Catherine Redfern asks whether this eyebrow-raising new book is really feminist
If you’re aware of what’s going on with Third Wave feminism in the US and Canada, you might be forgiven for getting rather intrigued when you first glimpse a copy of this new British-published paperback. Against a rather lurid cover image of a green-eyed, red-skinned devil-woman licking an ice-cream cone (ironic, naturally), the title screams: “Inappropriate Behaviour” and “Prada Sucks!”
You might flip it over to check the back cover:
Resisting the mainstream pap that is served up under the guise of ‘women’s interests’, this bunch of trouble-making provocateurs are ready to make mincemeat of mediocrity and propel feminism into the twenty-first century. Uncompromising, witty and subversive, Inappropriate Behaviour is essential reading for all modern thinkers who refuse to sell their souls for the latest pair of Monolo Blahniks, who have had enough of magazine features telling them how to satisfy their man in bed, how to live on lettuce and how to look like Jennifer Aniston or Lopez. Bring on the new girl order!
The book is a compilation of essays, edited by two British women, Jessica Berens (journalist and author) and Kerri Sharp (editor of Black Lace women’s erotica). So has Third Wave “girlie feminism” finally reached the UK? Is this the first British publication representing the new, exuberant style of young women’s feminism?
Well, at first glance it appears to be very much in the style of the US Third Wave feminist magazine Bust. The publishers even implicitly reference it on the back cover with their “new girl order” comment (the editors of Bust magazine brought out a book called The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order back in 1999). But despite the emphasis on “girl”, the book is in no way intended or implied to be a compilation of “young” feminist writing. Sharp and Berens (both in their 40s I think) reject society’s strict divisions of people by age, and instead they want to “unite people by attitude.” And secondly, although at first glance you might get excited about the possibility of a book by UK writers, around half of the contributers are actually from the US.
The book is intended to be “an antidote to the idiotic nonsense circulated by the mainstream media under the title ‘womens interests.'”:
The point is to provide a place for those who do not wish to be either Bridget Jones or Britney Spears, neither do they wish to drive a Fiat Punto or go to Tuscany or make things out of radiccio.
I went to the launch of the book in mid-May, in the Silvermoon women’s bookshop, now situated in Foyles, London. And it was a lot of fun. As I sipped my complimentary glass of wine (always worth a few brownie points!), Kerri Sharp stood up to read the piece “Because I’m Worth It” by a contributor called Fur Cuff (“if you say it fast, it sounds a bit like Fuuuck Off!“). “Because I’m Worth It” is the focus of the book, the essence of what Berens and Sharp are rebelling against, a rallying cry against the monotony of women’s magazines and mainstream culture.
- Your sanitised and puerile orgasm quests
- Your diets for sexual health
- Your slimming but smart business suit hegemony
- Your depilation fetishism
- Your stay fresh panty-liner politics…
As she read this out with passionate gusto, Jessica Berens walked around the audience ripping out pages from women’s magazines and handing them to us. We were then encouraged to “rip em up! rip em up!” at the end. Boy, that was cathartic! Seriously!
Also at the launch were contributers Kathleen Kiirik Bryson, who’d written about bestiality, Sebastian Horsely, a man who had himself crucified for art, and Miss Kimberley, founder of Drag Queens Against Breast Cancer. All in all, it was kind of a bizzare evening, and from that brief description you might get a vague idea of what the book is like.
But is it feminist? To answer this question I have to refer to Bust again. Although Bust has an army of loyal fans, some people consider it to be expressing a kind of watered-down feminism which simply emphasises and reinforces sexist and mainstream images of women. For example, young radical feminist Delanie Woodlock lambasted Bust-style “girlie feminism” in an essay on the online journal Feminista!:
As I look around me, to my generation, I feel disillusioned and alone… Porn is chic. S/M is sex… Bad girls, sluts and porn stars are the new elite, the ‘new girl order.’ …Telling young women that it is feminist to watch porn, fuck dogs and that women get raped because they put out ‘victim energy’, isn’t exactly going to upset the sort of men who enjoy, promote, control and profit from women’s oppression (for examples of this see BUST magazine – sex issue, second sex issue and bad girl issue). T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as ‘pussy power’, ‘porn star’, ‘bad girl’, ‘whore goddess’ are sold in mainstream stores these days under the guise of girl power. This isn’t feminism. It is slave merchandise.
It’s not hard to image what she’d make of Inappropriate Behaviour. Amongst other things, it includes articles by women on gun-fetishism, similarities between Catholicism and sado-masochism, Annabel Chong (she of the 251 men in 10 hours porn flick) writing about scat (for the uninitiated, this is a fetish for defecating in front of, or onto other people), Kathleen Kiirik Bryson on bestiality, an analysis of female masturbation in films, sex with octopuses, slash lit (female-penned erotica about men having sex together), interviews with stars of Russ Meyer’s film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, and a rather confusing diary piece by a 50 year old grandmother who travelled to Manchester to get fitted with various varieties of chastity-belts, corsets, nipple-clamps and soforth. Sample quote: “I am getting used to being tethered in bed all night and have lost the fear that I am going to strangle myself with the chain.”
As you might imagine, this leads to a reading experience which is not so much eyebrow raising as coffee-spluttering. My own personal coffee-spluttering moment was during Penny Birch’s essay ‘Squiddly Diddly’: “I imagine that having a live squid in my vagina would be quite an experience, but it’s not really fair on the squid.” It also leads to extremely discomforting moments, such as Katherine Gate’s absolutely chilling (but supposedly sexy) account of a woman’s use of a loaded gun during sex with her lover.
There are other essays which your average radical feminist would find less problematic, and to be fair, its not all about sex. Debbie Barham’s essay on Bridget Jones and chick-lit is, frankly, side-splitting and wonderful, and that alone is almost worth buying the book for. Jade Fox’s essay on the anti-corporate/anti-globalisation movement is interesting, Tama Janowitz writing about her miscarriage is poignant and sad, and the essays about sex in a wheelchair, the magazine Belly (“where fat chicks are cool”), and a primer on belly-dancing for older-women are empowering. The book even addresses the old feminist argument of to shave or not to shave, courtesy of Jessica Kinsinger:
*GOOD* REASONS TO SHAVE:
1. Because you want to.
*GOOD* REASONS NOT TO SHAVE:
1. Because you don’t want to.
But the question of whether you think this book is feminist depends on your definition of feminism and how you think feminism should be expressed. The book aims to address feminist issues through “emphasis on subversion and entertainment rather than gender politics” – or as they put it more frankly on the book’s offical website, “with biting humour and attitude rather than po-faced feminist analysis.”
Oh boo. There’s nothing I like more than a bit of good, old-fashioned po-faced feminist analysis.
At the launch, Kerri Sharp emphasised that the book is about being celebratory, spontaneous, and fun, as opposed to dour, worthy and dull. “Oh, there’s no point whining on” she commented. As an example of feminists “whining on” she criticised the book Overloaded by Imelda Whelehan, saying it was worthy and depressing. One of Sharp’s heros is Chris Morris, and she thinks that women should do more feminist satire in the same sort of style; they should use humour and wit rather than academic thought to fight back against the deadeningly dull, bland culture we’re force-fed. In other words, we should take the piss more, because “they don’t like it up ’em!”
“Poke fun, stand up and fly the freak flag!”
So does the simple fact that these “controversial” issues are being addressed by women instead of men make it feminist? At the book launch, a man interviewing Kerri Sharp commented that he found it refreshing to see women writing about their love of guns, fast cars, and so on, instead of writing about “the earth-goddess”(!). She agreed, saying that the earth-goddess type people were awful anyway and needed the ‘fashion-police’ to sort them out, because they wear awful trousers. Apparently the rejection of the mainstream obsession with image only goes so far. (Oops. That’s my po-faced side coming out again.)
But are all the oh-so shocking essays on unusual sexual practices really subverting the mainstream culture? The women’s magazines Inappropriate Behaviour rebels against may not have gone as far as some of these articles, but in the past few years Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire have featured articles about threesomes, strippers, prostitutes, swingers and s&m, Nova ran an article about fetishes, and Frank even adressed the taboo of anal sex. Now that shows like Sex and the City have put plenty of these topics on mainstream television, is Inappropriate Behaviour’s emphasis on ‘freaky’ sex actually subverting anything?
But perhaps I’m being too critical. The rage and vitriol Inappropriate Bahviour spews at the crushing blandness of the glamour culture in magazines and advertising is something we can all support and empathise with, and the rejection of conformity the book represents is to be welcomed. Anything which encourages us to be true to ourselves rather than be forced into the Cosmo girl clone is undoubtedly worthwhile. And the boring obsession with beauty and fashion is something Sharp and Berens loathe. They write:
Now it is not enough to appreciate the Venus de Milo; you have to cut off your own arm off as well… Women have allowed their thinking to be perverted by thin, white Unawoman, an unthreatening contruct who has done much to encourage the buying of handbags and very little to encourage independent thought.
What artist Sebastian Horsely’s account of his voluntary crucifixion in the Philippines has to do with any of this, I still haven’t figured out. Answers on a postcard, please.
Incidentally, it’s ironic that the preen of drag queens (well, you think of a better collective noun!) which attended the book launch in support of the absolutely charming and wonderful Miss Kimberley actively embrace the culture of mainstream feminine beauty and glamour which the book actively rejects. I can’t imagine that Miss Kimberley thinks that “Prada Sucks!”
So, as usual for me, I’m sitting on the fence with this one. I’ll let you make up your own mind, but I’d be interested to hear any comments from anyone else on this. If you’re intrigued and want to find out more, check out their website at www.squidsex.co.uk, which features snippets from some of the essays, background information, and a picture of the lovely ice-cream licking lady on the cover.