A World According to Women: An End to Thinking, by Jane McLoughlin
The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism, by Ellie Levenson
Jane McLoughlin is furious with women. We have let the feminists down and turned off the rational sides of our brains in favour of the thrilling emotional life that popular culture provides.
The feminists were too intellectual and too angry with men to win the sympathy of most ordinary women, who generally liked their husbands and fathers. Instead, popular culture took possession of female psyches and has left us unthinking, disunited and unable to cope with, or even identify, reality.
A lot of the time McLoughlin is convincing. Soap operas gave lonely, housebound women after the war a sort of community and common ground, and melodrama was necessary to keep up the audience figures. Popular culture is manipulative, especially now that election results and even political decisions have come under its power. The responses of government to the pressures of popular culture are chilling; the appointment of Sarah Payne’s mother as Minister for Victims is one example.
In places the book reads like a précis of an argument — she asserts more than she argues. The case is a generalisation; it had to be, but that can make for uncomfortable reading. McLoughlin was the editor of Guardian Women — she must have dozens of anecdotal substantiations among her cuttings. She gives some, but a few more might have helped her readers to buy in completely to her dystopian vision of modern femininity.
Sometimes McLoughlin gets so furious it is hard to take her seriously. Ordinary women think they need a father figure, she says:
That father figure might once have been a husband, or a male friend, or an adviser, or popular culture as a shared source of empowerment, or, yes, government and the state. In Britain today, women have found all these wanting. Now the crucial question is where such women might look next for their new protector and leader.
Totalitarianism, McLoughlin thinks, is the most likely place. But she writes intelligently and convincingly for most of the book, and her description of society is scary.
Ellie Levenson decided to join popular culture rather than beat it. The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism is packaged like chick lit and promotes ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ feminism. Shave your legs and insist on being called Ms. Let men pay for dinner sometimes but never make tea at a meeting. And for goodness’ sake don’t worry your pretty little head about feminist theory. She proclaims that ‘Feminism has come a long way since the days of man-bashing and bra-burning.’ Well, yes. We know that.
Actually, as it turns out, there are a lot of perfectly intelligent people who sneer at feminism. I, like Levenson before me, was shocked to find several of my friends telling me they are not feminists. Some of them became actually cross on the subject, and not in a good way. A generation has somehow grown up without a clear idea of the breakthroughs the feminists made, so Levenson’s book is timely. But it is not an effective way to convert feminist deniers. The book is aimed at people that haven’t thought about feminism; but Levenson makes no attempt to create well-informed feminists with a good sense of perspective.
Her arguments are delightfully liberal, original and usually sound, with the odd moment of irrationality thrown in: ‘If men were pregnant for nine months and had to deliver their babies and then take on the bulk of the caring role I bet there would be better paternity leave.’
But it feels like a missed opportunity. Careful not to plug serious subjects too aggressively, she is inane on the objectification of women. Ariel Levy’s brilliant Female Chauvinist Pigs was convincing, intelligent and wrathful on the subject. Reading it makes Levenson seem irresponsible. ‘As noughtie girls know, sex, and images of sex, are not inherently bad,’ says Levenson. Fine, but taking her ‘noughtie girls’ on a breezy tour of her thoughts about sex fails to alert feminist converts to things they should be worried about, such as the plight of sex workers. She saves up a lot of her indignation for diatribes on public toilets.
One and a half pages cover ‘What about foreign women?’ What indeed? Inter- national feminism is urgent. Levenson agrees that human rights abuses should be fought, but says we should still campaign for the small things. A fair point, but not a very attractive one, as the priorities of the book become clear. Concentrating on Western women is fine, but more attention should have been paid to women who have been let down by slack feminism — the badly educated and the exploited.
Levenson’s voice can grate; she includes some unmentionable jokes from her stand-up comedy routine and sounds like Polly Filler when she gets on to dividing up loo- cleaning duty. She shies away from engaging with feminist writers, which makes her book the poorer, and ignores the movement’s heroines. McLoughlin would be disappointed.
‘I thought you were better than this,’ said the editor of the newspaper where I work when he saw The Noughtie Girl’s Guide on my desk. ‘I am,’ I cried — and felt no pang of remorse about betraying the sisterhood.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 22, 2009Tags: Feminism, Non-fiction