How do you get teenagers to think feminism is cool?

Like it or not, feminism has got a PR problem.

Last week we took part in the Think Feminism debate at the Girl Guide Association Headquarters. Their CEO, Julie Bentley, ruffled a few feathers when she took the post following five years with the Family Planning Association and declared the Guides “the ultimate feminist organisation”. One of the reasons such a statement was so inflammatory is because some members of the Guiding community felt that the “angry man-hating feminist stereotype” (a type which grew, like many effective lies, from an element of truth that has since been exacerbated by the right wing media) corrupted their wholesome image. They didn’t want to be associated with its bra-burning associations. And can you blame them?

Of course, the only thing the Girl Guides are burning are camp fires, and they’re having a laugh doing it, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be feminists. The discussion indicates real progress. This is an organisation with half a million (female) members, and they are spending serious time thinking about ways in which to engage teenagers with issues surrounding gender inequality. What they choose to do could have more impact on the feminist future than the actions of any other organisation this year. Because, like it or not, feminism has a PR problem that needs sorting.

As far as we’re concerned, the jury’s still out as to whether or not the word itself needs, to slip into publicity speak for a moment, a “rebrand”. We certainly know from what young women are telling us that “feminism” is a dirty word, for a variety of reasons, perhaps most significantly because it’s “angry” it’s not “sexy” or “feminine”. Young women also expressed the feeling that feminism wasn’t really “for” them – that it was too complex and alienating and that they didn’t have the correct terminology. If you’ve read anything else we’ve written then you’ll know that we don’t see anger or verbose pomposity as effective recruiting tactics, but we need to go further than this and try and think about ways in which we can get young women thinking about gender inequality.

You’d think that feminist mothers would beget feminist daughters (some assume that, like obesity and alcohol dependence, social liberalism runs in families) but it’s often not the case. Listening to your mum talk about the barricades and women’s lib is difficult when Rihanna is waving her bum in your face under the guise of empowerment, and meanwhile the boys at school have some incredibly perplexing footage on their phones that you have to practise pretending to laugh at. Even the most Guardian-reading, muesli-knitting children can transform into strangers during their teenage years, exposed as they are to a culture where being cool means everything, and usually involves hotpants.

Whether or not feminism can ever be truly “cool” is another matter. It probably won’t ever be, cool being as it is associated with a special kind of fag-in-mouth don’t-give-a-fuck apathy. Feminism is the opposite of insouciant. Try being nonchalant while a cocky teenager says “but we don’t need it anymore”. See? Telling young people what to do in an angry voice just simply doesn’t work. Teenage girls have enough drama in their lives without you adding to it. In our experience, having someone (especially your mum) telling you that you HAVE to be a feminist, very rarely, if ever, makes you a feminist.

Rather, feminism is something that many women come to by themselves. Contrary to what cynical marketeers might say, adolescent girls are not idiots. Just because they’re being told that the main things they should be thinking about are sparkly nail polish and blow job technique doesn’t mean that those are actually the only things on their minds. On the contrary, the teenage years are the time when many of us begin to develop social consciences, hence the startling upsurge in girls announcing at the breakfast table, aged 13, that they have decided to become vegetarians. They have a keen sense of injustice (perhaps the keenest), if only someone non-geriatric would bother to talk to them about it.

Unfortunately, it’s not looking as though the government is planning to put equality on the national curriculum anytime soon. When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense for them to do that. A patriarchy setting up courses to teach young people about the evils of patriarchy? Please. They don’t teach feminism for the same reason they don’t teach pupils about the electoral system: they don’t want you to know. And they’d have an uprising of teenagers on their hands (“but Miss, I thought we lived in a DEMOCRACY? This first past the post system is BULLSHIT.”)

Thus, if the government is refusing to shoulder the burden, it’s up to other organisations to fill the void. The Girl Guides are already doing it, as are initiatives such as MediaSmart, a brilliant not-for-profit that distributes teaching materials to schools in order to help children think critically about advertising. The most successful grass-roots organisations (see UKFeminista) are the ones that provide support and topics for discussion, rather than parroting ideology. It shows an understanding that many women come to feminism of their own accord, after having experienced sexism or misogyny, and not because they have been lectured into it. Just encouraging young women to talk about the issues surrounding the sexism, the media and celebrity culture yields some surprisingly passionate responses. Similarly, projects such as Everyday Sexism and Who Needs Feminism? allow women to contribute their own thoughts without anyone judging or taking the piss – a crucial element, especially for teenagers, as well as reflecting the impulses of a generation who are growing up with Tumblr and internet memes.

So there is a lot of great work being done, but there needs to be more. As we speak, young women are setting up discussion groups in their schools, reading books and blogs and magazines such as Rookie (a particular success story– it doesn’t bang on about feminism, but gender equality is subtly central to its entire ethos), and hopefully starting their own. We know, because they’re sending letters to us about it, but we also know that many of them still feel like “the only feminist in their village”, and that more of us need to get out there and show them that they’re not alone.

Rhiannon and Holly will be speaking at the New Statesman Centenary Debate "What is the most important issue facing feminism today?" on 4 April at Conway Hall. More details here.

Girl Guides in their campfire hats in 1947. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war