I’d love to agree, but…

Laurie Penny says we’re winning.

There’s a culture war happening right now. It’s happening in games, in film, in journalism, in television, in fiction, in fandom. It’s happening online, everywhere. And everywhere, sexists, recreational misogynists and bigots are losing.

They are losing, and they don’t know why.

I don’t think they are losing – unless by “losing” she means “failing to drive all the women, especially the feminist women, out.”

I don’t think they’re going to drive all of us out, but I don’t think they’re going to admit defeat and stop trying, either. I think we’re stuck with this mess. Too many people are having too much fun being shitty.

The routine, the arguments, have become far too familiar. A woman or a handful of women are selected for destruction; our ‘credibility’ and ‘professionalism’ are attacked in the same breath as we are called ugly, slut-shamed for dismissed either as stupid little girls or bitter old women or, in some cases, both. The medium is modern, but the logic is Victorian, and make no mistake, the problem is not what we do and say and build and create.

The problem is that women are doing it. That’s why the naked selfies, the slut-shaming, is not just incidental to the argument – it is the argument. Underneath it all, you’re just a woman, just a body. You can be reduced to flesh. You are less. You are an object. You are other. LOL, boobs.

Or LOL, no boobs. One of those. But either way it’s something a lot of people enjoy doing – just like gaming! – and I don’t see any reason to think they’ll stop.

They can’t understand why their arguments aren’t working. They can’t understand why game designers, industry leaders, writers, public figures are lining up to disown their ideas and pledge to do better by women and girls in the future. They can’t understand why, just for example, when my friend, the games critic and consultant Leigh Alexander, was abused and ‘called out’ as an unprofessional slut, a lying cunt, morally and personally corrupt, just for speaking truthfully and beautifully about all of this, it was Alexander who was invited to write her first piece for Time magazine, Alexander who got to define the agenda for the mainstream, who received praise and recognition, whilst her abusers’ words will be lost in a howling vortex of comment threads and subreddits and, eventually, forgotten.

But that doesn’t happen to every woman who is ‘called out’ as an unprofessional slut, a lying cunt, morally and personally corrupt, and blah blah blah – most of us get neither an invitation to write a piece for Time nor any other kind of prize or win. And for every public figure lining up to pledge to do better by women and girls in the future, there’s a Dawkins shouting his incredulity at claims that a friend of his is a harasser and praising the “feminism” of Christina Hoff Sommers as opposed to that pesky other kind that takes sexual harassment seriously.

They can’t understand why the new reaction to nude selfie leaks isn’t ‘you asked for it, you whore’, but ‘everyone does it, stop slut shaming.’ They can’t understand the logic of a world where ‘Social Justice Warrior’ just doesn’t work as an insult, because a great many people care quite a lot about social justice and are proud to fight for it.

They can’t understand why they look ridiculous.

This is a culture war. The right side is winning, at great cost. At great personal costs to people like Anita Sarkeesian, Leigh Alexander, Zoe Quinn and even Jennifer Lawrence, and countless others who are on the frontlines of creating new worlds for women, for girls, for everyone who believes that stories matter and there are too many still untold. We are winning. We are winning because we are more resourceful, more compassionate, more culturally aware. We’re winning because we know what it’s like to fight through adversity, through shame and pain and constant reminders of our own worthlessness, and come up punching. We know we’re winning because the terrified rage of a million mouthbreathing manchild misogynists is thick as nerve gas in the air right now.

Yes but we thought that 40 years ago, too. We thought all that then. And we were right, up to a point, but…sexism and misogyny are in some ways worse than ever. No, I don’t think we’re winning.


  1. thephilosophicalprimate says

    Change always inspires reactionary backlash. Indirectly, the increasingly crude, loud, shouty open misogyny is evidence that feminism is winning. Actually dominant social views don’t need to resort to such open methods: Their very omnipresence makes them subtle and hard to focus on, like the air. What we’re seeing is the flailing, spastic death throes of dying attitudes, lashing out in desperate hope of fighting off the forces of change that are killing them — but it’s ineffective thrashing, and it’s only deepening the wounds. As Penny argues, their antics aren’t winning them friends and influence, but rather the opposite.

    The open racism of the Tea Party — which is ultimately indistinguishable from the Republican “base” that the Southern Strategy worked on for years, even in the North — has much the same character. Racist attitudes are also mortally afflicted by cultural change and brute demographic facts, but by Gawd they’re going to go down screaming and flailing for all they’re worth!

    In the end, though, I suspect that reactionary sexist and racist backlash is mostly sound and fury, signifying much less than it may appear. It’s an inevitable response to real change, but it doesn’t have any real potency to STOP the change. If anything, exposing its poisonous ugliness to the light of day only accelerates the pace of change.

    Or at least, that’s what I think on my more optimistic days.

  2. martha says

    There’s an excerpt from Laurie Penny’s new book on Salon. I love it all, but my favorite line is “These perfect lives would necessarily rely on an army of nannies and care-workers, and nobody has yet bothered to ask whether they can have it all.” The headline writer is, however, being a little harsh about an ill-defined thing s/he calls “mainstream feminism”


  3. Scr... Archivist says

    …but I don’t think they’re going to admit defeat and stop trying, either.

    I agree, but I am also feeling surprisingly optimistic and think that Ms. Penny might also be right. Yes, there will always be misogynists grumbling to each other in the shadows, and sometimes they will lash out. But I wonder what life looks like when this behavior truly is no longer supported by mainstream society, and when girls and women aren’t held back by it because these beliefs and crimes are so marginalized. Sexist dead-enders might not give up, but don’t forget there are still a few monarchists and prohibitionists in the U.S., but no one listens to them.

    If we agree that there will always be a few bigots acting on an individual level, I would like to ask you (and your commenters), what are your feminist victory conditions on the societal level? If we “win”, how is equality experienced in everyday life, and how might that disempower anti-equality forces? How would equality between men and women reinforce and maintain itself, even with a permanent minority population of misogynist throwbacks?

    And in what timeframe do you expect us to arrive? I hope no on loses heart because this is taking so long.

    Yes but we thought that 40 years ago, too.

    During the second wave of feminism, did liberal feminists really think that changing laws would be enough to change everyone’s attitudes in one or two generations?

    Forty years ago, you (plural) didn’t have as much experience with pushing social change as you do now. For example, was intersectionality understood and acted on then as well as it is now? If we learn from that greater experience, wouldn’t we be able to multiply progress over the next forty years?

  4. =8)-DX says


    it’s something a lot of people enjoy doing – just like gaming!

    Gaming is often fun and harmless, unlike misogyny. This read mostly as a joke, but otherwise category error much? (Similarly to games a lot of literature contains sexism and misogyny, and can be read for benefit by any reader aware of these biases. Gaming responsibly is perfectly possible.)

  5. theobromine says

    Riding the optimist wave, one might ask how people respond today when someone says “Hey that’s sexist”, calling out an phrase, image, attitude, game, etc. 40-50 years ago, the responses would be along the lines of “what’s sexism?” or, for those who were familiar with the concept, a defence of the status quo based on religion or the need to maintain societal norms. I think nowadays people are more likely to agree that there is something fundamentally and inherently wrong with sexism, but some will attempt to rationalize and/or justify *their* particular action or attitude or statement as not really sexist (because art, because culture, because humour, because freespeech etc).

  6. quixote says

    Archivist @5. Um, yes. We did think real change was possible. Like we’ve seen with gays, for instance. They were near-unmentionable in “polite” society then, and are near-fully human in polite society now. Yes, we thought that could happen for women, too. And not because of a few laws. Because we thought attitudes could change.

    The part we forgot is that women and men live in every household. The change would have had to happen in an awful lot of individual men and women, intersectionally no less. Every other bigotry is much easier to think you’ve overcome. None of them affect everybody the way sexism does.

    (Am I being flippant about intersectionality? Somewhat. Mainly because it seems to mean that women must not presume to put themselves first. Instead of remembering that half of black people, Asian people, handicapped people, a large minority of gay people, etc., etc., etc. are women.)


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