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Being gender neutral doesn’t help – just look at the MTV Video Music Awards

If sexism were obsolete it might. But it’s not.

In May, MTV’s decision to create a “gender neutral” award for Best Actor at the MTV Movie and TV Awards was presented as a progressive step in the right direction.

In her acceptance speech, Emma Watson, who won Best Actor for her role in Beauty and the Beast, said, “The first acting award in history that doesn’t separate nominees based on their sex says something about how we perceive the human experience.” She added that, to her, the gender neutral award “indicates that acting is about the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes — and that doesn’t need to be separated into two different categories.”

Asia Kate Dillon, who presented the award to Watson and identifies as non-binary, told W Magazine:

“I’m proud of MTV for joining the conversation about breaking down binaries. Binaries, whether it be man or woman or black or white, they were created to separate us, to create an us and a them. Without binaries, there’s only us. Which means we’re actually all equal. So to be presenting the first acting award in history that is based solely on performance and not on sex or gender identity is an historic moment and it’s a moment that will go down in history and that is a history I share not only with my family, friends and coworkers, but with all the trans, non-binary and gender-non-conforming people, particularly people of color, who have been leading the way for change long before I was born.”

It would be nice to live in a time when sex-specific categories were no longer necessary, because everyone was on an equal playing field, but this is not the world we live in.

Indeed, the reason affirmative action laws and programmes were created was in order to address the fact that certain groups are historically and systemically marginalised and discriminated against. We know that women and people of colour don’t have access to the same financial resources, jobs, and positions of power that white men do. We know that white men have been overrepresented on film, television, and in the music industry, as well as in the literary world, in politics, and in positions of power, in general.

In an article at Pacific Standard, Jane C Hu explains that “Recent analyses have found that women are less likely to be published in top tier literary outlets, or to have their work reviewedespecially by men.” A study out of McGill University found that two-thirds of the books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review were written by men and that female authors were more likely to get reviewed if they were writing about traditionally “feminine” topics.

Every music genre from rock to hip-hop to has been dominated by men, and the women within those genres marginalised, almost to the point of erasure. A study conducted in 2017 showed that male rock acts still occupy the majority of headline slots at UK music festivals (that Coldplay is headlining any festival should be enough to upset you, really).

Meanwhile, female MCs have always been treated as marginal in hip hop – to the point they are barely recognised at all. Despite women like MC Lyte and Roxanne Shante having pioneered as equals, talent wise, in the late 80s, they have never been celebrated even close to the way men like Grandmaster Flash, Rakim, or KRS-One have been. You’d think we’d have come a long way in all these decades, but in 2014 Nicki Minaj, one of the only female mainstream rappers making it today, said, frankly, "It's not a female-friendly business. Hip hop is not female-friendly at all."

Indeed, representation of women in hip hop seems to have gotten worse over the years, not better. In 2003, the Grammys created a new category for Best Female Rap Solo Performance, but eliminated the category just two years later. In 2008, neither VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors nor the BET Hip-Hop Awards nominated a single female rapper.

Women have been similarly excluded from the rock world, notorious for its bro-centric culture where grown men have used their status to exploit and abuse young women and girls, dismissed as “groupies.” Only 43 of 317 inductees of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame are women — representing a measly 13.5 per cent. The notion that, somehow, women are less compelling and talented musicians, in a world that has included the likes of Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Amy Winehouse, and Nina Simone, is ridiculous. The one thing that should be clear, based on the historical erasure and exclusion of women from these areas is that something systemic is at play. Meaning that the correct way to address the issue is at a systemic level. We must go out of our way to include, centre, and celebrate women because we know that otherwise they will be left out.

Unless you are prepared to argue that women are simply worse at things like creating music and writing books (you wouldn’t be entirely alone in that…), it doesn’t seem too far off base to support the idea that society isn’t taking care of its woman problem all on its own. Separate categories that explicitly acknowledge the work of women are important in order to ensure we are not made completely invisible.

But last week’s MTV Video Music Awards opted for a different route towards equal representation among the sexes: erasing the categories of male and female entirely. Liberals saw this as a very progressive move, assuming that presenting people as gender neutral humans rather than men and women with different status in this world would magically resolve that imbalance in status. In an article headlined, The New VMAs Categories For 2017 Are More Progressive & All About The Music,” published last month at Bustle, Alexis Paige Williams applauded the “non-gendered categories” as being “in keeping with the progressive precedent the music channel set earlier this year”.

How progressive? So progressive that men outnumbered women as nominees and as award winners. Women, Williams found, had only a 28.8 per cent chance of winning what has been renamed a “Moon Person,” while men had a cushy 83.1 per cent chance. Unsurprisingly, the result of this imbalance resulted in further imbalance, and men won every single category, with the exception of a couple of collaboration tracks.

MTV, VH1 and Logo general manger Amy Doyle told The Hollywood Reporter that non-gendered categories were “reflective” of the views of MTV's young audience, who she says are "uniformly rejecting obsolete labels and embracing fluidity.” Doyle added, “It just felt like a dated construct for a category."

And if sexism were obsolete and dated, I might agree. But it’s not.

The trend of neutralising absolutely everything sex-specific is not only unnecessary (there is nothing wrong with being male or female, after all), but it actually harms women – the category of people who are oppressed under patriarchy.

How can we ensure women are being fairly represented if we refuse to even acknowledge women exist? And how can we, for that matter, determine who is getting the short end of the stick (and therefore resolve that inequality) under patriarchy, if we erase the categories of men and women entirely?

The solution to sexism is not to imagine away males and females, it’s to stop treating males as though they are naturally deserving of more power and privilege than women, and to stop treating women as though the marginalisation they experience is merely an unfortunate coincidence. We need to understand that oppression functions on a systemic basis – meaning things are set up to push white men in particular to the top of the heap – rather than being an accident. 

There is a reason why it is not viewed as progressive to claim you are “colour blind” and “see only people, not race,” in response to conversations about racism, or to announce that “Everybody is human!” in response to women’s complaints about sexism. The only people who “don’t see” gender or race are those who don’t have to, as they are not affected by the systems that marginalise women and people of colour. And, in a world that actively steps on and over certain groups of people, being seen matters a lot.

Meghan Murphy is a writer in Vancouver. Her website is Feminist Current

Photo: HANNAH MCKAY/REUTERS
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The lure of Lexit must be resisted – socialism in one country is a fantasy

Much of the left still must learn that the existing British state is the prison of their hopes.

Lexit, the left-wing case for leaving the EU, is rising from the dead. Its hopes were best captured in 1975. In the run up to the first referendum on EU membership, E P Thompson, the historian of the early English working class, published his clarion call to leave what was then called the Common Market. Doing so would see “Money toppled from power” as Britain moves “from a market to a society”.

“As British capitalism dies above and about us”, Thompson asserted, in a revealing passage worth quoting at length, “one can glimpse, as an outside chance, the possibility that we could effect here a peaceful transition – for the first time in the world – to a democratic socialist society. It would be an odd, illogical socialism, quite unacceptable to any grand theorist…  But the opportunity is there, within the logic of our past itinerary. 

"The lines of British culture still run vigorously to that point of change where our traditions and organizations cease to be defensive and become affirmative forces: the country becomes our own. To make that leap, from a market to a society, requires that our people maintain, for a little longer, their own sense of identity, and understanding of the democratic procedures available to them…”

Thompson spoke for the majority of the British political left at the time, from the then numerous Communists and Trotskyists through to the conservative-wing of the Labour Party and trade unions via the Bennites. All were hostile to sharing sovereignty with the capitalists running the rest of our continent. All believed that just as Britain was the birth-land of the industrial revolution so it could create a unique socialism across its land by going it alone.

I expected a resurgence of a similar left anti-Europeanism in last year’s referendum, and a renewed advocacy of a British road to world progressive leadership. Instead, with few exceptions, the inherently right-wing nature of Brexit bore down on advocates of left-wing politics. Owen Jones, with his family roots in that past history, flirted with Lexit. He has described how his comrades across Europe, such as those in Podemos in Spain, were appalled at the prospect and he wisely backed away.

Labour Leave was mainly business-oriented in its call for UK democracy. The decisively working class vote for Brexit was neither socialist nor social democratic. It simply and understandably rejected the all-party consensus that things should carry as hitherto. Given a chance to say what they thought of ‘the whole lot of them’, millions of Labour voters displaced their disgust with Westminster onto the EU.

The event that resuscitated the Anglo-Lexiteers was not the referendum result but this year’s UK general election. On the summer solstice, two weeks after its astounding outcome, the Lexit-Network posted its first blog entry. It’s aim to help steer a future Corbyn government. In parallel, the New Socialist website, with its strapline for “robust debate and intransigent rabble rousing”, launched a week before the election, also gives voice to Lexiteers.

Prominent among them are sirens from across the Atlantic: Joe Guinan and Thomas M. Hanna and Harvard’s Richard Tuck. They draw on the outstanding work of Danny Nicol who has shown how the EU’s constitutional structures embed neoliberalism. Their arguments – often published in the New Statesman and openDemocracy – pre-existed the referendum. But only as opinions. Now they are gathering energy with the prospect of a Corbyn-transformed Labour Party taking power.

The underlying dream of ‘socialism in one country’ may be potty. But it is essential to recognise the core issue that could give legitimacy a left-wing call for Brexit, a democratic argument anchored on the moment that changed British politics, the launch of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto.

The June 2017 general election was a political watershed. The outcome was due to combination of the 5 “M”s. The man, the movement, the manifesto, May and McDonnell. Of the five, the keystone was the manifesto, whose architect was John McDonnell. In the first place, however, it was “the man” who was crucial.  

Jeremy Corbyn was the personal embodiment of unbroken resistance to the military and financial priorities of Blairism. His personal vision, however, is mostly limited to opposition to tangible injustices and he is not a natural leader. But the outrageous presumption of his unsuitability by a failed New Labour establishment and the torrid injustice of the media contempt unleashed a surge of support. The blowback to the ruthlessness of the assault upon him generated the credibility of the call for a halt that he personified. With poetic justice, the elite aura of entitlement provoked a wave of solidarity that crystallised around Jeremy. A movement was born that took a new form suitable to the age of the platform capitalism of Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Thanks to Momentum, Corbynism became a social-media driven ‘social movement’ independent of Labour officials and MPs. The confinement of politics to parliamentary routines permits the corporate acquisition of policy. The hysteria around Momentum signalled the pain of a genuine threat to its domination.

Even so, the combination of the man and the movement was incapable of moving public opinion. Especially when it seemed that the Tories under May, with the Brexit breeze filing their sails, were now a party of ‘change’. The local election results on 4 May this year saw Labour crash to 27% support, with the Tories establishing an 11 per cent lead and making gains after seven years in office. The general election had already been called. What turned things around was Labour’s Manifesto. It was leaked shortly after the local elections (probably to ensure it was not filleted by the party’s executive) then published. It turned the tables on a Tory party whose leader had foolishly decided to present herself as the allegory of ‘stability’.

After two decades of the wealthy stealing from the rest of us, Labour set out how it proposed to take a little from the rich to help the poor. After decades of rip-off privatisation, it proposed nationalising railways and water to remove them from what are in effect a publically subsided form of taxation by profiteering monopoly suppliers. In the face of an acute rise of indebtedness among the young, it proposed free university education. A neat contrast of the winners and losers was posted by the New Statesman’s Julia Rampen.

The key to its success was that Labour’s manifesto was not an opportunist response of unfunded promises concocted in response to the surprise challenge of a general election that the government had repeatedly pledged it would not call. McDonnell told Robert Peston on the Sunday following: “We geared up last November. As soon as the Prime Minister said there would not be a snap election we thought there would be”. The result was a fully-costed, professional challenge to the outrageous inequity of the neoliberal consensus. By contrast it was Theresa May’s manifesto that was composed in secret, bounced on the Cabinet, contained amateurishly formulated commitments and had to be promptly disowned by the Prime Minister herself.

The outcome was the most dramatic upset in the history of general election campaigns and, more important, a reversal of the terms of Britain’s domestic politics, grounded on Labour’s well-judged pledges. As Jeremy Gilbert argues, “The June 2017 UK General Election was a historic turning point not just because it marked the full emergence of the Platform Era. It also marked the final end of neoliberal hegemony in Britain” – although not he emphases, neoliberalism itself.

It follows that quite exceptionally for the platform of a losing party, Labour’s manifesto has an afterlife. This poses a fundamental question with respect to Brexit. If the UK were to remain in the EU would a Labour government be allowed to carry out the nationalisations and redistribution that its manifesto promises? If the answer is ‘No’ then the democratic case against continued membership is immeasurably strengthened. Whatever the immediate costs, it would be essential to leave the trap of an EU in order even to start to build fairer and more just 21st century society. 

The Lexiteers claim exactly this. That the EU would prevent Labour from renationalising, under its rules favouring the private sector. The argument quickly becomes technical and clearly there are ways that EU membership restricts a government’s freedom of action. But it does not prevent the exercise of all self-interested national economic measures.

In July, to take the most immediate example, the still fresh President Macron nationalised shipyards about to be taken over by an Italian bidder. In the same month, in his barbaric speech in on how Europe should belong to Europeans, Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban claimed he had achieved, “clear majority national ownership in the energy sector, the banking sector and the media sector. If I had to quantify this, I would say that in recent years the Hungarian state has spent around one thousand billion forints on repurchasing ownership in strategic sectors and companies which had previously been foolishly privatised."

Both the French and Hungarian measures are right-wing forms of national takeover to which the Commission will be naturally less opposed than a Corbyn one. But the Lexiteer argument is not that there will be resistance, there will be plenty of that here in the UK as well, but that EU membership makes nationalisation illegal and therefore impossible as beyond politics. The only response to the EU, therefore, is Leave!

The tragic reality is that the UK political-media class, especially the Tories, made the EU a scapegoat for their domestic policies. They hid behind the EU to claim they were powerless to prevent unpopular policies they were in fact themselves pursuing. The most egregious example was immigration. But the UK is not powerless within the EU. Brussels would not be able to prevent Labour from implementing a social-democratic reorientation of the economy to ameliorate the gung-ho marketisation that is the legacy of Cameron and Osborne’s six disastrous years.

But what about red-bloodied socialism? Could this be allowed by the corporatist constitution of the European elite? Of course not. But, however much this might be McDonnell’s and my own dream, it is hardly on the immediate agenda. The stated priority for Labour is securing jobs, preserving the benefits of the EU’s single market and reversing the acute regional inequalities that have made the UK the most territorially unbalanced society in the whole of the EU (mapped by Tom Hazeldine in New Left Review).

Absurd as it may seem, however, the lure of Lexit is a belief that a Corbyn majority can unleash British socialism while the EU groans under the austere regimentation of the Eurozone.

For example, Guinan and Hanna writing in New Socialist assert that Labour can “seize upon the historically unique opportunity afforded by Brexit to throw the City under the bus”. Apparently the ‘opportunity’ of a Commons majority created by first-past-the-post means a Labour government can snap its fingers at the House of Lords and the monarchy not to speak of the media and the banks, to use the imperial British state to “assert public control over finance, and rebalance the UK economy”. No consideration is given the fact that the ‘opportunity’ is likely to be based on considerably less than 50 per cent support amongst the voters. Meanwhile, the country’s largest export market will, apparently, despite its ineradicable neoliberal character, sit idly by as the path to socialism is pioneered on its largest island.

Perhaps we should be grateful to brazen Lexiteers for being carried away when others, such as the Guardian’s Larry Elliot are less candid about the logic of their views.

It hardly needs the genius of a Varoufakis to grasp that the UK is made up of European nations and when it comes to the dominant economic system this will be changed only through a shared European process that defies EU corporatism, or not at all. Much of the left still must learn that the existing British state is the prison of their hopes and will never be the instrument for their delivery.

Back in 1975 when E. P. Thompson hurled his diatribe against the ‘grand theorists’ of socialism he had Tom Nairn in his sights, whose fine polemic, The Left Against Europe had recently scorched every corner of anti-European prejudice. Against the fantasy of socialism in one Britain, Nairn had argued:

“The Common Market—Europe’s newest ‘constitutional regime’—represents a new phase in the development of bourgeois society in Europe. To vote in favour of that regime ‘in a revolutionary sense alone’ does not imply surrender to or alliance with the left’s enemies. It means exactly the opposite. It signifies recognizing and meeting them as enemies, for what they are, upon the terrain of reality and the future. It implies a stronger and more direct opposition to them, because an opposition unfettered by the archaic delusions of Europe’s anciens regimes”.

Nearly 50 years later the terrain of reality and the future is still shunned by the Lexiteers as they cling to the fetters of the old regime. 

Anthony Barnett’s “The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump” is published by Unbound

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left