Category Archives: Feminism

Aesthetic Labour, Beauty Politics and Neoliberalism: Rosalind Gill interview

Aesthetic Labour, Beauty Politics and Neoliberalism: Rosalind Gill interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
24 July 2017

Rosalind Gill, Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City, University of London, is Co-Editor of the book Aesthetic Labour: Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism, published this year by Palgrave MacMillan.

I asked Professor Gill about the relationship between beauty politics, aesthetic labour and neoliberalism, the role of social media and the impact all this has on women.


Ian Sinclair: What has happened to beauty politics since the turn to neoliberalism in the Western world from the late 1970s onwards?

Rosalind Gill: Over the past two decades we have seen an extraordinary intensification of beauty pressures that are connected to a variety of changes – some of them social, cultural, economic and technological. In terms of technological change, for example, the ubiquity of camera phones with very high capacities for magnification has led to a new and unprecedented surveillance of women’s bodies. It is a truism to say that this is the age of the image, of the photograph – 24 billion selfies were taken in 2016 alone. No previous generation has ever been the subject or object of so much visual attention. This was bound to have an impact on beauty pressures. When you add to it the mainstreaming and normalisation of cosmetic procedures – both surgical interventions and nonsurgical beauty treatments such as Botox, liposuction, skin peels and fillers, promoted as  ‘everyday’ even ‘lunch hour’ interventions, you can see that even at the level of technological change there has been a growing impetus to focus on appearance. Yet on top of that there are key social and cultural changes, and the vast economic growth of the cosmetics industry too, blurring and hybridising into surgical and pharmaceutical industries. Now, more than ever before, it really makes sense to speak of a ‘beauty industrial complex’.

One of the ways that this is connected to neoliberalism is through the emphasis upon the body as a project – something to be worked on, and something which is thought about as our own individual capital. This idea has been around in social theory for some considerable time now, linked to theorisations of late modernity in which we are all held to be responsible for the design of our own bodies. Interestingly a lot of this writing has been quite general, even universalising, in tone – but I think what we are seeing much more now are attempts to ground this in specificities – for example in terms of gender or race or disability. While it is clear that there is a broad imperative around the symbolic value of the body, it +matters+ whether you are cis or trans, whether you have a normative body or are fat, and still – I think – whether you are male or female.

Allied to neoliberalism there have been a series of shifts that have come to be understood in terms of a ‘postfeminist’ sensibility circulating in contemporary culture. One of the key features of this sensibility is the emphasis on the body as the locus of womanhood and the core site of women’s value. This has displaced earlier – equally problematic – constructions of femininity – which placed emphasis on motherhood or on particular psychological capacities such as caring. Today, the requirement to work on and perfect the body has reached such an intensity for women that it has become – in Alison Winch’s words – ‘her asset, her product, her brand and her gateway to freedom and empowerment in a neoliberal market economy’ – even though it must also always be presented as freely chosen, not the result of any coercion or even influence. A beauty imperative has gained more and more traction, with the idea that sexual attractiveness is the measure of success for a woman – whatever else she is she must also strive for beauty and perfection. Depressingly you don’t have to look far to see instances of this in popular culture – even our female politicians are subject to this as we saw graphically in the notorious ‘LEGS-IT’ headline a few months ago, comparing and rating Theresa May’s and Nicola Sturgeon’s legs.

When I make this kind of argument the first responses is usually for someone to say ‘men are under pressure too’. And this is undeniably true. I’ve done a lot of work over my career on changing representations of male bodies – from the ‘sixpack’, to the trend for removing body hair, to the promotion of skincare products targeted at men. For me it is absolutely clear that the beauty industry is moving in on men, big time; they represent an enormous potential market – and it is especially clear this year as we see cosmetics companies begin aggressively to market make up to men. Cover Girl’s first male/gender fluid ‘ambassador’, James Charles, is simply the most visible example. It seems to me that there is a relentless market-driven pressure being brought to bear on men – especially young men. Having said that, the pressure and scrutiny that women are under is still far greater, has a different history, and greater significance and centrality in women’s lives.

IS: In the book you refer to ‘aesthetic labour’ and ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’. Citing some examples, can you explain what you mean by these terms?

RG: The term ‘aesthetic labour’ had been around for some time, especially used by sociologists of work. It has been part of a toolkit of terms designed to unpick the different forms of labouring involved in various occupations – emotional labour, affective labour, venture labour, and so on. A body of work by scholars including Irene Grugulis and Chris Warhurst has been interested in how soft skills are increasingly called upon, including the need for workers to ‘look good and sound right’ in workplaces such as coffee shops. More recently Elizabeth Wissinger has also developed the notion of ‘glamour labour’ to talk about the work of models and fashion industry insiders. A particularly valuable feature of this is the way it shows that this labour isn’t just about the physical body but also involves attention to qualities like ‘cool quotient’ – which involves relationships, social media use and style or reputation.

With our intervention we wanted to build on these really interesting bodies of work to argue that these practices of what we see as aesthetic entrepreneurship are not bounded by the workplace, but rather are much more widespread in contemporary societies that are dominated by new forms of visibility, appearance and looking. The requirement to curate an appealing self is not only a work requirement; it is a growing social and cultural imperative. Secondly we also wanted to highlight the psychosocial dimensions of this, with an emphasis on the fact that in today’s makeover culture it is not just the body that is reinvented but the whole self, the making of a beautiful subjectivity.  And finally by using the term ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’ we wanted to draw links to neoliberalism more broadly – that is to this idea of selves as enterprising, calculating, reflexive, and so on. One of the things this does – for us – is to break the impasse in feminist beauty studies – an impasse in which some talk of women as autonomous and creative agents, and others talk of passive and docile subjects. Our intervention – and shown through the chapters in the book – is to argue that women are both subjected +and+ creative. A chapter in the book by Simidele Dosekun illustrates this beautifully. The affluent, fashionable Nigerian women she interviews are shown to be operating in a beauty regime in which particular features are highly valued and others disparaged – in this sense their aesthetic labour is culturally compelled. Yet far from being ‘passive dopes’ Simi shows that these fashionistas are knowing and sophisticated consumers, investing in notions of vigilance and rest – e.g. giving their skin time to breathe, their nails ‘time out’ from gel add-ons, and so on – practising aesthetic entrepreneurship to mitigate risks.

IS: How have the changes you have set out been influenced by the increasing popularity of social media?

RG: Social media are so ubiquitous now that they are hard to disentangle from other influences. One of the things that interests me greatly, though, is the impact of social media on our ways of seeing. A lot of writers have tried to engage with this in some way – Terri Senft has talked about ‘the grab’ of social media, whilst Malcolm Gladwell famously talks of ‘the blink’ as our current modality of engagement. Personally I am really interested in current attempts to think about surveillance beyond the metaphor of the Panopticon. Of course there is loads to be said about big data and surveillance which is hugely important. But my focus has been on something slightly different: the idea that our ways of seeing are literally transforming. I notice with my students that they pore over and really scrutinise images on their phones – whether this is of celebrities, their friends or themselves. It involves the kind of forensic form of looking in which magnification is to the fore. This is producing all kinds of new visual literacies, particularly of the face, and they are literacies in which I am not competent. As someone who believes thoroughly in the idea that we are socially and culturally shaped, I can recognise that my own visual habits and competencies have been formed in another era: when I look at an image on social media I simply do not ‘see’ what my students (often 30 years younger) see. I am constantly astonished by the detailed and forensic quality of their ways of seeing, as well as the way they are often framed through a ‘pedagogy of defect’ (to use Susan Bordo’s famous phrase) in which minute flaws and imperfections are itemised. Compared with this I feel my own ways of seeing are almost akin to a blur or at best a casual glance – and mostly more benign.

These new visual literacies have been engendered and taught not simply through Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat but also through the vast proliferation of beauty apps that I have been writing about with Ana Elias.  Some of these are filters: ‘swipe to erase blemishes, whiten teeth, brighten dark circles and even reshape your facial structure’ (Face Tune) or ‘to look 5, 10 or 15 lbs. skinnier’ (SkinneePix). As we have argued, many of these filters encode deeply troubling ideas about race as well as gender – with skin ‘lightening’ a common feature, and recourse to problematic ideas from evolutionary psychology. Aesthetic ‘benchmarking’ apps are another huge category allowing users to get a score on ‘how hot am I?’ or ‘how old do I look?’ or get rated by the ‘ugly meter’. These apps call on users to upload a selfie – after which they will be given a ‘score’. Claiming to tell you things your friends wouldn’t, the apps trade on a certain algorithmic authority and may also highlight which features need to be changed, with ‘helpful’ hints about treatments or surgeries that would elicit a higher score. As such they shade into another type of app we discuss – namely the cosmetic surgery try-out apps that allow you to ‘visualize a new you’ with whiter teeth, or larger breasts or a remodelled nose. As Ana and I argue in an article that has just come out in European Journal of Cultural Studies, these kinds of apps (and others we discuss) not only generate new visual literacies but also bring the cosmetic surgeon’s gaze out of the clinic and into our most intimate moments, via the smartphone. We argue that they are part of the shifting of meaning-making about surgery and other interventions – made more seductive through the gamified features of these apps.

IS: How have women been impacted by the ‘intensity of beauty norms’ pushed by what you call the ‘beauty-industrial complex’ and wider culture?

RG: It’s quite hard to answer this question. It seems strange doesn’t it – yet there really is a paucity of research around these issues – at least outside of psychology. Psychology and the ‘effects tradition’ has the upper hand in this field with lots of studies correlating social media use or posting of selfies etc. with poor body image, mental health issues, greater propensity to undergo cosmetic surgery and so on. This is all valid of course, but tends to be focussed in a narrow effects tradition with all the problems that are well documented. The lack of sociological studies makes it feel as if we lack a sense of the way feelings and practices and everyday reasoning around appearance are actually part of the texture of everyday life. On the other hand when we do have more ethnographic studies they often seem invested in a particular perspective – for example the claim that young people are robust, resilient, critical users of media and there isn’t really a problem. I don’t find either perspective particularly illuminating.

I have to admit that the main insights I get come from my own students’ discussions of these issues in my courses on media. Some are scathing and critical and may claim their engagement with beauty culture is always mediated by ‘having a laugh’. Others tell of painful struggle with weight or skin conditions, or experiences of untagging themselves from multiple photos in which they don’t think they look good, or of trying to score higher on some attractiveness-rating app. I think it’s fair to say that none of us exist outside of the rapidly intensifying and extensifying beauty industrial complex. I say extensifying as well as intensifying because what is striking is how beauty pressures are also spreading out – across new domains (facial symmetry measurements, thigh gap) and new parts of life – childhood, old age, pregnancy etc.

IS: I was interested to see you discuss Dove’s ‘Love Your Body’-style Campaign for Real Beauty, which was launched in 2004. Though it has been widely celebrated, you have some criticisms of it?

RG: Love Your Body (LYB) advertising has really taken off over the last decade or so with brands like Dove, Always, Weightwatchers and Special K queueing up to spread the self-love and body confidence message to women. I feel deeply ambivalent about this. On the one hand these exhortations to self belief, body love and confidence are genuinely a welcome interruption to a stream of commercial communications that have focussed on body hate and pointing out what was wrong with us and how we could do better. Yet against this it is hard not to feel cynical when it is the exact same companies that sold us HYB (Hate Your Body) that are now preaching a quasi-feminist empowerment. Special K telling us to “shut down fat talk”?! Come on! Even the Daily Mail called it ironic. And clicking through on that very ‘positive’ campaign takes you straight to the company’s BMI calculator…

Some other relatively obvious criticisms of LYB are about its fakeness – it uses the exact techniques  it claims to repudiate: hiring ‘non-model models’, using photoshop, etc; it’s pseudo diversity – try comparing a Dove advert with an image from Fat Activism and see how ‘diverse’ it really looks; and its ‘re-citing’ of hate talk – when Special K told us to shut down fat talk it obviously had to spend most of the advert reminding us just what those hostile messages were (obvs!). But more than all this I’m very critical of LYB – and what Shani Orgad and I have called ‘confidence cult’ discourses more generally – for some more profound reasons. First because they blame women for their own lack of confidence, and exculpate patriarchal capitalism by implying that low self-esteem or body insecurity are things that women do to themselves (try watching Dove’s ‘Patches’ if you don’t believe me). And secondly because I believe that this new culture of confidence actually represents a new form of regulation: one that seeks to regulate not simply the physical body but also the self and one’s feelings and relation to oneself and others. Body love and self-confidence have become compulsory dispositions. It is not enough to work on and discipline one’s body, but one also has to have the correct, upgraded, body-positive subjectivity. Insecurity and vulnerability have become toxic states – something that links to the wider culture of what I call the ‘femspiration’ industry. Be afraid. Be very afraid. This is about the affective life of neoliberalism: how it not only shapes our economic and political formations, and our subjectivities, but also colonises our feelings.

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Book review: ‘The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men’ by Robert Jensen

Book review: ‘The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men’ by Robert Jensen by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April-May 2017

A Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas, Robert Jensen has a long history of activism focussing on US foreign policy, progressive journalism, climate change and pornography.

With The End of Patriarchy he makes a strong, often deeply personal case for radical feminism, which he believes has lost significant ground to individualistic liberal feminism and postmodern feminism in the broader culture and academia, respectively. For Jensen, the central tenant of radical feminism is the “understanding that men’s subordination of women is a product of patriarchy”, a hierarchical system of domination/subordination based on “power-over”, rather than “power-with”.

Jensen argues that although “each individual man in patriarchy is not at every moment actively engaged in the oppression of women… men routinely act in ways that perpetuate patriarchy and harm women.” Moreover, patriarchy’s harsh system of hierarchy and domination harms many men too – something Jensen highlights by writing about how Western society’s dominant, toxic masculinity has had a detrimental effect on much of his own life. Today, having spent decades engaging with radical feminism Jensen explains feminism should be seen as “not a threat to men, but a gift to us.” More broadly, he believes radical feminism’s critique of patriarchy is central to challenging larger systems of domination/subordination such as white supremacy, imperialism and capitalism.

The majority of the book comprises discussions of some thorny topics for feminists and activists alike, such as prostitution and pornography (“sexual-exploitation industries”), rape culture in the United States and, most controversially, transgenderism. On the latter Jensen is at pains to highlight that he, of course, condemns discrimination and violence directed at trans people, though arguably his radical feminist position on the subject isn’t helpful to the wellbeing of the trans community.

Written in an accessible and self-reflective style with male readers in mind, the book includes an afterword written by Professor Rebecca Whisnant, along with good references and a useful ‘further reading’ section for those who wish to delve deeper.

Like UK activist Finn Mackay’s 2015 own book on the same topic, The End of Patriarchy is an important and challenging introduction to this influential strand of feminism – and would make a great discussion tool for both men and women activists.

The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men is published by Spinifex Press.

 

Patriarchy and radical feminism: an interview with Robert Jensen

Patriarchy and radical feminism: an interview with Robert Jensen
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News blog
13 March 2017

Robert Jensen, Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas, has a long history of activism focusing on US foreign policy, journalism, climate change and pornography.

Ian Sinclair spoke to Jensen about his new book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, published by Spinifex Press.

Ian Sinclair: How does radical feminism differ from other forms of feminism?

Robert Jensen: First, by radical feminism I mean the understanding that men’s subordination of women is a product of patriarchy and that the ultimate goal of feminism is the end of patriarchy’s gender system, not merely liberal accommodation with the system. Second, radical feminism is central to the larger problem of hierarchy and the domination/subordination dynamics in other arenas of human life; while not sufficient by itself, the end of patriarchy is a necessary condition for liberation more generally.

Because the core of patriarchy is men’s claim to control—even to own—women’s bodies, particularly women’s reproductive power and sexuality, radical feminism puts at the core women’s reproductive rights and the end of men’s sexual exploitation of women. In practice, this has meant that radical feminists have sought the abolition of the sexual-exploitation industries of prostitution and pornography, the ways that men routinely buy and sell objectified female bodies for sexual pleasure. That’s one of the most contentious issues within feminism, and liberal/postmodern feminists often don’t share that analysis of those industries.

IS: What is patriarchy?

RJ: The term describes various systems of institutionalized male dominance, with a history going back several thousand years. The sociologist Allan Johnson suggests that a society is patriarchal “to the degree that it promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered.” I quote the historian Judith Bennett, who points out that “Almost every girl born today will face more constraints and restrictions than will be encountered by a boy who is born today into the same social circumstances as that girl.” That recognizes that all men are not always dominating all women—obviously other forms of power affect life outcomes—but women face obstacles and threats that men in similar circumstances do not face.

IS: Who benefits from patriarchy?

RJ: In some ways, all men benefit in short-term material ways from being a member of the dominant sex class, though of course the fate of men depends on those other factors, such as race and class. And in patriarchy, as in any system of power, some members of the subordinated class find ways to serve the system of power. But as a man, I focus on the responsibilities of men to challenge patriarchy, and if we can see past our own short-term interests I believe it’s in men’s interests to embrace radical feminism to move toward a fuller and richer sense of our own humanity.

IS: How is patriarchy maintained?

RJ: In various times and places, the women’s movement has been successful at eliminating the formal, legal rules that upheld patriarchy, though those struggles continue. But the cultural norms that support patriarchy, such as the assumption that women will present themselves as sexual objects for men’s pleasure, have proved to be tenacious. And, of course, the struggles to ensure women’s reproductive rights and to hold men accountable for sexual violence continue, and victories won are not necessarily permanent.

Patriarchy has conservative and liberal forms. Conservative men typically want to give fathers and husbands control over daughters and wives. Liberal men often want to maximize their access to as many women as possible. Religion and pop culture play a role. Like any other system of power, patriarchy is complex and changes over time, differing around the world. In my writing, I focus on the society I’m part of: the United States in the last half of the 20th and first part of the 21st centuries.

IS: When feminist ideas are raised in certain circles, the response is often “The central issue is class, not gender – class inequality, including powerful women, causes more suffering to women than patriarchy.” What is your response to this line of argument?

RJ: My glib response is that we can walk and chew gum at the same time; we can analyze and attack more than one illegitimate system of hierarchy at a time. There will always be difficult decisions about strategy and tactics in a particular political moment, but the idea that men’s domination of women is less relevant to people’s lives than the exploitation of people in capitalism is silly. And, as is encompassed by the focus on an “intersectional” analysis, there’s no sensible way forward that doesn’t take into account the interplay of all these hierarchical systems, primarily sex/gender, race/ethnicity, nationality, and class. Given that patriarchy is the oldest of those systems in human history, it would be folly to treat it as being only of secondary concern.

IS: Your book, along with other feminist texts, points to a deep-seated problem with the dominant type of masculinity men are expected to embody today.

RJ: The masculinity norms that are routinely imposed on boys and men in contemporary U.S. culture are rooted in the idea that men must seek to control the world around them, to focus on conquest, which requires high levels of aggression and inevitable violence. Some of us describe this as a very toxic conception of masculinity. This isn’t the only way to understand what it means to be a male human being, of course, but it’s the common understanding that most boys learn. In patriarchy, to “be a man” is to demonstrate the ability to dominate women and to challenge other men.

IS: You discuss “rape culture” in your book. What is this?

RJ: Decades ago, radical feminists challenged the assumption that rape is a rare occurrence, and disputed the claim that these few sexual assaults are perpetrated by deviant men who can be handled in the criminal justice system and through psychological treatment. Instead, these feminists pointed out that rape is normal, both in the sense that is common and an expression of patriarchal conceptions of men’s right to use women sexually. So, rape is both illegal and routine. A rape culture doesn’t command men to rape but does blur the line between consensual sex and non-consensual rape, and also reduces the likelihood rapists will be identified, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and punished.

Pop culture and pornography provide a flood of examples of this conception of men’s sexual domination of women. Turn on the television, go to the movies, play a video game, or download pornography—you’ll see what a rape culture looks like.

IS: What concrete steps can men take to support women?

RJ: As is the case in fighting any system of oppression, there are countless ways to be part of a movement that seeks justice. Men can support—whether financially or through commitments of time—the existing institutions that seek to advance women’s liberation and aid the victims of patriarchy, such as reproductive health clinics and rape crisis/domestic violence centres. Men can join the movements to abolish prostitution and pornography, as well as publicly state their commitment to not using women in those sexual-exploitation industries. Men can hold other men accountable for sexist behaviour and speak up for gender justice in places they have power and privilege.

Interview with Karen Ingala Smith about the Femicide Census

Interview with Karen Ingala Smith about the Femicide Census
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 March 2017

In early January 2012 Karen Ingala Smith, Chief Executive of the London-based domestic violence charity NIA, noticed an upsurge in the number of news stories about women killed by men. She started to make a list of the names, and then read a police statement that referred to the killing of one woman as “an isolated incident”.

This, she tells me when I visit her in her east London office, made her cross – and also motivated her to continue counting: “So many women in so few days. How can this be not seen as part of a trend? How can this be seen as ‘an isolated incident’?”

Gaining support from the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and another generous donor, Ingala Smith’s Counting Dead Women blog became the basis for the ‘Femicide Census: Profiles of Women Killed By Men’. Published by Women’s Aid and NIA at the end of last year, the landmark report shows how, far from being “isolated incidents”, 936 women and girls over 14 years of age were killed by men in England and Wales between 2009 and 2015. Most women who were killed were found to be killed by a man known to them, with 64 percent killed by men identified as current of former partners.

Though she has years of professional experience of Intimate Partner Violence, 49-year old Ingala Smith says several findings surprised her, such as the number of older women killed in burglaries and robberies. “I would also say the number of women being killed by sons was also something I hadn’t expected to see”, she notes. “And the ages that women continue to be killed by intimate partners. That, again, is sad to see. You think of the years and years of abuse that a woman has lived with before she is finally killed in her 70s or 80s by a man who she has been with for years.”

Most shockingly, Ingala Smith explains how the report highlights what is called “overkill”, which she describes as “when men submit women to a level of violence that killed them several times over. So not only has he killed her once, he continues to injure her with an injury that would have been fatal had she not already been killed.”

Does recording these horrendous crimes take an emotional toll? “Yes, in a word”, she replies. “I’ve sort of developed a pattern now where at the end of every month I review the month and total women for that month, and update my blog on a monthly basis. And when I used to do that at first I literally did have a cry after every time I did it, sit in a darkened room and want to be on my own for a little while. Now I just get on with it.” However, she is concerned she doesn’t always get as upset as she used to. “I don’t ever want to be unshockable”, she says.

Though the media often represents violence against women and girls as perpetrated by a stranger down a dark alley or a predatory taxi driver, Ingala Smith says the most dangerous place for a woman is her own home.

Surely we are talking about an epidemic of violence against women, I ask, thinking about the 2013 Crime Survey of England and Wales’s estimate that 28 percent of women have experienced domestic abuse? “We are talking about a massive scale problem”, she confirms, though she prefers not to use the word ‘epidemic’ because that “implies a medicalisation” of the issue. She argues this violence “affects all women even if we are not directly affected. I think all women are controlled by male violence and all men benefit from male violence even if they themselves never perpetrate it.”

There is, it seems, a deep-seated problem with the dominant type of masculinity men are expected to embody today. Ingala Smith agrees: “It’s about the social construction of masculinity and the social construction of femininity. So it’s about gender rather than about biology.”

“I think you have to look at the relationship between women and men and everything that creates the inequality between women and men”, she continues. “So entitlement, patriarchal laws, sexism, the objectification of women – all these create a context where women are seen as less than, and men expect control and dominance. I think that reproduces itself in some intimate relationships.”

Turning to solutions, Ingala Smith says reforming the criminal justice system and policing is important, though she believes they won’t solve the problem on their own. “If we look at the things that make men men and make women women, if we tackle those, so gender inequality, objectification of women, sexism etc. – that is where the big work has to go.” The Femicide Census itself argues for “statutory sex and relationship education covering healthy relationships, domestic abuse, consent and challenging sex role stereotypes as part of the national curriculum” because “better education about healthy relationships will help to prevent domestic abuse, and ensure that victims and perpetrators know where to go for help.”

She notes the Tory’s austerity agenda has led to more women being endangered, with local authorities passing on the cuts imposed on them to the services they fund, such as refuges for vulnerable women. For example, women’s services in the UK suffered a huge blow in 2015 when Eaves, a specialist service for women victims of violence, was forced to close. Frustratingly, the specialist services that survive are often at the mercy of grant funding based on contracts and competitive tendering, which means the services can end up being run by the lowest bidder and organisations which are not led by feminist women.

Is she hopeful about the recent feminist resurgence associated with women such as Laura Bates and Kat Banyard? “I really hope that women continue to find feminism”, she says. “I hope they don’t find liberal man-pleasing feminism. It does give me hope but not hope enough. I’ve found that as often as feminism reinvents itself there comes a backlash against that feminism.”

“I want to be hopeful but I’m not really”, she laughs ruefully, though later apologises for her negativity in an email.

Talking about her own feminist politics, Ingala Smith says her brand of feminism “tends towards” radical feminism. “I think inequality is structural, I think patriarchy exists”, she explains. “The things that identify radical feminism is that you talk about patriarchy and the male dominated society, you see that men’s violence against women is part of creating that patriarchy and maintaining it.” Another common tenant of radical feminism is the importance of women-only organising and women-only spaces. Ingala Smith doesn’t think men can be feminists, though believes men can make a difference and can be part of the solution. “I am saying that when we have feminist spaces they can butt out and make the rest of society a more feminist space.”

What concrete actions does she think men who support women should take? “Shut up and listen to women”, she laughs. “Fundraise for your local refuge.”

“I believe in decent men”, she says, “but I think men are a big problem as well. Masculinity is a big problem.” Again she is keen to highlight that she doesn’t think biology is destiny. ”There is a question, isn’t there? Why are men more violent than women? Men do most of the killing. Mostly they are killing other men more than women but you don’t see the reverse of that. Why is that?”, she asks. “It’s either nature or nurture or a combination of both. For the good of all of us as a species I’m hoping that it’s more nurture the nature.”

The ‘Femicide Census: Profiles of Women Killed By Men’ report can be downloaded from https://www.womensaid.org.uk/what-we-do/campaigning-and-influencing/femicide-census/. See also http://www.niaendingviolence.org.uk/.

 

The ideology of masculinity: interview with Michael Kimmel

The ideology of masculinity: interview with Michael Kimmel
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
February 2012

Today Michael Kimmel is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York and probably the biggest name in the academic discipline of Men’s Studies. However, over thirty years ago he completed a PhD on seventeenth century British and French tax policy. How did he get from the potentially sleep-inducing latter to the former?

“My scholarship begins with my position as an activist”, the 60-year old American academic tells me as we sit in the breakfast room of his hotel in central London. In town to give a lecture at the London School of Economics about his new book, Kimmel explains his partner had started working at a battered women’s shelter. “I had led a very kind of protected life as a suburban boy. I really had no idea about men’s violence against women until I began to hear the stories that she was telling me, and meet the women she was talking about.” After hearing Kimmel give a speech at a Reclaim the Night rally on why men should take responsibility for the violence women face, a student suggested he teach a course on masculinity. Visiting the library to compile the course reading list he found “shelves and shelves of books on women – this is thirty years ago – and nothing on men. Nothing on men as men. There is plenty of biographies of great men in history but rarely do you find them talking about masculinity.” To fill this scholarly hole he developed his own programme of research – “I needed to write the books I needed to read” – to run alongside the first ever course on men in the state of New Jersey.

How would Kimmel define Men’s Studies? “For me the point of masculinity studies is to talk about how does gender shape men’s lives”, he replies. “How does the ideology of masculinity shape men’s lives? How does masculinity, the idea of being a man, effect our behaviour, our relationships, our work lives, our relations with our friends, with our children?” He elaborates: “The critical study of masculinities is an effort to use the theoretical tools that had been developed, for example, by critical race theory, queer theory, feminist theory, to talk about men’s lives. It is in the same kind of arena as talking about whiteness. How do you mark the unmarked? How do you talk about the centre?”

He argues there are many different types of masculinity. Nevertheless, after conducting workshops with young men in 49 of the 50 US states and in the UK, he maintains American and British men generally have similar views about what it means to be a man: “Don’t show your feelings, don’t cry, be stoic, succeed, be responsible, be powerful, be strong, get rich, get laid… Don’t ever do anything that is feminine, don’t ever be weak, don’t ask for directions.”

Defined and maintained through, among other things, socialisation, mainstream media images and sports (“The locker room is the last preserve of the all male world”), Kimmel believes the dominant form of masculinity seriously impoverishes men’s lives. “The thing that holds men back from having the relationships we say we want with our partners, with our friends, with our wives, with our kids, is the behaviour and attitudes of other men”, he says. “Which is to say the ideology of masculinity.” And it also damages women’s lives. “Every study of the advancement of women in the public sphere finds the thing that holds women back is the behaviour and attitudes of men.”

In an attempt to get more men thinking about gender and feminism, Kimmel has co-authored The Guy’s Guide to Feminism with Michael Kaufman. Made up of jokes, skits, fake interviews and short essays it is a consciously popular and accessible A-Z of feminism. “If you are looking at this as the great treatise on men and feminism, it is assuredly not that”, he says. “If you are looking for it as a way to help men start the conversation, that’s what it is. It’s an ice-breaker.”

The book is also an implicit attempt to rectify the “concerted effort by large numbers of groups to delegitimate feminism”, a backlash which has severely distorted the debate over the past thirty years. Cutting through the misinformation, Kimmel insists feminism boils down to two basic points: “One empirical observation and one moral position.” First the empirical observation: “Women and men aren’t equal. If you look at parliament, or every legislature in the country, the board of every corporation, the board of trustees at every university, you would probably come to the conclusion women and men aren’t equal.” Now the moral position: “They should be equal. That’s all. Inequality is wrong. If you share that empirical observation and take that moral position then you support feminism.”

Those who resist feminism “believe that gender is a zero-sum game”, Kimmel notes. “That as women gain, men will lose. As long as you believe it’s a zero-sum game you are not going to support it because it is not in your interest.” In contrast, Kimmel argues that feminism is good not just for women but men too. “Despite this ideology that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, that there is a war between the sexes, if they win we lose, the actual empirical evidence about gender equality shows that the more equal you are with your partners, with your friends, the happier you are.”

When I ask Kimmel what steps concerned men can take, he replies that the younger generation’s lived experience of work, family and friendship means it “is going to be more gender equal than any generation ever.” A self-professed member of the When Harry Met Sally generation where women and men couldn’t be friends, Kimmel notes every young person today has a good cross-sex friend. All of the 400 young men he interviewed for his 2008 book Guyland accepted that a female partner should have a career. And all accepted that men should take an active role in raising children. For Kimmel these social changes point the way forward. “You already know the answer. You don’t need me to tell you. You are living it. The question for you is how do you apply it in every arena of your life.”

Just like the book, Kimmel’s arguments in person are inclusive and persuasive. I find myself nodding along a lot. One can imagine many young men being deeply affected after taking one of his classes. Indeed, his use of the plural “you” during the interview is occasionally confusing. So when he looks me in the eye when discussing advertising and says “When you are that anxious about proving your masculinity when you have to worry about the cola you are drinking… Let’s talk about this. Why are you so anxious?” I feel close to breaking down and blabbing “It was all my father’s fault!”

More seriously, something that is never made explicit enough for this interviewer – in both the book and this interview – is whether Kimmel thinks it is an errant, minority form of masculinity or the normal, socially accepted masculinity that is the central problem? With Kimmel agreeing that around 1 in 4 American women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, it seems likely he leans towards the latter. Or take this fact that appeared in The Guardian recently: 81% of speeding offences are committed by men. If the problem is indeed ‘normal masculinity’, the implications for individual men and women, parents and wider society are enormous, it seems to me.

The Guys Guide to Feminism is published by Seal Press, priced £10.99.

Book review: Girl Up by Laura Bates

Book review: Girl Up by Laura Bates
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
23 May 2016

Set up by Laura Bates in 2012, the Everyday Sexism Project, which allows people to share their experiences of sexism, harassment, discrimination or assault, has become a hugely influential online feminist campaigning tool.

Bates has since published her bestselling debut Everyday Sexism and become an important voice for women in the media, speaking about gender inequality at the United Nations Commission On the Status Of Women and the Council of Europe. She has also toured the UK speaking to school groups, and it is this experience that informs Girl Up, her second book.

Aimed at young women and girls, it is laugh out loud funny, irreverent and deliciously sweary. I imagine it’s like having a cosy but honest chat with your knowledgeable older sister. There are dancing vaginas, a colour by numbers vulva and a page of slang words for the word “penis”. The motto “masturbation is normal” appears in huge letters across two pages, while a “sexist bullshit klaxon” parps up throughout the text to warn readers of, well, sexist bullshit.

The chapter on women’s bodies is particularly good, with Bates noting that issues such as ‘looks’, ‘weight’ and ‘size’ are common worries when she visits schools. “You might have seen 100 women in one day but you’ve really only seen one woman”, she notes about all the idealised women in advertising and the media we are exposed to everyday. “She is almost always tall, young, thin, white, conventionally beautiful, made up, long-legged and large-breasted.” Our culture’s obesseion with women’s bodies is a trap that keeps women pre-occupied and under-confident, she argues, with the media, fashion and diet industries profiting from this damaging status quo.

Covering topics such as popularity, confidence, friendships, careers, pornography, and romantic and sexual relationships, Bates is part brilliant agony aunt (which I suppose is a gendered term in itself) and part inspiring feminist activist. The book ends by focusing on the latter, with Bates slaying the bizarre myths spread about feminists and amusingly stating that “everybody is either a feminist or an arsehole”.

Essential reading for young women and girls, Girl Up is set to become a key guiding text for the next generation like The Beauty Myth and The Feminine Mystique have for preceding generations. And though they are not the book’s primary audience, arguably it is young men, under intense pressure to conform to the dominant (and highly damaging) masculinity, who need to read the book the most.

Girl Up is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99.

Stella Creasy: beyond wishful thinking

Stella Creasy: beyond wishful thinking
by Ian Sinclair
22 December 2015

Stella Creasy. Labour MP for Walthamstow since 2010. She’s brilliant, isn’t she?

Her important work leading prominent campaigns against payday loan lenders and misogynist online abuse has had the liberal media and many activists and progressives falling head over heels in love with her. “In a field populated by career politicians guided by self-interest, Creasy is a rare thing: a woman of conviction”, enthused the Observer’s Elizabeth Day in 2012. “Creasy’s concern for her constituents goes beyond clever public relations or mere political rhetoric.” A year later the Guardian’s Esther Addley was singing her praises for making “one of the most striking and effective parliamentary debuts in recent times”. The Labour List website selected her as MP of the Year in 2012. Spectator magazine named her Campaigner of the Year in 2011. ConservativeHome has called her “Labour’s most interesting member of parliament.” Catherine Mayer, Time magazine’s Europe Editor, called her “Labour’s leader in waiting”. Creasy is “seriously clever but not… lacking in human understanding”, noted Meyer. “She’s engaged but not doctrinaire or tribal.”

Compare this gushing coverage to the following political record:

  • In March 2013 Creasy abstained on the vote about the Coalition Government’s Workfare programme, the scheme in which people on Jobseekers Allowance are forced to carry out unpaid work in order to keep receiving their benefits.
  • In July 2015 Creasy abstained on the vote for the Welfare Bill, which will cut tax credits, reduce the benefit cap to £20,000 (£23,000 in London) and called for £12bn more cuts. According to a leaked government memo, 40,000 more children will sink below the poverty line as a result of the benefit cap. Child Poverty Action Group noted “the majority of households affected by the benefit cap are lone-parent households and the main victims are children”.
  • In March 2011 Creasy voted in favour of NATO intervention in Libya, a chief cause of the ongoing violent chaos in the country which has destabilised surrounding nations, empowered extremists and played a central role in the refugee crisis.
  • In December 2015 Creasy voted with the Tory Government to authorise the UK bombing of Syria, tweeting just before the vote “Hilary benn’s speech has persuaded me that fascism must be defeated.”
  • In January 2015 Creasy voted to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system.
  • Creasy, according to the Guardian, was one of a group of Labour MPs who “grew exasperated by [Ed] Miliband’s leadership and quietly identified [Blairite candidate Liz] Kendall… as having leadership potential”.
  • Creasy backed Blairite candidate David Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership race.

What these inconvenient facts show is Creasy is very clearly on the right of the Labour Party – a Blairite, basically – when it comes to many domestic and international political questions. She has failed to oppose Tory Government policies that will push more children and poor women into poverty, she has supported a highly interventionist foreign policy that will likely led to more violence and civilian deaths, and she has supported the most right-wing leaders in Labour leadership contests.

So, what’s going on here? How can Creasy be lauded by activists, progressives and the liberal media with the voting record and political actions set out above? To get a flavour of this support, witness the extreme deference of Feminist campaigner Karen Ingala Smith’s reaction to Creasy backing UK airstrikes in Syria (an action, let’s not forget, that will likely kill women and children and increase the terror threat to the UK): “I didn’t agree with your choice of vote re Syria but I respect that you made the decision that you felt was best. I also appreciate that you’ll be more informed about this issue that [sic] me… I’m grateful to have you as MP and would proudly stand beside you in solidarity.”

Is Creasy’s positive image among many people who identify as “Left-wing” simply down to ignorance of her actual politics? Have they been fooled by her benign sounding official title of “Labour & Co-operative MP”? She is certainly a good communicator and comes across as a genuinely sincere, human person. Perhaps this has blinded people to the reality of her voting record?

I wonder too if Creasy’s popularity is down to what Owen Jones describes in his book Chavs as the Left’s “shift away from class politics towards identity politics over the last 30 years.” In support of his argument Jones cites a search conducted of the academic resource MLA International Bibliography from 1991 to 2000. “There were 13,820 results for ‘women’, 4,539 for ‘gender’, 1,862 for ‘race’, 710 for ‘postcolonial’ – and just 136 for ‘working class’.” I suspect for many of Creasy’s supporters Feminism is their primary concern – and Creasy has certainly done great, essential work on defending women’s rights. But are people confusing Creasy’s Feminist activist with a wider radical outlook, when the two do not necessarily go together – and certainly don’t with Creasy.

And do we need to expand our understanding of what Feminist analysis and activism look like? Responding to the Guardian’s endorsement of Yvette Cooper in the Labour leadership contest because “a female leader would be a plus in itself”, Selma James and Nina Lopez noted that as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Cooper abolished income support and extended Labour’s work-capability assessment for sick and disabled people. “The money that recognised unwaged caring work, and enabled mothers to leave violent men, and disabled people to live independent lives is now gone or under threat”, explained James and Lopez. “Better men against sexist austerity than women for it.”

To be clear, this is not just about Creasy but the propensity of a certain section of liberal and leftist opinion to be taken in by slick PR, meaningless platitudes, impressive rhetoric and media hype – see Barack Obama circa 2008, Tony Blair in 1997, 2010 Nick Clegg and Hilary Benn’s Syria speech earlier this month. It seems to me that meaningful progressive change in society will only come when we bypass this kind of media-driven wishful thinking and will be built upon an accurate understanding of the political reality we wish to change. And the unfortunate truth is Stella Creasy has some very ugly politics indeed.