Last week BBC 2’s Friday night Review Show was entirely devoted to debating feminism: what was it, what did it achieve, is it dead and if so whose fault is that, you know the sort of thing. Doubtless we’ll be getting a lot more of this stuff in the media as we approach the 40th anniversary of the first British WLM conference, held at Ruskin College in Oxford in 1970. If this Review Show is a sign of things to come, I’m not sure how much more ‘celebration’ I can take.
The first rule of any media debate on feminism is that the participants should all be media celebrities and general-purpose pundits, with a maximum of one of them having any actual experience of or commitment to feminist politics. If there are three or more people on the panel then one should be male, and at least one (who may but need not be the token man) should hold provocatively anti-feminist views. On the Review Show the feminist slot was filled by Germaine Greer, the male/anti-feminist slot by Toby Young, and the other two guests were Rachel Johnson (editor of The Lady) and Zoe Margolis (who writes about sex from a female perspective). They reviewed Natasha Walter’s book Living Dolls, Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow (billed as a ‘feminist’ novel about the sexual/gender revolution, though the reviewers were sensibly not convinced), and a series of BBC 4 documentaries on women which will be shown during March (the clip they showed contained the astonishing revelation that men who describe their marital relationships as equal still don’t clean the bath).
The good news is that neither Rachel Johnson nor Zoe Margolis provided quite what one imagines the producers hoped they would (respectively a conservative and a sexual libertarian view). Zoe Margolis particularly impressed me by describing Martin Amis as ‘condescending’ and slapping down Toby Young when he suggested that since she wrote about sex, she must be in favour of promiscuity and porn. The not so good news is that the only person to offer any properly thought-out political analysis of anything was Germaine Greer. Actually, she was great. But her ability to make cogent arguments while her juniors floundered was slightly depressing: feminism, though not yet dead, appears to be travelling on a senior citizen’s bus pass.
Or maybe not. The only actual example of contemporary feminism with which this programme concerned itself was Natasha Walter’s book. And Natasha Walter’s book represents, among other things, a shift on the author’s part towards a more radical sexual politics than she espoused in her first book The New Feminism. Walter now believes that the liberal agenda she favoured in the past didn’t address some of the more unpalatable and less tractable aspects of unequal gender relations, like the sexual objectification and exploitation of women which is in many ways more intense now than it was 20 or indeed 40 years ago. Once the poster-girl for ‘the new feminism’, Walter is now saying things that sound a lot more like the old feminism; perhaps there is life in the old lady yet.
The less radical TV reviewers didn’t care for this thought. They found Living Dolls too bleak, too preachy or too man-hating. Two of them also dismissed Natasha Walter as a middle class snob expressing high-minded distaste for the culture of working class women—as if Nuts and Spearmint Rhino were (a) as authentically proletarian as whippet-racing and brass bands, and (b) part of the culture of women of any group.
The programme was, all in all, a sort of Cook’s Tour of all the stupid, lazy, uninformed things you can say about feminism in 2010. As we get closer to British second-wave feminism’s 40th the tenor of the media coverage is something worth keeping an eye on: I hope other users of this site will contribute to this ‘media watch’.