In her latest book, ‘Unspeakable Things’, journalist Laurie Penny dissects the structural violence ripping through the most intimate parts of all of our lives: suffocated by rigid gender roles, policed by the sexual counter-revolution, and corroded by austerity – and charts the dynamics between these controlling forces in our lives. Arguing that feminism must be braver in dismantling the power structures that work in tandem to crush both solidarity and desire, the book manages to hold and navigate a persistent tension in feminist writing: to both demand that we view social injustice as structural, not as a series of discrete phenomena, and also recognise how injustices and inequalities are intimately stitched into the flesh-and-blood of all of our lives.
In doing so, her analysis of the political, the personal, and the “intimate territory of unrest” at its knotted core, draws together some of the fundamental upheavals of the last five years: how the global recession was harnessed by ideologically-driven austerity programmes to entrench inequalities and social injustice, the toxic conservative discourse clawing away at women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, the mass protests of the last five years from the UK student protests to Occupy and Tahrir, and how, within those spaces, women – so often on the front line and providing the human energy to fuel the protest movements – were then targetted, pushed back and sidelined.
Her call for “class mutiny, gender mutiny, sex mutiny, love mutiny” also builds on her earlier writing, particularly her book ‘Meat Market’, in refusing as inadequate the toothless liberal feminism – preoccupied with ‘glass ceilings’ and ‘whether shaving your legs is feminist’ – that fails to critique power structures and critically engage with class and racism, or, in Penny’s words, recognise that “the problem is that there are altogether too many board rooms, and none of them are on fire.”
In an email interview, she elaborated: “decoy feminism has always been with us. Any radical movement for change has its acceptable face, the individuals or groups who are selected by the dominant culture as more palatable. They tend to be the ones who are most privileged in other ways, those whose critique is least structurally challenging, or both – look at the praise Silicon Valley heaps on Sheryl Sandberg, whose feminism consists mainly of a kind of you-go-girl jolly for women who are already wealthy, established – it's the Spice Girls' Wannabe in a power suit.” But, to her credit ‘Unspeakable Things’ isn’t focused on a takedown of the “wrong” kinds of feminism – a double bind for feminists, in which there are fundamental differences within the movement, yet can easily play into the handy trick of patriarchy that pits women against one another as the ‘competition’ (after all, the sexist media always loves a “cat fight”). She addresses the idea both that women are trained under capitalist-patriarchy to ‘compete’ and view each other as the enemy, and the rage of Men’s Rights Activists erroneously believing that feminism is taking rights away from men, as though there’s only a finite amount of liberty to go around.
In fact, as Penny reminds us, it’s patriarchy that has “oppressed and constrained men and boys as well as women” through punishing anyone who tries to operate outside of rigidly prescribed gender roles. Under neoliberalism, with welfare provisions stripped away and an inauthentic ‘individualism’ promoted, American Dream-style, to corrode solidarity and push us into competition, most of us aren’t ‘winners’, whatever our gender. Penny argues that the narrative of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ that has frequently triggered alarmist headlines of the last few decades is a decoy argument, blaming feminism instead of neoliberalism: for those who benefit from the status quo “the real problem cannot be a crisis of capitalism, so it must be a crisis of gender.”
It’s also genuinely surprising how empathetic, without shifting the blame, she manages to be towards the “nerd entitlement” of Silicon Valley sexism and anti-feminist internet trolls, given how her position as a female writer in the public eye has exposed her to sexism. While documenting shocking evidence of sexism in tech start-ups, she also explores how the shunning and shaming of women in tech spaces has often come from a place of hurt. When I asked her about this, she replied: “Sexism in the tech and geek communities, as well as online misogyny in general is a big focus of the book, because tech is such an important arena of power, one that's paradoxically peopled by individuals who are resistant to the idea that they have privilege. At the same time, I wanted to challenge the growing idea that the internet is somehow bad for women - that technology itself, rather than the antiquated attitude of some of the people who create it, is the real problem. To me, telling women and girls to stay off the internet and shut down their social media profiles if they don't want to be harassed is just like telling us not to walk or travel alone if we don't want to be assaulted. It's not just victim-blaming, which is bad enough, it's direct behaviour policing – it's telling women and girls that we're not wanted in public space and in places of power, and if we go there, we've only got ourselves to blame if something horrific happens.”
She convincingly argues for women’s right to genuine desire and to be freed from the restriction solely of being “desirable” in the narrow confines prescribed by “sexual neoliberalism.” She writes that sex “is not the problem. Sexism is the problem” and that – as genuine female desire, ambition and hunger is still taboo – “the ideal woman is fuckable but never actually fucks.” This policing of female sexuality goes beyond the 2012-era US Republican Party ‘war on women’ discourse against reproductive choice and female bodily autonomy, and extends to a sexual counter-revolution of rigid gender binaries in which “men have sex; women are sex. Being a woman, and being a woman whose role in life is to sexually attract, please and coddle men is still phrased as the primary occupation of every female.” She writes that, rather than being a sexually liberal society, the west is “deeply confused by its erotic impulses”, which festers in pervasive rape culture, the stigmatisation and policing of sex workers, the stigmatisation of single mothers and the idea, still, that female desire – if it operates outside of the male gaze – is dirty and dangerous.
As Penny’s distinctive voice and prolific writing has narrated and analysed these last five years through her journalism, its often difficult to read her with fresh eyes, as phrases she refers to – like “slut-shaming” as a critique of sexual double standards and policing female bodies and lives – have now permeated the cultural conversation, partly as a result of the 2011 Slutwalk protests. Which is why its striking that the phrase she also explores – “unpaid emotional labour”, and how this is gendered – hasn’t become widely known in the same way as the phrase “slut-shaming” was picked up in the mainstream media. Drawing upon the work of Barbara Ehrenreich and others, she outlines the lack of value given to much of the work women perform – from the compulsory femininity of late capitalism, and all the waxing, manicuring upkeep required to be employable as a woman (particularly given the gendered nature of the service industry) to the undervaluing of work that still disproportionately falls to women, and is considered part of their natural role as a “carer” of various kinds.
I asked her about this idea of “emotional labour” and whether the phrase would ever gain the same traction in public conversations about gender as “slut-shaming” has. She brought the idea back to the problems with toothless liberal feminism as well as sexism itself: “’Unpaid emotional labour' is almost a tautology – it's such a struggle to recognise emotional labour as work at all, and it's rarely ever paid. Across all sectors of society, women are expected to do the vital care work, emotional work and domestic drudgery – the basic looking-after that keeps society running – for low pay or no pay. Wealthier women sometimes get to outsource some of that work, and that dynamic intersects with race, especially in countries like the United States where you really cannot speak of race and class separately. And that brings us back to decoy feminism – to the problematic fact that wealthy white Western women have been able to achieve a small measure of freedom by handing down the drudgery to underpaid or unpaid poor women, often immigrants or women of colour. And no, that's not a sexy thing to talk about – but it's the basic economic dynamic of gender politics right now, and until we fix it, there's only so far we can go talking about whether or not to shave our armpits. That's one of the many reasons why we can't fix gender politics in isolation – but a movement to end sex discrimination on a structural and economic level will necessarily involve radical politics of class and racial justice, and I find that exciting, rather than intimidating.”
Penny seemed to face a choice in this book – one in which abdicating from choosing would be a stark choice in itself – between the perceived positions ‘subjectivity’ versus ‘objectivity’, which plays out our culture’s gendered perception of the writing voice, the gendered idea of authority and authorial neutrality, and of who can speak for someone else. While her cultural commentary and critiques of the false-neutrality of the status quo are reminiscent of the sweeping, empirically-grounded analysis of Barbara Ehrenreich and Susan Faludi, Penny also writes about her own life. This choice is curious, given that Penny herself has observed how women’s writing is still “invariably reduced to the personal, or dismissed as “confessional”, and young female journalists often encouraged to foreground themselves in their work, thus forfeiting the right to be considered neutral, objective experts. She writes about her own experience with anorexia as a teenager, and how love and sex and gender have played out in her own personal life.
Often, when female journalists – particularly young female journalists – write about their own lives it is, in itself, a form of “emotional labour”, offering up snippets of their personal, private world for consumption by the reader at the cost of both their privacy and their claim to ‘authority’, while young male writers can get on with the work of becoming authoritative experts on whatever their chosen subject matter may be. When I asked her about this, Penny explained the choice, noting “when women write about their experiences, it's called confessional. When men write about their experiences, it's called literature. I can't help but see the trend of dismissing women's personal writing as 'trivial' betraying a broader sense in society that women should shut up and stop talking about what they really feel – there's a terror of women's pain and women's rage that's very old. At the same time, there's huge pressure on women and girls to make ourselves vulnerable, to expose ourselves when we may or may not want to - and that's why it's so important to remain in control of your own story.”
And as such, in the end, this blending in ‘Unspeakable Things’ of the zoomed-out social view of contemporary life – from austerity to 2011 revolutions and protest movements to the conservative war on women and the poor – with the subject of sex and love and power refracted through personal stories seems to practice the thesis of the book itself. Penny demonstrates in her own writing, as she argues in her analysis, how the structural violence of neoliberalism and social injustice worm their way into the most intimate parts of our lives. And that it will take a mutiny to stop it.
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