The first time I remember knowingly screwing over another girl, I was 10 and it was so I could be May Queen. Every May Day, my school would celebrate with an outpouring of rural British tradition that means, even now, I only feel truly at home when I’m watching The Wicker Man. There would be country dancing. There would be a May pole. There would be Jack of the Green, voted for from the year six boys.
But Jack of the Green was a subsidiary role, and the competition to fill his prancing position was always muted compared to the real contest. Because there would also be a May Queen: one girl elected from all the oldest girls, who would wear her best dress and be decked with blooms, honoured at the revels and attended by the runners-up. One May Queen. And when I was in year six, I wanted to be her.
This was peculiar, because up until about a week before voting I don’t remember feeling any great yearning to be Queen of the May. I didn’t think of myself as a girly-girl. I certainly wasn’t a popular girl and I was never the pretty one. Clever, yes. Not pretty. But at some point in the spring term of 1991, there was a shift, and I realised that I could probably take the crown, if I could just edge past my nearest rival.
I might not have been fussed about frocks and flowers, but I did like the idea of winning. I liked even more the idea of winning at the expense of my rival – someone who had taken leading female role after leading female role in Christmas plays from me, despite her only qualification for playing Mary being blonde hair (which, frankly, is no qualification at all for playing someone from Nazareth). This time, I would be Queen.
The year before, the two most popular girls had been best friends, and they had decided to be joint May Queens, so I suggested to my rival that we could do the same in the event of a tie, and she agreed. The vote went ahead. It was, to my breathless delight, a tie. My rival came up to me afterwards: so, she said, now we just needed to tell the head teacher that we would be sharing. Er, no, I replied (heart hammering, me thinking, /yes, yes, this is the moment I planned for): actually, I’d had a change of mind and I now thought it would be fairer for everyone if we went for the run-off. The run-off went ahead. It came down to one vote. The vote went to me. I had played, and I had won. I was exultant.
But I still had to be May Queen. Being May Queen, it turned out, was the most awful drag. I sat on a throne. I sulked and scowled. My attendants, being my rival and her friends, despised me, and continued to despise me for years after – partly a justified reaction to my House of Cards approach to playground politics, partly a simple matter of my popularity reverting to its mean. I went to secondary school. A new, cool friend went to a Girl Guides event in my old school hall. “You were the May Queen!” she exclaimed to me in class the next day, with the triumph of new knowledge. “You looked really miserable.”
Having been an ungainly, red-headed May Queen was no currency at all in the world of teenagers. My victory had brought me nothing but embarrassment and opprobrium. Even so, it was a victory, and how many of those do girls get to enjoy? Our athletic achievements barely figured compared to the proper sports the boys were lauded for. Being bright made me a nuisance, and bored. But one girl each year got to be this shining symbol of purity, and I got to be her – and I got it by being cleverer and more cruel than the rest. It was mine and I deserved it.
How much of that attitude did I carry on with me as I grew up? A lot, I think – because for a long time, I barely questioned an order in which women were reduced to scrapping over a tiny portion of the world. I only questioned the idea that it should be any woman other than me. At university, in seminar groups, I would swell myself to occupy all of the space afforded to female voices, but let the boys talk. I thought myself the equal of men, but really they had nothing to fear from me and no reason to respect me.
And this continued when I started writing. A lot of my most ferocious commentary was reserved for women I perceived as rivals; several of the arguments I made seem, in retrospect, to have been perversely tooled to show men that I was “not one of those feminists”. I wouldn’t deny any man the pleasures of porn culture, or make any awkward announcements about male violence, or ask for any rights really but the right to make oneself as pleasing as one could choose to be in a patriarchal world I treated as inevitable. What I was doing was what I think of now as Cool Girl Feminism. Author Gillian Flynn describes the Cool Girl like this in her novel Gone Girl:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
There’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t like to eat, shag and play videogames. The problem is that the Cool Girl doesn’t do these things because she likes them: they’re just the tokens she deploys to show men that she can move in their world without disrupting the gender order, because she respects the man code. “They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be,” explains Gone Girl’s narrator, bitterly. Above all, the Cool Girl wants to please the guys, and that means that when the Cool Girl does feminism, her sternest criticisms are going to be reserved for the women who make sexist men uncomfortable.
You don’t like pornography? Well, says the Cool Girl Feminist, that’s not because pornography is a cultural form framed by the objectification of women – it’s because you’re looking at the wrong kind of porn. Threatened by catcalls? That’s got nothing to do with men using street harassment to put women down in public, it’s just because feminists have taught you to be afraid, says the Cool Girl Feminist. And the fact that prostitution is dangerous? Once again, nothing to do with the men who commit abuses: it’s because feminists have generated something the Cool Girl Feminist refers to as “whore stigma”. In fact, there is no problem in gender politics that Cool Girl Feminism doesn’t believe could be solved by being a bit more amenable to patriarchal lust – or “sex positive”, as it’s now called. From each according to his ability, to each according to her sexiness. Fucking macht frei.
The Cool Girl Feminist doesn’t insist that men and women should be equal. The Cool Girl doesn’t even suggest there’s anything wrong with the man-woman hierarchy as it stands. All the Cool Girl demands is that she be seen as an exception, superior to other women because she alone has the insight to grasp that women really do exist for the pleasure of men. Like the dirty big sister of the May Queen, the Cool Girl’s distinguishing feature is that she’s not like the others.
Being a Cool Girl can be liberating. There’s something splendidly freeing about announcing that you are not as other women are, and refusing to see yourself as victimised simply because you belong to the inferior class. It is, to use a despised word, empowering. But understanding how power works and using it to your own advantage is not the same thing as feminism. The Cool Girl Feminist appears to break boundaries as she breezes into the world of men, but her passport is a promise, written in lipstick and sealed with a handjob, that she won’t actually change anything.
When I started writing, plenty of women – plenty of feminists, in fact – did not agree with the libertarian line on commercialised sex that I espoused. Many women argued with me, pointed out the philosophical holes in my positions, directed me to the inconsistencies in my arguments. But where I’d been afraid of a monstering, I actually got something very different: because they were feminists, these women treated my occupation of a tiny portion of the public sphere as a good in itself, regardless of whether they agreed with me on every point or not.
These women were not aspiring May Queens, eager to nudge me out of the seat I was precariously perched on. They didn’t want their turn in the single throne. They wanted chairs for everyone, and anyway, what was all this fertility ritual with prepubescents about anyway? They wanted to change the world. They were radical. Far more traumatic, in fact, was some of the agreement with my Cool Girl Stance from certain men who were alarmingly eager to unleash their misogyny on what seemed to be a reassuring female ear. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind. Actually I minded quite a lot.
A few months ago, I met someone who said: “The most radical thing you can do is love women.” When I heard it, I was inclined to shrug it off. That sounds a bit simple, I thought. A bit Teach the World to Sing. But the truth is, women are widely and routinely held in contempt, treated as objects, subject to harassment and violence, judged by higher standards than men and then derided for their failure to reach those standards. All that happens. And against that, one of the most profound things you can offer is sisterhood.
It was offered to me, and in the warmth of women-only spaces, I learned what my voice sounded like in dialogue with other women. I learned that being right and being liked did not have to be the same thing, and that disagreement didn’t have to be parcelled with scorn. I learned that I didn’t have to prove myself different to other women in order to merit being treated like a person, because women are (shocking, this) people. And I learned that, underneath the noisy battles to be the Coolest Girl Feminist, there were a lot of women simply getting their heads down and doing the work that needed to be done.
Where being the Cool Girl is contingent on presenting the correct selection of individual attributes, feminism needs to be collective and flexible. It requires a sort of intimacy that Michaele Ferguson, in her essay Taming the Shrew? Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics, even describes as an “erotic orientation to politics”. By this she means learning to see “criticisms of feminism as pleasurable invitations to learn how others see us”. This is about letting other people close, not standing apart – so close that you allow them inside you, sympathetically knowing their thoughts and feelings.
And if that sounds like a confoundingly sexy way to describe arguments about policy and philosophy, it becomes even more so when you realise how it recalls Andrea Dworkin’s writing – Dworkin, the great monster of allegedly anti-sex feminism who wrote more honestly and beautifully about sex than almost any other author. Dworkin’s Intercourse tells us that: “In fucking, one’s insides are on the line; and the fragile and unique intimacy of going for broke makes communion possible, in human reach – not transcendent and otherworldly, but an experience of love in flesh.”
What can be true of sex can be true in our intellectual lives as well. It’s the moment of contact that makes change possible. Feminism is the opposite of the singular, virginal May Queen on her lonely throne, or of the perversely inviolable Cool Girl, eating and eating without ever showing the signs of it on her body. Being a feminist means accepting other women’s trust and letting ourselves be transformed by it. Love women. Everything I learned under the May Pole, I unlearned through the kindness of feminists.