Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins were chatting about feminism one evening on Twitter. [interjection: I've been there! I've done a good deal of chatting about feminism on Twitter. Some of it with Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins, though not at the same time as far as I recall.] They decided to make it a non-Twitter conversation, with more room to swing the arms. They chose the spacious airy riverview Independent. It’s a very good conversation.
Martin starts by saying that “Feminists are fighting a centuries-old system of power that benefits nobody but the elite.”
Laurie: What you’re talking about is structural violence, and the difficulty people have in understanding that there’s more to sexism than individual men doing individually nasty things to individual woman. In a world where we’re encouraged to see ourselves purely as atomised individuals with no relationship to any sort of broader social context, that’s a tough distinction to make.
So we get people – many many people – telling us to shut up, stop “playing victim,” toughen up, just Be Strong and get on with it – as if it were possible to overcome systemic obstacles by pure will.
They talk about the way “patriarchy” (for want of a better word) is bad for women and men.
Martin: This is where I think ‘male privilege’, while accurate, can be a distraction – because the privilege really in modern society is that men are held back maybe 10% while women are held back more. Nobody is ‘winning’ any contest aside from a shrinking elite at the top of the pyramid who have an uncanny knack of getting the proles to fight among themselves.
They talk about sexist men and lonely men and male roles in popular culture.
Martin: And I think that’s a function of how we’re raised. Look at male role models in popular culture – they tend to be lone wolves or alpha males in a group. Loneliness can be hard to define. You can be surrounded by people and be alone. The NHS have some good research on men my age, one of the biggest problems is not being able to discuss their feelings, and an inability to seek help.
Laurie: Yes, although it wasn’t always like that. Again, the model of masculinity changes according to what success and power is supposed to look like. Sixty years ago it was being the head of a household, an important role in your organisation or company or union, a pillar of your community. Now success for men is far more likely to mean lonely entrepreneurism. Seeking help is seen as weak.
Martin: Batman wouldn’t seek help.
Laurie: Batman doesn’t need to seek help, he has a butler.
Martin: And a billion dollars.
Laurie: And an enormous tower with his name on it.
Martin: Yes. No issues there at all.
They talk about sex and power and sex-as-power.
Laurie: I’ve had men tell me that actually it’s women who have all the power, because they have the power of sexual refusal. Women are also informed that this is the only power we have or are expected to want – and ironically, of course, when we do say ‘no’ we’re rarely believed. Sexual refusal is the battleground, and if that’s women’s main power, it’s a shit power to have – particularly as it mainly works for young, hot women. For a lot of men, though, it seems like ‘women who I want to have sex with’ are the only ones admitted into the category ‘woman’ in the first place. Sexual refusal as a limited, contingent form of control is double bullshit for women and girls, because it means that if we actually happen to like sex and seek it out, as most of us would were we free to do so, we’re judged harshly for it. We like to think we live in a hugely sexually free culture, but we don’t. We don’t.
Martin: Well, that’s another point I wanted to hit. With men’s magazines, say, we’ve developed this weird lad culture that’s almost grown up in opposite to feminism – except it’s counter-productive and infantilising. And in a weird way a lot of examples of ‘rape culture’ – Brendan O’Neil’s “how can I help wolf-whistling at women” for example – are immensely infantilising. It’s like being told you’re a dribbling animal, so weak-willed that you’re guided by your penis. This weird clique of writers at magazines gradually fading out of fashion have an almost hysterical need to define what is and isn’t allowed to be sexy, and it seems not to bear much relationship to what people choose in real life. I remember, growing up, a lot of pressure on finding the right type of woman attractive – namely FHM’s sexiest 100 women, which as an exercise is like asking all humanity what their favourite foods are and then blending all the results into a sort of bland gruel.
Laurie: I like that. Ever thought about writing for a living?
Martin: Not sure there’s any money in it!
They talk about the difficulties of male feminism.
Martin: …Feminism can be a daunting area for men. Feminism has its own language, codes, like any cliquey area of writing. I’m keenly aware of blundering in as a man and saying stupid things, it put me off writing about it for a long time until I had the confidence. I was nervous about this chat. I’m keenly aware that you could probably make mincemeat of me on this topic.
Laurie: Unfortunately, it is true that there’s a small but serious risk of getting painfully jumped on if you get something wrong, particularly with the internet.
Martin: You almost need a sort of training arena where you can say stupid things to feminists and not get shot down in public. When I was struggling to understand patriarchy, I found feminist blogs unhelpful. I was asking questions I now realise were a bit stupid, but out of naivety rather than anything else.
Laurie: I’ve thought about this a lot and unfortunately, I do think female feminists are going to have to be a bit more forgiving and generous in our corrections from time to time, if we can do that without diluting the message – firm but fair. Which of course sucks balls, because we’ve spent our lives being told to be forgiving and generous and make men feel better.
Yes. We want to be (ahem) assertive, but we get called cunts for being it.
Martin: Why are more men not talking about this? Where are the spaces where men can stand up and say – actually, this is fucked up? I wish feminism was seen as a discipline in which we discussed men’s issues as much as women’s.
Laurie: We need some more outspoken male feminists. Maybe you should be one. I’ll train you, we can be like Pai Mei and Beatrix. I’m Pai Mei.
[Insert elaborate training montage where Martin is made to climb an enormous mountain of privilege-comprehension, dodge the tar-pits of in-fighting and finally destroy Rick Santorum in hand-to-hand combat armed only with a copy of The Dialectic of Sex ]
Martin: *gasps* I…I know feminism.
Laurie: Now you’re ready.
He’s trained. Booya.