50 Shades of Feminisim | Book Review | Professionelle

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

50 Shades

“I’ve raised my son to be a feminist.”

At a relevant moment, I dropped this statement into dinnertime conversation at a UK friend’s house recently. My dinner companions were good company; each was well-travelled and very highly educated. Yet my words were met with barely suppressed surprise and even consternation. I hurriedly replayed them in my head – I was jetlagged after all. Had I somehow said cannibal? Perhaps sadist?

I see my son’s upbringing as recruiting one more good man to the feminist cause, because I’ve learned the impact that ‘a few good men’ can have on progressing fairness for women. My dinner companions seemed to see my efforts much less positively.  I felt, fleetingly, as if I’d railroaded my son into something at best irrelevant for a young man, at worst directly detrimental to him.

The Other F Word

You don’t have to search far to find the stereotypes that the word ‘feminist’ probably conjured up that evening. Hairy, ugly, fat, aggressive, and man-hating to boot. Seemingly, this is the unprompted association most people have with feminism, and a recent study from Canada endorses this.  To be clear, the man-haters are out there. It is their words, largely penned in the 1970s, that are still widely quoted, while many more temperate perspectives are ignored.

It’s no wonder that so many young women, including those I meet through Professionelle, are leery of identifying as feminist. It has become the other F Word that few want to own up to. If I had a dollar for each time I’ve heard, “I’m not a feminist but…”

Equalism

The more common line being taken by young people was well expressed by my friend’s 19 year old son. He said he didn’t know if he was a feminist, but he was sure he was an equalist.  There is, in fact, a move afoot to rebrand feminism into something less tainted, and equalism is the word that is popping up.

It’s an appealing phrase. If there’s one thing feminists of all colours seem able to agree on it’s that we want equality. But exactly what equality looks like and how to get there is where the debates start.

Many Mansions

As I was reading around the topic and the book I’m here to review (I promise I’ll get to it), I came across this comment in the New Statesman,

“…don’t even mention pornography or prostitution: ask three feminists for their views on those and you’ll get four opinions.”

This diversity of feminist approach and opinion is often used to belittle the movement, I’ve noticed. Feminism needs to ‘sort itself out’, it doesn’t know what it wants, it’s muddleheaded. The same might fairly be said of the many mansions in Christianity, in conservatism, in neo-classical economics – but somehow it never is said (what a surprise).

Well timed

But there’s no doubting there are many flavours of feminism, and I have found myself distinctly ignorant about them. Social, cultural, liberal, French, materialist, radical, and post-feminist. When, three days after the dinner, another UK friend offered me her copy of 50 Shades of Feminism I leapt at it.  Perhaps, I thought, this would help educate me on the differences in the movement.

It won’t detract from what follows if I say here that it didn’t, not in any tidy fashion. But as you’ll see, I enjoyed it and am recommending it, whether you read it to refresh your feminist zeal or to sharpen your anti-feminist arguments on!

The Book (at last)

The book was inspired, as you may have guessed, by the success of 50 Shades of Grey, which has apparently been read by 50 million women. The editors (Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach) were discussing this publishing phenomenon, but also the gloomy statistics on the rampant porn industry, the dearth of good childcare and the persistent gender pay gap. Not liking the whine in their voices they moved determinedly to action, conceiving the idea of a different 50 Shades, with contributions drawn from far and wide in the feminist community.

It’s a small point, but the book actually holds 55 Shades, excluding the cartoons and quotations that separate the contributions.  I could have found them five to cull – but not many more than that.

Short…

The pieces run no longer than 1200 words – perfect for the time fractured working woman and/or mother to pick up, enjoy, and put down. They are arranged alphabetically rather than stylistically or thematically. Other reviewers complained of jerky transitions but I found, like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, that it added to the anticipation: I never knew what I what I was going to get next.

At the back are brief biographies of the contributors. About two thirds are UK-based with others hailing from all the main outposts of Empire plus China, USA, Turkey and the Lebanon. Many of the writers’ surnames, including those based in the UK, are not ‘traditional’ English which increases the sense of reading from a melting pot of perspectives.

None are written by men. I’d like to hear the voices of feminist men, but I can see that the first wave of Shades, even the second and third, should go to women. We could use the airtime on this subject, without interruption!

… But Not Sweet

The Shades are not pretty.  They are unapologetic, sometimes strident, occasionally funny and one moved me to tears. They make clear, I believe, why we still need feminism as a (many-splendoured) movement, why we are not yet at the stage of gracefully transitioning to equalism, and why we are far from reaching a post-feminist point in the journey.  Feminists can expect to come away feeling feisty and gung ho!

Some contributions are autobiographical, some fiction, and some straight social commentary. One or two are an unknowable blend of all three. At heart, whatever the method chosen, most showcase experiences that introduced the writer/heroine to feminism or strengthened her resolve to change things for herself and for others.

Favourites

These, in no particular order, were my favourites:

  • Meera Syal’s Eating His Heart in the MarketPlace in which she reports on playing the part of Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. She focuses on the cathartic moment when Beatrice lets rip, expressing her pain at her powerlessness as a woman in a patriarchal world.  Syal writes,

“I felt that I was channelling a deeply felt universal truth and it chimed in some blood-and-bone memory. The women in our audience heard and felt it too. And these words were written by a man. He must have mixed with some amazing women.”

  • Helen Kennedy QC’s Eve was Framed! and the thematically similar Woman in Law by Martha Spurrier. Both writers were feminists as teenagers, and both were deeply confronted by the entrenched double standards they found in law courts where women were tested on a different basis to men by being stereotyped into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Spurrier wrote,

“If feminism hadn’t felt real before, it became real very fast and it felt instinctive and necessary.”

And Kennedy said,

” … the idea we live in a post-feminist era, where men and women are equal, is risible. Spend a few days in the courts… The cases will chill you to the bone.”

  • Marilyn Waring’s Five Feminist Vignettes. Because she’s a Kiwi. And because she shares with us the Bechdel Test for Women in Film (Three questions: Are there 2 or more named women in the movie? Do they talk to each other? Do they talk about something other than a man?)
  • In the preface, Margaret Attwood’s poem Update on Werewolves. You’ll love it or hate it. A few lines:

O freedom, freedom and power!
They sing as they lope over bridges…

Tomorrow they’ll be back
in their middle management black
and Jimmy Choos
with hours they can’t account for
and first dates’ blood on the stairs.

Endings

A note on the endings you’ll find in this collection. The contributors were given very little time to submit their work because of the goal of publishing in time for International Women’s Day 2013. Endings, I can tell you as a writer, are tricky things. These were necessarily rushed and a few feel clunky and overdone.

But not all. Certainly not these closing words by Sharon Haywood in Owning the F-Word:

“Taking ownership of the [feminist] label doesn’t require abandoning the role of a stay-at-home mother, earning a doctorate in gender studies or founding a non-profit organisation (and it certainly doesn’t trigger overnight facial hair), but it does mean possessing and wielding our combined potential and power to achieve genuine equality.
Individually it starts with the assertion, Yes I am a feminist. Full stop.”

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