour, that helped get us into this mess. An alliance with some of them, to achieve soft Brexit, democratic scrutiny and to defeat xenophobic solutions, must be conditional.

We, the labour movement, will dig the British ruling class out of a self-made hole, just as we did in May 1940. The price is: no return to the philosophy of poverty and inequality; a strategic new deal, one that puts state ownership, redistribution and social justice at the heart of post-Brexit consensus.

That is the way forward. If Labour politicians can bring themselves to explain it clearly, cajole the party apparatus out of its epic sulk and make a brave new offer to Scotland – it can work. But time is important. We are up against a corrosive nationalist bigotry that now echoes direct from the front page of the Daily Mail to Downing Street. Every day it goes unchallenged it will seep deeper into Britain’s political pores.

Paul Mason is the author of “PostCapitalism: a Guide to Our Future” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge