How to Improve Feminism in 2014

It's time to lead feminism away from Twitter and throw it in the faces of 14-year-old boys.

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06 January 2014, 10:20am

Photo by Chloe Orefice, graphic work by Sam Taylor

The word "feminism" got more airtime in the British media in 2013 than in all previous years combined. At least, that’s how it felt to me, and I was paying as close attention as anyone could. For the first time ever – probably in the snowballing aftermath of Caitlin Moran’s very successful How to Be A Woman, which was published a couple of years back – even women’s glossies are now writing about the subject in depth. I had one celebrity gossip mag ask me to write a piece on the subject, and then send it back to me for a rewrite because they wanted “even more feminism” in it. All the music festivals this summer had talks on feminism; Newsnight did a feminism special; Woman's Hour did a feminism special. ELLE mag held an event at an edgy ad agency called "Rebranding Feminism".

What particularly interested me this year was seeing how many people were genuinely new to the word – people who I wouldn’t have thought would be. A London theatre producer I know told me about a conversation she had with her little sister, who’s an undergraduate, where the little sister had said: “Rach, I’m not comfortable calling myself a feminist in case people think I’m a lesbian.” To which Rach had replied, “Well, I’m not comfortable calling myself a feminist either and I AM a lesbian.” The end of the story is that they both now call themselves feminists. The word exploded this year, which is brilliant – but here’s what needs to happen in 2014 to make all of that momentum actually mean something more for the country than a new Twitter hashtag or a surprising coverline down the newsagents.

We Must Realise That Jodie Marsh Is the Greatest Feminist We've Got
That made you look. No, but seriously, the best thing I saw in the media this year wasn’t actually any of the BBC Newsnight specials type stuff, which usually descended into well-meaning mums talking about the Boden catalogue not making their daughters wear pink. It was a documentary on late night TLC – yep, some shitty, chatty satellite channel – called Jodie Marsh… On The Game. In which the topless-model-turned-bodybuilder went and spoke to prostitutes about what their lives were actually like, whether they were doing it legally in a shopfront in Amsterdam, or illegally on the backstreets of Manchester.

Honestly – I was amazed by how good Jodie Marsh was. She got right in there, on their level, and gave a shit about them. One of the Manchester sex workers said she'd been beaten up by customers, strangled and left for dead in the road, but she was still on the game, because every day she spent out there her self-esteem eroded further. They must have filmed it about a year ago – I keep wondering if that woman is dead yet. Work on ad campaigns to rebrand feminism all you like, get upset about Taylor Swift not using the F-word, but it’s probably more helpful to work out how to stop that woman bleeding to death on a street in suburban England.

Stop Moaning and Start Listening
High-profile feminists really need to stop going on about people being mean to them on the internet, now. Nobody who was threatened with death for being a feminist on Twitter is actually dead yet. It is highly unlikely that some monkey who types into a little box that they are going to come round and blow up your house is actually going to come round and blow up your house. At the same time, not everybody who disagrees with you on the internet is a typing monkey, or a troll, or a hater, even if they sound quite cross with you. They might not be a bully – they may even have a point. Try listening, rather than contacting your MP about the outrage of a stranger being outraged at your outrage.

Especially try listening if lots of black people, who are so massively under-represented in the new feminist revolution, are telling you that they feel massively under-represented in the new feminist revolution.

You Can't Call It Feminist In-Fighting if You're Not Actually Letting the Other Feminists In
In 2014, it’s no longer enough for feminism to waft its arms in the air and say, “Oh we’ll deal with race and class later, just let us enjoy our big sexy party that is fun feminism now.” It’s time to stop brushing the word "intersectionality" away – if you’re literate and can grasp that feminism means equal rights and opportunities for all, then you can probably grasp that intersectionality means gender is not the only place where those rights and opportunities differ. Race, class, education, sexuality and physical capacities all factor into it, too. You might say, "Well duh, that’s obvious, I don’t need a word like 'intersectionality' to tell me that everyone isn’t equal," but if that’s the case then why are you so bothered about making everyone embrace the word "feminism" and the idea that men and women should all be equal? Because, duh, that’s fairly obvious too.

The fact is that one of those terms – feminism – comes largely from white theory, and the other – intersectionality – from black theory, and people from the former camp don’t expect to be handed a tool by the latter. So they squirm like a child being made to sit down and listen. “Intersectional is too long a word! You’re using it as a form of derailment!” they say, apparently safe in the knowledge that the word "derailment" contains exactly the right number of syllables.

Leave the Door Open
Actually, back when some dick threatened to blow Mary Beard up with a bomb, I was in America, interviewing the theologian writer Reza Aslan. His Fox News interview clip had gone viral, after he came under attack from the presenter for being a Muslim who had dared to write a book about Jesus. Now, imagine being one of America’s most high-profile Muslims, who has written a book describing Big JC as a bit of a terrorist, and Fox News are on your case, imagine the sort of death threats you’re going to get. Seriously. Imagine. He gets them every single day, and his wife gets them, and I’m just surprised their twin babies don’t get them, too. I went round to their house in LA, stood on the pavement, and they cheerily called to me from an upstairs window and told me to come right on in, 'cos the front door was open and the kids were toddling about. I only found out about the threats because I pushed him on the subject later. When I asked if he had ever reported them to the police, he looked surprised and said of course not. It put things into perspective a bit.

Trickle-Down My Arse
I’m not totally convinced about the trickle-down theory of feminism, which says that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg needs to put women in the boardroom and we’ll deal with the poor women who prop up the world later. I mean, the trickle-down theory of economics – in which people like Blair claimed the explosion of megawealth would be good for the UK as a whole, because it would trickle down – has contributed to the biggest poverty divide in a century. Still though, Lean In was an interesting book. I’m glad she’s there.

Talk to Men, Not Just Other Feminists
A lot of the feminist activity this year has involved feminists talking to other feminists about feminism. I’ve done an awful lot of that myself. And I had a bit of an awkward epiphany about it at a music festival this summer. I was asked to give a talk on their Feminism Friday special programme – it went really well and they asked me back on the Sunday morning to fill an empty slot with another talk of my choosing. So I thought I’d pick up the same topic where I left off, but this time, the tent was full of tired young males, rather than the cheery female audience I’d had before, and I suddenly found myself uncomfortable with feminism as a topic. So I awkwardly picked up the Sunday papers sitting on the table in front of me and said we’d debate current affairs instead.

How completely crap of me is that? In fact I’m writing it down now in black and white to make sure I never chicken out like that again. Don’t be cowed. Don’t be embarrassed. Let’s stop just debating feminism with other women and take it to men. In fact, teenage men are probably the perfect place to start. What do 14-year-old boys know about women's rights? We could shape a generation here.

Follow Sophie on Twitter: @heawood

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