I hold no love for David Cameron except for this morning when I did feel like giving our old moon faced leader a big kiss on one of his sizable cheeks. Apparently, our PM has refused to don a t-shirt proclaiming ‘this is what a feminist looks like’. It is, of course, the sensible thing to do, even if it doesn’t seem politically shrewd. For a start, if he wore the shirt, it would still not be what a ‘feminist looks like’ because ‘feminist’, being an abstract noun, doesn’t look like anything. Feminists don’t look like Ed Miliband or Ed Balls. They don’t even look like Benedict Cumberbatch, though that’s something of a rarity these days given that everybody and everything looks like Benedict Cumberbatch who doesn’t seem to capable of saying ‘no’ to a role. The snowman in this year’s John Lewis Christmas ad? Benedict Cumberbatch. The model for next year’s new Mini hatchback? Benedict Cumberbatch…
‘This is what a feminist looks like’ just makes as much as sense as saying ‘this is what sexy looks like’ when you don’t have an idea what I think sexy looks like. Unless you’re going to get Sigourney Weaver posing in an LFC top and thumbing Martin Rowson’s newest collection of cartoons, then I really doubt if you know what sexy does look like. And that’s a problem with using such a heavily loaded phrase. ‘Feminism’, to me, is a whole range of positive and negative meanings, experiences bound up in persons I variously liked, loved, admired, or despised. It also assumes that I have exactly the same thoughts about gender equality as you or Ed Milliband or the editor of Elle Magazine when there’s a chance they’re not.
I would hate to label myself a ‘feminist’ because it’s too narrow a definition, in the same way that I shrug my shoulders when people tell me they’re against homophobia or female genital mutilation. I find myself thinking: good for you but wouldn’t any right-minded person be against those things? It’s not as though we’re talking about grey areas such as genetic engineering in Brighton or fracking laboratory beagles. You wouldn’t think of wearing a shirt saying ‘this is what anti-murderist looks like’ because people should already assume that you’d be against murder. It would be more appropriate to wear a shirt saying ‘this is what somebody looks like when they like to state the bloody obvious in a pithy but fashionable way’.
Besides, to wear a shirt proclaiming any message marks you as a person who believes in the power of t-shirts emblazoned with messages and those are some of the scariest people out there. They’re the people seen red faced on the front row of any mob; people who can’t see past the rhetoric to the difficult reality. And that’s always been the power of rhetoric in that it makes you admire the rhetoric rather than the reality. Plato banned certain types of poetry from his Republic because he recognised that people can be too easily motivated by fine words. Plato, I think, would have also banned memes from his ideal city. There would be no ice-bucket challenge in Ancient Greece, unlike today when nearly every celebrity seems to have taken it, though a much smaller fraction than 100% of them could tell you who Lou Gehrig was and why ice has now become synonymous with his name.
Has any medium overwhelmed the simple message as much as the ice bucket challenge drowned out the message about the disease? The whole thing began to resemble the old schoolyard dare in which the gang give themselves over to the power of simple but powerful message. The message might be something as dumb as poking a lump of dog shit with your finger yet any reasonable person might say poking dog shit with your finger leaves you venerable to god knows what diseases.
‘Do you want to make me blind?’ you’d protest.
‘Ah, you’re frightened of dog shit!’ would come the answer.
‘No,’ you reply, ‘I just think the whole dog-shit poking scenario is more complicated than you’re allowing.’
There aren’t many issues which are morally more absolute than the stupidity of poking dog shit. ‘I’m pro-breathing’ would perhaps be one, alongside ‘human rights not snow rights’. At the same time, whilst feminism is self-evidently wishes to say something positive, it is also more complicated than a man simply wearing a t-shirt proclaiming that he’s a feminist. A t-shirt doesn’t change the reality of the cabinet dominated by men. It doesn’t make a convincing argument for positive discrimination (there really isn’t one). Nor would it recognise that the problem no longer lies in our notions of gender but in the very definition of the word ‘equality’. True equality is impossible since our differences are bound up in the very fabric of our DNA. Monty Python were perhaps the most profound when Stan told the People’s Front of Judea that he wanted to have a baby.
Reg: You want to have babies?!?!
Stan: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.
Reg: But … you can’t HAVE babies!
Stan: Don’t you oppress me!
Reg: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the foetus gonna gestate? You gonna keep it in a box?
Perhaps we need a more enlightened view of our entire society, our notions of success and failure, intelligence, power, careers, ambition… Many feminist writers have acknowledged that woman think differently to men and are as powerful but in sometimes different ways. Perhaps it’s men who are wrongly obsessed with working their way up the greasy poles of industry or politics. Wearing a t-shirt that says ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ also says, ‘this is what a man looks like who is so uncomfortable with the issue of gender equality that I have to wear this patronising t-shirt’. As far as I can see, it’s fighting a battle which was won decades ago. Equality today is as much about gender as it is about race, class, education and the green economy.
So, please go and wear your slogans and read Russell Brand’s books, filled with pith and fruity vinegar but not much else. It marks you out as a limited free thinker, a person who reduces the wonderfully complicated structure of the universe into abstract concepts that will ultimately fail. Today, and just for today, I’m on the side of the Prime Minister. Just don’t ask me to express my support in the form of a t-shirt.