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!