I Am Really Enjoying the Rise of New Feminism
I almost called this post “Why Chvrches Make Me Hate Music – Again!” because it was inspired by their singer Lavren Mayberry’s fantastic Guardian piece about the kind of rapey, misogynistic abuse she has to put up with when managing the band’s social media profile. From their own fans.
But I still get so many people utterly failing to understand the point of the first post, even now, that I eventually decided it just wasn’t worth it. One thing I should mention though, is that whether or not I am personally into their music – and I am yet to hear the album so I don’t really have an opinion at all as yet – they most clearly have gone on to justify the early hype I was discussing in that original post and I mean it genuinely when I say well done to them.
Lauren doesn’t need any more internet praise for her article than she’s had already, I guess, but just for the record I too thought it was brave, well-written, and extremely well-judged. Quite apart from the content itself, I thought she judged the tone perfectly.
Quite how your enjoyment of a band’s music and attraction to their singer leads you to make rape threats – serious or not – is pretty much beyond me, I have to confess, but of course it’s easy for pretty much everyone to point at that kind of behaviour and abhor it.
One aspect of this issue is nothing to do with misogyny, of course, it is the murky water of anonymous internet hatred and a quick and unpleasant flick through the Public Shaming blog will show you that it is far from exclusively a gender issue, although that is of course one of its more prolific elements.
The misogynistic aspect is something else, however, and something which it has been good to see being addressed more and more, recently. Feminism is back, it seems, and it is back with an awesome, awesome vengeance.
My somewhat confrontational sense of humour and innate desire to wind people up seems to mean that it can surprise people that I think of myself as a feminist, but I do. It shouldn’t be a surprise, really, given who I married, and given the fact that my mother is strongly feminist and that her mother, whether a feminist or not, was most certainly a matriarch.
I went to an international school too, which means that I grew up surrounded by people of pretty much every nationality, religion and race. In that sort of scenario you learn pretty quickly that the people with whom you have common cause are not necessarily the ones with whom you share national provenance, skin colour or genital configuration.
It seems so obvious as to be a little trite, but you basically learn to judge people not on what they are, but on who they are. So in that sense I am not a feminist specifically, I simply try not to judge people until I have a good idea who they are, with women obviously being covered by the term ‘people’.
The thing is, though, lessons you absorb fairly uncritically as a kid can drift away when they are left unused, and for twenty years my direct engagement with feminism drifted a bit. Partly I think that was because as a single man feminist issues don’t tend to come up all that often – or at least, you can get lazy about noticing them. And partly, between FHM and the Spice Girls, anything resembling actual, explicit, vocal feminism became hugely unfashionable in the nineties and noughties.
The problem with that, from my perspective, was that feminist issues became a bit invisible. People weren’t talking about them, and they weren’t in the press. I am a middle-class, white, heterosexual man. Without that kind of conversation going on it’s embarrassingly easy for people like me, nominally on the side of equality, to lose track of just how serious issues of discrimination still are.
It was only when the Everyday Sexism Twitter feed started up, for example, that I found out just how prevalent sexual assault is on public transport. It reminds me of the conversation I had in my early twenties when it was first pointed out to me that virtually every single woman on the planet has suffered some form of, if not outright rape, very serious sexual assault. Pretty much every single one.
Obviously, women don’t like to talk about this kind of thing, but its important that they do. No matter how privileged, most men can empathise with the threat of physical violence, and even to some degree some of us can understand the constrictions of gender stereotyping and the denial of opportunity, but to bring it back to Lauren’s original article, I don’t think we can really do anything to understand living with the constant threat of sexual violence.
Male rape is a serious thing, but your average man on the street doesn’t feel the threat of it hanging over him, so I don’t think we can really empathise with what it is like for women. Consequently the most we can really do is to accept the seriousness of the threat they feel, and the recent revival of strident feminism in public discourse is one of the best ways to learn about it.
I would guess that people who make rape jokes and then self-righteously defend them and tell women to learn to take a joke are thinking of the issue from the perspective of one single personal interaction. ‘You know I won’t rape you, you know there’s no threat here, take it easy’.
In some sense I can sympathise with that. Even from my own perspective I get (silently) really irritated if I find myself crossing paths with a lone woman when walking home down a dark street at night, and her behaviour makes it obvious that she’s a little scared of me.
That fear offends my sense of personal integrity – ‘I’m no threat, hell I like to think I’d try and protect you if you were attacked, even though I don’t know you from Eve’. In a boo-fucking-hoo sense, it actually kinda hurts my feelings. But as a man it’s hard to quite grasp the extent to which your interaction with a woman can sometimes be more about the continuum of their interactions with all men than they are about you and her in a simple conversation.
When I was a young man studying in Glasgow I would hear variations on the ‘English bastard/English cunt/hoi you, are you English’ theme all the fucking time. It would irritate me and people would be kind of offended by my annoyance, but it was rarely ever one single event which was the problem – in fact a lot of it was affectionate, in that way Glaswegians use the word cunt as a term of endearment.
Partly it was the constant grind of it which got me down, I have to say. Partly it was the fact that out of a hundred casual, lighthearted instances, one or two people using that salutation were genuine nutters basically using it to start a fight, and you couldn’t always tell which were the really dangerous ones. It was pretty wearing, honestly, constantly having to be aware of who was around you and who might hear you having the temerity to speak in your own accent.
It was also the closest clue I have in my own life to help me try and understand women’s relationship to rape jokes, and rapey comments on the internet.
I wouldn’t want to speak for her, but telling Lauren to ‘learn to take a joke’ is only even remotely defensible if you are referring to a single comment in isolation (and of course if the comment itself is significantly milder than some of the ones the band have received).
But it’s never just one comment, is it. For a woman in Lauren’s position it starts with a review talking about the pretty girl singer in Chvrches. Then it’s live press photos only focussing on her face. Then it’s the snide implication that the band are only successful because she pouts and does a pretty-girl act. Then it’s someone suggesting they got signed because she blew someone in the boardroom. In that context, even a harmless compliment could irritate the shit out of you, not just because of the comment itself, but because of the wider picture of which it is a part.
Or, more seriously, she starts out getting creepy messages on Facebook. Then someone brushes up against her on the bus. Then she gets wolf-whistled on the way to work. Then someone rubs his erection against her on a crowded underground train. Then someone says he’d love to fucking rape the shit out of that hot singer on Twitter. Then, in a bar in the evening, she overhears some guy whispering to his friend that he bets she fucking loves anal. And then finds herself walking home alone and some big fucker ends up walking in vaguely the same direction on the way home from the pub and there is no-one else around.
Especially if she, like absolutely every other woman I have ever met, has at least one horrible incident in her past (or even if just her sister and a couple of friends have), you can imagine how terrifying comments like this could be:
“I have your address and I will come round to your house and give u anal and you will love it you twat lol”
The ‘lol’part is a particularly nice touch. Ah ha ha, stalking and anal rape, ha ha. Given that this is the internet era, however, it’s not just offensive and inappropriate, it’s pretty fucking sinister. Tracking people down is not that hard these days, and going back to the ‘English cunt’ chaps, how is Lauren to know that out of a hundred of these comments being made, one doesn’t happen to come from someone mental or angry enough to actually be serious?
You can tell her to “just learn to deal with it” – another charming quote from the article – all you want, but how is she to tell, given how common sexual assault is for women, if one of these might not constitute a serious threat? The problem is, as I know from the ‘English cunt’ years, the fact that one incident might be a serious threat, results in all of them feeling like one.
And the feminist bandwagon may now be a-rolling with some vigour again, but as the Chvrches experience shows, and as Public Shaming, and the comment thread on absolutely every single feminist article ever, even in the fucking Guardian, amply demonstrate, there are still plenty of pretty horrendously misogynistic pricks out there, never mind those who simply don’t take the issue seriously enough.
What Lauren has done in writing this piece is to very much stick her head out above the parapet. If she thought she got some vile messages before, fuck me she’s going to be in for an avalanche of shit now. I am glad I am not in her shoes, honestly, and I really salute her bravery in coming out and making her feelings public.
It may feel a bit thankless and she may have moments in which she regrets it, but it is people like Lauren and the team behind the Everyday Sexism project who have brought people like Mrs. Toad back into the feminism row. And believe me, it’s a good thing to have her on your side, because she’s fucking fearsome. She’s also a successful woman in a position of power, and the more strong female role models the better for men as well as women.
And from the point of view of a man who doesn’t sexually harass women, without Lauren and the countless other women writing similar pieces, this kind of thing would remain largely invisible to me. And if it remains invisible then I have no chance of really understanding, and then I won’t be able to be on the same side, however much I might want to.
It’s important on an rather more mundane level than that.
I don’t really need to learn all that much about not sexually assaulting women or making rape threats on the internet. Or at least I would hope not. But if you look at the roster of bands on Song, by Toad Records you’ll see that despite my not being consciously gender or race-biased, there is still an awfully high proportion of white men on our label.
So I can sit around and tut-tut about what other people say on Facebook, but despite trying to write ‘right on’ pieces on the internet, I am clearly not entirely innocent myself.
Here you enter the murky waters of positive discrimination, and as a record label I can hardly start signing bands I don’t like that much just to even things up, but I definitely need to be kept aware of the fact that at the moment we don’t really represent much more than one kind of voice. And actually, I would like to try and change that, because it is not what I set out to achieve when I started the label.
I married a fierce, strong, successful woman who I admire more than anyone I’ve ever met. I couldn’t have a relationship with someone which was not on the basis of equality, I like to be challenged, and I certainly don’t aspire to be a sexist or a racist.
But for someone like me, who suffers pretty much zero kinds of discrimination, I need people like Lauren to keep talking about their experiences because it’s one of the only ways I really get to understand what it’s like, and without them I feel like I risk turning into someone I don’t really want to be.
So I am grateful for her courage, I am grateful for the Everyday Sexism project, and I’m delighted feminism is back on the agenda these days.More: chvrches, feminism, lauren mayberry