Ellie Levenson’s guide to feminism for the "noughtie girl" apologises too much and asks for too little change, says Laurie Penny
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.
Secondly, for a primer, Noughtie Girls is very limited in scope. It is rigidly heteronormative in its approach – and this is a deliberate strategy – because as Levenson notes in her warm-up: “as I have no direct experience of many of the issues specifically concerning lesbians I have not attempted to cover these here.”
It also fails to take into account the special problems that women can face if they are disabled, living on a lower income, or from a black or minority ethnic background. Of course, feminism applies just as much to prim middle-class women who have never kissed a girl or liked it – but equally, a part of feminist experience has to be about challenging received norms of gender, culture and sexuality, including our own. The experiences of lesbian and bisexual women, to take just one example, cannot be erased from a primer on feminism without presenting a flawed picture of what feminism really is. It’s not a question of lack of experience: it’s a question of simple lack of research, or, more worryingly, lack of interest in the relevance of feminism to women who are not white, straight and middle-class. Noughtie Girls is right to address itself to the common woman – but by ignoring swathes of the female population, it makes a great deal of common women invisible in the process.
The third thing that makes me uncomfortable with Noughtie Girls is its defeatism. It is a book which self-assuredly talks about ‘choice’ and ‘equality’, whilst happily accepting that we’re always going to live in a world riddled by gender inequality and rent by social rules that ruin the lives of both sexes. As Levenson says in her recent Guardian article:
Perhaps the key difference between me and my critics is that while I am keen to look at our everyday lives in the context of the society in which we live, they seem to prefer the idea of overthrowing the patriarchy – the belief that society is run by men to the detriment of women. Not only do I think it is impossible to start again – redrawing society from the beginning according to an equal opportunities policy – but if it’s just going to be replaced with a prescriptive matriarchy that discounts the idea of individual choice, I am not sure that I want to.
Feminism is not, and never has been, about putting in place “a prescriptive matriarchy that discounts the idea of individual choice”, and Levenson’s rhetoric reinforces rather than debunks that tired myth. But more importantly, Levenson has entirely misunderstood what is meant by ‘patriarchy’. Patriarchy is not a society “run by men to the detriment of women”. Patriarchy is a society run by patriarchs – generally older, rich, almost exclusively white people who are almost always men – to the detriment of absolutely everyone else. Fighting patriarchy is not the same as fighting men: in fact, men have just as much reason to oppose patriarchy as women. Feminists believe that overthrowing patriarchy is achievable, at least in part, because it will involve the emancipation of all citizens from social and gender norms, and every tiny act of self-liberation we achieve hurts patriarchy where it is powerful. This basic misunderstanding warps the premise of Levenson’s entire book, and does a disservice to generations of pioneering feminists, including her own.
What The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism undoubtedly is, is a classic text of Reformist feminism, a feminist subgroup populated almost exclusively by white, middle-class women like Levenson and like myself. Feminist educator bell hooks explains the term in her excellent primer Feminism is for Everybody as follows:
From its earliest inception feminist movement was polarised. Reformist thinkers chose to emphasis gender equality. [They wanted to] simply alter the existing system so that women would have more rights… They could break free of male domination in the workforce and at home and be more self-determining in their lifestyles. While sexism did not end, they could maximise their freedom within the existing system. And they could count on there being a lower class of exploited subordinated women to do the dirty work they were refusing to do.
For Reformist feminists, ‘choice’ is, indeed, the most important remaining feminist issue. But for everybody else, it is a vital aspect in a much wider fight. Opposing patriarchy does not have to be about vetoing anyone’s choices, although it may from time to time involve a sisterly criticism of those choices. It is in a spirit of sisterly constructive criticism, rather than the in-fighting of which Ellie Levenson is so wary, that I was determined to make this review an honest one, rather than offering a disingenuous panegyric or chickening out and handing it to someone else.
Because in one respect, Levenson is right: in-fighting can damage feminism, if in-fighting is all we do. But a homogenous feminist movement without dissent or auto-critique is an even more frightening idea. True feminist sisterhood does not involve not judging other women or other feminists – when it comes to the bedrock ideals of feminism, we can judge, and we should. True feminist sisterhood must also involve debate. It needs to involve exactly the sort of visceral, awe-inspiring energy in debate, in fact, that Levenson’s book has instigated on this site and elsewhere. Which brings me on to the biggest sticking point of the entire book: its assertion that “feminism should not be scary”.
Noughtie Girls is all about making feminism unthreatening, about persuading vacillating women and men that “feminism is not an ogre”, reassuring readers that feminism is really a very gentle movement, all about whose turn it is to do the washing up, full of women who are happy to take their husband’s surnames if that is their feminist free choice. But Noughtie Girls is wrong. Because, you see, feminism is scary, and it is threatening.
I am not a Reformist. The kind of feminism that I aspire to, along with hundreds of young men and women I have had the privilege to know, is about challenging the identities and roles we’ve been handed at their very core, even if that means having to re-examine everything about the world we live in. The kind of feminism I see reanimated on the internet and elsewhere does not accept a gender-stratified society, but tries to change and challenge that society one scrap at a time. The kind of feminism I want to help rebuild is, in fact, an ogre, or rather an ogress: colossal, magnificently imperfect and terrifying, with great powerful claws to tear away at the roots of social inequality and unhappiness. I believe that kind of feminism is possible because, in the words of Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill, “I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will, change the world for real.”
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. All we need to do is carry on believing that the world can change.