Sunday, 29 July 2012

Barbie Doll feminism.

In a debate earlier this year on feminism Louise Mensch responded to Laurie Penny's suggestion that she may be a feminist but she's not the right kind. Defence for right-wing feminism was fought from the trenches of relativism. There are just different feminisms as opposed to a correct feminism. This is the force of the market on show, the limit of equality is 'sameness' and meandering populist strikes against institutions such as the BBC. The Mensch formula for a feminism of feminisms corners the convergence of class and women's rights in a convenient blind-spot. This helps to sustain a much narrower conception of women's liberation within capitalism. It's less fine to talk about women's rights with class war in mind. It might even get scarier when we start to talk about oppression with its multiple fronts - what about race? You can forget about Africana womanism! The irony is that the leftist Laurie Penny has since reverted to relativism on a different case.

With the explosion of Fifty Shades of Grey onto the shelf of literary history there has been a great deal of thundering criticism against the book. In reaction Laurie Penny found the time to pen a defence of Fifty Shades as porn for women. She made it clear that she couldn't care less about snooty liberal critics who seem so enraged at the prospect of millions of women masturbating. It's just a defence of the likeability of the likeable. There are over 2.3 million women reading Fifty Shades of Grey in Britain, so it's easy to play populist firebrand against the cultural elites. Elsewhere Victoria Coren observes: "Romantic heroes have always been stern and bossy, for obvious reasons: their autocracy relieves the female fantasist from any responsibility for the filth that's going to ensue. She can remain nice, sweet, ladylike and marriageable. If she ends up naked over a tree stump with her pants between her teeth: not her fault! Just following orders!" Thus the appeal of Christian Grey and Edward Cullen.

Sylvia Plath's poem Daddy comes to mind in which she writes "Every woman adores a fascist." Especially as Grey seems to be the poster boy for dangerous signs to look for in a boyfriend: jealous, controlling, stalking, sexually sadistic behaviour, hypersensitivity to any perceived slight, mood swings and relationships with less powerful women. Given that Fifty Shades grew out of Twilight fan fiction, it could be that it is the repressed filth beneath the Mormon veneer of Twilight's chastity. The bondage of Grey is the implied side of Edward's abusive relationship with Bella. It would be ideal for Robert Pattinson to play Christian Grey for this reason, this would swiftly lure the target market of the Twilight films to the Fifty Shades films. For Penny there is no issue here, it's just a matter of defending the fantasies of women - even if that amounts to being spanked by a multi-millionaire. The critics are simply prudes looking to make women feel guilty about their fantasies, about sexual pleasure and masturbation. This fits in with Penny's odd thesis that capitalism hates women's bodies.

The fact that the line "My very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle" may soon be one of the most read sentences in history does not confine it to the greats of the literary canon. This is not a position that Laurie Penny would have a problem with. But she seems unaware that the problem is not snobbery, but that this work should be taken for more than it is. If it is just pornography for millions of dissatisfied married women with children, why should it be made into a Hollywood film? It's not a matter of equivalence that the archives of RedTube are not about to be transformed onto the silver screen. The question of what counts as art is totally absent from Penny's argument, never mind what constitutes 'good art'. Instead there is only a reactive position to the critic who yearns for a great novel. Bentham's famous words come to mind "Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry."

The defence of this book is a highly bourgeois fixation for a feminist. Especially as we live in a world in which women remain largely subjugated in one form or another. There hasn't been much progress in this world. The practice of wife-selling is long gone in Europe along with the advocacy by doctors of female genital mutilation of the late 19th Century. In many of American prisons women have to give birth in shackles, meanwhile the soldiers of God are still fighting to place more and more limits on the right to choose. It seems everywhere women are still waiting for economic justice, which means more than equal pay. It shouldn't be forgotten that the working-class has long been predominantly female since proletarianization. This is what we might call 'Menschian' feminism - or Barbie doll feminism - can never acknowledge let alone put right. Feminism can be embraced as a liberal populist means of flushing clear the clogged pipes of capitalism. But it is stunted from the beginning.

To be exact Barbie doll feminism is at its core about an equality of 'sameness', a process of colour-blind transcendence which subsumes every group - race, gender, sexuality etc. - and overcomes every boundary by eliminating difference. The only 'difference' which can never be overcome, or even acknowledged, is that of class. The populist battering-ram of bourgeois liberalism emanates as relativism from the mechanisms of capitalism. This process of relativisation is partly what constitutes capitalist ideology, its nihilism is found in its capacity to negate any set of values within reach. The capitalist system can function with a shift away form old forms of chauvinist domination. The machine thrives not just when the cogs are well oiled but when the cogs are actually cleaned to run smoothly. The means of overcoming each barrier secures the system from its overthrow. The ruling-class knows full well that the best way to hold off revolution is through reform.

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