Monday, 31 August 2009

Book Review - The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism

The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism by Ellie Levenson
I've read a lot about this book, I've debated about it on blogs, I've even debated with Ellie Levenson directly on the F Word blog, but now it is time for me to review the book directly. I have been a bit reticient about writing this as I know that I am going to criticise her book and I don't want it to be taken as a personal criticism of Levenson, but rather a criticism of her book.
So – disclaimer over. It's my blog after all and I can write about whatever I like!

For those not in the know, Levenson's Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism is a book designed for women and men who may not already identify with feminism, but are interested in it, and want to learn more about what feminism is all about. In this respect, it is the first mainstream, non academic book that has been published in Britain on feminism since Natasha Walter's in 2000. this makes it an important book. In terms of publishing, this is the book that has been chosen by the publishing world to define what feminism means to people living in the noughties. No mean feat to try and create a book that says these things.

Levenson has therefore received a great deal of media attention, even being named by the Times as a feminist icon. But her book has courted a massive amount of controversory by the feminist community as they almost uniformly have shouted “Not in my name”. And this comes from the idea that a lot of the feminism Levenson writes about in her book doesn't represent any feminism that most feminists identify or work with. Which is a problem when her book is being publicised as the book to define the feminism of the modern woman.

First up I would like to deal with the good things about Levenson's book. Because they are there. A lot of the reviews I have read have focussed overwhelmingly on the negative elements, but it is important to recognise that some of the things Levenson says are fundamentally sensible and make sense, even if a lot of her work, in the view of myself and many other women, does not.
It seems to me that Levenson writes best about the issues she knows or cares most about. Chief amoung this is the issue around changing her name after marriage, and her decision to keep her own name. She writes about this eloquently and confidently, explaining carefully why this decision was so important to her, her frustration at people referring to her as her husband's name and the conversations she has had with other women about this issue, women who have chosen to change and keep their names. This is an important feminist issue, and needs to be discussed, and I think the way Levenson discusses it brings up a lot of the important issues.
Another area in which I think she hits the nail on the head was in her discussion of the TV show “How to look good naked”. She argues that Gok Wan's insistence on the woman he is making over being sexy at all times, including throwing away non-sexy knickers, enforces the idea that women are valued on their sexiness and need to appear sexy always, unconditionally, and that this does nothing to help women or feminism. I'm glad she brought this up, shows and shows like this really bug me, putting on the feminist mantle whilst simultaneously insisting that women are only good when they are hot.

She also explores the nature of housework and equal partnership in (straight) relationships, how it is important to be sure that we move away from seeing housework and childcare as something naturally done by the woman, and DIY and business as something naturally done by the man, and strive to encourage equality in relationships and within the domestic sphere. She also argues that the best way to achieve this is to revolutionise maternity and paternity leave so that men and women have equal maternity and paternity leave, therefore ensuring that women of childbearing age (a ridiculous phrase if ever there was one) can no longer be discriminated against at work. This is something I too passionately believe in, it would completely revolutionise the way we look at men and women and childcare and shatter a lot of the myths and stereotypes around the “family unit”.

But for all these good points, I came away from the book with a decidedly sour taste in my mouth. Firstly, throughout the book she refers to her reader as a “noughtie girl”. I read in an interview with her that this was because of the play on words. Ha ha very funny, but I do not want to be referred to as a girl for page after page after page, especially when accompanied by the word noughtie/naughty. I cannot imagine a book designed for adult men referring to the reader as boy throughout the work. It grates and grates on my nerves! Some people have mocked the feminist movement for taking things like the word girl so seriously, but it is an issue, Levenson says herself in the book that language is important. We don't criticise Civil Rights leaders for objecting to the word “boy” when referring to black men. The word “girl” has similarly been used throughout history to infantilize and patronize women. I am a woman. I stopped being a girl when I was 16. to use the word girl over and over again undermines the otherwise very pertinent points she makes about male-centric language.

A further continued irritant in the book was it's complete lack of identification of any other kind of woman who wasn't exactly like the author. That is, white, straight, middle to upper class, able bodied with disposable income. The idea that women come in all different manners simply did not get a look in in the book. In fact she writes in the introduction:

“As I have no direct experience of the issues specifically concerning lesbians I have not attempted to cover those here”.

Umm, it's called research Ms Levenson. And this is the biggest problem throughout the whole book for me. It completely lacks any sense of research. When I don't know much about something, I research it. But here Levenson illustrates the point that seems to gloss the whole book, if she doesn't know about something, she's not going to write about it. The fact is, it is quite easy to find about lesbian/minority ethinic/transgender/disabled experience, you can just ask someone or read a book or conduct a survey or have a discussion with these women to hear their views. But just as I get the feeling in the rape section that Levenson hasn't gone out of her way to ask rape survivors how they feel about rape and rape jokes, she hasn't seemed to make much effort at all to seek out any other opinion except her own. It is also a problem in that feminism is constantly criticised for being a white middle class issue which ignores the problems of the wider women community. Which it isn't, which it strives not to be. Books like this are not going to help us win that argument.

And relying entirely on your own opinion isn't a problem if you are writing a blog or an editorial. Use your own opinion, no problem. Fill the piece with anecdotes about your life and tell tales about what you got up to when you're a student. But when you are writing a book that purports to be a guide to feminism for the new generation, a definitive statement of the third or fourth wave, then surely it is at least polite to ask around and see what other women think about feminism? Surely the book should at least acknowledge different types of women and different types of feminist thought exist, rather than be the very narrow view of one particular type of woman drawing on her personal experience of her one particular type of life?

This is partly, I believe, stemming from her proudly proclaimed ignorance of feminist history. I agree with her that you DO NOT need to be able to quote the Female Eunuch to be a feminist, or to know who Camille Paglia is or to understand the ins and outs of Susan Browmiller's theories on porn. But when you are writing a book about feminism, and about what feminism means today, that is a different kettle of fish! To write a book about feminism and say proudly you don't know who Gloria Steinem is? To write a book about feminism and attribute a quote to Susan Brownmiller when it was a quote by Robin Morgan? (please refer to page 61 of feminist chauvinist pigs). That's just plain lazy! And what's more, it is disrespectful to the amazing strength and energy of the second wave.

To reiterate, I don't think you have to be an academic feminist to be a feminist. But I think if you are writing a guide to feminism then you should at the very least know what the second wave is! It isn't cool to say you don't know what that means! It isn't cool to deny any knowledge of the second wave, and then in the next chapter tell young women to listen to older women more. And you should have a bit more respect than to mock Germaine Greer's writing style! Yes, Germaine's gone a bit off these days, but ffs! She wrote the Female Eunuch! She was one of the most influential women of our time!

In her marvellous book Cunt, Inga Musico goes to great lengths to explain that she is white, gay, working to middle class, from the West Coast etc, and therefore her experiences are not every woman's experience. She interviews loads of women with different backgrounds from hers and quotes loads of books written by women with different background from hers so that even though the book is very much of her perspective, you also get to see how the things she says affect other women and how other women react to the situations discussed in the book. That, in my view, is what makes it so bloody good. It is universal, but from the heart of one woman.
In contrast, in the Noughtie Girl's Guide we just get Levenson's ideas. And as a book, that is how it feels to read, a long list of her opinions and anecdotes about her life. It doesn't read like an informed guide or important debate on the issues she raises, in fact on many occasions it becomes very boring. A lot of what she says has no relationship to my life. A lot of what she says only relates to one life – hers.

One main problem with the guide is that she raises a LOT of points that need to be raised, and that are important to feminism. But she doesn't develop these points. One stand out moment of this is the discussion of body hair. (ahh, body hair! My favourite issue!) Levenson writes how body hair is an issue for feminists and how it makes her sad that women's hair is seen as bad, but she isn't going to stop waxing. I turn the page expecting to see more, for example why is hair seen as bad, where has this cultural idea come from, why do some women shave why do some women go natural, why does she feel a societal pressure to wax, why why why and yet there is nothing. It just ends with her saying society thinks hair is bad. She doesn't address the argument. There is so much to say that she doesn't say. The same was true in an anecdote on pole dancing. She says her friend likes pole dancing and it's feminist because she likes pole dancing for herself, not to titillate men. But why does our culture see pole dancing as something empowering and sexually exciting for women? Why does our society see pole dancing as the ultimate in sexual empowerment? Why doesn't she ask these questions? It isn't enough to say it's feminist to pole dance. Why is it feminist to pole dance? The same goes for porn and a number of other issues in the book. Her continued argument is that if you choose it, it's feminist. No mention on why these choices are feminist and whether it is possible, in our media saturated culture, to really have a “free choice.”

I can't go through every issue in the book as I would be here all day. So I am just going to address abortion and rape before I sign off.

Firstly – abortion. Levenson is pro choice (but not pro abortion, she asserts, ignoring that no one is pro abortion, not really.) but believes that women can be anti abortion and still be feminist. This links to her central idea that feminism is about individual choice, and so long as the choice you make is your own, individual choice, it is feminist.

Well, I call BULLSHIT on that one.

I am vehemently pro choice. I do not believe you can be feminist and be anti abortion. I believe you can be anti abortion for yourself, but this is totally different. You can choose not to terminate your own pregnancy and not to have an abortion. But to deny other women the choice to have an abortion, to prefer to see women back in the old days of dying of backstreet abortions because your own individual choice is to be anti abortion, how the hell is that choice feminist?
Pro life that's a lie, you don't care if women die.

With respect to Levenson, her attitude I the book to abortion, the morning after pill and contraception was very positive and her argument that all three need to be made better available and we need better sex education for our young women is bang on in my view! But to say that the individual choice of a woman to be anti abortion, a choice that has devastating affects on our sisters, that is not feminist. It just cannot be considered a feminist position.
On the F Word debate Laura Woodhouse asked her to clarify this but she didn't. So I don't know what was behind her reasoning unfortunately.

Next on to rape. I have discussed this in another blog post with the issue of rape jokes, but I want to focus on another aspect of her piece on rape here:
“I think we do women an injustice when we say that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. It is, after all, just a penis.”

Now, I have never been raped and I am guessing that Levenson hasn't either. But to say this is so fucking disrespectful, so nasty and so narrow minded it makes me feel sick! And again, we come back to the research point. If Levenson had maybe asked some rape survivors about their experience, she might well have found that some women have recovered, made peace and moved on with their lives. And she would also find women who are suffering from PTSD and are struggling to overcome what was, to them, the worst thing that has happened to them.
The fact that the rape section is included in the sex chapter says it all really.
And rape is NOT always just a penis! Women are raped with fists, guns, glasses, bottles...I could go on. And anyway, it doesn't stop it from being basically a stupid thing to say.

She goes on to discuss that date rape is different to stranger rape, and that the latter is worse because of the threat of violence. The fact that feminists have been fighting for years and years to get date rape recognised as a crime doesn't seem to concern her. The fact that her definition of consent differs to the LEGAL definition doesn't seem to concern her. And that fact that rape is rape is rape, that the trauma of stranger rape is just as valid as the trauma of someone you love and trust raping you doesn't seem to concern her. To also suggest that date rape is non violent is to completely miss the point because rape is violent in it's very nature. To be penetrated without consent is A VIOLENT ACT. She argues that we see rape as bad because it defiles women's virtue but in modern, Western society that is not the full truth. We see rape as bad because of the terrific psychological damage it can inflict, because it can ruin a woman's life, because it is the grossest and most definite violation of a woman's body and self. To dismiss it as just a penis does all women, not just rape survivors, a great injustice. To say rape is just a penis contradicts her belieft that we need better conviction rates and better sentencing. If rape is “just a penis” then why bother?

The book is also incredibly sexist towards men. She claims men can't be trusted with a “male pill” as they'll either forget to take it, or use it to prevent women getting pregnant. As if we still should believe that men never want babies and women always want babies. She claims men can't organise social events and don't write Christmas cards. She says men buy dinner for women in the hope of sex. It's just down and dirty lazy sexism.

So. I have rambled on for a long time. But in short, although Levenson makes some good strong points in her book, I believe her writing really suffers from a lack of development of the arguments she raises, and a lack of research into her subject, beyond her own personal opinions and experiences. She disregards a lot of the great work feminism does, now and historically. She doesn't acknowledge what young and old women are doing today to campaign for women's rights, in the UK and around the world. She ignores women who aren't part of her lifestyle. And she makes statements in the name of feminism that many, many feminists find horrifying and untrue.

If this book was being marketed as a memoir or Levenson's wandering through the mires of culture and women's culture, then all these problems would be forgivable. But this book is being marketed as a guide to feminism, and it is for this reason I find it so difficult to accept. This book does not represent a feminism I recognise and it concerns me that women and men who read this book with no knowledge of the feminist movement will come out of it with a very warped and non representative view indeed.
Instead, I am greatly looking forward to Catherine Redfern's forthcoming book on feminism. She conducted surveys too.

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