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  1. The Weekend Essay
1 July 2023

What Gen X feminism forgets

A recent batch of books explores the anger of mid-life feminists towards their millennial and Gen Z counterparts. But are they really the enemy?

By Melissa Denes

In the limbo between leaving one job and starting another, I found myself on Twitter more than was healthy. “Mum, what are you doing?” my 15-year-old daughter would ask from across the room, to which the answer was often, if I was honest, “I don’t know.” I was tracing an argument about the “right” kind of feminism back to its origins, bemused and compelled by the meanness, the bad faith, the battle lines of likes and retweets and sometimes the simple expressions of support, dim glimmers of hope in the combat soup.

Often they weren’t even arguments but something more one-sided. A columnist tweeted that she was bored of reading younger women’s epiphanies, as if they had discovered inequality for the first time – why couldn’t they just admit that they hadn’t cared about motherhood, marriage or the menopause when such things affected only “gross” older women? The post got 2,000 likes and launched a Gen X-millennial pile-on. Elsewhere a millennial wondered when choking during sex had become “normal, for good or ill”, and was condemned for endorsing violent porn. More recently the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum tweeted that “sometimes I am irrationally mad at younger women bc they didn’t take abortion rights seriously”, as if their complacency had hastened the fall of Roe vs Wade.

Nussbaum deleted the post after a howl of protest, but on British Twitter this kind of conflict is a regular occurrence, as the millennial or Gen Zer who ventures a different opinion on sex, porn, white privilege or gender is shut down by her Gen X betters. (And yes, sometimes it goes the other way.) Watching this happen is the online equivalent of the Year 13 prefects circling a new girl in Year 7, mocking her because she thinks she’s the business, and then loudly agreeing: what an outrage that she didn’t respect them more in the first place. As a Gen Xer myself, I want to say that I don’t agree: the world is surely bigger, more complex and evolving, than this constant sorting of people into enemies or allies. Despising women who don’t think like you is not the price of entry to your forties.

Recently this generational antipathy has been explored in novels such as Julia May Jonas’s Vladimir, Todd Field’s film Tar, and in a hefty study by the American professor of psychology Jean Twenge, Generations: the Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents – and What They Mean For America’s Future. Twenge writes that “generational conflict is at a level not seen since the Sixties”, something she attributes to the isolating effects of technology and social media, as well as a shift from real-world collectivism (the boomers) to individualism (everyone since).

Victoria Smith’s Hags: the Demonisation of Middle-Aged Women argues something more specific: that, while ageist misogyny is not new, today it “frequently masquerades as feminism… Feminism will be great, once we’ve cleared away the debris, the old women.” She defines a hag as any woman over 45, sometimes 40, while younger women can be hags if they share Smith’s gender-critical views: “What has aged us is not time but our belonging to a cohort of women who are politically beyond redemption.”

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[See also: Should we stop talking about “generations”?]

Are the kids alright, or are they really, really annoying? In the eyes of Vladimir’s narrator, a 58-year-old American professor who is challenged by her students to leave her seedy husband, the kids are both impressive and terrifying, dealing in moral absolutes and summary cancellations. For Lydia Tar, the post-feminist conductor played by Cate Blanchett, the kids are boring conformists, ever eager to be offended. “You are a robot! The architect of your soul appears to be social media,” she yells at the Bipoc pangender student who can’t listen to Bach because Bach was a misogynist.

One of the many pleasures of Tar is a script that does not take sides, that peels back the hypocrisies of young and old alike. If the Gen Zers are mostly seen and not heard, in frantic emails and sly TikTok messages, they are also capable of enacting a powerful revenge. The film is a cautionary tale in two acts, about what happens when the young fail to detect the opportunism of the powerful; and when an older generation is blinded by its own entitlement.

There is less ambivalence in Hags, a sharply written and often witty dissection of Gen X-millennial-Gen Z feminist divides which puts the blame squarely on the young – for not appreciating their debt to second-wave feminism, for thinking they will never grow old, for wanting, in Smith’s formulation, to “kill Mummy”. She was the same once herself, she writes: as a Nineties ladette, she wanted “to be a pure mind, a walking brain”, a Lydia Tar. In Generations, Twenge draws on 24 data sets totalling 39 million people and concludes that conflicts over free speech are fiercest between Gen X and millennials: the tough, materialist cynics in one corner, the risk-averse, highly educated optimists in the other.

Many of the injustices set out in Hags are inarguable and familiar, from the gendered expectation that women care for children and ageing parents, to the vitriol directed at women in power. But is a journey towards hagdom the best a woman can hope for? What Smith seems to be arguing for is a narrowing of horizons, a lack of curiosity about others’ lives (specifically young and trans people), alongside a performative self-hatred. Shame and disgust at the over-40 female body (“frumpy old Mummy”) are a constant theme, sometimes in the ironic guise of the misogynist’s voice – but repeated often enough to feel like a kind of truth. If 40 is repulsive, how will 58 or 63 or 84 feel?

In Hags, being middle-aged and being gender-critical are entirely conflated: there is no other way of seeing the world. Any feminist who supports trans rights, as I do, pretends to do so to impress younger women and powerful men (again, this conflates both demographics with a single point of view). But when the British media is dominated by gender-critical voices, and when people who disagree are monstered and mocked, it is hard to see where the reward lies.

The book’s argument that young women have it easier in the misogyny stakes, protected by their relative beauty and “binary-smashing gender politics”, feels like a kind of conscious forgetting. To be in your twenties is still to be on the front line of sexism: more exposed to everyday harassment, more subject to the predations of the beauty industry with its fillers and lifts for the under-25s, more vulnerable to exploitation at work. I am not sad that an older male colleague will no longer put my hand on his trousers in the lift, but I am hopeful that today’s 23-year-old would tell him to fuck off and file a successful complaint.

The generation gap is real. I don’t deny that my daughters reject me in a hundred subtle ways every day, and that I sometimes smile inwardly to hear younger colleagues’ certainties about how the future will be. But not knowing something yet, not having fully lived it, is not the same as hating those who have. Characterising our differences as enmity turns the generation gap into an argument for division and bad faith. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her 2022 Reith lecture, “We now live in broad settled ideological tribes… [which] demand from us a devotion to orthodoxy.” She was talking about the young and, implicitly, her own punishment by social media for saying that trans women were trans women, not women. But her argument went beyond a desire to crush the opposition; she made the case for nuance, connection and an acceptance of difference: “We must protect the values of disagreement, and agree that there is value in disagreement. And we must support the principle of free expression when it does not appeal to our own agenda, difficult as that may be.”

In rejecting hagdom, am I just trying to be down with the kids? I don’t think so: what for? But I would like my own generation to be less synonymous with a particular strand of feminism that wants to occupy the centre ground, throw up its tiny tent and characterise everything outside it as misogyny. A creative movement should make room for other voices, be they on parenthood, sexuality or gender. In Generations, Twenge points to 2021-22 US census data which found that one in 18 Gen Z adults identify as non-binary or trans: they are far more likely to be, or to have siblings, colleagues or friends, who are gender non-conforming. For them equality will not be an ideological debate but something more personal.

It is not fun to grow old – to know as Vladimir’s narrator does, that she will “never captivate anyone ever again”, neither lover nor child. But her revenge fantasy ends in defeat, as does Lydia Tar’s. Killing the kids, like killing Mummy, turns out to be a hollow victory, because they were never really the enemy. Towards the end of Hags, Smith acknowledges this herself, writing, “To misquote [Germaine] Greer, women have very little idea of how much other women don’t hate them. That’s the biggest secret of all. Pass it on.”

But it isn’t a secret. We should be passing that on. Any workplace, any political movement, thrives on intergenerational feminism, on what we learn from each other. It is the hopeful corrective to the narcissism of small differences, which start young: as I wrote this, my 12-year-old daughter’s phone buzzed on the kitchen table with a hundred WhatsApp messages, a warp-speed ticker about whether it was better to have been born in 2010 or 2011. “2010 fr,” said one. “OK boomer,” said the next.

[See also: Trapped in the generation gap]

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