In May 2014, I went to a “Sexism Workshop” at the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, a college in the University of London system. “Sexism,” the organizers explained, “is a problem with a name. Sexism is the name that feminists have used to explain how social inequalities between men and women are reinforced or upheld through norms, values, and attitudes.”
Fran Bigman | truthdig
The Centre’s then-director, Sara Ahmed, a self-proclaimed “feminist killjoy,” and her colleagues pulled together the event because they thought that while more feminist activists and journalists were writing about sexism, academics were not talking about it enough. The Everyday Sexism Project, a website started in 2012 by Laura Bates to encourage people to share their experiences with sexism, drew over 100,000 entries in 13 languages in the first three years of its existence. Yet, in the organizers’ words, “although critiques of sexism as structural to disciplines were central to early feminist work in the academy, if anything the concern with sexism, or the use of the language of sexism, seems to have receded.”
In her talk at the workshop, the cultural theorist Angela McRobbie, a professor at Goldsmiths, expressed concern about young women who conform to traditional standards of femininity by waxing their bikini area or threading their eyebrows while insisting, “I’m doing it for me!” To her, these women were suffering from a false consciousness, duped into colluding — enthusiastically! — in their own subjugation. This was not a new idea for McRobbie. In her 2008 book, “The Aftermath of Feminism,” she writes:
The successful young woman must now get herself endlessly and repetitively done up […] to conceal the competition she now poses because only by these tactics of re-assurance can she be sure that she will remain sexually desirable. […] And in any case patriarchy and hegemonic masculinities have removed themselves from the scene and are now replaced by the cultural horizon of judgement provided by the fashion and beauty system […] which requires constant self-judgement and self-beratement, against a horizon of rigid cultural norms. This makes it look as though women are “doing it for themselves.”
As McRobbie spoke, a woman in her 20s wearing a white shirt with a rainbow-pony design jumped to her feet and furiously shouted, “When I get my eyebrows done, I am doing it for me!” To McRobbie, the young woman was being fooled by the patriarchy. To the young woman, McRobbie was, as Sarah Banet-Weiser puts it in “Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny,” “a finger-wagging ‘bad mom’ feminist that doesn’t understand the younger generation.” To me, they both had a point. Intergenerational feminism is tricky, and we need books that do more than criticize — we need books that forge new connections and suggest new paths. Unfortunately, “Empowered” is too long on critique and too light on fresh ideas.