There’s no point in online feminism if it’s an exclusive, Mean Girls club

Ever tried to engage with feminist discussion on the internet? Chances are, you won’t be welcome.

 

There’s a story that does the rounds in politics about a radicalised council in north London in the 1980s, when the Trotskyite entryists were worming their way inside the local Labour Parties with all the potency of dry rot. It goes like this: if an unsuspecting comrade, new to the area, wanted to join his or her local branch they would be informed that they couldn’t.

“Sorry,” they would be told as the door was slammed in their face. “No vacancies.”

Ever tried to engage with feminism on the internet?

I’ve had to start differentiating between feminism – good honest feminism in all its manifestations from Luce Irigaray, to Greenham Common, to Andrea Dworkin and even (although the Lord knows, she’s not to my taste) Camille Paglia  – and what I’ve started calling the Online Wimmin Mob. The latter is meant to sound insulting. Borderline misogynist if you like, and there’s a reason for that: the Online Wimmin Mob don’t seem to like feminism. There’s not much evidence that they like women very much. Perhaps this is the reason that they don’t want you to be a feminist either.

If you try to join the club that they seem to believe they have seized control of, you too will be told that there are no vacancies. No room for you, with your “privilege”. They will sneer at you and imply that you’re only into “lipgloss feminism” and that, with your inferior intellect and experience, you could never measure up to their sophisticated world view. “Run off and cry to mummy Caitlin [Moran]” is an insult I’ve seen levelled at more than one curious young woman, whose naive but genuine interest has fallen foul of The Committee.

"Shut up and push off you stupid bimbo" is the message that comes over loud and clear.

I, too, have not been allowed to join, which I think is highly unfair as I too can be just as pretentious and full of my own self-importance, while simultaneously adding nothing that makes my pontifications in any way relevant to anything that is going on in the real world. I’d like to present to the Court this as evidence: my dissertation title at university was “How far has a philosophical dichotomy affected changing attitudes towards women?”

Pick the intellectual peanuts out of that one, ladies.

The Online Wimmin Mob takes offence everywhere, but particularly at other women who are not in their little Mean Girls club, which has their own over-stylised and impenetrable language, rules and disciplinary proceedings.

“Check your privilege!” This has become the rallying cry of the Mob when faced with a woman with whom they disagree. “Privilege”, when out of the hands of Mob bullies, is actually not a bad concept. God knows, party conference fringes involving Harriet Harman chatting to her public school mates about the importance of getting more women into politics have been known to bring me out in a bad case of the hives on more than one occasion. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with thinking, “Woah, there! Is it possible that there are more things in heav’n and earth than were dreamt of in a South Kensington champagne bar over tapas with Jocasta?”

Where “privilege” goes wrong is that it is routinely used for, I’d argue, shutting up women who disagree with the Online Mob. The whole foundation of the argument is flawed anyway; about 35 per cent of the world’s population has access to the internet. Everyone on Twitter is privileged. Everyone. Claiming “unprivileged” underdog status when you are in the top 35 per cent of the entire world makes you sound like the sort of annoying princess who screams that it’s just not fair and she hates you because she only got an iPhone and a pony for Christmas.

All women suffer from discrimination, internet connection or not, in one form or another. For some, it is mild. For some takes the form of sexist comments or harassment or female genital mutilation, rape, crap pay, rubbish pension, the glass ceiling, domestic violence, transphobia, botched abortions, slavery, death in childbirth or as a result of, or in combination with, of all of the above. Not to mention mental health issues such as eating disorders, bipolar, anxiety or depression. It’s not good times.

“Checking your privilege” is about playing an inverted game of Top Trumps where the real message is that it’s not who you are but how you were born that determines whether what you have to say is worth listening to. It’s not a dissimilar message to that of your average bar room sexist – or transphobe for that matter - but so much more depressing coming from our own side.

For myself, I reckon that until we identify the poor sod who’s officially recognised as the least privileged woman on the planet, women should welcome other women’s thoughts and experiences, not with the aim of identifying the “best” and most “relevant” one, but as a means of understanding that in spite of our diversity, we have more things in common than we don’t.

I also object to the requirement to deny the power of language. This state of affairs has arisen from the entirely admirable aim of making transgender females feel more at home within the movement, and better able to express the particular concerns they have as a result of the women that they are.

But, again, language has become a weapon to denigrate women’s experience.

In Sexual, Textual Politics by Toril Moi, she said that we, women, have had the power of naming taken from us. Language is not just communication, it is the prism through which we filter and understand the world around us. Words are weighted and have meaning beyond being the mere grunts by which we communicate, “Change the channel love, I’m saving Hollyoaks for the omnibus.”

Words that are used to describe sexual self-determination in women imply sexual incontinence (slut, whore); words used to describe the same behaviour in men imply virility and manliness (stud, lad).

Words are not just words, otherwise the terms “tranny” or “slag” wouldn’t be so offensive, but part of the wider narrative of language. Language is a system of belief – like the Force – it binds us and holds our universe together, shapes us in terms of how we perceive ourselves and others. And it was designed by men and for the benefit of men.

So we come to the word “cis”. I invite anyone who wants a more detailed definition of cis to Google this one, because one step wrong on my part and I’ll be up to my eyebrows in a flame war for the next fortnight and I have plans for Friday night. In summary, however, cis means “not trans”.

A lot of cis women have a problem with the term in a way they can’t quite fathom. Well, I’ve fathomed it and I’ll tell you: because it’s a name that has, once again, been conferred upon a certain group of women without their consent. It would still matter, although infinitely not as much, if a Twitter search of “cis” demonstrated that the term is mostly used in a sisterly and affectionate manner. Nah, more like “cissexist” or “cisfascist”.

And that’s the stuff I didn’t search for, I just happened to see it on my feed one Tuesday evening.

So forgive me if I hear “cis” as an insult to the very essence of who I am and then, when I complain, feel aggrieved that I’m not entitled to experience my discomfort because my “privilege” means that my point of view doesn’t matter and my opinions don’t count.

The good news is that cis is a term that can be reclaimed. After all, it is just a word and meanings of words can be rehabilitated. But in its current manifestation, through its misuse, it is laden with pejorative connotations.

If you are a member of the Mob, you spend your evenings in noble pursuits. Namely, picking up on ill-considered comments on the internet (which are often, although admittedly not always, well-meant but made in ignorance) and encouraging all your mates to weigh in to beat up on the woman.

Is this beginning to sound like an evening out with the patriarchy to anyone else?

There is nothing wrong with arguing with other women, disagreeing with them, or suggesting that they might be wrong about certain issues. I’m all for standing up to sexism and transphobia too, although often I think that a lot the statements deemed capital crimes by the Mob come down to lack of experience and understanding on the part of the perpetrator. But this is not what we see online.

For the most minor infraction, women are flamed in the most hideous, unsisterly way. A living offence, she is told, to the sisterhood and the ideals of feminism she is the worst kind of disgusting privileged bitch, the sort of woman who revolts all right-thinking women, who deserves to “f**k off and die”. She will slink off with her guilt and upset, not quite clear what she has done, but clear that she should feel dirty and ashamed of herself.

This is definitely sounding like an evening out with the patriarchy.

I’ve considered myself a feminist for as long as I can remember, even before I knew exactly what a feminist was and this state of affairs sickens me. Feminism is not bullying and beating up other women. It’s not denouncing diversity instead of celebrating it. It is not stigmatising women instead of listening to them. It is not telling them that their opinions and experiences don’t count. It is not about thinking that sitting behind your computer at 2am, looking for offence (on the internet, you will always find things to be offended by) and using the excuse that you are “calling out” someone on something that you disagree with as a front for making yourself feel superior at another woman’s expense.

Come to think of it, anyone who thinks that anything can be achieved on Twitter at 2am has no business feeling superior to anybody.

There’s a big, wide, world out there and a lot of the time it’s bloody awful to people in general and women in particular. It has become clear since the India bus horror that there are some subsections of that society who reckon that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of cheeky rape if they’re in the mood. Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban for the crime of wanting the same education as her male counterparts. Trans women often exist in fear of their lives, and for good reason: transmisogyny is, disgracefully, still seen by some as the kind of sexism it’s socially acceptable to indulge in. And in Steubenville, the community has given the impression that they think that the real victims are the rapists, and their comatose victim a “slut” as a result of what was done to her.

And how are the Online Wimmin Mob responding to this tiny tip of the iceberg? By whipping up huge Twitter storms and inviting feminists to flame other feminists. Yeah, keep it up, ladies, the patriarchy’s quaking.

If modern feminism is simply about exclusivity, abusively picking nits out of each other’s differences, and organising bullying mobs against women, then count me out.

This feminist, for one, really hopes that it isn’t.  

Not everyone is allowed to sit at the Mean Girls' table for lunch.
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.