3 Dec 2013

Class, privilege and 'respectable' feminism

This fantastic response to Lily Allen's deeply questionable 'Hard Out Here' video (which I'm not going to link to, because I agree with every criticism of its racialised objectification of black women, it and so I don't particularly want to give it the click-bait) got me thinking about the intersection of class and feminism. As Deanna Rogers says so articulately, what allows Lily Allen to treat a group of (mostly black) dancers as props in her video is not just her colour, but also her wealth. With her "mortgage paid" and her "kids settled", Lily Allen is in a position that few women in the music industry can claim - she has earned the privilege to appear in her music videos fully dressed, even looking (gasp!) slightly curvier than in her earlier videos, and even attempt to send out a bit of a feminist message in her lyrics. At a time when music videos are so unanimously populated by oiled female butt-cheeks and bikini lines waxed up to one's hipbones that it's easy to forget that there was a time when women were actually allowed to wear clothes in the music industry, this in itself seems refreshing. But then we look at the giant car-crash of racist, sexist stereotypes that Allen's video relies on, and it doesn't feel so revolutionary any more. Yes, Lily Allen was allowed to claw back that tiny victory of appearing fully clothed and relatively unobjectified in her video - but only at the expense of other women.

As I wrote in my last post about Britney Spears' "Work Bitch" video, it's not the image of black women on leashes held by a powerful white woman that is problematic per se. After all, in the same way that Lily Allen defends her video by stating the consent of all the dancers involved, we can't assume that Britney's dancers were any less happy to be depicted as submissive and highly sexualised. But we also can't assume that the power dynamic between a rich white woman and her dancers is in any way equal. The majority of us are slaves to our wages, and we all do things we don't particularly like in order to earn money. That doesn't mean we hate our jobs - when I was a care worker, it's safe to say that changing incontinence pads and helping people use the toilet wasn't my favourite part of the job, but that's not to say I didn't find other aspects of my work incredibly rewarding and sometimes great fun. However, when you need to pay the rent you are inevitably in a weaker position than those who can choose to refuse work. Writing about motorsport was not something I ever intended to do, but I did it because it was paid writing work (while certain major newspapers were asking me to write for free at the time) and I found that I didn't totally hate it, and actually found some bits quite interesting. It did mean though, that when I witnessed sexist aspects of the motorsport industry - and as I'm sure you can imagine, there are quite a few - I didn't feel able to do or say much about them. I bit my lip, rolled my eyes, did my work and went home. You choose your battles much more carefully when you're aware of the need not to bite the hand that feeds you.

Now, Lily Allen's dancers, or Britney Spears' dancers, or any number of less privileged women who are paid to dance (usually wearing very little) behind a more wealthy, more privileged woman, may not feel this way at all. They may not object to or even notice the racialised way in which their sexuality is being commodified. Or if they are aware, they may simply just not care - after all, they get a nice paycheque at the end of the day, so they're content. But it's still pretty disingenuous for Allen to imply that, as long as we can check with her dancers that they were all happy to be involved with the video (and really, are any of them likely to admit live on Twitter "No, I fucking hated it, I thought it was shit"?), there is no wider problem. The very fact that Allen's lyrics proclaim she is somehow superior because she doesn't "shake her arse on TV" says far more than her denial that her take-down of sexism is both sexist and racist itself. It also brings to mind a facet of feminism that has begun to grate on me more and more recently - the privileged, middle-class feminism that polices and dictates acceptable behaviour based upon its own narrow viewpoint.

Full disclosure - I AM middle class, white and identify as largely heterosexual. So I accept that whatever I say here is likely to be tainted by those privileges. However, I'd like to think I am learning, however slowly, to question them and how they mean my voice may be awarded more credibility and airtime simply because of them. A friend recently said to me she didn't think she was a feminist because she hadn't "read lots of books all about it". It made me sad to think that she felt excluded from a movement intended to welcome all, simply because she hadn't necessarily done the academic legwork. It also made me think, much as I loathed the deliberate shit-stirring of Joss Whedon's 'I don't like 'ists'' speech, he may have inadvertently had a point about some versions of feminism coming across as primarily concerned with academic discussions, to the detriment of real actions. I don't want a feminism that asks to see your degree certificate before you're allowed through the gate.

Nor do I want one that labels women either respectable or disposable, which is pretty much what Lily Allen has done in her video by implying that rich white women get to wear clothes and have integrity, while less well-off black women get to have champagne poured on their naked buttocks and be 'hos'. It brings to my mind the prurient mainstream fascination with well-spoken, middle-class 'call girl' Belle de Jour, the articulate and educated sex worker whose blog, books and TV adaptation were hungrily consumed by the British public. Were Belle from a council estate and had left school at 16, the discourse surrounding her would be very different, I'd imagine. She would be assumed to be ignorant, desperate and doing sex work only out of lack of other options - and I doubt she would have a regular column in a major, right-of-centre UK newspaper either. When I talk to people about my friend, a single mother whose children have different fathers, I can see the stereotype forming in their heads. I feel I have to immediately jump to her defence and explain that she is intelligent, articulate, well-qualified, a fantastic mother, and not promiscuous, empty-headed or irresponsible as people will inevitably assume she must be. In other words, I feel I have to emphasise that she is not a 'chav', not a candidate for The Jeremy Kyle Show, that bear-baiting programme watched so often by middle-class people, supposedly in the spirit of irony, but really just so they can feel better by mocking the less well-off. But why should I have to make that distinction? What would it matter if my friend was one of 'those women' - isn't the point of feminism to fight for us all, not just those of us who can afford to do their weekly shop in Waitrose?

Nowhere did I see the lines of 'respectability' more vehemently drawn, both by women who identified as feminists and those who did not, than when I recently wrote about Swansea University Union's decision to ban the pole fitness society. You can read the article for my full list of reasons for disagreeing with the ban, but the feeling that pervaded my take on the subject was one that well-meaning, very likely middle-class feminists, were patronising women they saw as less enlightened than themselves. By dictating to the female and male students of Swansea University that they couldn't consensually participate in a fitness activity, the union was basically telling women that they knew what was best for them, and that anyone doing pole dancing for fitness, or even (god forbid!) for money must basically be a brainwashed victim. But it wasn't just SUU who were making those distinctions. When I discussed the issue with several women, one of whom is a pole fitness instructor, the others in the conversation us were at pains to emphasise to her  "But you just teach it. You're not actually a pole dancer," implying that the real strippers that this woman teaches (who are by no means her only students) were beyond the pale, but she was still graciously allowed entrance to the club of respectable women. That's not a feminism I want any part of.

I'm currently reading this excellent book documenting some of the most famous women of the 'Flapper' era, who challenged conventional sexual morality and traditionally held views on how women should behave. This has really made me think how class privilege has long allowed certain feminists access into worlds that exclude poor, working class or women of colour. What comes through to me again and again as I read about Tamara de Lempicka, Nancy Cunard and Tallulah Bankhead, is how their wealth and social status enabled these women to be as transgressive as they were. Had they been preoccupied with earning money and trying to keep their heads above water as the average working-class woman of their era had been, it's doubtful that they would have had the luxury to become the artists, writers and actors that they did. Had they been middle-class women expected to surrender themselves to marriage, children and domesticity, it's unlikely they would've gotten much chance to gallivant around Paris and attend orgies either. What seems to have allowed them this freedom was their upper class status - their wealth and class gave them the social power to drink, smoke, wear shorter skirts and have pre-marital sex without being questioned, and the image of the arty, bohemian, upper-class eccentric was a convenient cover for this behaviour, one not afforded to poorer women of lower status.

I don't see that much has changed when I look at how women like Lily Allen and the powers that be at Swansea Students' Union are proclaiming themselves feminists largely at the expensive of other, less privileged women. At least many of the famous flapper women never proclaimed to speak for all women, whereas the kind of feminism that Allen and SSU are practising is doing exactly that - unjustifiably and presumptuously. I suppose the best way us middle-class, white, heterosexual cisgendered feminists can help change this is not just to stop speaking for other women, but maybe stop speaking at all - and listen, for a change, to the stories of women whose faces are often absent from the public image of feminism. So on that note, I'll now STFU.

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