Tag Archives: Feminism

Rebooting the stalled domestic revolution: Sally Howard interview

Rebooting the stalled domestic revolution: Sally Howard interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 May 2020

A London-based journalist specialising in gender, human rights and social trends, in March Sally Howard published The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes.

A brilliant and inspiring book that attempts to “reboot the stalled domestic revolution”, Ian Sinclair asked Howard who does the dishes today, the impact of key life events and how coronavirus might change things.

Ian Sinclair: Many people may think there is broad equality in the UK in terms of housework today – certainly compared to the past. Can you summarise what the evidence tells us about domestic labour today?

Sally Howard: There’s a common misconception, fuelled by our onus on women’s gains in the public sphere (closing the Gender Pay Gap, for example, and equalising women’s representation in politics), that the feminist revolution on the home front has been fully achieved. And yes British males today contribute much more in terms of domestic effort than their 1970s counterparts: 18 hours a week compared to the one hour 20 minute contribution of 1971 man. However, British women still put in 60 percent more effort into these often mundane and repetitive tasks – 26 hours a week of cooking and cleaning, not to mention the invisible domestic administration we now refer to as ‘the mental load’. More troublingly, male efforts appear to have gone into reverse since the 1990s, with today’s male contributing an hour less to these tasks, each week, than his 1998 counterpart.

IS: I was particularly interested in your assertion that key life events tend to reinforce traditional gender roles. Can you explain more?

SH: Yes, there’s a phenomenon I call ‘the Parent Labour Trap’ – the fact that no matter how egalitarian a heterosexual couple are before the arrival of children, multiple factors conspire, once children are on the scene, to ‘discipline’ men and women into traditional breadwinning and housekeeping roles. First amongst these is the Gender Pay Gap, which often means it makes sense for a woman to put her career on the backburner to prioritise a higher income. Then there is the persistent stigma against male early-years primary caring that leads to our poor uptake of Shared Parental Leave (only two percent of eligible British males exercise their right to share leave). As I argue in the book, hands-on male primary parenting is the foundation of establishing egalitarian domestic arrangements in a family household (as seen in the Swedish model, where state-funded ‘use it or lose it’ daddy leave quotas lead to a much higher uptake of male parenting leave and a consequent fairer division of domestic labour). There’s also a surprising societal resistance to non-traditional domestic roles in childed families, with 72 percent of respondents to the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey saying mothers of pre-school children should stay at home or only work part time. Add the fact that men with children tend to be promoted more readily, and it’s very easy for even the most progressive couples to slide into traditional domestic arrangements. My book finds that the arrival of a child increases the domestic labour load by around three hours a day – all of that wiping up and toy- tidying – and that two hours and 40 minutes of these extra labours fall to women.

IS: You note the politics of housework was a central concern of Second Wave feminism in the 1970s, but has fallen off the feminist agenda since then. Why do you think this happened?

SH: Yes domestic labour – in fabulous activist movements such as Wages for Housework – was a central plank of the Second Wave feminism. Partly this was down to the fact that these feminisms were an outgrowth of the socialist left. Wages for Housework, for example, was inspired in the workerist movements that took root in Italy in the 1960s. By the 1980s mainstream feminism had, following theorists such as Catharine MacKinnon, turned its attention to gains in women’s legal rights and in the public sphere. On one hand the dirty business of housework became unsexy, associated with the housewives working feminists no longer wanted to be. On the other a lazy compact was made, with some middle-class women passing domestic labour to other subordinate women, often along race and class lines. In the 1980s we saw a huge rise in low-paid childcare and per-hour domestic cleaning as many women paid other women to account for the fact men aren’t pitching in more. Of course this offloading of ‘women’s work’ along race and class lines was a breathtaking failure of feminist solidarity.

IS: I particularly enjoyed the chapter on utopian visions and alternative communities seeking to address the issue. Can you talk about your favourite?

SH: One of my favourites actually isn’t included in the book. The House of Nobodies in La Paz is a progressive all-gender feminist community where housework, undertaken by all members, is degendered, allocated by lottery and paid for out of a central pot. It’s a modern take on the ideas expounded by Wages for Housework: that attributing fiscal value to these tasks clearly designates them as ‘work’, rather than the natural-born gifts of woman’s love. I also love built community fixes to uneven division of labour, however, such as the utopian socialist society designed by self-taught architect Alice Constance Austin in the 1910s, in which ‘kitchenless homes’ were connected by a system of underground tunnels used for commuting, laundry and hot meal collection and delivery (from a large centralised city kitchen and laundry), as well as the transportation of supplies and goods. These utopian ideas might seem fanciful, but in fact we can no longer afford our inefficient nuclear family dwellings on environmental as well as social justice grounds. I argue for radical new ideas around post-fossil fuel communalism.

IS: You mention Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein’s belief that transformative change is most likely to occur during and after societal crises. Do you think the coronavirus outbreak and the unprecedented impacts it is having on society could be one such crisis?

SH: Absolutely. On one hand we’re seeing worrying signs in terms of the impact of the crisis on gendered care work – as childcare and the cooking of three meals a day are abruptly shifted from the paid to the unpaid economy it’s women who are, in many cases, picking up the slack (a sharp rise in women’s unemployment in the US is likely to be matched by UK figures). On the other hand, this crisis is a brutal reminder that the care labour we all rely on to survive is not work that ‘just gets done’. Despite the blip of the 1950s, with its myth of the Perfect Housewife in her Ideal Home, the two world wars were huge system shocks that ushered in radical changes in social roles and set the ground for Second Wave feminism. I hope that this will be the case for the Covid-19 crisis, not least in terms of our increased appreciation for the ‘pink collar workers’ – the cleaners, nurses and carers – who are at the frontline of the Coronavirus battle and whose poorly remunerated labour is part of the broader picture of our social devaluation of ‘women’s work’.

The Home Stretch is published by Atlantic Books, priced £14.99.

Book review. The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes by Sally Howard

Book review. The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes by Sally Howard
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
27 April 2020

HOUSEWORK, and who does it, was a key concern of the Second Wave Feminism of the 1970s, the time of the international Wages For Housework movement and Ann Oakley’s influential Housewife study.

Since then the issue has dropped off the agenda of mainstream feminism, Sally Howard, a London-based journalist, argues in her brilliant new book.

Certainly men do more domestic labour than they used to – an average of just one hour 20 minutes in 1971 compared to 17 hours a week in 2016, according to the UK Office for National Statistics. However, even this improvement lags far behind the 36 hours women spend, on average, doing household chores today. Indeed, the unfair distribution of work persists even when both partners are working (I should say we are talking about heterosexual partners – same sex relationships seem to result in different outcomes).

This “second shift” that women have to work is exacerbated by marriage and having children – what Howard calls “the Parent Labour Trap”. These key life events tend to reinforce traditional gender roles, she explains, with tasks defined as female usually daily, monotonous and menial, and so-called male tasks, like gardening and DIY, usually “occasional and dispensable”.

Understandably, many privileged women have sought to escape the unequal workload by employing domestic labourers – usually poor non-British women – something Howard opposes. She notes, incredibly, “there are more live-in domestic workers in London today than there were in the 1890s.”

It’s a wide-ranging treatise, with fascinating explorations of the history of Home Economics, how technological changes have impacted women’s’ lot (spoiler: not much) and the rise of “cleanfluencers” and “instamoms” on social media today. The chapter on utopian visions and alternative communities is particularly interesting – I had never heard of self-taught architect Alice Constance Austin and the feminist, socially-egalitarian Californian city she was commissioned to design in 1915. It was never built but the plans featured a radical layout of “kitchenless homes… connected by a system of underground tunnels used for commuting, laundry and hot meal collection and delivery (from a large centralized city kitchen and laundry).”

Turning to how we might “reboot the stalled domestic revolution”, Howard argues “many of the great successes of feminism have come in moments when boots were on the ground”. For example, the legendary 1975 women’s general strike in Iceland, in which 90 percent of adult women left their jobs and families to march in the streets, led to equal gender pay rights being enshrined in Icelandic law a year later.

Inspiring, smart and wryly humorous, The Home Stretch deserves to become a landmark Feminist text.

The Home Stretch is published by Atlantic Books, priced £14.99.

Book review. Don’t Hold My Head Down: In Search Of Some Brilliant Fucking by Lucy-Anne Holmes

Book review. Don’t Hold My Head Down: In Search Of Some Brilliant Fucking by Lucy-Anne Holmes
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
February-March 2020

‘If feels like we’re always talking about it, but never really talking about it’, British author Lucy-Anne Holmes observes about sex.

After reading her very funny and very explicit sex memoir, I can safely say no one will ever accuse Holmes of not discussing sex ever again!

The book starts with Holmes, circa her mid-30s, coming to the realisation her whole sexual history has been full of usually drunken, sometimes painful, ultimately dissatisfying sex – what she calls ‘normal, slightly porny sex’.

She pledges to seek out better, ‘beautiful sex’, centred on her own sexual pleasure and not that of her male partners. This journey takes her to sex festivals and sex parties, workshops on Pussy Worship and Female Erotic Leadership, navigating an open relationship and exploring BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadism and masochism).

Accessible and hugely relatable with many laugh out loud moments, Holmes deftly weaves practical sex tips and serious arguments and concepts around the often Bridget Jones-level farcical situations she gets into, including complex ideas of consent (‘an ongoing conversation, liable to change at any point’) and Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent.

She rarely mentions the word, but feminism – the liberal, ‘sex-positive’ kind – underpins the whole book. Holmes was, after all, the founder of the successful No More Page 3 campaign in the early 2010s. For example, she links her body hatred and low-confidence to growing up in a patriarchal society, and ends with a humorous, though pointed potted Herstory of Women and Sex.

While many feminist activists will love Don’t Hold My Head Down, I think the book is most useful in  introducing feminism and feminist framing about sex, relationships and society to those who might not see themselves as being activists, or even politically active.

She makes her aim clear in her conclusion: ‘If telling this story inspires just one young woman not to feel she has to compare herself to the images she sees in magazine, or take part in sex that she feels uncomfortable with, or it inspires her to start a petition and challenge something that makes her feel small… then I feel it is a story worth telling.’

I would add one thing – men, too, have much to learn from this brilliant book. File alongside the equally vital Girl Up from Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates.

Don’t Hold My Head Down: In Search Of Some Brilliant Fucking is published by Unbound, priced £14.99.

The persistence of traditional gender norms in housework: interview with Professor Anne McMunn

The persistence of traditional gender norms in housework: interview with Professor Anne McMunn
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 August 2019

From the Everyday Sexism Project, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling essays and the #MeToo movement, there has been a huge upsurge in Feminist activism in recent years. However, while the topic of unpaid domestic work – aka housework – was a key concern of the second wave Feminism in the 1970s, it seems to be largely ignored by contemporary mainstream Feminism.

In an attempt to get a handle on the issue, Ian Sinclair asked Anne McMunn, Professor of Social Epidemiology at University College London, about her new co-authored article Gender Divisions of Paid and Unpaid Work in Contemporary UK Couples, published in the journal Work, Employment and Society.

Ian Sinclair: What does the academic evidence tell us about who does unpaid domestic work?

Anne McMunn: Studies from all over the world consistently show that women do much more unpaid domestic work than men. Studies in the UK have also shown that this gender difference really opens up when couples become parents; couples tend to revert to more traditional gender roles after the transition to parenthood and this establishes patterns of behaviour within the household that persist over time. However, as we continue to make progress towards gender equality in the workplace and more people from the ‘Millennial’ generation are starting to form families (Millennial men, in particular say they would like to spend more time with their children), there has been speculation that persistent gender inequality in domestic work may start to decline. In this study we wanted to see if this was the case. We looked at a large study of more than 8,500 contemporary opposite-sex couples from across the UK to see how they share or divide housework, paid employment, and care for children and adults. We used a technique that grouped couples together based on how similar they were in the ways they divided these four types of work between them.

IS: What explanations have researchers given for this disparity?

AM: Explanations for the persistent gender disparity in housework have tended to fall into two broad camps. One takes an economic perspective and argues that women do more housework because they have less economic bargaining power within relationships. This is because women tend to earn less than men as a result of the gender pay gap, but also because mothers in the UK often work part-time as a way of combining employment with parenthood. Some studies show that women who earn more than their partner do less housework than other women, but they still do more than their male partners. So differences in pay alone don’t seem to explain the disparity.

The other type of explanation points to gender socialisation processes and argues that men and women internalise the norms and behaviour they witness growing up at home but also in the wider society around them in school, the media and elsewhere. These socialisation processes are more difficult to study, but are sometimes investigated by comparing gender differences in domestic work across countries with different gender norms or by studying couples’ attitudes to gender roles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women with more egalitarian attitudes do less housework than traditional women, but even those with egalitarian attitudes do more housework than their male partners. Because we had information from both members of the couple in our study we were able to look at the gender attitudes within the couple jointly. We wondered whether couples might share housework equally when they both held egalitarian beliefs.

IS: What were the main conclusions of your new research?

AM: Our analysis identified eight different groups which characterised the ways in which couples divide these four types of work in the UK. In all but two small groups women did more housework than men. Even in our largest group (which accounted for over 40% of couples) in which both the man and woman were employed, usually full-time, and who tended to be younger and not have children to look after, women did much more housework than men. The majority of women in this group did between 10-20 hours of housework per week while the majority of men in this group did less than five hours of housework per week. Women and men only shared housework equally in a small group (6% of couples) in which the woman was the employed main earner and the man was not employed or worked part-time. And there was a very small group (1% of couples) in which men did more housework than women; all of the men in this group spent more than 20 hours per week doing housework.

Shared egalitarian attitudes towards gender roles were associated with more equal divisions of work within couples, but even within these couples women did more housework than men.

From these results we concluded than gender equality in divisions of different types of work within couples remains rare in the UK and gender norms in relation to gender divisions of work remain strong.

IS: How might we achieve a more equal division of unpaid domestic work?

AM: Tackling this persistent unequal division of domestic labour probably requires a multi-pronged approach. We might seek to change social norms through early education and through both traditional and social forms of media. As parents we can be more aware of our own behaviours and the messages they send to our children. However, even when couples share egalitarian attitudes and wish to share unpaid domestic work and paid employment equally, a lack of affordable, high-quality childcare, and stigma around flexible working, particularly in male-dominated sectors, may make doing so difficult. Examples from Nordic countries have shown that men are much more likely to take up paternity leave if it is well-paid and targeted, and we know that fathers who are more involved with their children at the start remain more involved as children grow older which studies show has benefits for the whole family.

Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_McMunn.

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.

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.