There are many things about the world today that I don’t understand – like why feminism makes people so angry and afraid, why anyone would actually vote for Trump, why Australia is currently staging a postal survey on same sex marriage. Laurie Penny‘s new book, Bitch Doctrine, has gone a long way to helping me understand many of these things (although not the same sex marriage survey as nobody can actually make sense of that one).
I’ll be honest: I think Laurie Penny is inspiring. Every time she writes, she astutely calls out the social injustices she sees, explains them logically and rationally and then poses solutions to them. She does this with humour, wisdom and anger, but she also does it hopefully. She delivers all of this, again, with Bitch Doctrine – a series of short essays on topics that range from the US election, to transsexuality, to Mad Max: Fury Road, to rape culture. They’re heavy topics, but Penny makes them interesting and digestible, and rather than collapsing in a heap of left-wing anguish, she highlights ways we can achieve change.
And yet at the start of this book, Penny explains that she called it Bitch Doctrine because when she presents what she thinks are ‘quite logical, reasonable arguments for social change’ she is called a bitch (and worse).
I’ve gathered together a selection of quotes from the book that particularly resonated, and grouped them as 10 propositions that make sense to me.
None of these seems all that provocative, but what do you think?
1. White people are so angry they even voted for Trump and Brexit
Today’s polls tell us that this [US] election was not just about class, gender or partisan positioning. This election was, more than anything, about race. It was about white resentment, which is now among the greatest threats to global security. It was about white rage.
I understand that a great many people are aggrieved that women, migrants and people of colour no longer seem to know their proper place. I understand that a great many otherwise decent humans believe that more rights for black, brown and female people mean fewer rights for ‘ordinary people’, by which they mean white people. But just because you’re angry doesn’t mean you’re right.
White men in the West have always been encouraged to believe that it is their feelings that matter more than anyone else’s, and that a unilateral response to their feelings is justified.
2. Having kids still requires a disproportionate sacrifice for women (which is why more women are choosing not to)
I’m twenty-nine years old. It is possible that my biological clock is ticking, but I don’t know, because I can’t hear it over the racket of propaganda from the media, the movies, friends and relatives, all of it exhorting me and every other woman of so-called ‘child bearing age’ to settle down and make babies before it’s too late.
Young men do not worry about how they will achieve a ‘work-life’ balance, nor does the life aspect of that equation translate to partnerships and childcare.
The reframing of marriage and partnership not just as work, but as optional work, raises real questions for women and girls thinking about ‘settling down’. Is it worth it?
Study after study has shown that it is men, not women, who benefit most from marriage and long term partnership.
3. Even though I wear makeup and spend a small fortune on my hair, eyebrows, skin, it’s okay to resent it (but like it too)
Gender policing is all about the little things. It’s the daily, intimate terrorism of beauty and dress and behaviour.
Dressing up, playing with makeup, fashion – all of that is a lot of fun right up until it comes compulsory, until you have to do it to prove you’re a real woman, a good employee, a person worthy of love and affection.
4. Those who are angry about female Ghostbusters and a black Hermione need to get used to it
The way we tell stories is changing… The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism… We’re learning, as a culture, that heroes aren’t always white guys, that life and love and villainy and victory might look a little different depending on who’s telling it.
5. Even though we know we shouldn’t, it’s not surprising many women worry about their weight
Studies have shown that, across the pay grades, women who weigh less are paid more for the same work and have a better chance of promotion than those who are heavier.
‘Fat’ is subjective and socially situated, and it’s the slur most commonly directed at any girl or women who asserts herself, whether physically or politically. Even the most stereotypically thin and beautiful woman will find herself dismissed as unattractive if what comes out of her mouth happens to threaten male privilege, which is why feminists of all stripes continue to be labelled ‘fat and ugly’.
6. There is nothing wrong with quotas
Across the board, it is women and people of colour who are accused of using their race and gender to get ahead. Let me break it down for you: Winston Churchill used his race and gender to get ahead. Franklin D. Roosevelt used his race and gender to get ahead.
If you think that a truly meritocratic society would not be one in which men and women were equally represented, from politics to pop culture, what you’re saying is that men are fundamentally better than women.
7. Language is really important (and is not ‘PC gone mad’)
‘Cissexual’… is a term coined in recent yeas to refer to people who are not transsexual. The response is instant and vicious: ‘we’re not cissexual, we’re normal – we don’t want to be associated with you freaks!’. Funnily enough, that’s just the kind of pissing and whining that a lot of straight people came out with when the term ‘heterosexual’ first began to be used as an antonym of ‘homosexual’. Don’t call us ‘heterosexuals’, they said – we’re normal, and you don’t belong.
Freedom of speech does not mean you never get called out… Freedom of speech does not mean that the powerful must be allowed to speak uninterrupted and the less powerful obliged to listen.
8. Cultural norms around rape are (still) a disgrace
For a long time, women’s only real power in society was the power of sexual refusal. This was a contingent power… But the power to say ‘no’ to sex has always been women’s last bargaining chip in a misogynistic society, and for as long as that has been true, men have resented them for it. It is about power. It is about the insistence that women’s bodies are public property, and women’s words, women’s autonomy, women’s agency do not matter.
Of the many myths about sexual violence, the most pernicious is that women routinely lie about it. That’s not true: the rates of false reporting for rape and sexual assault are estimated to be around the same as false reporting for any other crime.
Old, white, powerful men know what rape is, much better it seems, than rape victims.
9. Men can support feminism
Men can do a great deal of good in the feminist movement simply by listening and learning, which has the added bonus of being pretty easy.
Real courage is about doing things that are challenging and uncomfortable because you know that’s the way to make a better world…. What does take courage – the kind of courage you rarely hear about in fairy tales – is questioning your own assumptions and encouraging others to question theirs. The most heroic thing you can do as a man today is to risk your own social status to do what you know is right.
10. Feminism is … (and isn’t …)
Feminism is active. It’s not something that you are; its something that you do. It’s what you fight for that matters.
Feminism isn’t about fighting men all the time… Feminism is all about fairness, retribution of wealth and power and influence; it’s about changing the old order whereby men have had most of those things for most of human history.
Let’s have men and women and everyone else meet each other as equals in the clearing dust.