Quo vadis feminism? by Barbara Nadel

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One of the few pleasures that you get when you’re part of an oppressed group is that you can talk about your own kind with impunity. Women in my case. I am one and for the most part I don’t have a problem with it. But sometimes I do and whenever that happens, one ghastly little word is always at the root of it – looks.

In the last month there’s been a veritable shit-storm here in the UK about the opinions of a woman called Samantha Brick. Back in April she wrote an article in the right wing newspaper ‘The Daily Mail’ protesting that her good looks have always alienated her from other women. They are apparently so jealous of her appearance that they spurn her, accuse her of trying to seduce their husbands and none of even her best friends have ever asked her to be their bridesmaid. Women on both sides of this debate (sorry for Brick, infuriated by Brick) have nearly had coronaries as a result of that article and the follow up television interview that she gave. Some really spiteful invective has been employed which has, if anything, underlined Brick’s point about attractive women being a persecuted minority.

Clearly Brick is aggrieved and I believe that she has a certain point. But my point is, so what? Whether you look like Cheryl Cole or the minotaur is neither here nor there – actually. The reality is that people will always find something they don’t like about you and that’s a fact. As women, we are brilliant at this. I can clearly remember being pigeon-holed as the ugly clever girl at primary school. It wasn’t a lot of fun but I had to be something because kids in general, male and female, move in tribes. If you’re not the ugly clever kid, or the pretty girl, then you’re the fat boy or the speccy kid or you’ve got spots etc., etc., etc. The difference for women is, I believe, that with us this carries on into adulthood. Or rather the value attached to it does. Clever women are admired and feared sometimes too. It’s daft to deny it. But they don’t have the sort of commodity value that beautiful woman have. For instance I cannot and never have been able to blag free drinks a la Samantha Brick, from men in bars or on planes. I’ve had a lot of spirited discussions with strange men on subjects as diverse as psychology, history, taxidermy and sexual politics, but I’ve always bought my own drink. But then that’s a bit of an old feminist thing because I am a sweet old fashioned old style feminist.

When I was a young woman in the 1980s feminism was a very active beast. Betrayed by the UKs first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, we protested against the closing down of the mines, about unemployment, about the demonisation of single mothers and the prejudice against gay men and lesbians. One of my friends was a ‘Greenham woman’ part of the semi permanent women-only camp on Greenham Common protesting against the siteing of Cruise missiles on British soil. No-one really gave too much of a shit about whether they had their hair straighteners with them when they threw eggs at the police. We were fighting for equality and not just for ourselves but for all oppressed people at that time. Maybe because I am an old git now, I still think that that is valid. But then women still do have real battles to fight and they will continue to do so while they don’t have equal pay with men, while women and girls are trafficked for sex and while the term ‘child bride’ actually relates to a person living in the modern world.

But then, as I’ve just said, I am an old git whose face is marked by the sands of time. I’m not very down with what I believe some call ‘the new feminism’ or ‘post modern feminism’. This, I am led to believe, consists of women manipulating men to do what they want using beauty and sex as levers to success. So living off blokes just like our ancestors – but with breast implants and faces that can no longer frown. Mmm. Seems like a whiff of sexual slavery has entered the building to me as well as an echo from the distant past, plus a pinch of ‘all men are bastards’. I’m not impressed, but then this is just, to me, another manifestation of the ghastly ‘celebrity culture’ that I hate so much. Just because the glamour model Jordan boldly goes and marries loads of men, makes more and more money from the publicity around it and then has so many Botox injections that she declares herself to be in some sort of plastic surgery ‘hell’ – from which she makes yet more cash, does that mean I want the young women in my family to do likewise? Well, no. Good luck to Jordan if that’s what she wants to do, but is it a feminist statement? No, it’s just the same old crap women have been doing either by choice or because they’ve had to since the dawn of time. If I had a daughter I would much rather she trained to be a nurse than go into glamour modelling. I’d be much prouder, even though I’d know she’d always be relatively poor. She’d be contributing to society and using her mind and her body to help others.

Samantha Brick and those who both support her and hate her, need to get over themselves. Perpetuating the prejudices of the playground will not help women more forward. I’ll be honest, I OBSESS about the author photographs of me on my books because I know that even though, as writers, we live in darkened rooms and smell of dust and cats, the public need to see pretty female writers – or so we are told. But I also know that it’s shallow and silly and boring too. I want it to change and I’m angry with Samantha Brick for starting a debate that contributes to the crap and doesn’t do anything to change it. Because her ‘beautiful versus not beautiful’ thing was divisive, it made women look silly and that’s a retrograde step.

Dear Ms Brick, if you and I went into a bar together, you’d get a load of drinks paid for and get hit on for sex, while I’d have a conversation about cognitive behavioural therapy and buy my own drink. Deal with it. I do. Looks? They are what they are – now can we just move on, please?

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