You have to live under a rock not to have noticed. Feminism is making a come-back. One of its most vocal UK voices is the young super smart writer Laurie Penny, also known as Penny Red. Like many prominent feminists (De Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Susan Sontag) before her it must if not irk, strike Laurie Penny as ironic that she looks well... striking. This cross that many women have to bear, that they are valued and devalued for their appearance and not for other intrinsic qualities, in particular what goes on in their heads, is a dilemma that many feminists have grappled with through the years. Penny - a prolific writer - examines this exact point herself in her first book
, Meat Market. She writes that our current worldview denies the reality of women’s minds and bodies, teaching them to “shrink, silence, be small, be sexy, be nice, and never bite off more than [they] can chew.”
Penny might be young but she writes from experience. When she was 16 suffered from anorexia to such an extent that she had to be hospitalised. In a fantastic essay
in The Independent she recounts how it just happened to her. "I can't remember the precise moment when I became addicted to avoiding food. At 16, I was unhappy at school, my parents were getting divorced, and I was sickened by the urgency of the desires I felt, not just for food but for love, sex, work, excitement — normal human needs that I had learned were dangerous and wicked.
I decided that it would be simpler to train myself not to want anything at all. At first, I cut out chocolate and treats; then it was carbohydrates and dairy, then breakfast, lunch and dinner. As my adolescent puppy fat began to pour away, friends and family complimented my new figure, reinforcing the message that good girls don't eat. I felt light, pure and virtuous."
Penny obviously has a potent will - when she was hospitalised and saw the state of other girls in a similar position, she made a decision to get better. She began to eat and stuck with it. But no matter how she was praised by her male lovers on her returning curves did she like them (the curves that is). For her the breakthrough came when she no longer only valued herself by her dress size and looks. She says that women have internalised the discrimination against them, and that they perpetuate it themselves. She is not a fan of liberal feminism which claim that women are liberated if they make their own choices: "Contemporary pseudo-feminism is all about the power of yes. Yes, we want shoes, orgasms and menial office work. Yes, we want chocolate, snuggles and straight hair. Yes, we will do all the dirty little jobs nobody else wants to do, yes, we will mop and sweep and photocopy and do the shopping and plan the meals and organise the parties and wipe up all the shit and the dirt and grin and strip and perform and straighten out backs and smile and say yes, again, yes, we will do it all. Yes, we will buy, more than anything we will buy what you tell us we need to buy to be acceptable. Yes, the word of submission, the word of coercion and capitulation. Yes, we will fuck you in gorgeous lingerie and yes we will make you dinner afterwards. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!"
One could of course say that Miley Cyrus - swinging naked on a wrecking ball - is an example of a woman exercising this liberal feminist idea of choice that Penny rails against. But Penny refuses
to criticise Cyrus, to slut shame, because she says her choice of 'bland sexual performance' is still the only kind of power society grants young women. "The problem is not that we cannot decide whether nearly-naked pop stars are empowered or exploited. The problem is that bland sexual performance is still the only power this society grants to young women, and it grants it grudgingly, rushing to judge and humiliate them whenever they claim it. Rather than condemn girls as they try to negotiate this strange, sexist society – a society that offers temporary, dazzling power to those who play the game –we should be supporting them as they grow up, make art and stick out their tongue at the whole stuck-up world – and that starts with a stand against slut-shaming."
It is in this vain that Penny has also been a vocal supporter of female sex workers, for them to be given proper legal protection by the state. Penny is no prude.
Penny's second book Notes from the New Age of Dissent
covers a whole range of political topics, including protest. She did after all attend all the big significant ones in the UK in last few years herself, often tweeting reports. But it is her short book Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet
about to come out in 2014 that has many excited. As I stated at the start of this article feminism is making a comeback. Some claim it's because social media have given women a visibility and a direct voice that the mainstream media denied them. (Ed: Digital media certainly made it possible for Miista to exist.)
But those women that have stuck their necks out - like Caroline Criado-Perez - who campaigned to have for the first time head of a female on UK banknotes (author Jane Austen will be the face of the 10 pound banknote from 2017) have had a hard time of it. She and Penny herself have received all manner of awful messages online including rape and death threats. But unlike some feminists who have called on Twitter and government to block abusers Penny does not agree
: "The answer to censorship is not more censorship — it’s more openness, more talking, supporting each other to stay in spaces which have become hostile, and calling people out for shitty behaviour."