from Unspeakable Things

· Beyond Fear of Differences, Essays · , ,

by Laurie Penny

Feminism is not a set of rules. It is not about taking rights away from men, as if there were a finite amount of liberty to go around. There is an abundance of liberty to be had if we have the guts to grasp it for everyone. Feminism is a social revolution, and a sexual revolution, and feminism is in no way content with a missionary position. It is about work, and about love, and about how one depends very much on the other. Feminism is about asking questions, and carrying on asking them even when the questions get uncomfortable.

For example. A question about whether men and women should be paid equally for equal work leads to another about what equal work really means when most domestic and caring jobs are still done by women for free, often on top of full-time employment. The answers to that lead to a whole new set of questions about what work should be paid, and what is simply a part of love and duty, and then you start questioning the nature of love itself, and that’s when it really starts to get uncomfortable.

The confinement of women to the home has never just been a middle-class experience. However, some of the earliest Second-Wave feminism, starting with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, spoke chiefly of the plight of the suburban wife and mother, her frustration and neurosis, her longing to escape her endless rotation of dishes and dinnerdates and salon gossip to the male world of work and power from which she was excluded. That pain—the torment of the middle-class housewife long- ing for an office job—has been allowed to define the popular understanding of what feminism is for, and what women really want, for two generations. The fact that outside white suburbia women have always had to work for money does not factor into this convenient fiction. The fantasy that all women really need in order to be equal and contented is to be permitted to work for pay, while continuing to perform their duties in the home—an exhausting schedule of self- negation that we now speak of as “having it all.” “Having it all” now means having a career, kids, a husband, a decent blow-dry —and that’s it.

Work itself has been repurposed as women’s liberation. However unsatisfying and badly paid, if you’ve got a job, you’re a free bitch, baby. Anyone who has actually done a day’s work knows that this is a cyclopean lie. Nonetheless, women’s liberation has been redefined as absolute conformity to contemporary standards of femininity, at best a conformity that requires endless work, constant disappointment, a conformity that is no sure route to health and happiness even for those who have the means to pursue it. Modem do-it-all superwomen are so knackered and seething that they have started baking stacks of silly little biscuits and flouncing about in retro 1950s-print dresses as if doing so might bring back the days when you still had to do the shopping, the cooking and the squeezing out of babies but if you were very lucky and very pretty you might be able to persuade a man to cover the finances, because the further away from it some of us get the better that option is starting to look.

The past is a different country: people are always laying claim to it in the name of one ideology or another, with no regard for the people that actually live there. For women and girls in the West, recent his- tory has been colonised by the notion that previous generations of females were not free chiefly because they could not work for a wage. In the modern fantasy of the 1950s, women were confined to the home, to the kitchen sink and the picket fence and the husband and kids. For a great many exhausted modern women, this gilded fairy-tale cage is probably rather appealing: spending your days fussing around the house and watching your kids grow up is hardly less dignified than trekking daily to an office job that pays you less than the cost of a two-room flat. If all feminism won for us is the right to work, you could be forgiven for feeling that maybe gender liberation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that maybe the women who plumped for the handsome prince and housewifery had the right idea all along.

What should we want, as girls, as boys, as humans fighting for identity and power when we’re supposed to stay in neat lines of behaviour based on biology? What do we get to want from each other and from our lives?

Femininity as it is currently conceived is entrepreneurial, and it is competitive: hack social theorists like Catherine Hakim speak without irony of women’s “erotic capital,” a manner which is only repulsive because it makes explicit what is so often said out of the corners of the mouths of parents and teachers and girlfriends: your femininity is a brand, your eroticism your best money in the bank, to be held and cashed in when it is of most value. Your very gender identity, one of the most intimate parts of what makes you yourself, is entirely for sale, or should be. This is one of the reasons why women, and particularly young women, have adapted particularly well to the way in which social media and the capitalisation of the social realm requires everyone to apply the logic of branding to our own lives in order to gain followers. We have always been encouraged to understand femininity as a form of branding, albeit one burnt into our flesh at birth.

Work, beauty and romance, then marriage, mortgage and kids: that definition of total freedom has been allowed to conquer our imaginations, leaving no space for any other lives. But what if you want something else? Is that still allowed?


The Girl In Green at the back of the room has had her hand up for fifteen minutes. Her arm is weakening and she’s having to hold it up with the other hand. She cannot be more than twenty. She has the sort of pale, flowy princess hair that I used to long for as a child, the sort of hair that makes you want to touch it to see if it’s really as soft as it looks, the sort of hair that would stream behind you when you run, that belongs to the sort of girl who’s never supposed to run anywhere. We’re in a university lecture room in Germany, and I’ve been invited to speak about gender and desire like I know the answers.

The girl with the princess hair has that flush in her face that men write longingly of because it implies both youth and shame. She is the sort of girl that writers of every gender describe at length and don’t bother to listen to. She is the sort of girl who sits at the back waiting for her turn to ask a question and does not complain when her turn does not come, except that this time it does, and it’s this:

“What do I want?”

I ask her to repeat that, please. I’m not sure I’ve heard correctly.

“My question is, ‘What do I really want?’ You talk about what women want and what we are told to want like there’s a difference. I know in my heart that I want to be free and independent. But I also want to be beautiful, and have a boyfriend, and please my parents, and do everything the magazines say. So how do I know if what I want is what I really want? And what should I want?”

Well, isn’t that the question. What are we supposed to want? What should we want, as girls, as boys, as humans fighting for identity and power when we’re supposed to stay in neat lines of behaviour based on biology? What do we get to want from each other and from our lives?

Desire is a social idea. It has taken me until I’m almost out of the official part of my youth even to work out what I want to want.

I can tell you what we’re supposed to want: hard work, bland beauty and romance leading to money, marriage and kids: the definition of total freedom that has been allowed to conquer our imaginations, leaving no space for any other lives. But what if we want something else? Is that still allowed?

What if we want freedom?


There Comes A Time when you have to decide whether to change yourself to fit the story, or change the story itself. The decision gets a little easier if you understand that refusing to shape your life and personality to the contours of an unjust world is the best way to start creating a new one. There comes a time when you have to decide what you will permit yourself to want. While we’re on the subject, here’s what I want. I want mutiny. I want women and queers and everyone else who’s been worked over by gender and poverty and power, which by the way means most of us, to stop waiting to be rewarded for good behavior. There are no gold stars coming and there are few good jobs left. Even if we buy the right clothes and work the right hours and show up every day with the same cold gag of a smile clenched between our teeth, there’s no guarantee we’ll be left alone to grow old before the floodwaters come in. Forget it. It’s done. The social revolution that’s been choking and stumbling down a gauntlet of a century and more, the feminist fightback, the sexual re-scripting, the tearing up of old norms of race and class and gender, it has to start again, with all of us this time, not just the rich white kids who needed it least. So it has to be mutiny.


It Must Be Mutiny. Nothing else will do. I used to be less hardline about this. I used to vote, and sign petitions, and argue for change within the system. I stayed up all night to watch Obama get elected; I cheered for the Liberals in London. I thought that maybe if we kept asking for small change—a shift in attitudes about body hair, a slight increase in the minimum wage, maybe shut down a few porn shops and let the gays marry—then eventually we’d get the little bit of freedom we wanted, if it wasn’t too much trouble.

No more of that. Being a good girl gets you nowhere. Asking nicely for change gets you nowhere. Mutiny is necessary. Class mutiny, gender mutiny, sex mutiny, love mutiny. It’s got to be mutiny in our time.

Photo by Philippe Leroyer

Photo by Philippe Leroyer

We’re encouraged to feel sympathetic only towards the people who have traditionally held power in society—men, white people, straight people, the upper classes—for graciously giving away a tiny bit of their privilege, scraps of opportunity for the rest of us to share. We’re told that equality on paper, equality in a court of law, is enough in a society whose laws have always been applied unfairly and pursued unequally. Most of all we’re told that this is enough. There can be no better world than the one we’re living in now. We learn that equality, social opportunity and personal and sexual freedom are luxuries that society can’t afford. But it’s not true. Liberty cannot be crafted in a court of law alone. This isn’t the sexual revolution we were told was over and done with. This isn’t where feminism finished. This is where it starts.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this really is as good as it gets. Maybe history did end in 1989 and we’re all going to have to put up with the way things are. Maybe we’re happy that so many girls grow up scared and abused, that so many women are obliged to carve themselves up and shut themselves down and be beautiful and silent until men have no use for them any more, that so many men and boys are helped to build a box of violence and inertia to keep their pain and rage in and quietly taught to lock the door from the inside. Maybe a bit of us likes it better that way.

So here’s the deal. I’m not going to tell you how to be a better version of what you already are. I’m not going to lay out yet another set of rules for how to behave, or how to make nice, or how to be the best girl you can be. And I swear to you, I absolutely promise, I’m not going to tell you whether or not to shave your pubic hair or judge you on the state of your armpits. I could not give a damn about your furze or lack of it.

Nor is this yet another guidebook for navigating the treacherous machine of patriarchy when what we should be doing is smashing the machine and quitting the factory with as many of our loved ones as we can grab. The world doesn’t need another handbook for how to submit with dignity to a world that wants you to hate yourself. Women and girls in particular don’t need any more rules for living and working and grooming and loving. There are already too many rules, most of them contradictory. I’ve been reading those glossy guidebooks since I was five years old along with a loadbearing amount of feminist theory, and I’ve still got no idea how to be a good girl, and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.

Photo by Emmanuel Keller

Photo by Emmanuel Keller

I’m not here to tell you how to be a feminist, or whether you should be one at all. I call myself a feminist to fuck with people, and because it’s a great way to weed out the creeps in bars, but feminism isn’t an identity. Feminism is a process. Call yourself what you like. The important thing is what you fight for. Begin it now.

Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist, public speaker, activist, and feminist who was born in London in 1986. Penny is a Contributing Editor of New Statesman magazine, Editor-at-Large at the New Inquiry, and also writes for The Guardian.

From Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution. Copyright © 2014 by Laurie Penny. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.

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