Tuesday 4 August 2009

Review: The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism

I’m facing a feminist dilemma. A few weeks ago, I agreed to review a book for this site, a book written by a friend and ally of mine, a woman I deeply respect. The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism by Ellie Levenson is an attempt to merge the type of froth-feminism peddled by Cosmopolitan and Glamour into something more meaningful and coherent. It’s a flouncily inoffensive go-to guide for the type of modern woman who likes the idea of self-respect and empowerment but is frightened that feminist politics comes with a mandatory buzz-cut, all wrapped up in a kitsch pink cover with the ubiquitous pair of disembodied stillettoed legs that screams “whatever this is it’s disguised as chick-lit!” Unfortunately, the disguise works a little too well.

Which is where my dilemma begins. I agree that feminism needs to reach out to the mainstream, to women who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as feminists, but still enjoy the rights feminism has won for them. I applaud the fact that more feminist books are being written with today’s young women in mind. I’m definitely over the moon that one of my feminist mentors has finally managed to secure a publishing deal and expand the remit of websites like The F-Word which have kept the coals of feminist movement glowing in these dim post-backlash times. But I can’t get around it: The Noughtie Girls Guide to Feminism makes me angry. It makes me want to throw things at walls. It makes me want to actually set fire to my actual bra whilst I’m still wearing it and run flaming through the streets of Hackney yelling “How did we come to this?”

Petty arson aside, the real heartbreak of Noughtie Girls is that both the concept and execution are so very spot on. I adore the fluffy, frilly presentation, the demotic language, the stubborn refusal to get bogged down in high theory, which has its place, but not in an introductory book for sceptical feminists. I love the way the whole thing is structured in bitesize crossheads, making it easy to open at any page and find something interesting. I even like the silly little Cosmo-esque “what kind of feminist are you?” quiz at the front of the book, which shaves gleefully close to self-parody. It’s perfect Tube-reading. It’s fun. It’s accessible. It’s the sort of thing that I might give my little sister for Christmas, sandwiched between something smelly from The Body Shop. But here’s the rub: it apologises too damn much.

The book comes across as an apology for a brand of ‘man-bashing, bra-burning’ feminism that never really existed. It spends altogether too much time dismantling the straw woman of the feminist who would forbid pretty young ladies from waxing their legs and wearing pink, and altogether too little time explaining why it is that that sort of feminist only exists in the nightmare fantasy Britain conjured up by editors at the Daily Mail. It spends so much time debunking the myth, telling its readers that it’s okay to be a ‘Noughtie Girl’ who likes high heels and pink drinks, that it ends up reinforcing the idea that ‘traditional’ feminism is something to fight against.


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  2. I'm not sure why you haven't published the rest of the review here ? The second half's a bit more scary.

    If the author's a friend of yours, you don't cut her much slack do you ?

    Good review though - I'm tempted to go and buy it so I can make my mind up.

  3. "froth-feminism peddled by Cosmopolitan and Glamour"

    OK, clarify for me: you're being highly rhetorical, right? Only I had Cosmo et al pegged as some of the most perniciously anti-feminist things in modern society.

    They push a message that a woman's purpose in life is to look sexually desirable in order to attract "the One", for whom female sexual satisfaction must be faked less he run away and get his "fulfilment" with another, more mindless vassal. The end objective of life is marriage. All else is secondary.

    Seriously, I think these magazines do more harm than nuts, zoo etc. Those "lads mags" have pictures of tits and objectify women...but they don't get into the heads of women the way Cosmo et al do.

  4. Well, that's the interesting thing. Cosmo, Glamour and their ilk are, for the most part, unmitigated evil. But the message they peddle is complex - everything is wrapped up in pseudo-feminist/capitalist ideals of 'confidence' and 'empowerment', and from time to time you'll get articles about, eg, how to promote yourself at work, how to power-dress, or articles on sexual violence. Never with a specifically feminist agenda - work articles very rarely breathe mention of, eg, the gender pay gap - but the message is still there. It makes them even more dangerous, really, because it allows the impression that the kind of reformist-feminist, misogynist capitalist message they're promoting is in someway actually helpful or genuinely empowering.

  5. Agreed (and very well articulated, I must say!)

    I find their younger sibling versions pretty worrying too. I once had a conversation with a guy who wrote for Just 17. He explained that his editor asked him to write a piece about "Why girls take longer to get over break-ups than guys".

    He said that although he didn't actually believe that was true, it didn't really matter. The stock procedure was to write 3 versions: a "sympathetic version", a "scientific version" [no idea what that means, but I suppose they get some quack doctor to spout some made up quack-science to imply intellectual legitimacy] and a...."misogynistic" version.

    Apparently the "misogynist version" meant writing from the view of a real bastard who liked upsetting teenage girls by dumping them and telling them to just get over it.

    The editor would then take all three versions and mash them together for the finished product.

    As it was a friend's party, I decided to leave politely before getting into an argument about why on earth a magazine aimed at teenage girls thought it appropriate to consciously publish misogynistic articles.

    It's been bothering me for quite some time, but I’ve never been able to properly articulate the anger into a constructive piece.

  6. There is no gender pay gap.

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  8. Divine, I'm this close to blocking you from this site. Your incessant trolling is really fucking irritating. Consider this your first warning.

  9. Oh I'm sorry for that. I apologise for expressing my view in this manner. In the future I will try my best to adhere to your comments' policy. I would be interested to know which part I have transgressed so that I can modify my comments in the future.

  10. Where do you stand on TV shows such as (to take the 2 that currently irritate me the most) - America's Next Top Model, and Big Brother ?

    Personally I loathe and detest both : ANTM demeans humanity in general, but in particular women, gay people, and black people - although not necessarily always in that order. BB seeks to humiliate people, and reduces human sexuality and morality to mere entertainment - in which inevitably the traditional underdogs of women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities remain the clowns. I despise both programmes.

    Yet my wife and 13 year old daughter watch them all the time, and think I'm taking it too seriously - who am I as a man, to tell them otherwise ? I do find it encouraging that my daughter and her friends now do impersonations of Tyra Banks doing her "Mens Mag" face, and then her "Girls Mag" face (naturally both are identical).

    One of the reasons I spend too much time on the internet is because I refuse to be in the same room as Big Brother

  11. @Mark - Wow, I didn't realise there was no gender pay gap, when did that get sorted out then? Brilliant news! /extreme fucking sarcasm.

  12. "There is no gender pay gap."

    And clearly empirical truths have no place in your worldview.

  13. It cannot be an easy position to be in. Did you warn your friend beforehand?

  14. I'm going to assume you did. I thought you made some excellent points, also liking your ending. "As Levenson so rightly points out, we can change the world in high heels whilst baking designer cupcakes if that’s what we really want." Or even whilst in high heels baking cupcakes AND USING A HUSBAND'S SURNAME! It wouldn't be my choice, but some of my cousins have made that choice and they seem just as capable, independent and intelligent as before.

    On the other hand, there was a very odd and bitter woman in cyberspace who accused me of wanting women to be like men, just because I said I wouldn't take my husband's surname if I married. She decided to entirely stereotype me because of that one point! Me! Pink-loving, knitting, earring-wearing Ms Vanilla Rose! That was before I had read "Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World" and taken up burlesque, but I was still quite girly.

    If you wanted to meet anyone who really believes the "evil feminists want women to be men" junk, I know where this woman hangs out. And even someone I find fairly sensible still thought that the reason they only get 6 weeks maternity leave after giving birth in the US is because of EVIL FEMINISTS! No connection at all to their other social policies, eg full time workers there getting 2 weeks' paid holiday per year instead of 4 like in the UK, or their minimum wage stagnating for years (that was on the Morgan Spurlock documentary "30 Days").

  15. PS I think mentioned the C S Lewis quote. Actually, it doesn't really matter if he really said it. The one about having written the books he wanted to read.

    You write your own darn book, Penny, and if it's under a tenner, I will buy a copy.

  16. **I guess the reason why a girls magazine carries an article written from the point of view of a mysoginst is the same reason the dail mail has such a load of old rubbish in it. People would rather read about horror stories and hear about terrible things than reflect upon the pleasent things in life.**

    Well... there is no gender pay gap! There is a pay gap between those who decide to leave the work force and have children for n number of years and those who don`t!

    Since I respect her political beliefs, if Penny wrote a book, I`d download it for free.
    I think that`s the least we can do.

  17. Mark,

    Firstly how is a gender gap caused by inequality of who takes care any less of a gender gap?

    Secondly, accounting for the time out for childcare does not account for the entire gap. If you exclude those with children, there is still a gap.

  18. Just read the review, and I reckon you give a pretty fair impression of the book and its limitations - but then it does depend on whether the book is intended as 'Feminism for Dummies' (as it were) or a manifesto designed to recruit activists. In addition, the pink, 'girly' cover also hints at a further problem, which is the (ongoing) debate about feminism's relationship to femininity, which is where a lot of the dogmatic petty but highly symbolic squabbles over Barbie, pink (but not Pink), dresses, high heels and make-up originate (Laura Kipnis in 'The Female Thing' is very good on this). Presumably a 'Feminism for Men' book would have to look like a car manual. As for your disagreement over 'patriarchy', I think you are etymologically right, but I suspect Levenson is closer to how the term gets bandied about in common usage (especially when the term is used with a definite article) - which makes a big difference when it comes to analysis and political strategies (as in why Harriet Harman can somehow blame 'men' while mysteriously exempting Gordon Brown).


  19. VK,

    What do you make of this table ?

    To me, complaining about a "gender pay gap" indicates that the difference is a result of sexual discrimination. If men and women choose to behave in different ways (or are bound to do so by physical realities), the problem(?) is actually the gender roles assigned by society rather than sexual discrimination in the workplace.
    The difference in pay is actually rational and fair given the social norms which people choose to follow.
    What we must do is find some way to stop women wanting to care for their children...

  20. The table shows a massive gap (8%!) not explained by having children. That the gap reverses when single is interesting, and a problem in itself - in a fair society there should not be a bias in gender on pay, just as there shouldn't be a bias on colour or ANYTHING other than ability to do the job

    the problem(?) is actually the gender roles assigned by society rather than sexual discrimination in the workplace.

    Who mentioned sexual discrimination? A gender gap is a problem, irrospective of the method. You are the only one who seems to think it doesn't count unless it's evil employers deliberately lowering women's wages. (Although that clearly still happens - look at the outrage from companies over the suggestion they must publish pay data, if there were no bias they would have nothing to fear)

    It's still massively relevent to feminism to talk about why society pushes women into lower paid jobs, why we devalue women with children, but not men with children.

    The difference in pay is actually rational and fair given the social norms which people choose to follow.
    What we must do is find some way to stop women wanting to care for their children...

    Children really doesn't explain it. Look at DLHE for Oxford university:

    "Annual salary (mean in thousands) of respondents by gender and year of completion.
    Graduates 2007/2008 Female £23.80 Male £28.20
    Graduates 2006/2007 £23.2 £27.1
    Graduates 2005/2006 £20.3 £25.6

    These are the average salarys for those who graduated 6 months ago. I guarentee there will not be any mothers in there - and yet there is a huge gap.

    Other mechanisms for the pay gap
    - lower pay for "female" jobs, ie. nurse vs. policeman, careworker vs. binman
    - Social encouargement into lower paying jobs
    - Social encouragement to underperform in SET subjects
    - Direct discrimination

  21. The 8% gap is explained (on that link) by the fact that rich men are more attractive to women and therefore more likely to get married - I guess the fact that men get married later on average might have something to do with it too (though the difference isn`t that great).

    If someone leaves the workforce to have children it *does* effect their ability to do the job. Case in point - my A-level history teacher went on maternity leave twice during the time I was studying - which certainly effected everyones chance to pass the tests. Should she have been paid less... or *gasp* fired?

    I`d imagine that in Oxbridge, as elsewhere, there isn`t a direct 50/50 split of men and women studying each subject. Also, I believe men are more likely to get a first than a woman.

    Looking at a difference in wages without considering the factors which enable people to do the job which they are being paid for is pointless. We wouldn`t expect mothers to be paid the same as people who have gained more experience in the same job. We might decide that their work as mothers is valuable to society in general and pay them for this out of general taxation, but i can`t see how we can expect an employer to pick up the bill.

    Soldiers Vs. Policemen
    Farm Labourer Vs. Binman

    Maybe it`s just the fact that they are different jobs with different requirements ?
    The fact that people are paid less because of choices they have made (and no choices are ever made in a social vaccumn) to do things unrelated to work, is completely irrelevent to anything. Certainly irrelevent to a discussion of gender equality.
    Now you could say that a society in which women care about their children or want to marry rich men is not an ideal one - but what exactly are we going to do to change these attitudes?

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  23. @ Mark

    Don't argue with VK, son.

    She'll just whip your arse.

  24. @ Socrates

    Inuendos aside, I`d welcome it.

    I`d exchange a bit of pride for some knowledge any day of the week.

  25. Mark,

    Have you considered that an income gap resulting from the decision to leave the labour force and have children is, ultimately, a gender pay gap?

    Because women have children, and in this society the economic structures are such that the decision to have children retards one's career and thereby the pay one earns over a lifetime. Thus, an income gap over the lifetime cashes out in terms of a gender pay gap, because economic structures discriminate against having children, and in this world we live in it's women that have children.

    That, incidentally, is over and above the point VK makes about there being an actual pay gap simply in terms of like for like work, not even thinking about lifetime income gaps. I take VK to be right about that, by the way. But even if she wasn't, my point would still stand.

    So you've got to be aware that saying "there is no gender pay gap, only a gap between those who choose to leave the workforce and those who don't" is no way a point knocking down feminist critiques of modern society, because it's disproportionately *women* who have to face the choice of whether or not to leave the labour force.

  26. If you think that women choosing to care for their children is an appalling inequity, what do you intend to do about it?

  27. Isn`t saying that more women looking after their young children than men equals a sexist society, rather like saying that the guiness book of records is sexist since all sporting world records are held by men?
    Only true if you contrive to regard natural differences and the responses to them as some kind of devious plot?

  28. @ Corona Trew

    What's your position on cucumbers, courgettes, zucchini, carrots, parsnips et al?

    Missionary or Doggie?

  29. Anthropological Angus6 August 2009 at 18:39

    What's all this stuff above about having sex with vegetables? Surely Samantha Cameron and Sarah Brown are up to this monkey business whenever they grant their husbands carnal knowledge of their person?

  30. 'Apologizing too much for a form of feminism which never existed' might actually be a sound strategy.

    Please don't throw things at walls yet.

    I suppose we can agree that there is a (large or vocal?) group of people out there arguing that feminism 'has gone too far'. And I know a lot of girls who subscribe this theory.

    Of course we can agree that this theory is wrong. But a lot of people out there beg to differ. Now we could do what us people on the left like to do and try to educate them, until they see the light. Unfortunately that means they will have to trust us and look at various forms of evidence in an unbiased manner.

    Telling them that we think they are completely wrong, even if, nay, especially if they are, appears not to be a good starting point for such a conversation.

    What this book - I haven't read it - might be doing is using the old 'yes, but' approach, which couches your objection in an apparent approval of what the other person said, thus making them more likely to be receptive for your viewpoint.

    Of course this means diluting your position. But the spectre of 'feminism gone mad' has taken on too much momentum, to just deny its existence. It is just too good a story and it is being told by too many people.

    So if a young woman or girl, at whom this appears to be marketed, is immediately confronted with a 'everythting your parents and friends told you about this is wrong' they will be unwilling to believe this, as it questions the esteem they have for these people too harshly.

    A more friendly 'there's more to it than you might know' might be more conducive, when it comes to winning new converts and not just preaching to the choire.

  31. These comments are boring as. There again they match the review and the book.

  32. Just to interrupt briefly, there is no particular gender pay gap (as Mark above has tried to point out).

    What we have it quite clearly a MOTHERS-VS-EVERYBODY-ELSE PAY GAP.

    There are various ways to 'tackle' this.

    a) Try and force employers to pay mothers higher wages (which will not work, with the best will in the world, it will not every 'work').

    b) Accept that most couple share income and expenses, so if fathers earn a bit more and mothers a bit less, it all evens out anyway.

    c) Scrap Tax Credits (which mainly benefit non-working mothers) and increase Child Benefit to £30 a week per child, which would make up the average shortfall in mothers' wages compared to men or childless women.

  33. @ Mark: "Since I respect her political beliefs, if Penny wrote a book, I`d download it for free.
    I think that`s the least we can do."

    Her beliefs, or your distortion of them?

  34. Fucking hell lady you can write. Me not so much, as illustrated by this pretty unilluminating little comment, but i just found this blog today and am a little over excited.

    Mark W and apparently most other people called mark;
    it's more of a
    The first demographic has quite a lot in common, ie. Her Fanny. The second, similar.

    My extremely reactionary and possibly offencive responsive to the 'feminism has gone too far ' brigade tends to be
    'Shall we holiday in the Afgani provinces?; it only takes 3 hours to get there and when we arrive you can show your pretty hair and we'll see how long before your skull is pelted with rocks? Then you may notice that there may have been an oversight in your research, breadth-of-feminism wise. Apparently it may take an actual stoning before you realise why your pension fund is so comparatively paltry and how incredibly flimsy a mantle you stand upon when you declare yourself satisfied, safe and equeal in 'society' - you are not, and with that level of self delusion the only way is down. '
    This may be un helpful but is far less damaging the apologetic 'don't fret princess, we've rohypnoled all the olde world hard liners just for you, so no one will burn your bra or confiscate your hairdryer this time around' subtext.

  35. Rachel, what makes you think that I (a bloke and a Dad) am unaffected by this or that I don't care?

    When Mrs W and I finished uni, we earned about the same; two babies later, Mrs W works part time and I still work full time, so I earn about three or four times as much as she does.

    I'd love it if she earned more, but the cost of that would be that my employer would have to pay me less; so taken as a unit (and we do share all income and expenses) it would make bugger all difference to us as a couple, so what's the point?

    And, as a matter of fact (unless you think the ONS are lying) there is NO GENDER PAY GAP for childless women (although it might be a tad more difficult for them to get a job than it is for men, but that's precisely because employers worry that they will take very long maternity leave). So if we scrapped the maternity leave nonsense as well, women who don't intend to have kids would actually be better off than they are now.

  36. @ Mark

    As someone who has always maintained an interest in human oddity I would happily read Penny Red's book as well, for free, if only to play a game of "Spot the Plagiarism". The idea here is to discover as many slightly altered and adapted quotes she includes, clumsily, scissors and paste style, in her writing from other authors and their works. This is normally VERY easy to do! If Penny were multilingual the game would be much more fun and much more challenging.

  37. Penny Red.

    Regarding the Pussycat Dolls.

    Would you like to have sex with one or more of them - I'd go for the unbelievably fit Nicole Scherzinger in the first instance myself - or prefer to see them banned as antithetical enemies of your imagined feminist cause? Stop listening to La Roux for a minute and answer the question.

  38. Yeah go on Penny. We're dying to know. Which one would you go for?

    Also...to what do you ascribe the pasting you took on cif? Is the place just a seething nest of misogynists or was it the quality of your writing and ideas? The patronising tone, maybe?

    Don't get me wrong, I think Harman's a fuckin waste of space who can trace her political success to her background, connections and public school education but other than blogging extensively, 'being an "activist" (sic)' and presuming to lecture others (many of whom were activists when you were in nappies dear) on the future direction of the left, just what the fuck have you ever done and just who do you think you are?

    Haven't read much on here but your idea of being 'of the left' seems to centre on highlighting identity issues. Why do you think this makes you leftwing rather than vaguely liberal or 'progressive'? Is it the self-righteous tone and indignation? Nah can't be...even Anne Widecombe has that. So why Pennyred exactly?

  39. It's a shame that these comments have been littered with a really very silly argument that has nothing to do with the piece. I'd just like to pick up on some points that redpesto made earlier - but to start with, I should say you do yourself an injustice by only putting the first half of this review here, as the second part is much more hard-hitting and interesting. I think what is at stake here is a proper discussion of how feminists treat freedom. I have to admit, I've not got around to reading this book yet (I'm not sure it's entirely aimed at us beardy Marxists, even if we are knitters, but I probably will give it a go soon if/when a fem friend passes on a copy to me.) But yes, the point is that what the likes of Levenson are arguing for is an old fashioned liberal version of freedom. I assume that in her eyes a woman basically can't do wrong, and in making choices is never complicit with objectification. Trouble is that the line has to be drawn somewhere. I'm guessing that somewhere lies in between wearing ridiculous high heels and agreeing to your arranged marriage as an expression of your womanhood. The point is that these are not straightforward issues, and the conclusion that books like this usually come to is that because it is a woman "making a choice" (how I wish I could make those inverted commas larger) it is part of the feminist project. Well yes in a way, but only if you see society as a bunch of individuals, yes, only if you want women to take fuck all responsibility for culture.

    Feminism is often scared to talk about what women should and shouldn't do. Because the entire philosophical movement is based on emancipation, there always seems to be this little voice that holds us back when we want to say that y'know, maybe a choice a woman makes is pretty damn disabling for her as a woman. At this point any sensible feminist rhetoric is replaced with one big fat horrible claim to authenticity, which has no political nous whatsoever. We need to be constantly wary, on the left, of the claims that lead from individualism to freedom, as in general the freedom they talk about is doomed never to be emancipatory. No doubt that someone like Levenson would be quick to accuse someone like me of being a prude rather than a revolutionary, just as the attacks on more radical feminists have always gone.

    I was also glad to see your conclusion that you'd like feminism to be an ogress. Of course this is not a demand that sits happily with the people this book is aimed at, but maybe we should consider a third way - that feminism should be viewed as properly political, that we should shed this nonsense of feminism being "whatever you want it to be" and instead reimbue it with the possibility of change.

  40. It is Niclole isn't it?

  41. Thanks for this article, I saw it on the F word and was annoyed there was no comment facility there.

    I saw this book in an airport and thought about buying it out of curiosity but I didn't because I suspected (yes, I judged the book by its cover) that it would be exactly as you say it is. Glad I didn't spend my money on it.

    Couldn't agree more on feminism being scary!

  42. FYI, I've also written a review of the book.

    I have less of a problem with it than you. I think partly because I'm a man, and partly because I don't find feminism scary. I'm aware that I only see my side of the equation, but in my personal and professional lives I see feminism in action every day.

    I look on this book as an gentle (genteel?) *introduction* to feminism. Free of rhetoric and vitriol. I don't think it stands up to academic scrutiny - and it would be a lot more dull if it did.


  43. Laurie -

    I'm sure you don't mean to be as patronising as you sound to your *little* sister, as she is fully aware that books like this merely reinforce gender stereotypes that have been forced down the throats of young girls ever since the original backlash against the feminist movements. I expect she also appreciates that this form of exaggerated femininity (unlike the biological state of being female) is merely an unknowing parody of a set of social constructs designed to fool women and girls alike into a belief in their own liberation, whilst trying at once to dictate their behavior. This is why, i suppose, she too would like to throw this book at a Daily Mail reader with all her tiny might.

    She'll just take the Body Shop stuff next Christmas, thanksverymuch - perhaps with a healthy dollop of more tangible feminism that does not play right into the hands of those who dictate that to be a feminist, even to be an emancipated woman, we must all embrace our femininity: i.e. wear heels and french knickers.

    Yours, with much anticipation of forthcoming smellies

    Little Sister


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