All the rage

The first piece of writing students do for the course I teach on second wave feminism is a short response to the material they’ve read in the first two weeks–mostly personal essays and group manifestos dating from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their responses are always varied, but there’s one thing that gets at least a passing mention from almost everyone: how angry these women were.

For Teresa Green, who turned her response into this 2016 guest post, what was most striking wasn’t just the anger itself, it was “the fact that they boldly express it with no qualms about the male egos or female delusions they tread on”. Other students have been equally struck by this lack of inhibition. Even if today’s feminists feel the same rage, they seem wary of expressing it in the same unapologetic way.

But as I write this (in autumn 2018), women’s rage seems to be having a moment, with two new feminist books on the subject appearing in the space of a few weeks. Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her was published this month; Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger will be out in early October. As yet I haven’t read either, but to judge from the publicity and the excerpts the authors have published, they are both calling for women to embrace their anger as a source of power. Chemaly is particularly critical of the way patriarchal cultures deny women the right to be angry, telling them that anger is ‘unfeminine’ and therefore shameful; Traister emphasizes the political as well as personal significance of women’s anger, which she regards as one of the driving forces behind ‘every major social and political movement that has shaped this nation [i.e., the USA]’.

Yet as she also says–proving Chemaly’s central point–the anger that has driven women to take radical political action during the last 200 years, whether as abolitionists, feminists, civil rights activists or labour union organizers, has often been airbrushed out of the picture, either conveniently forgotten or else transformed into something we find more palatable. As an illustration she quotes Angela Davis’s point about Rosa Parks (recorded in Pratibha Parmar’s aptly-titled 1991 documentary A Place of Rage): now often remembered as that nice, respectable Black lady who refused to go to the back of the bus because she was tired, Parks was actually an experienced, canny and courageous political activist. She channelled her anger about racism (and sexual violence) into a lifetime of organized resistance.

Here in Britain, where we’re currently commemorating the centenary of (some) women’s right to vote, it’s clear that a lot of people either don’t know or would rather not acknowledge the anger of the militant suffragettes and their willingness to commit acts of violence that would now be regarded as terrorism. They didn’t just vandalise property, they also carried out attacks in which people were injured and could have been killed. Many other feminists and supporters of women’s rights (including some within the suffragettes’ own organisation, the WSPU) were strongly opposed to these tactics: as they saw it, such extreme displays of anger and violence did the cause more harm than good.

These divisions re-emerged in the new feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s. In Britain as in the US, overt expressions of anger had been a feature of second wave rhetoric right from the start:PA-1508875 one of the earliest high-profile actions, the disruption of the Miss World beauty contest in London in 1970, featured leaflets and placards proclaiming ‘we’re not beautiful we’re not ugly we’re angry’. But more ‘extreme’ and non-rhetorical expressions of anger prompted disagreement and sometimes conflict.

I remember this kind of conflict vividly from my own experiences of British feminist politics in the late 1970s and early 80s. These were the years when women across the north of England (where I grew up and was still located at the time) lived in fear of a serial murderer of women known as ‘the Yorkshire Ripper’ (he would eventually be identified as Peter Sutcliffe). Many of us were enraged, not only by the acts of the killer himself, but also by the way he was treated as a folk-hero in popular culture (‘Ripper 11, police 0’, chanted football crowds), and by the response of the police–their failure to apprehend Sutcliffe (though it would later transpire they had interviewed him on numerous occasions), their undisguised contempt for the prostitutes who were his first known victims, and their advice to women to stay safe by staying off the streets unless accompanied by men. IMG_1945-1024x922

Anger about this was undoubtedly one driving force behind a new wave of activism against male violence: the first UK Reclaim the Night march took place in 1977, and the campaigning organization WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women) was set up in 1980. On demonstrations and other protests, we often carried placards bearing the slogan ‘women are angry’.

The same slogan sometimes appeared in large, spray-painted letters on buildings and billboards in British cities. The activists thought to be responsible were a shadowy group whose collective nom de guerre was ‘Angry Women’. They specialised in clandestine and illegal actions which ranged from defacing public buildings to firebombing sex shops. (Some of them discuss their involvement in these activities in Angry Wimmin, an informative if occasionally patronising BBC documentary about British feminism which was first broadcast in 2006.)  These tactics were not universally applauded: as the documentary makes clear, mainstream liberal, socialist and even some radical feminists considered the anger of the Angry Women, and the revolutionary feminist current they were associated with, to be excessive and politically divisive.

Looking back on this history, I find it difficult to see women’s anger as unequivocally A Good Thing (though that may not be what Chemaly and Traister are suggesting–as I said earlier, I haven’t yet read their books, only the publicity for them and a couple of selected extracts). I remember it more as a double-edged sword, both a positive force–something that made us more determined and less fearful than we would have been otherwise–and at the same time a negative one–something we couldn’t always control and too often turned against one another. One problem with being trained from childhood to deny your anger is that once you allow yourself to feel it, it can be hard to switch it off. That didn’t always feel good, let alone (as we didn’t say in those days) ’empowering’.

So, what’s put women’s anger back in the spotlight? I’m guessing that these new books were commissioned at a time when feminist rage was suddenly more overt and more publicly visible than it had been for many years–the moment of #metoo, when women were indeed ‘good and mad’, and when their mass outpourings of anger seemed to be achieving real results. But the books are being published at a different stage in the process: the anger hasn’t dissipated, but we are discovering the limitations of this recent wave of protest. Some of the high-profile harassers who were forced to quit their positions in disgrace are now being welcomed back; President Pussy-Grabber still has the support of his party, and his nomination of an alleged rapist to the Supreme Court has led to the same kind of situation we saw nearly 30 years ago when Clarence Thomas was confirmed despite Anita Hill’s testimony that he had sexually harassed her. It’s like a feminist version of Groundhog Day: in your darker moments you might well wonder if getting angry really changes anything.

RTN-Still-AngryBut I think Rebecca Traister is right: to answer that question we have to take the long view. Change doesn’t come quickly, and the same or very similar battles often have to be fought more than once. Without anger, women wouldn’t go on fighting year after year and wave after wave. But its political value will ultimately depend on what we’re able to do with our rage. It’s no good getting mad if you don’t also have a plan to get even.




Re-reading Cosmopolitan

This week brought news that the US retail giant Wal-Mart has removed Cosmopolitan magazine from its checkout stands because of concerns expressed by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Cosmo, it complained,

targets young girls by placing former Disney stars on its covers, despite the enclosed sexually erotic articles which describe risky sexual acts like public, intoxicated, or anal sex in detail.

The NCOSE might sound like a feminist organisation, but in fact it is a conservative religious pressure group whose original name was ‘Morality in Media Inc’. On learning of its deal with Wal-Mart, a number of feminists leapt immediately to Cosmo’s defence, arguing that the magazine

empowers women to embrace their sexuality and frequently encourages women to enjoy sex because it’s pleasurable and because women are deserving of that pleasure.

But there were also some feminists whose reaction was to say ‘hang on a minute—of course we shouldn’t support the religious Right, but wasn’t there a time when feminists were also critical of mainstream women’s magazines?’

The answer to that question is yes: criticism of mainstream women’s magazines was a recurring theme in second wave writing and, to some extent, second wave activism.

One memorable early action, undertaken by activists in New York City in 1970, was a sit-in at the offices of the Ladies Home Journal. The protesters (who included Susan Brownmiller and Gloria Steinem) demanded that the publishers hire an all-female editorial team to replace the existing, almost entirely male one, commission more content from women writers and pay them more, employ non-white women in proportion to their numbers in the population and provide on-site nurseries for women with children. Instead of endless articles about beauty and housework, they suggested publishing pieces on subjects like ‘how to get a divorce’, ‘how to have an orgasm’, ‘what to say to your draft-age son’ (this was the era of the Vietnam War) and ‘how detergents harm our rivers and streams’ (a nod to the emerging environmentalist movement, but also a jab at the cosy relationship between women’s magazines and the advertisers of products like shampoo and laundry soap).

These demands were (predictably) not met, but the women were permitted to edit a section of the magazine later that year, and in 1973 it got its first female editor-in-chief, Leonore Hershey. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with the conventional formula based on fashion spreads, beauty advice and ‘how to get/keep/please a man’ tips prompted feminists in various places to set up alternative magazines—titles like Ms in the US, Spare Rib in the UK and Emma in Germany. Though they did include political content, these publications weren’t aimed exclusively at women who were active in feminist politics: they set out to attract a mass audience, and at their peak all achieved large circulations.

The place of Cosmopolitan in this history is complicated. It did attract feminist criticism, but not for exactly the same reasons as the Ladies Home Journal and its ilk, because it wasn’t the same kind of publication. On the contrary, it too was conceived as a ‘modern’ alternative to the traditional woman’s magazine. The iconic status it still has now—the status which led NCOSE and Wal-Mart to single it out from all the other titles sold at checkouts—can be related to its emergence at a transitional moment in the mid-1960s, when the sexual revolution was underway and the feminist second wave was about to break. In some ways the impulse behind it was genuinely (albeit never radically) feminist; in others it was not feminist at all.

Actually it’s not quite true to say that Cosmopolitan emerged in the mid-1960s. It was first established in the 1880s, but by the 1960s it was failing. Picture1The editor who turned its fortunes around, after pitching a rescue plan to its publisher, the Hearst Corporation, was Helen Gurley Brown, a former advertising copywriter who had also written, in 1962, a bestselling book entitled Sex and the Single Girl.  Whereas most women’s magazines targeted women who either had, or hoped soon to have, husbands and children, Brown’s proposal for Cosmopolitan channelled the same spirit as her book: she wanted to target women who were financially independent and sexually ‘liberated’ with ‘a variety of short pieces…that explore the single life, and contain frank discussions of sex, pregnancy, married men, work and money’.

This formula, centred on the kind of subject-matter other women’s magazines shied away from, eventually made Cosmopolitan a global market leader. Its success reflected some contemporary social trends whose significance Brown had grasped early on. More middle-class women were getting more education, and working to support themselves for longer before they married; more marriages were ending in divorce; the old, extremely censorious attitudes to pre- and extra-marital sex were changing, and the availability of reliable contraception (in particular, the pill—it was meant to be prescribed only to married women but there were ways to circumvent that) was reducing the risk of unwanted pregnancy. Brown saw that these developments had created a market for a new kind of woman’s magazine. And while the creation of Cosmopolitan pre-dated the second wave, in some respects—particularly the emphasis placed on women’s financial independence, their professional aspirations and their freedom to pursue sexual pleasure outside marriage—it anticipated the demands of the women’s movement.

In other respects, however, Brown’s ideas were closer to those of another high-profile magazine boss of the time, Playboy’s Hugh Hefner. Though she championed women’s sexual freedom, she also shared Hefner’s tendency to equate female sexual pleasure with the ability to please a man. That was reflected in the kind of sex advice for which Cosmopolitan became (in)famous, as well as in the highly sexualised images she selected for the magazine’s cover. (‘If you’re not a sex object’, she once wrote, ‘you’re in trouble’.) Picture3She also believed that women who wanted to get ahead at work could and should use their sexual allure to enlist men’s support or buy their patronage. (Sex and the Single Girl presents her own younger self as having slept her way out of the typing pool and into an advertising career.) And she took it for granted that the ‘fun, fearless female’ who was Cosmo’s target reader would need to pay constant attention to staying slim, youthful and well-groomed in order to attract an ‘eligible’ man. The single life might be fun, but successful women didn’t plan to be single forever.

These attitudes would soon attract criticism from women more closely linked to the nascent feminist movement, including Betty Friedan (whose own book denouncing compulsory domesticity, The Feminine Mystique, was published a year after Sex and the Single Girl). And the criticism would continue throughout Brown’s long career. When she died in 2012 at the age of 90, the director of the organisation Women in Media summed up the general feminist consensus by first acknowledging her achievements as a woman who had gained real power and influence in the male-dominated publishing industry, and then offering the opinion that the magazine she created was

one of the most body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, long-lasting sexist media products of the last 100 years.

In that context, there is indeed something a bit jarring about recent feminist defences of Cosmopolitan. Of course, there is also something jarring—not to say nauseating—about NCOSE’s press release hailing the removal of the magazine from Wal-Mart’s checkouts as a feminist triumph:

This is what real change looks like in our #MeToo culture, and NCOSE is proud to work with a major corporation like Walmart to combat sexually exploitative influences in our society.

The opportunistic hijacking of #MeToo by a thoroughly patriarchal (religious, conservative, male-headed) pressure group is especially repulsive. But do we really have to rush to embrace whatever conservatives attack?

The feminists of the second wave didn’t think so. Their movement emerged in opposition both to traditional patriarchal values and to the differently-patriarchal attitudes women had encountered in the leftist counterculture of the 1960s. It urged women to put their own experiences and desires at the centre and make their own social and sexual revolution. In that endeavour, generally speaking, it saw mainstream women’s magazines—whether they addressed themselves to Betty Friedan’s domesticated housewife or to Helen Gurley Brown’s ‘fun fearless female’—as more of a hindrance than a help.

OnPicture4e important element of the second wave analysis was economic: it pointed out that all these publications were designed largely as vehicles for commercial advertising, and as such they would be bound to promote a far-from radical idea of what it means to be a woman. That argument hasn’t become irrelevant in the 21st century, as some of this week’s commentary acknowledged: ‘if Cosmo was truly interested in women’s liberation and empowerment’, noted one writer,

it wouldn’t be focused on selling women thousands of dollars worth of products, clothing, and cosmetics aimed at “fixing” invented flaws and “wrong” bodies.

We don’t have to choose between the pro-family conservative sexual politics of the NCOSE and Wal-Mart and the consumerist, body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, sexually-objectifying pseudo-empowerment peddled by magazines like Cosmopolitan. Like the feminists who came before us, we can surely be critical of both.


For more on women’s magazines in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, follow Kate Long’s regular Vintage Mag Tweets (find her on Twitter @volewriter).

If you’re interested in the academic work second wave feminists produced on the subject of women’s magazines, here are a few classic references:

Ros Ballaster, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer and Sandra Hebron, Women’s Worlds: Ideology, Femininity and the Women’s Magazine. Macmillan, 1991.
Marjorie Ferguson, Forever Feminine: Women’s Magazines and the Cult of Femininity. Heinemann, 1983.
Janice Winship, Inside Women’s Magazines. Pandora, 1987.



Comic books v. ‘Women’s Lib’

Many men felt threatened by second wave feminism—including some of America’s most successful comic book creators. Guest blogger Sydney Heifler explains how 1970s romance comic books became a vehicle for anti-feminist propaganda.

In March 1971, the Marvel romance comic My Love featured a story by Stan Lee entitled “No Man is My Master”. The central character is a young woman named Bev, who goes out on a date with Nick. Nick makes fun of Bev, orders her food for her, and won’t even call her by her name. At the end of the date, when she asks him if he treats all women like this, he tells her that “chicks are weak little creatures… and that’s the way I like it.”

No Man is My Master, My Love vol. 1 issue 10 (New York DC, March 1, 1971),Initially Bev accepts this, but after a girlfriend takes her to a Female Freedom Rally where the speaker declares that women “must be equal to men in every way”, she decides she’s had enough. In future she will date only “gentle” men who treat her as an equal. But she finds she doesn’t enjoy these dates. She can’t decide where she wants to go, and when a man asks permission to kiss her she becomes angry with him. Bev is confused: “I’ve got my freedom… No man can push me around… So what’s the big deal?”

Her question is answered at another Female Freedom meeting, where a speech urging comic 3women to demand equal wages and benefits convinces Bev she’s made a mistake: “Female Freedom isn’t about dates—or romance! It’s for job equality—and things like that!” She stops dating “nice” men and waits for Nick to contact her. The story ends with Nick telling her “Me Tarzan, you Jane!”—to which Bev responds, “And that’s the way it was meant to be!”

During the 1970s, many popular romance comic books produced by major imprints like Marvel responded to the growing visibility of second wave feminism by regularly publishing stories about—to use their own term—“Women’s Lib”. Invariably written by men, these stories presented the new feminist movement as a threat. Often they adopted the position taken in “No Man is My Master”, expressing support for moderate forms of ‘equality feminism’ while associating the more radical Women’s Liberation Movement with misguided and dangerous extremism. Women who acted on the insight that “the personal is political” by demanding equality in the home, or in romantic relationships with men, would soon discover that “liberation” did not bring happiness.

That was the moral of “Bride and Broom,” written by Jack Oleck in 1971 for the romance comic book Young Love. Bride and Broom Young Love, issue 90 1971It begins with the heroine, a young wife, wondering how the romance of “bride and groom” had turned so quickly into the drudgery of “bride and broom”. Dissatisfied with her domestic role, she participates in a Women’s Liberation march where a cop arrests her for blocking traffic. The cop mocks the movement, saying that women don’t know when they’re well off: she has a husband, what more can she want?

As she sits in jail pondering the injustice of women’s situation, she becomes increasingly angry and emotional; she is still angry when she learns that the cop has paid her bail. He says he’s been feeling guilty, and she lets him take her out for coffee. As they talk, he promises to try to learn about feminism, but she has to be “quiet” and not make any more “waves”. This conversation makes her feel calmer: “Suddenly, I wasn’t mad anymore. We women—we’re such softies.” She goes home to cook dinner for her husband, who turns out to be none other than the cop. The story ends with her addressing the reader:

How could I be angry? Sure he was a man, and he had a lot of old-fashioned notions, but he loves me.

Other Women’s Lib stories focused on “career girls” rather than frustrated housewives. “Call Me Ms.,” Love and Romance no 21 1975 - 1 In “Call Me Ms”, which appeared in Love and Romance in 1975, we meet Miss Robins, an ambitious feminist who refuses to let love get in the way of her career in advertising. One day, she objects to being ogled by a new client. He tells her he hasn’t come to “hassle with a chick who happens to have nice legs!”, and that if she doesn’t believe women should be attractive for men, he won’t let her work on the lip cream campaign. After she agrees to his terms, he apologizes for his behaviour, but adds that “Any girl who looks like you should expect men to admire them!” His words have an immediate effect: “He really likes me”, she muses; ‘I wonder if he’s married or engaged or anything…” By the end of the story he is engaged—to Miss Robins, who vows that marriage will always come before her career.

These stories continued a long tradition of using romance comic books to teach women about their roles and responsibilities. During World War II, when comic books came “Call Me Ms.,” Love and Romance no 21 1975 - 2under the influence of the US government via the Writers’ War Board, there were many stories of women finding true love when they went out to work to help the war effort (while those who did not join the workforce were unlucky in love). Towards the end of the war, the message was reversed: women who stayed at home found true love and happiness, while those who insisted on independence led miserable lives.

This message hardly changed during the 1950s and 1960s. Plotlines focused on marriage and the importance of finding a husband. Sexual relations were also touched on—women were only supposed to have sex once married. There was particular concern about teenage girls, who were gaining more independence through a booming youth culture. Romance comic books warned that their lives would be ruined if they kissed too freely or married too young. They also made clear that working outside the home was only acceptable for a young woman waiting to find a husband or a young wife waiting to have a child. “Call Me Ms.,” Love and Romance no 21 1975 - 3Women who tried to pursue careers either saw the error of their ways and got married by the end of the story, or else they came to understand that they were doomed to a life of loneliness.

In the 1960s feminists began to challenge this view of women’s role, and stories like the ones described above were the comic book industry’s response. This wasn’t just an insignificant fringe movement: Women’s Lib stories were written by famous comic book creators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, they were produced by leading publishers like Marvel and Charlton, and they were read by large numbers of young women.

Today these stories have been largely forgotten: they are rarely discussed by historians of comic books, and when they do receive attention it is often very uncritical, downplaying or denying their anti-feminism. This may be, in part, because so much comic book analysis has been produced by fans, who are reluctant to criticize revered figures like Lee and Kirby. But academics have also portrayed the Women’s Lib stories of the 1970s as good-faith attempts by sympathetic male authors to come to terms with the new feminist movement.

comic 2That wasn’t how they were seen by actual feminists at the time. In 1971, the women of the Liberation News Service reprinted and responded to “No Man is My Master!” through the counterculture newspaper the Berkeley Barb. “Comics”, they observed, “are becoming increasingly political. We’re reprinting ‘No Man Is My Master’ not because it’s so unusual but because it is a good example of what Marvel Comics is up to”.

To contemporary feminist commentators it was clear that what the industry was up to was not supporting Women’s Liberation, but on the contrary, trying to undermine it. This anti-feminism should be acknowledged as part of comic book history—something to be critically analysed, not erased and put aside.





Courting controversy: the second wave on love and romance

Last week, the French newspaper Le Monde published a letter signed by a hundred women (including the actress Catherine Deneuve), which said that men’s freedom to pester (‘importuner’) women was ‘indispensable for sexual freedom’.  ‘How French!’ said the English-speaking pundits—but in fact plenty of English-speakers have expressed the same fear about #metoo. If men can’t try their luck in all the time-honoured ways, how will anyone in future ever have sex?

Faced with this question, a lot of women have answered: ‘don’t be ridiculous! Harassment is unwanted sexual attention, not any sexual attention. Do you think we can’t tell flirting from stalking, or consensual sex from assault?’

As put by opponents of #metoo, the question is indeed ridiculous (or at the very least, disingenuous). But the answer, arguably, isn’t quite as straightforward as the précis above might imply. What passes for ‘normal’ heterosexual courtship does have some features in common with harassment—in particular, the assumption that the male role is active and the female one passive. Both sexes learn that it’s men’s job to take the initiative, while women should not appear too interested initially in case they seem either desperate or slutty. On the assumption that their resistance is token, however—there to be overcome—men are expected to keep trying until eventually the woman gives in. As Jameela Jamil wrote recently:

Our society, the internet, and even our most mainstream media, constantly perpetuate the idea that men do not need to worry about what our needs and boundaries are. They just need technical consent, however that consent is acquired.

And as she points out, all too often it is acquired by way of pestering and badgering—the male prerogative defended in Le Monde as ‘indispensable for sexual freedom’.

Jamil also points out that these sexual scripts have to be learned, and one source from which we learn them is the cultural products we consume. She is particularly scathing about the sexism of popular music, with videos featuring scantily-clad women gyrating for ‘men who are sitting there on their arses, sometimes in outdoor winter layers’, and lyrics


In the past, Jamil suggests, popular culture idealised romantic love; today it glorifies naked sexual aggression. But reading this reminded me that feminists of the second wave were as critical of the ideology of romantic love as they were of sexual violence. Rather than seeing the two as opposites, feminists often made the argument that they were connected and mutually reinforcing.

In her 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies, the film critic Molly Haskell wrote about the way women of her generation were induced (by, among other things, the movies they watched) to find pleasure in the idea of being overcome by the force of a man’s desire, and to see the manipulation of that desire as a source of power:

Those of us who were ambitious would use our femininity as Scarlett O’Hara [the heroine of Gone With The Wind] used hers; would flirt, tease, withhold sex, to get what we wanted. It would rarely occur to us to ask outright for a place on the starting line, to enter the ranks of competitive male activities and thereby lose our place on the pedestal and our ‘preferred’ passive position in the game of love. …We were guilty of conspiring in our own idealization—and our own oppression. For whatever else may have been our goals, we still assumed that the need men and women had for one another, and its satisfaction, was indissolubly linked to their roles as conqueror and conquered, and we accepted all the implications that followed from that first parsing of human nature into active and passive.

More than forty years on, the Le Monde letter–and other contributions to the anti-#metoo backlash–suggest that these attitudes have not withered away. Male ‘gallantry’ and feminine ‘wiles’ still have their defenders–though as feminists pointed out in the 1970s, these concepts presuppose that courtship is not a transaction between equals.

In 1984, Janice Radway published Reading the Romance, a now-classic feminist study of popular romance fiction. Rather than just analysing the books themselves, Radway sought out a community of regular romance readers in a midwestern American town she calls ‘Smithton’, and studied what they read, how they read, and what, by their own account, they got out of it. At the time, one of the most popular subgenres of romance fiction was what the industry called the ‘bodice ripper’, a new take on ‘gothic’ romance which was more sexually explicit—and more violent—than previous iterations. What flame-and-flower-2readers thought of this was among the questions Radway investigated.

She found that the Smithton women objected strongly to what they classified as rape scenes, but felt differently about scenes which involved, as one reader put it, ‘a little forceful persuasion’—even though the acts they put in that category would clearly, in the real world, have met the legal definition of rape. The distinction seemed to rest on their understanding of the man’s feelings for the heroine. If they were convinced that his use of force reflected, in Radway’s words, ‘his passion and her irresistibility’, they didn’t see it as abusive or unforgivable (though they also expected that as the story progressed his lust would give way to love, tenderness and the obligatory happy ending).

Radway discovered that the publishers of romance novels made a similar distinction in their advice for aspiring authors. One set of guidelines explained that a scene in which the hero raped the heroine could only be included on certain conditions, one being that ‘it must never be initiated with the violent motivation that exists in reality’. Women’s fantasy, the guidelines went on, was to ‘lose control’ with someone who really cared about them. If he didn’t care, it would be a ‘true rape’, and as such unacceptable to most readers.

Radway did not suggest—far from it, in fact—that the Smithton women were brainwashed dupes. What she did suggest, though, was that their way of making sense of romance fiction could be linked to their subordinate position. Like the heroines of gothic romance, they knew what it was to feel threatened, exploited or undervalued by men: what they got from their reading, Radway argued, was a way of reinterpreting hurtful or violent behaviour as an expression of men’s need and desire rather than their contempt.5293b8a343b464115800013e-1385412771-700x344

Many second-wave writings about the ideology of romantic love are reminiscent of what Marx said about religion (‘the opium of the people’). Though it gives comfort and pleasure to the oppressed, it is also an obstacle to the radical social change that would be needed to liberate them from oppression. As the #metoo debate continues, perhaps this is something we should think about. Do we just want men to become more sensitive seducers, or do we want to rewrite the traditional sexual script?






Before Cat Person: bad sex in second wave fiction

‘It is not every day’, wrote Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian this week, ‘that a short story goes viral’.  She was talking about Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, published last week in the New Yorker, and subsequently shared, discussed and dissected by thousands of readers.

What has made Cat Person a sensation is not its literary qualities. It is basically, as Cosslett says,

a tale, straightforwardly told through the eyes of a young woman, of an unpleasant sexual encounter that she has with a somewhat ambiguous stranger who turns out to be actively unpleasant.

But the response it got from women readers was extraordinary.  Their comments emphasised its ‘relatability’, the way it resonated with their experiences and their feelings: some said it was as if Roupenian had read their minds. Among men, on the other hand, reactions ranged from simple bemusement (‘I don’t get it’, tweeted one, ‘it all seems very mundane’) to outright hostility. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given how unflatteringly the central male character is depicted:

During sex, he moved her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head. When she was on top, he slapped her thigh and said, “Yeah, yeah, you like that,” with an intonation that made it impossible to tell whether he meant it as a question, an observation, or an order, and when he turned her over he growled in her ear, “I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits,” and she had to smother her face in the pillow to keep from laughing again. At the end, when he was on top of her in missionary, he kept losing his erection, and every time he did he would say, aggressively, “You make my dick so hard,” as though lying about it could make it true. At last, after a frantic rabbity burst, he shuddered, came, and collapsed on her like a tree falling, and, crushed beneath him, she thought, brightly, This is the worst life decision I have ever made!

Many commentators have put the extreme responses–both positive and negative–down to the novelty or shock value of seeing heterosex depicted from the woman’s point of view. ‘If so many [women] feel this way’, asks Cosslett, ‘then why has it gone unsaid until now?’

Actually, it hasn’t gone unsaid until now. Cat Person is utterly contemporary in its language and its setting (it belongs to a world of dating apps, flirting by text and learning your moves from internet porn), but its depiction of sex–more specifically, of bad sex–reminds me strongly of some fictions that struck a similar chord with women in the 1970s.

In a 2003 article called ‘Beyond trashiness: the sexual language of 1970s feminist fiction‘, Meryl Altman discusses three novels written by American second wave feminists–Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1973) and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973)–which became popular successes, selling enough copies outside the political subculture that produced them to ‘[carry] feminist revolutionary thought into millions of homes’. And the secret of their popularity, Altman suggests, was the way they approached the subject of sex.

They included lots of explicit heterosexual lovemaking, described from the women’s point of view, and they were forthright and clear that sexual satisfaction was important to women as well as men, that this was a reasonable and normal expectation – albeit an expectation often frustrated.

Among the recurring themes Altman identifies in these popular/feminist fictions are ‘the routine harassment and abuse of girls by boys and women by men’, ‘the expectation that [women] would both arouse and police desire’ and ‘an emphasis on sexual disappointment and male inadequacies, described in graphic detail’. Cat Person ticks the same boxes, especially the last. And just as commentators on it have been reminded of  Margaret Atwood’s aphorism ‘men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them’, so the 1970s novels very often depict men’s behaviour as simultaneously threatening and ridiculous.

Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, for instance, opens with the narrator Sasha telling her husband Frank that she has slept with another man. He responds by demanding sex (and reminding her that since they are married, she has no right to refuse):

I began to struggle in earnest. His breath on my neck made me very nervous. “Please, Frank, no fair.”
“Please, Frank, no fair,” he mimicked, adding, “bitch!”
…he pushed me onto one of the beds and deftly pinned my wrists over my head. With a wrench of his head he shook his glasses off; they dropped to the floor. I had a picture of myself as a comic-book victim, strangling on my own bra, which was flopping around my throat, and I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to laugh. But Frank looked so helpless without his glasses, dewy-eyed and unfocused, that bitch or no, I struggled not to laugh at him. …Instead I said, “I’ll scream!”
“Scream, then”, he mumbled. And, transferring both my wrists to one of his hands for an instant, he prepared with a minimum of undressing to rape me.

But then things take an unexpected turn:

There was no way out…to the accompaniment of my finally unsuppressible laughter, off we went on our last trip together.
This scene makes uncomfortable reading. Is what ultimately happens a rape, or isn’t it? It seems clear that Frank doesn’t care what Sasha wants, and is prepared to use force if he has to. She makes it so that he doesn’t have to, but her motives remain opaque: is she just resigned to the inevitable (‘there was no way out’), or does her anger give way to genuine affection, or pity?
51Stzakp-9L._SY346_What women want from sex, and how they negotiate between their own desires and others’ expectations or demands, are also questions explored in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. The resulting narrative, like Shulman’s, can be uncomfortable to read. After spending much of the novel pursuing what she refers to as ‘the zipless fuck’–a brief, anonymous sexual encounter unencumbered by emotional baggage–the heroine Isadora Wing finally gets to enact one of her favourite imaginary scenarios, having sex with a stranger on a train. But in real life she is not in control of the action, and she experiences the encounter as an assault. ‘I’d been offered my very own fantasy’, she reflects, ‘and instead of turning me on, it had revolted me!’
Like Cat Person, these second wave novels present us with female protagonists who have, as we say nowadays, ‘agency’–they are certainly not helpless victims, or passive creatures that things just happen to. Nor are they exemplary feminist heroines: though Marge Piercy’s characters are Political-with-a-capital-P, Shulman’s Sasha and Jong’s Isidora are not. They are on a quest for personal fulfilment, not trying to start a revolution. Nevertheless, their stories make clear that this quest exposes a woman to risks which men do not have to contend with, and that, in turn, exposes the limits of women’s freedom.PromQueen-cover01-330
Not only does Cat Person itself have precedents in 1970s fiction, its polarised reception echoes the way the earlier texts were talked about (albeit on a smaller scale, since the internet did not yet exist). One reviewer of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen wrote:
I daresay that not a woman reader will be really shocked and that the average man’s hair, regardless of length, will automatically stand on end from page to page.
Another suggested that
Men may curse, they may howl . . . yet men owe it to themselves to see themselves plain, as their wives and girlfriends perceive them.
Yet here we are in 2017 listening to another generation of men cursing and howling in response to another story portraying a man through a woman’s eyes. Has anything really changed since Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen?  Alix Kates Shulman asked that question herself in 1997, when the novel was reissued to mark its 25th anniversary:
Shall I rejoice that the novel, steadily in print since 1972, remains sufficiently alive to the times as to warrant a new, celebratory edition? Or should I bemoan the conditions that keep its social satire current?
Twenty years on, I think the answer is probably ‘both’. The reception of Cat Person suggests that there is still plenty to bemoan. But we should also acknowledge and celebrate the fact that women haven’t just been silent all this time. There’s a whole tradition of using fiction–comic, satirical and sexually explicit–to offer a critical female  perspective on heterosexual relations. And that evidently still packs a punch.

Battle of the Sexes: the second wave on film

My ‘further reading’ list for the Second Wave course includes a short list of feminist films from the relevant period. Most are by European directors like Chantal Akerman, Marleen Gorris, Helke Sander and Agnès Varda; I don’t list any of the mainstream films, made for a mass rather than an arthouse audience, which were either feminist in spirit (think Thelma and Louise or Fried Green Tomatoes) or else represented ‘women’s lib’ from the outside–sometimes sympathetically, as with the 1980 hit 9 to 5, in which Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin do battle with their sexist boss, and sometimes not, as with the execrable Carry On Girls, in which some militant feminists disrupt a beauty contest in an English seaside town (it was made in 1973, and is as relentlessly sexist as you’d expect from the Carry On franchise).

But this week I’ve been pondering the mainstream representation of the second wave after seeing Battle of the Sexes, a new film which tells the story of the 1973 exhibition match where tennis legend Billie-Jean King took on–and decisively defeated–the veteran player and self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. In case anyone doesn’t know the context for this event, King was the leader of a group of women tennis professionals who protested against sex discrimination (and in particular, the derisory amounts of money women players competed for) by forming their own independent tour. Riggs, who in addition to being a former grand slam-winner was a gambler, hustler and general attention-seeker, saw an opportunity: on the pretext of settling the ‘should women get equal treatment?’ question he would challenge the top woman to play him in a public ‘battle of the sexes’.

I say ‘on the pretext’ because Riggs’s motives don’t seem to have been primarily political. For him it was mostly about the publicity and the money. For King, on the other hand,  the political stakes were high. Her eye was on the real chauvinists who ran her sport, and whose position had been strengthened when Riggs won his first match against a top-ranked woman, Margaret Court. Having previously refused to be drawn into what she called a ‘circus’, she now felt compelled to accept the challenge. Her victory did advance the larger struggle, in that the US Open announced later that year that it would offer the same prize money to both sexes.

Interwoven with this narrative is another, focusing on King’s relationship with a woman, Marilyn Barnett, and the personal struggle which was precipitated by her realisation that she was sexually attracted to women. In reality this story began earlier than it is shown to do in the film, and it also ended badly, in a way the film chooses not to mention. In 1981 Barnett sued King for a share of her financial assets. King won the ensuing court case, but since it made the relationship public knowledge she also lost millions of dollars in endorsements. She wasn’t ready to declare herself a lesbian: it was not until 1987, after she became involved with her doubles partner Ilana Kloss, that she ended her marriage to Larry King.

These are both archetypal 1970s feminist stories, one dramatising women’s battle for equality and recognition in the public sphere, while the other follows a woman’s quest for freedom to live and love outside the confines of patriarchal marriage. And I should acknowledge that they are told here in a way that is both sympathetic and entertaining: Battle of the Sexes looks good and is very well acted. If I weren’t teaching a course on the second wave I’d probably just recommend it as a decent feminist night out and leave it at that. But my current preoccupation with this period of feminism’s history led me to watch it more critically than I might otherwise have done. And I found myself thinking that there’s a rather persistent problem with the way second wave feminism has been packaged for popular consumption.

Generically Battle of the Sexes is a ‘comedy drama’. It has some serious moments (like the scene where King confronts the misogynist who runs the US lawn tennis association), and there is nothing funny about the lesbian romance plot. But the battle of the title is basically a joke, a circus masterminded by, as King herself says, a clown. According to the sports writer Richard Williams, that’s also what it was in reality:

Yes, there really were 30,000 spectators in the vast Houston Astrodome for a match which, in tennis terms, had no meaning at all. Yes, there were cheerleaders in hot pants, waving pom-poms. Yes, King really was conveyed into the arena by husky young men bearing the champion on a feather-bedecked Pharaonic litter (Riggs, wearing a jacket emblazoned Sugar Daddy, arrived in a rickshaw pulled by young women in tight tops, known as Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.)

This is pretty much what you’d expect from something billed as a ‘battle of the sexes’. What’s behind that familiar formula is the ancient idea that men and women are natural adversaries, locked in an endless struggle for supremacy which neither will ever definitively win, because they are also naturally bound to one another by desire and mutual dependence. And this is basically a comedic trope. From Aristophanes’s Lysistrata through Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to Carry On Girls, the eternal battle of the sexes has repeatedly been played for laughs.

On the face of it this is not the most obvious frame for a feminist narrative, nor is it one that gets used in stories about other liberation movements (will we ever see a comedy drama about Rosa Parks called Battle of the Races? I think not). Yet I can hardly think of a single mainstream film about the second wave which doesn’t draw on the comedic ‘battle of the sexes’ tradition. 9 to 5 is a classic example, while the more recent Made In Dagenham, a dramatisation of the Ford sewing machinists’ strike for equal pay in 1968, was praised for its ‘light’ tone and compared to the British comedies Calendar Girls and The Full Monty. Like them (if more gratuitously) it featured stripping, though one woman who had worked at the plant, Gwen Davis, told a newspaper that ‘we weren’t allowed to strip off, and we had too much pride to do it even if we were’.

My own favourite mainstream movie inspired by and released during the second wave, the 1975 version of The Stepford Wives, is an exception to this rule, being not a comedy but a sci-fi/horror film. But most people reading this will probably be more familiar with the 2004 remake, in which the same story is reframed as a comedy–a darkish comedy, since it’s still about organised femicide, but a long way from the chilling dystopian vibe of the earlier version.

With the exception of the Stepford Wives remake, which I regard as a post-feminist mess, I quite like all the films I’ve just mentioned, and as I said earlier, I also enjoyed Battle of the Sexes. The fact that it’s based on a real ‘battle of the sexes’ which was as much a humorous publicity stunt as a serious political action means I can’t reasonably criticise the directors for approaching the story the way they did. But at the risk of sounding like the proverbial humourless feminist, I do feel the need to ask what it means for our understanding of the second wave that it is so often presented in this way, relying heavily on a trope with a long history of being used to trivialise sexual politics. As the New York Times pointed out in a 2006 piece about King,

Most civil rights causes are thwarted through fear, but ridicule has always been the weapon of choice against feminism.

The films I’ve cited may not set out to ridicule feminism, but why is it assumed that a film about it has to be jokey or ‘light’ when that doesn’t apply to films about other kinds of radical politics?

One answer might be that film-makers (or maybe the people who decide what films get made) think anything harder-edged would be too unpalatable for a mainstream audience to swallow. But they evidently didn’t think that about last year’s big herstory film Suffragette, a serious drama which did not pull its punches when it came to the brutal treatment of the campaigners or the unjust and oppressive laws to which women in general were subject. Maybe the difference is that the struggle for the vote (and other basic legal and civil rights) belongs to the distant rather than the recent past, and is generally seen in retrospect as a just cause. By contrast, the political struggles of the 1970s are still to quite a large extent unfinished business. And many people–some of them born long after the second wave–continue to dispute the justice of the demands feminists made then and are still making now.

In that connection I found it interesting that one reviewer (writing for, of all things, GQ) described Battle of the Sexes as ‘a prequel to the #MeToo campaign’. I imagine he was thinking particularly of some cringe-making scenes where a visibly uncomfortable Rosie Casals is forced to commentate on the King-Riggs match with her male co-presenter’s arm draped around her. In fact the film must have been shot well before the current sexual harassment scandal kicked off, and I suspect the rationale for these and other similar scenes was probably the opposite of what the GQ writer implies: not to point up the continuities between then and now, but rather to emphasise the differences.

This is another problem with the comedic framing of second wave narratives: by inviting us to laugh incredulously at the over-the-top, cartoon-like sexism which was prevalent in the past, it tends to block any recognition of the (many) ways in which things haven’t changed. 1970s sexism is amusing/ unbelievable in the same way as 1970s fashion (‘how could they say that/wear that in public?’) But like the difference between massive flares and skinny jeans, the difference between yesterday’s male chauvinist pigs and today’s MRAs is more about style than substance.

Ironically, recent events (not only the ongoing sexual harassment saga, but also the presence in the White House of a man-baby–a more malevolent and more genuinely misogynist version of Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs) make it possible to watch Battle of the Sexes in another way the makers probably didn’t intend: nostalgically. I don’t mean we should feel nostalgic for a time when women were second-class citizens and lesbians stayed firmly in the closet. But in 1973 feminists could feel that they were winning (and not just in the Houston Astrodome). They could see the male chauvinists as dinosaurs heading for extinction. Maybe the most important thing this film conveys about the second wave is that spirit of defiant optimism. If only we had more of it today.


Political lesbianism revisited

Some second wave feminists argued that withdrawing from sexual relationships with men was a radical political act. Among those who took this position were the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, whose paper on the subject caused controversy in the late 1970s. In this post, guest blogger Sydney Heifler re-reads the debate.   

In the late 1970s, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group presented a paper called ‘Political lesbianism: the case against heterosexuality’, which was later published in the feminist newsletter WIRES.*  It argued that women who were serious about feminism needed to stop having sexual relations of any kind with men. Why? Because heterosexual relationships support misogyny, full stop.

Large numbers of feminists, including lesbians, were critical of this argument. Many felt it reflected the misogynist logic of telling women how they should feel, and was unfair to straight women who had to figure out what heterosexual relationships meant for them on their terms. Others thought the proposed solution—political lesbianism—was simplistic and idealistic and couldn’t change the patriarchy. However, very few denied that heterosexual relationships were oppressive to women and problematic for feminism.

It would seem that this argument has died out. Sex, with or without a penis, is seen as liberating for women—a way to defy the idea that women are submissive.  If you look closely at today’s idea of heterosexual relationships, both as propagated in the mass media and as experienced by women personally, you can see that the issue isn’t dead. It is alive and well, and feminists still need to address it.

Even though modern women’s publications, such as Cosmo and Jezebel, would have readers think that sex has liberated the male-female relationship, their topics indicate otherwise: their writers are still excessively worried over whether or not any given woman knows how to properly swirl their tongue around a man’s penis and they think that exciting sex is bending over a sprinkler while the male partner takes the woman from behind. Women are writing these articles. Can we say that Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group was wrong?

As a heterosexual woman who has only ever had sexual and romantic relations with men, I believe that there are men out there whose don’t intend to oppress, and I don’t think every sexual act with a man is a form of oppression. That said, I also realize that all men, at least in the society I belong to, are privileged in some way by the patriarchal system. This privilege allows for oppression, which will reveal itself in a heterosexual relationship at some point. Half of the relationship, the man, has absorbed a sense of his own entitlement throughout his life. Misogyny has been pushed on him as much as it has on women.

In this sense, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group was right. Feminists who participate in heterosexual relationships do confront a paradox. Does that make political lesbianism a viable option? A complete withdrawal from relationships with men would stop them from exploiting women on a personal level, but it wouldn’t change the system that grants them their privilege. (And in practice it would be impossible get all women to abandon heterosexual relationships.)

Maybe it’s time to change the heterosexual relationship and create new demands. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group suggested that it’s better to fight sexism with other women than it is to fight with your male partner. But while this would free up more time to devote to the feminist cause (or simply to existing peacefully), would it block other kinds of feminist action aimed at changing men’s behaviour (like the actions Pat Mainardi described in 1970 in “The Politics of Housework” and making relationships between men and women equal?  (What would equality look like? It would surely look different from the heterosexual relationships we have today, or those we had in the 1970s.)

This line of reasoning poses a question which The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group answered with a resounding no, but which is still unresolved for many feminists today. Can men change, and will they? If not, then what?

*In 1981 Onlywomen Press published the text of ‘Political lesbianism’ along with the responses it attracted in WIRES, plus the LRFG’s responses to the debate, as Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism. You can read the first part of it here.