The #MeToo movement began, I thought, primarily to allow women to speak out about harassment from men, which they had previously found too intimidating to declare openly. What is striking is how quickly it has turned into a row between women. Social media is crackling with barely concealed inter-generational rage between feminists of different vintages. Younger feminists are very keen on ‘calling out’ slut-shaming, victim-shaming and fat-shaming. They’re less vocal about age-shaming, though, because they’re quite often doing it themselves.
The combative 78-year-old Germaine Greer, for example, has long been deemed philosophically flawed by younger feminists because of her view that trans women are not ‘real’ women. This week she compounded that status by arguing that women must react immediately to harassment rather than ‘whingeing’ later on, because — crudely referring to #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein — ‘if you spread your legs because he said “be nice to me and I’ll give you a job in a movie” then I’m afraid that’s tantamount to consent’. Her interview contained more nuanced points, but she has been derided on Twitter as an old-school ‘second-wave feminist’ who has ‘lost her marbles’. A number of posts called on her to ‘retire’.
A more surprising villain of the piece, for many ‘fourth-wave feminists’, is the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, until so recently regarded as a female icon beyond reproach — indeed, with the recent Emmy-laden US TV adaptation of her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, her international profile has rarely been higher. Atwood’s perceived crime, common to successful writers, is that she dared to depart from the most recent approved feminist script — in this case, the one stating that all women accusing men of ‘sexual misconduct’ are automatically to be believed, rather than given a full hearing in the context of an investigation.
In an incisive article entitled ‘Am I a Bad Feminist?’ Atwood observed that ‘women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviour that entails, including criminal ones’. She made this elementary point in part because she had come under sustained social media fire after protesting about the treatment of Steven Galloway, the former chair of the creative writing department at the University of British Columbia. Galloway was summarily suspended from his post in 2015 following accusations including sexual assault, but had to sign a confidentiality agreement before he could discover what those accusations were.
Meanwhile, UBC itself publicly named him as the subject of ‘serious allegations’, igniting a blaze of rumour. He was ultimately cleared of sexual assault, but fired by the university on another count anyway. More than 80 authors and academics, including Atwood, signed an open letter protesting at UBC’s flawed process, which had served Galloway and the complainants disastrously. Atwood, 78, is now accused of — in the words of one UBC creative writing graduate, Erika Thorkelson — ‘declaring war against younger, less powerful women’. Another, Laura Krabappel, railed that the author was prioritising her ‘powerful male friend over women’s pain’. Atwood pointed out, during the online conversation, that she didn’t actually know Galloway or any of those involved at UBC, but facts were fast becoming irrelevant to the pile-on. Gersande La Flèche, a Montreal-based writer, tweeted: ‘I cannot bring myself to read that Margaret Atwood shitpiece’ but accused the author of ‘calling rape survivors liars’.
An emergent theme is the notion that age per se renders older feminists ideologically suspect (unless one of their number is safely dead, and can be electronically exhumed for an inspirational meme). Laura Hudson, culture editor of The Verge website, recently tweeted that while she had ‘great respect for the contributions that many women made to the feminist movement’ in difficult times, ‘it is also time for them to listen, to learn, to step aside’.
Hudson’s reasoning emerged more bluntly in discussion: ‘Because age tends to correlate with not being on board with progress.’ Or maybe it’s just that older feminists, with greater experience of life, often no longer possess the purifying zeal for seeing complex situations in black and white. Attempts by older women to moderate youthful fury are often seen by younger activists simply as a gross abuse of their power.
When the veteran war reporter Ann Leslie appeared on Channel 4 News last November to talk about harassment, she made some wryly self-deprecating jokes, and told a rather shocking story about how many years ago Sir Nicholas Fairbairn MP secretively groped her crotch during a live performance of Any Questions?. She then went on to say, however, that if feminists were indeed strong women they should be able to brush off minor incidents such as a flickering hand on a knee from some ‘silly old drunk’.
Whether one agreed or not, hers was a legitimate viewpoint, particularly given the amount of time that Leslie has spent in war zones where the most extreme crimes of sexual violence were perpetrated. Yet afterwards, Leslie was not accorded the status of a victim of sexual assault, which Sir Nicholas’s behaviour indisputably was. Nor did anyone dwell on her formidable Fleet Street record as a female pioneer in the dangerous, male-dominated world of war reporting. Because Leslie had not spoken about her harassment in the sanctioned modern manner — although clearly deploring it — tweeters, male and female, could scarcely type fast enough to say what an appalling ‘dinosaur’ and ‘prehistoric’ instrument of the patriarchy she was.
The Aziz Ansari story triggered a similar display of age rage. A 23-year-old woman, ‘Grace’, who had gone on a date with Ansari — a popular, first-generation Indian-American actor and comedian — had had a bad time. She alleged that, in his apartment, he had been indecently persistent in pestering her for various forms of sex, even after she had sought to make it clear she was not enjoying events (despite engaging in oral sex). Eventually Grace left his apartment, and sent Ansari an upset text the next day explaining that he had ‘failed to read her non-verbal cues’. He responded with surprise and an apology.
Grace went on to write an extremely detailed, angry account of the evening for a website called Babe.net. Overnight, Ansari, thus far a vocal supporter of #MeToo, suddenly found himself a poster boy for a heated international debate about the precise point at which bad, sad sexual experiences become a form of assault. The fallout will certainly be damaging, if not fatal, to his career. He was nominated recently for a Screen Actors Guild Award. He didn’t show up. When his nomination was read out, there was no applause.
A prominent female US reporter called Ashleigh Banfield, a 50-year-old former war correspondent, criticised the Ansari story becoming part of the #MeToo discussion, and was denounced in an email by the Babe.net reporter Katie Way as someone that ‘nobody under the age of 45 has heard of’ and as a ‘burgundy lipstick, bad highlights, second-wave feminist has-been… she DISGUSTS me’. This time, however, it was Way who seemed to get the worst reception.
We may gradually be nearing the end of the period when vituperative intensity is automatically accepted as a substitute for argument. If we are, I’m glad — and I could do with a lot less ostentatious political piety too, whereby people think that you can promote diversity by trumpeting newly acceptable groups to despise. It is fashionable for women to tweet reflexively about the irritating irrelevance of ‘old white men’ or the ‘pale, male and stale’. I mean, what did we ever have to learn from those old white guys who had survived the Holocaust or evacuated Dunkirk, right?
Yet young women are right to be angry. It is certainly harder and more complicated to be a young woman now than it was when I turned 18. Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen the emergence of a nasty, reductive sexism in the mid-1990s in lads’ mags, under the flimsy guise of irony; the rise of sex trafficking and tourism; the advent of ‘porn chic’; the popularisation of plastic surgery; the prime-time Channel 4 ‘rape jokes’ of Jimmy Carr and others; the regular exposure of boys and young men to hardcore internet pornography, with powerful, crass effects on their expectations of how women should behave in bed; and the rapid rise of the selfie and the dating app. Within a relatively short time, on almost every level, our society has encouraged the mass commodification of sex and the self-loathing of girls. On top of that, the housing market is unaffordable. Our gift to the younger generation, it seems, is a legacy of unhappy sex — and nowhere to do it.
This was the social climate in which today’s twenty-something women grew up, and it is increasingly clear that many of them feel fundamentally panicked and disrespected by it, yet often find it virtually impossible to refuse a man in the moment. Kristen Roupenian’s brilliant short story Cat Person — and to some extent Grace’s account of her evening with Ansari — both described young women going along sexually with things they didn’t want, but which felt underwritten by porn. That semi-detached acquiescence can send confusing signals to men, even those who regard themselves as enlightened.
It can also be confusing to women of my generation and above who often can’t see why — if things aren’t enjoyable but aren’t coerced — one wouldn’t just get away, however awkwardly. Yet today’s twenty-somethings grew up trapped in a different script, one they’re struggling to rewrite. It needs rewriting, but — as Atwood suggested — we’re in the volatile ‘terror and virtue’ phase of the revolution, where fairness is endangered, and denunciation can seem more valued than progress.
Still, one mustn’t get too glum: I know that the internet is crazier and angrier than real life, which ticks on regardless. It’s just that 20 years ago, before social media really took off, older and younger women seemed generally to like each other much more. So did men and women.