Pink ladies

I have been a feminist for many years. I grew up, as all teenage boys do, as a qualified sexist, albeit one in thrall to the female gender. But as the 80s progressed, so did I, and I came out the other end a reasonably clear-thinking cheerleader for sexual equality. (In my weaker moments, I confess to being a self-hating man, but mainly when men seem to be at the root of so many of the world’s problems, which they just are.) Anyway, I was introduced to feminist writing in the 80s – Marilyn French, Germaine Greer, the novel Praxis by Fay Weldon had quite an effect on me, as I remember – and have ever since dipped in and out of contemporary feminist theory: Susan Faludi, Susan Sontag, Naomi Wolf, Laura Mulvey and Natasha Walter. (I met Andrea Dworkin once, in a BBC radio green room back in the early 90s, and I was in awe of her in her big dungarees.)

Anyway, I’ve just finished Natasha Walter’s new book Living Dolls: The Return Of Sexism, which makes a bonfire of her optimistic The New Feminism, published in 1998, during the first wave of Blairite hope – soon to be dashed. In Living Dolls, Walter, incidentally the mother of a young daughter, takes stock of where the new feminism is at. (“I am ready to admit,” she writes in her introduction, “that I was entirely wrong.” How’s that for honesty?)

Casting an eye around the girls’ section of Hamley’s toy shop, she concludes, “Everything was pink, from the sugar-almond pink of Barbie, to the strawberry tint of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty … a pink nail bar … a pink boutique stand … pink ‘manicure bedrooms’ and pink ‘salon spaces’ …” She also gasps with due horror at Nuts and Zoo, attending a last-days-of-Rome “Babes On The Bed” competition at Mayhem nightclub in Southend, sponsored by Nuts (“This Cara Brett,” shouts the DJ, “She’s on the cover of Nuts this week! So buy her, take her home and have a wank!”) – from her account, the whole wretched circus is just as demeaning to the boys/men depicted as to the girls/women queuing up to stick their arses in the air in regulation “red hotpants and crop-top with Nuts logo”. Nobody comes out of it too well. Walter takes a look at the booming sex industry and questions the “empowerment” myth of lap- and pole-dancing.

Then she moves in part two onto biological determinism, which is a much drier subject, but key, as Walter fears that “bad science” is leading us down a road where the inequality between men and women (in this country “childless women earn about 9% less than men, women with children earn about 22% less, even if they work full-time”) is seemingly backed up by genetic orthodoxy based on often spurious studies at which bits of the brain are bigger in men and women. (She returns again and again with narrowed eyes to professor of developmental psychopathology Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The Essential Difference, in which he confidently delineates between the “male brain” and the “female brain”, and rewards owners of the latter with the following list of “suitable” careers: “counsellors, primary school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, mediators or personnel staff”, while men get to be “scientists, engineers, technicians, musicians, architects, taxonomists, bankers etc.” – that’s that sorted, then.) If we’re not careful, she warns, the “domestic goddess” myth of cupcake-baking Nigella clones, coupled with “pink ‘manicure bedroom'” conditioning, the glamourisation of prostitution in the media, and the Spearmint Rhino “bit of fun” defence might set the clock back on feminism a good 30 years, or more. (At best, she calls it “a stalled revolution.”)

It’s a complex picture she paints, but a recognisable one. I found the book thoroughly readable, and terrifying in places. I was lucky to come of age in the 1980s, when men were at least encouraged to examine their actions and their feelings towards women – the “New Man” might have been a myth, but you need ideals if you are to adjust your baser instincts. When I was a boy, porn was softer, and almost impossible to get your hands on, so I kept my innocence longer. Today, unreal images of sex bombard schoolchildren via mobiles, social networks and the internet, raising ludicrous expectations, sexualising kids way too early, and making life particularly tough for young girls, in my view. I don’t know how modern parents deal with it all. Perhaps some of them don’t.

If there is a flaw to Walter’s book, it’s the author’s slightly woolly moments, where she is so afraid to be seen to criticise women who work in the sex industry, or dance for money, or spend too much time at work, or too much time at home, or bake cakes, she backs everything up with a caveat: “That’s not to say that everyone who has chosen to go into glamour modelling is being exploited … ” that sort of thing. This is hardly the strident, fuck-you feminism of Germaine Greer in her pomp, but maybe it’s a sign of the complicated times we now live in.

It reinforces my view that I am, at heart, a feminist. On part one of BBC4’s Women documentary series last week, I think it was the imperious Marilyn French who defined a feminist as anyone who doesn’t assume men to be superior to women. Reading about that Nuts night at Mayhem in Southend, I had a horrible feeling that we’re all going to hell, male or female. (“One girl, who was a bit too fleshy around the middle and not fleshy enough around the chest, came in for boos rather than cheers. She looked tearful as she went back into the line.”)

Oh, and yes I was a bit embarrassed to get the book out on the train because of that cover. I wanted to say, it’s a book about sexism, it’s not actually sexist!


19 thoughts on “Pink ladies

  1. Was it Alice Walker who said 'womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender'? I used to class myself as a feminist, but not anymore. I believe in people. I don't think men have it easy, or women these days. We have lost a sense of community and supporting each other in our goals and ambitions. I worry that feminism as broadbrush is just as problematic as sexism. Anna

  2. Thanks for reminding me about this book. I read a review of it a couple of months back in the Bookseller, but forgot to follow it up. I'll definitely read it now. It sounds like it sums up the almost-unbelievable (in the 21st century) attitudes modern men (and women) have about gender stereotypes. The terrifying pole-dancing 'empowerment' argument is the tip of the iceberg (and I understand some parties want to make it an Olympic event, or is that an urban myth?). Anyway, glad you're on our side.@_karenb

  3. Your review makes for chilling reading, Andrew. The description of the repellent goings on in "Mayhem" is particularly resonant to me having grown up in Southend.I wanted to comment on just one aspect of your review. Accepting that my impression may be entirely wrong, the worry I have from reading your review is around whether scientific studies have been dismissed as bad or spurious merely because the conclusions aren't what the author wants to hear. If Simon Baron-Cohen confidently delineates between the male and female brains perhaps that's because there's actually is quite a big difference and you can tell. It's not sexist to be able to determine whether a pelvis is male or female on the basis of its shape, so (acknowleging the obvious fact that pelvises are considerably less complicated than brains) why is it necessarily wrong to do the same with brains? If a scientist claims that size is an important factor in these matters, we would hope these claims have been rigorously tested. If they have been, and their observations stand up to peer review, then whether we like it or not is irrelevant. It's like evolution; we may not like the fact that nature is red in tooth and claw, but that doesn't stop it being so. Beyond the obvious reasons for not wanting it, as the father of two girls, I have absolutely no desire for them to grow up in a world where they get paid less than someone else merely because they have different sets of chromosomes, nor would I approve of a world that said "You're X gender, therefore you're restricted to the following sorts of roles". But SB-C isn't proposing such a thing; he's hypothesising about differences seen *on average* when making observations of groups of people. It only becomes harmful and a stereotype when you say that because individual X belongs to gender Y they must necessarily have trait Z. Certainly this link appears to show SB-C going out of his way to address the possible implication of sexism: Maybe some of the science she discusses is bad science – in which case good riddance; we don't need it – but maybe it isn't. The fact is that sometimes science reveals ugly truths that we'd rather not confront, but "is/ought" has never been a satisfactory way to deal with such issues.

  4. I think most men and women on the street would class a feminist as someone who wants equal treatment for men and women. If that's what it is, sign me up.But feminist theory is just bollocks. It's all opinion, with no science to back it up. Interviewing sex workers or taking a turn around Hamleys is only going to confirm the beliefs you started out with. On the other hand, proper scientists are able to come to proper conclusions. It may be inconvenient that men and women's brains are different, but they just are. It's not as if Baron-Cohen thought it would back up his theories of how society should work if only he could prove that men's and women's brains are different. He ran some studies, collected some data, and this is what the data say.The real problem is when we take those data and say "given these differences, this is how we should organise society", but no real scientist worth his or her salt ever does that. Instead they recognise differences where they exist. And that's it.In the end, I think we need to appreciate those differences for what they are. Not pretend they don't exist. Equality should mean treating people equally despite their differences, not trying to pretend that we're all the same.

  5. hmmm… a quick look about the world which me and my daughter live in strongly suggests that feminist theory is not at all bollocks. to a certain extent, men are also trapped – "victims" of the gender roles which keep them in a dominant position. i can't take my knitting down the pub, say. but that's a pretty pathetic whine compared to what faces my daughter as she grows up.we men need to be feminists to get equality and freedom for ourselves, but it's much more important to get equality and freedom for those who are REALLY oppressed.

  6. Sounds an interesting if depressing book. Agree with much of what's been said above about Simon Baron-Cohen's work but also just to add that although there might well be 'male' and 'female' brains they don't necessary reside in men or women respectively. And they are not absolute – more of a spectrum. There are men whose brains are more up the female end of things (as it were) and vice versa.Couldn't agree more re. celebrating differences while offering equal opportunities.

  7. Rob – Wasn't the point about Andrew's article that Walter had actually challenged her own previously published opinons rather than confirming them? Perhaps feminist theory is 'all opinion' but maybe its the opinion of people who have at least thought about the issues a bit. In any case, theory in social sciences doesn't really work in the same way as the natural sciences, so it's not that fair a comparison. Science, as you later go on to point out, can't answer everything like how we organise a decent, respectful society. We need something else – 'wisdom' maybe – to do that.

  8. @Andrew Whitehouse: I agree we need wise people to work on policy, but wisdom isn't formed by thinking deeply about an issue, but instead by impartially examining the facts, as scientists do. Not by philosophising or thinking deeply.Walter may have changed her opinion, but there is no guarantee that it's been changed to anything better. Admitting she was wrong doesn't make her right. When a scientist changes their mind, it's because they have a new theory that explains the data better than their old theory. It's real progress.You also say that social sciences work in a different way to the natural sciences, but I don't think that's really true. The fundamental processes are the same. We make observations, which inform hypotheses, which are then tested using (hopefully) well designed experiments. In social science there are admittedly more extraneous variables for which we need to account than in, say, physics, but that just makes it more fun! And it certainly doesn't mean our results are any less reliable.@rocinante:I agree that some of the conclusions feminist theorists reach have a ring of truth about them. In that sense, they're not bollocks. What I meant instead is that the reasoning they use to explain those phenomena isn't based on evidence. For example, it is easy to see that women get paid less the men. We can agree that this difference is something that we, as a society, should work to remedy. That's a moral statement, which doesn't need the support of science. But what does need scientific support is the assertion that wage disparity is the result of, say, men's attitudes to women, or imposed gender roles. This 'theory' is what I have a problem with. It's an empirical matter, we can test their hypothesis using the scientific method. Or, like feminist theorists do, we can blithely accept it as fact.

  9. I know I'm coming a bit late to this party, but when Andrew mentioned on the podcast that he couldn't remember when Andrea Dworkin died it reminded me of a wonderful article written at the time, lauding her fascistic level of willpower. As a critique of compromising 'empowerment' myth feminism it's beyond compare. Also probably NSFW"We're supposed to know that you don't take it seriously — you don't live as you speak. What I revere about Dworkin is that she never realized that. Dworkin is hated so intensely simply because she accepted first-wave feminism fully. She blurted naively the implications of that ideology. And that appalled and embarrassed millions of smoother women, who liked the cool, fashionable tune feminism gave their bitching but had never had any intention of letting it get in the way of their romantic career plans.

  10. Sorry, long comment ahead: Regarding the "Well, men and women's brains *are* different, so there" type of point, I think it is resolutely negative to ignore where scientific data clearly exists. What could be contrued as a feminist take on the next step (but is more egalitarian than anything) is to look at it from a human developmental position, and look at the way that women on a *global* level ont just in the UK, are subjugated by the kind of prehistoric power based tactics that leave – I mean good god, it's unbelievable: women trying to divorce their husbands shot in the streets in Iran; half the murders in Turkey are honour killings of women (presumably young women); women in Fghanistan, if they are raped, are *sent to prison as adulterers*, and any children they bear are kept in there with them! this is not a religious thing, it's a cultural thing and those are only a few examples.To my mind, as a committed Feminist all my thinking life, it is mental not to confident assert that you are a feminist, ifyou arewilling to stand up from your chair and say well hold on, that stuff is so wrong it's unbearable. And fantastic if anyone, female or male, does that. In the UK, meanwhile, as a mother of a 6 year old girl, it is a constant fight to keep her confidence up and to look at 'pink world' with the right level of scepticism. I have noticed that shops selling cheaper childrens clothes have way less colour choice and style choice than say, Next or Gap. Want just some jeans and a nice top? Green, brown, red – accepting that your little girl might not want to wear blue? Then you're in for a struggle.Luckily the rellies seem to have got the message and Nora received a microscope for xmas from one Grandad. This, I like. And so does she….but back to the main point. If anyone you know is tempted to suck their teeth and suggest that the battle is over, then read the book which looks like it's doing a good job, but also just think about women in a global setting, and you'll see it's more relevant than ever to embrace the F word.

  11. Men are the new women. Life for men now is almost like that long-running sketch where Diana Dors rules over the male population and has her headquarters in Barbara Castle. Or am I being sexist?

  12. @Andrew WhitehouseI'm a psychologist who works in an anthro dept, so I would broadly consider myself a social scientist in that I'm interested in human social behaviours. I acknowledge that there are people who work in other quite different areas who also class themselves as social scientists, but in my humble opinion if they're not testing hypotheses then they're not doing science. I've been to social psych conferences where the majority of the 'data' presented are qualitative: "semi-structured interviews" with group X. These methods, and the methods of most cultural anthropologists and gender studies peeps, might be useful for developing hypotheses but they're not really about testing those hypotheses.I also think asking how one goes about attaining the wisdom to examine facts impartially is splitting hairs somewhat. Learning how to 'do' science is fact-learning (when to run a certain analysis, how to recruit an adequate sample), whereas the practice of science itself is a quite different way of acquiring data. It is my perception that feminists do something quite different: they observe the environment and then intuit answers, which are likely to be biased.

  13. I haven't read this yet, and feel it may largely be preaching to the choir as far as I'm concerned, but I'm glad Natasha Walter is still provoking debate with her work.My female friends and I were of that generation who made their voices known, be it by marching against the Corrie Bill (nothing to do with the soap, believe me), protesting against the offloading of dangerous Dalkon Shield contraceptive devices to third world countries, or challenging reactionary politicians like David Alton. We were mouthy, confident, and well-informed. We also, in the main, quite liked men. Years later we're all reeling and asking ourselves what happened, as we look around at the 'lappy clubs' on every high street and listen to the aspirations of our 23-year old 'sisters' who are saving up for a brand new pair of tits. Natasha Walter seems as stumped as we are.The Biological Determinism stuff has raged away for centuries and I have little to add to it, except to say that in the old Soviet Union, gender roles in many professions changed enormously. Medicine, for example, came to be largely the preserve of women. And interestingly, being a Doctor came to be seen as a low-status job.

  14. Did you see the second episode of 'women' – I was really disappointed with it. The first episode was interesting but the second was dull and depressing. I don't know where they found such an educated yet opinionless group of people!

  15. Nice piece andrew, i have a 12 year old daughter. she is a very attractive girl (not that it matters!!) she is in the top 5% of high achievers in our borough, enjoys scouts and is a well rounded young lady (im her mum im probably bias!) But this seems less important than wearing make up, having false nails and straightening her hair. p.s love the show steve.x

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