Having followed the Emma Watson furore, what I would really, really like is to go out on a sisterly date with this amazing young woman who ceaselessly examines and tests the meaning and perils of modern feminism. On the cover of Vanity Fair she wears something that barely covers her boobs. This provoked ridicule and vilification from some female hacks. Julia Hartley Brewer – someone I know and like and is enviably bosomy herself- was the cruellest of Cruellas in a tweet: ‘feminism, feminism…gender gap…oh why am I not taken seriously…feminism, oh and here are my tits’ Unnecessarily unkind. Watson did respond, with spirit and genuine emotion: ‘Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick to beat women with. It’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it’. She confesses she is stunned by the reactions and confused. As are many other females. Feminism is more complicated and tortuous than they know.
Let’s take the point about feminists beating up women. We should never only praise and revere other women in the name of solidarity. That would mean repressing all criticism of, say Theresa May or Sarah Vine aka Mrs Gove or Cherie Blair or model Naomi Campbell all of whom have been egotistical and morally flexible. On the other hand, we weathered feminists need to stop being self righteous. We are not purist, eternal keepers of sacred tenets. Our younger sisters are more savvy and smart than we ever could be.
Watson is a celeb who depends on millions of adorers. Yet she uses the media not simply to publicise her latest movies or keep her name up in the lights, but to get serious messages across. I know, my daughter is less fearful of the word ‘feminism’ because Watson gives it cachet. Others who grew up on Harry Potter books will be similarly encouraged. Just as impressive are other young activists- Laura Bates, Emily Reynolds, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, Kat Banyard, Nesrine Malik, Reni Eddo-Lodge and so many others- have the kind of poise, commitment and deep awareness I never had. ( Look them up if the names are unfamiliar. Never again will you think or say sexism is unbeatable) Moreover, they are unafraid of social media, even when they are confronted by grotesque abuse and threats. ( I still avoid Facebook) Back in the old days, I burnt my lovely black lacy bra on a pyre, read the great feminist texts, went on marches, but really, inside I was a domesticated little wifie who wanted to please men too much. Compare that with the ease, skills and elan of teens, those in their twenties and early thirties. Heck they even ask for proper equal pay, which I never dared to. If we weren’t so often disgruntled, we oldies would see the awesome skills of those who have come after us.
But we are wiser when it comes to men and self- preservation. I get it when young women say they claim their sexuality and the right to choose who they want to be. You should be able to be sexy, pretty, fashionable and still be intellectually serious and a proper feminist. That’s the hope. Maybe a day will come when they can have it all: sex appeal, respect, equality, autonomy and safety. Not yet though. In our ‘liberated’ times females are unsafe in the most advanced democracies, in civilized institutions – big companies, universities, even Parliaments. They can be harassed, blackmailed, abused, molested raped and destroyed. Too many males expect sexual gratification and too many females feel too frightened to resist them. According to the NSPCC over 40% of teenage girls feel pressured to have sex and some have been raped. Boys are influenced by hard porn online and want what they see.
It’s extreme naïvity to think images can be owned and controlled in our culture. How many men will have had horrible, dirty fantasies looking at Ms Watson on the cover of Vanity fair? Will some of them think she is asking for it? Yes. They shouldn’t, but they will. Young girls and women to whom she is a role model, may emulate her too. Clothes give messages, both intended and unintended. An intelligent feminist must be be pragmatic and realistic as well as demanding.
Old and young feminists need to understand better what feminism was and now is. Divided we stumble and fall. Together, as we saw on the women’s marches, we can shake up the world. It’s time to talk.
I newspaper 8/3/17