Women And Power

On Women & Power – Abridged speech given for Wire Wool Events, Bungalow Café Festival, at National Theatre, Southampton, 2018.

Women’s power, or lack of it, is making the headlines today, not least because of events in America. And when I talk about power, I certainly don’t mean the sort of power that’s about buying a diet coke or choosing a new natural make-up range. But too often, this is what we are told is empowering for women, as if this moment we’re in now is the endpoint of our revolution, as if we’ve achieved equality already, without the world significantly changing in any structural sense at all.

Empowerment is like patriarchy’s booty call; and no matter how much time and money you spend on it, it still leaves a bit of a grubby taste, because you know it’s fake. It’s not real; because empowerment is marketed only to those who don’t have power in the first place. Those with power don’t need empowerment. Male business leaders aren’t posing naked for national fashion magazines, premier league footballers don’t train in hot pants and high heels to enjoy the liberating sensation. The boys at Eton are not doing pole-fitness to try to improve their self-esteem and stop them dropping out of physical exercise due to body insecurities.

The type of feminism that we are offered now, in the mainstream, and therefore what a lot of people think feminism is, is actually a revolutionary political movement reduced to a brand, to a buzz word, by industries that have stolen the language of liberation from decades of political history and theory and twisted it, and sold it back to women, to market products that ironically rely, in most cases, on the very disempowerment of women in the first place. This is what has been called ‘consumer feminism’ or ‘choice feminism’. It is the idea that any choice a woman makes, from what breakfast cereal to eat or whether to walk or drive to work, is a feminist choice, because it is being made by a woman. It is the idea that we can express our feminism through one type of choice in particular, funnily enough that particular type of choice is our consumer choices, and so feminism becomes less political and more personal lifestyle brand. Sassy, pulls no punches, ball breaker, feisty, fierce, girls run the world etc….. A selling of fantasy over reality; which of course shouldn’t be surprising as it’s the very modus operandi of consumerism and consumer culture overall.

Now, more recently of course something has been rocking the boat when it comes to the structural power relations between men and women. This of course is the global MeToo Movement, that nobody can have failed to miss, sweeping through various industries and institutions. The MeToo movement has created a moment where there is a window of opportunity for feminist activism and, indeed, for feminist political theory, to be seen and heard. In this window, women’s voices and testimonies are more likely to be heard, than they have been in the past, and, where those voices have joined together, there has been a power to their words too.

The change is still slow, painstakingly slow, like the shifting of tectonic plates, but even these actions have had seismic effect. We can see their powerful potential in the amount of backlash that there has been in response to them. Some men, including many men in positions of mainstream power, authority and influence, have been responding to women’s actual testimonies of abuse by arguing that they feel under attack. They feel under attack by women talking about being attacked. Because of course it is remarkable, exceptional, newsworthy for a man to feel unsafe, intolerable even. So instead women are told to carry on accepting the existing status-quo, which is one where they rarely feel safe at all, on the streets, at the workplace or in the home.

This in itself tells us how radical it is for women to speak out. It exposes the background context, where the sorts of crimes we are talking about are considered generally unspeakable. But not through taboo, or fear necessarily, on the part of society, but simply because they are considered so normal, and are so normalised, thus deemed unremarkable. To remark on them was to ‘make a fuss’, was to draw attention to yourself, make a spectacle of yourself, to unseat the natural order of things, again indicating that the misdemeanour here was not the abusive act in itself, but the act of calling it out.

Perhaps we haven’t come that far from that place where Eve’s apple fell; women as a class are still, in some ways, in that long shadow. Still stalked by ancient archetypes that construct human beings into a binary relationship, a relationship of predator and prey. And, as we’ve all seen in wildlife shows on the TV, prey doesn’t rail against being prey, it just gets on protecting itself as best it can, looking out, taking precautions. And this observation is not new. It’s a condition that was commented on by JS Mill in 1869, when he wrote: “It is a political law of nature that those who are under any power of ancient origin, never begin by complaining of the power itself, but only of its oppressive exercise” (JS Mill, [1869]). We are still existing in this condition today. Because really, women are not being offered that different a story to that helpful police advice that the women in Leeds were given in 1977 when they founded Reclaim the Night. Because society still treats male violence against women as if it’s a natural phenomenon like the weather, like getting caught out in a rainstorm. And so, knowing the weather as we do, we carry an umbrella, and that’s all we are told we can do.

Not enough people, and certainly not enough so-called men’s rights activists or advocates even notice, let alone call out, the inherent, patronising prejudice against men in these messages. It’s ironic that the world calls feminists man-haters, while trotting out the lie that all young men are naturally rapists for example. That, like Judge Kavanagh, now nominated for life to the Supreme Court in the US, despite allegations and testimonies that he committed an attempted rape while at High School, we’re told that all red blooded men have done such things and if opportunity presented itself, any man would do the same. A White House lawyer told a reporter on record that Kavanagh’s nomination would be going forward, that the allegations would fail because if they succeeded then it would mean no man was safe, because every man can be accused of something. Donald Trump himself has said that this is a very scary time to be a young man in America today.

It wasn’t really that long into the MeToo window then, that all of this backlash began, some men, again, usually those in significant positions of power, journalists, presenters, media stars, started sounding the alarm on dating norms and the supposed ancient laws of attraction, concerned that someone was going to call time. The star of the latest film release of Superman said that dating now was like being ‘cast in the fires of hell’, and he was frightened he’d be accused of something just for flirting. Sean Penn says the MeToo movement is ‘dividing men and women’ – note that it’s not epidemic levels of sexual violence and the cultural normalisation of that which divides men from women, no, it’s women speaking out about it – Penn branded the movement as ‘manic venting’ and ‘salacious self-aggrandisement’. Liam Neeson, without any sense of irony, and putting aside historical fact, said the MeToo movement has turned into ‘a bit of a witch-hunt’. Catherine Deneuve and 99 other prominent women signed an open letter bemoaning the death of chivalry, the freedom to chase and be chased, and claimed that the MeToo movement was censoring sexuality. Totally missing the point of course, that the movement was about censoring sexual violence, not sexuality.

What people are saying, and it’s obviously not just men, it’s some prominent women too, is that the natural order is being upset, the ancient predator prey dynamic is being questioned, because the prey are starting to band together and say that they won’t be prey anymore. And, in a mass collective display of what the Philosopher Kate Manne has wonderfully labelled as “himpathy”, society turns round and asks, in the face of all this, in the face of women vocalising some of the most traumatic experiences in their life, in the face of women giving testimony of surviving heinous violence nobody would wish to ever see, in response to this, society turns round misty eyed and says: but what will people eat now? Yes indeed, what will happen to all those poor predators, manging around like shadows of their former selves, like broken men?

We are told that men are afraid, that they don’t know how to talk to women anymore, don’t know how to behave any more, don’t know these new rules. But actually the rules haven’t changed at all, because rape was also illegal before MeToo hit the headlines in October 2017, so was sexual assault, so was sexual harassment. Rape was even still illegal back around 2006 when social justice activist, civil rights advocate, and youth worker, Tarana Burke, first coined the hashtag MeToo.

What must happen in this window of opportunity is that we must continue to shift the debate away from focussing on a few bad apples, away from the tales of fallen individuals, and those are the narratives I think we particularly saw at the beginning of this. If you take the Weinstein case for example, where he was portrayed as a monster and the industry swore to rid itself of those monsters, those one-off isolated cases. But what we need to focus on instead, is the societal normalisation of male violence and sexual violence. We must de-couple masculinity from violence – in addition we must question the construction of heterosexuality and what lies lie at its foundations. And feminist theory has much to offer to these projects, not least because feminist theory has always deconstructed masculinity, way before it became trendy in queer theory. There wouldn’t even be a feminist movement if activists did not think that change was possible, and that means believing that there is nothing natural about the violence that some men choose to commit. It means hanging onto the truth, that the brutal fact that a minority of men commit the most heinous crimes, often against those who should be able to love and trust them the most, does not mean that this particularly gendered form of violence is genetic nor inevitable. Common it may be, everyday it may be, but natural it is not.

This is a surprisingly hard sell, because sadly there are enough people out there, many of them now finding a voice online in the rise of the so-called new right and men’s rights movements and in their evangelical leaders, who strongly, religiously believe that boys will be boys, that nature will out, red in tooth and claw and that boys are naturally competitive, aggressive and will pursue dominance at all costs, even when those costs are to themselves or the loved ones around them. In uncertain times it seems that people cling to such norms even more, like life rafts, mistaking patriarchy for nature, seeking a place where they still know where they stand. Of course, we are living through just such uncertain times at the moment, economic uncertainty, a national uncertainty about our role in the world, ideological forced impoverishment of our communities and their services through the Tory austerity project, falling or stagnating life expectancy, a planet in crisis. And while the natural world falls down around our heads, it can be tempting to cling on to the supposed natural order that many think they know and love, even if it means a bit of collateral damage here and there.

Recently we’ve seen in the news the results of new research into the woeful, and actually falling, rape conviction rate in England and Wales, finding that young men under 25 are less likely to be convicted of rape in court than older age groups, with a conviction rate of around 30% in court for those men aged 18 – 24. Initial research blames what are called ‘rape myths’ or a ‘rape culture’ and attitudes that are concerned mainly for men’s futures, and for the impact of being labelled a rapist and carrying that label through life. Again, and again, we return to these essentialist and deterministic ‘boys will be boys’ cultural narratives. The unthinking, uncritiqued, kneejerk himpathy response, the tendency of the world to see men’s crimes as some sort of act of pitiful self-destruction, rather than the violent destruction of others. It’s why we see headlines about how men are good fathers or husbands, even when they murder their partners or children in cold blood. It’s why we see headlines about what good athletes rapists are and how their sporting futures are put in jeopardy by someone pointing out that they are rapists. Not that the accusation seems much of a barrier these days, we can just look across the pond for an example of how little men are set back by allegations of sexual violence.

In sickening fratriarchal peacock displays, Donald Trump has sworn in Brett Kavanagh, declaring him innocent to the nation, declaring him a victim; while they should actually be hanging their heads in shame, the shame they tried to put onto women for the crimes that society condones. And so, across the world women are told, yet again, that they don’t matter, that their role is as cheerleader and facilitator for men on their manly life journeys, too bad if their woman’s life gets trampled in the process.

It is no surprise women are speaking out, and have been doing so of course for centuries, making gains, taking power, all of which is hard won and fragile. We see today how fragile it is with Women’s Aid refuges for example, with over forty years of specialism, being forced to close, indeed one in six have closed since 2010. The legacy of gains that feminists made for us all those years ago are being lost on our watch and this is a criminal failure; it’s not what any generation would want to be remembered for.

However, we obviously have also had many successes. Feminism today is perhaps not so much of a dirty word, while it still may be misunderstood and mis-sold. Feminist commentary is in the news in a way it never was before, even say ten years ago, and not only on so-called feminist issues, but more widely, because of course every issue is a feminist issue, and it’s not hard today to find feminist commentary on environmental justice or feminist economics for example.

Women achieve so many great things. We look around today and see women in positions of power where they weren’t before. Women are half the formal labour force, they are making inroads in careers they were previously barred from, they are entrepreneurs, they are business leaders, they are engineers and architects. Yet still, men as a group dominate every area of mainstream, institutional power that we care to examine. It is not the case, after all, that girls run the world. It is the case that men run the world; for now, but then nothing lasts forever, perhaps I should put that on a tee shirt (admittedly less catchy). The Westminster parliament is almost 80% male for example. Women are only 6% of FTSE 100 CEOs. Only 26% of University Vice Chancellors. Only 17% of national newspaper editors. And, while the field itself is overwhelmingly staffed by women, only 38% of secondary school Headteachers. These figures are also classed, and raced, for example only 4% of those women MPs are Black or minority ethnic, only 2 are registered as disabled. 45% of all Conservative MPs were privately educated, 1 in 10 of them at Eton, making it the most popular school tie in the whole of Westminster.

Yet women achieve, in spite of, or perhaps to spite such barriers. They achieve in spite of all the odds stacked against them. As a feminist, I’m asking, what if we reduced the odds? What if women, as powerful as they are now, had those barriers removed? What then might we be capable of, what then might we do and be and become. And that’s what feminism is, it’s the power and potential of women, it’s the bridge between what is and what could be.

NST theatres 2018

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