Friday, 5 February 2010

White, middle-class, heterosexual ... so I would say this, wouldn't I?

I've just read a review of Natasha Walter's Living Dolls. I am not a huge Natasha Walter fan - her feminism has always struck me as rather over-polite and toothless, a plea for equality as long as it doesn't upset any sexists out there - but for once, I find myself feeling rather more annoyed at the reviewer than at Walter herself.

Syma Tariq attacks Walter for writing a book which has an appeal restricted to British, middle-class, heterosexual readers. Which may be fair enough; I've not read the book yet and would resent any claims made for a universal feminism which in practice excludes most women. Yet this part of Tariq's review infuriates me:
Some of Walter's ideas about what feminism is and does - complaining to Marks & Spencer about sexist advertising, finding gender-neutral toys for her children, having a good career - are disappointing, and irrelevant to many people.
It is odd, to say the least, to find glib dismissals of the concerns of others as "disappointing" and "irrelevant to many people" within a piece entitled "Feminism shouldn't be exclusive". Tariq seems to suggest that on the contrary, it should, only in this case, she should be the one to decide what gets left out.

Several years ago Barbara Gunnell wrote a great article for the New Statesman on how middle-class women have become the acceptable target for left-wing sexism. I won't go into this in detail, as the piece itself says it all, but I can't help feeling that within Tariq's own language, there's an internalised misogyny, a suggestion that sexism is not a valid focus for concern unless it's sexism + Something More Important, a personal distancing from the concerns of those who are "just" women and don't have a more legitimate label or cause for complaint. Tariq plays into the hands of those who dismiss feminism as a white, middle-class and hence trivial movement, and she does so precisely because she trivialises the concerns of white, middle-class women. What is "disappointing" and "irrelevant" about not wanting your own environment to be steeped in gender bigotry? Nothing, as far as I can see. This doesn't have to be an endorsement of everything else to do with the environment itself, but an acknowledgement that no one should be considered inferior on the basis of their sex. Which seems heartbreakingly basic to me.

I am aware that Syma Tariq's view has some currency amongst many feminists, including white, middle-class, heterosexual feminists such as myself, but personally, I am tired the self-imposed paralysis of others like me, the fear of demanding anything which may be of restricted value and hence considered a mark of privilege, the reluctance to ask for circumscribed equality as long as there is no such thing as absolute equality. If something is worth asking for, however small, it's worth asking for, without apologies, even if it's a complaint which sounds a bit old hat (sexist advertising), a bit mumsy (gender-neutral toys), a bit eighties-retro (a good career). Yeah, it's not the worst that can happen, but that's not the point, either. It's a shame Tariq just doesn't get it.

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