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Is THAT What a Feminist Looks Like?

06/11/2014 15:32 GMT | Updated 06/01/2015 10:59 GMT

The notion that men should fear the end of sexism is as absurd and repellent as the notion that white people should fear the end of racism, or straight people should fear the end of homophobia. But should David Cameron fear feminism? Well probably yes. Feminism is fundamentally at odds with conservatism. Conserving is good for pickles, but not for politics or social systems in their traditional forms. Traditional practices tend not to treat women well. Women are dealt with more as own-able objects, exchanged between men, as beautifully illustrated by the marriage ceremony: the ritualisation of a process where a bride is 'given away' by her father (or next closest male relative). If you find that romantic, well fine, I don't.

Quite apart from the traditions that conservatives may or may not wish to conserve, since being in power the coalition government has decimated our social services: the systems that are part of civilised society, that set us apart from the brutality of 'survival of the fittest' (as so many businesses/entrepreneurs like to think it) - which protect the vulnerable. Women often fall into this category. In 2010 The Fawcett Society attempted to sue the coalition government for budget cuts, 72% of which fell on the shoulders of women, low paid women at that. In the light of this it is some what surprising that Elle Magazine should have been petitioning Cameron to wear their "This is what a Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt in the first place (FYI counter to The Mail on Sunday's report new news is that apparently these were ethically produced).

Had Cameron worn the t-shirt, what would that have meant for feminism? That feminists are conservatives who destroy our legal system, denigrate our social services, schools, health care systems and ride in to work on a bike? In fact, these days so many people are claiming to be feminists I am not sure what the word means any more.

But to return to the question of traditional practices, it is good to see that many people are perfectly capable of recognizing and condemning their barbarism in the right circumstances (i.e when they are antiquated, far from our shores or not part of our dominant culture - foot binding, FGM etc.). But what about when they happen closer to home? The so-called 'choices' that free western women make: Breast augmentation, liposuction, vaginal surgery, even the relentless plucking of hair from delicate body parts? It is true that women should not be condemned (shamed) for making these choices - the choices they make are symptoms of the system. A system that relentlessly polices the bodies of women - and Elle is very much a part of that patrol. But what woman in her right mind would fill her breasts with silicone at the risk killing off sensation in her nipples, if their weren't gains to be won beyond the pleasures of living in a body?

Power isn't power if it is on someone else's terms. If you have to adjust yourself (in drastic and the most intimate of places) to fit the exacting demands of the powerful, via one of the few manners possible for many women, in order to syphon off a dribble or two of that power, well then it's their desire that sets the agenda. In some places women withhold sex in order to get their way. If this isn't self-punishment, I dread to imagine what those women's sex lives are like. But let's get this straight, women who choose to use their bodies to reap material rewards, can only do so if those bodies are deemed desirable on terms set by the paying customers/directors/agencies etc.

Back in 2011 when the USA finally 'got' Osama Bin Laden there was shock that the compound was 'stashed' with pornography. As if to say "what these religious fundamentalists see women as sex objects?" But there is nothing surprising about this - items like the chador and G-Strings are two sides of the same coin. They are ultimately different ways of objectifying women in terms of their sexual value as determined by a stultifying patriarchy. In both cases women choose these things - to veil or reveal their bodies completely. Certainly I value freedom of choice - but here, as there, it looks more like engineered consent. No one seems bothered by the fact that women must veil their chests in this country, while men can stride around half naked as they wish. So what about my desire, does that count for nothing?

Returning to the question of t-shirts. I preferred the old version, and like Elle, tried a campaign of my own a few years ago - giving the t-shirt to various men in my life (brothers, friends etc). My theory being that if these men thought of themselves as feminists, they might start wondering what that could mean in their lives (beyond making them much more attractive to women). They might start recognizing as sexism those images that shine down from our billboards; that pop up on our computers; those depictions that reinforce the view that women and their bodies are commodities, citizens there to be bought and exchanged up to the point of their sell by date. I hoped that those men might start wanting to be part of a movement that changes the status quo, because we need men on board. I hoped that they might see that the current circumstances might not be the best situation in which to find and maintain relationships that are grounded in equality. (No freedom without freedom for all). I imagined that this is something that they might want.

The hypocrisy of a women's magazine that relentlessly encourages women to view themselves in terms of 'beauty', 'fashion' and so on, becoming some kind of voice for feminism is astounding. It brought to mind the recent fashion campaign of Chanel, which saw a catwalk of models doing a parody of a feminist march. Actually grotesque as it was, I found a kind of delight in this fake feminism choreographed by (model starving) Karl Lagerfeld. Held up against the earnest feminism claimed by various celebrities, in this incarnation, in the very horror of it, we see it for what it really is - a PR stunt. For if anyone makes a claim on feminism, to be effective, this must be the start of a conversation, rather than the end that it so often is. I do think we need to talk about the meaning of feminism, if indeed it is to mean anything. There must be some accountability for the way that media/film portrayals of women regulate our bodies, and for actresses/singers complicity in that if they do not buck the trend. At what point does someone have choice, if not when they are famous millionaires? We need to find the right way to talk about this, emphasising again and again that women's actions are symptoms of a bad system but also can have a role to play in the re-writing of it. Because I want role models, not of one kind, but of all kinds, of many kinds, of the infinite variety that is womankind.