'A powerful new voice for socialist feminism'

September 26, 2014
Laurie Penny writes with wit and honesty, and Unspeakable Things marks her as a powerful new voice in socialist feminism.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies & Revolution
Laurie Penny
Bloomsbury, 2014

English author Laurie Penny describes herself as a “journalist, activist, feminist, troublemaker, nerd and net denizen”. Her book, Unspeakable Things, is a collection of polemical essays in which Penny takes aim at mainstream (liberal) feminism, which she says “remains tepid and cowardly”.

“The torment of the middle-class housewife longing 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”, Penny contends.

It goes without saying that this kind of feminism does not talk about poor women, queer women, ugly women, transgender women, sex workers, single parents, “or anybody else who fails to fit the mould”, Penny says.

Having gained admittance to the male world of work, which was previously closed off, Penny notes the irony facing a great many exhausted modern women. She writes that the archetype of the 1950s housewife “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.”

Penny is eager to cut away at the scaremongering and misinformation that continues to surround feminism: “It is not about taking rights away from men, as if there were a finite amount of liberty to go around.”

Her central thesis is that neoliberalism has tightened the straightjacket of gender oppression around young women and men.

Young men are conditioned to believe that their identity and virility depends on being powerful. When viewed in the context of an economic system in which there are fewer and fewer winners, this appears increasingly out of touch.

Feminism, she contends, offers the starting point from which to question the unreasonable demands of capitalist patriarchy.

Her chapter on the gender politics of the internet, “Cybersexism”, is the standout of the book, as it is where the originality of her insights really shines through.

Like many of her generation, 27-year-old Penny grew up online, and the internet has played a key role in her personal and professional identification as a feminist.

The internet is a double-edged sword, she suggests. It opens up spaces for women, girls and queer people to share their experiences of discrimination. But it also amplifies sexist and misogynist voices: “Germaine Greer once wrote that women had no idea how much men hate them. Well, now we do.”

Two recent cases add weight to Penny’s thesis that to be an outspoken, opinionated female in the public eye is to be regarded as fair game for sexist trolls. Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti took to Twitter to ask her followers if they knew of any countries in which tampons are subsidised. Many of the lewd replies were tinged with slut-shaming.

When Australian columnist and comedian Catherine Deveny dared suggest that “the spirit of ANZAC does not define our nation”, she became the target of a hate storm on social media, in which it was suggested she “deserves raping by a bull”.

Penny considers the internet as an extension of the system of “patriarchal surveillance” that has existed to keep women in line for centuries. She ventures that “perhaps one reason that women writers have, so far, the calmest and most comprehensive understanding of what surveillance technology really does to the human condition, is that women grow up being watched”.

However, women and girls are all too frequently cast as passive victims as far as their interaction with the internet are concerned. Increased censorship and filtering is often advocated on the grounds that it will “protect” young girls from the supposed sexualising influence of the internet.

Penny maintains that this argument is less about safety than it is about controlling girls’ access to information, and is, moreover, the “thin edge of the wedge” where state censorship is concerned.

Whether for the purposes of writing a professional CV or an online dating profile, today’s young people must be skilled in the art of projecting an idealised, often not-entirely-accurate, version of themselves: “You tell your potential boyfriend the same lie you tell your potential boss: I’m easy-going, flexible, low-stress and cheerful, just like you want me to be.”

Even if your work is lining up packets of pasta shapes on a shelf, “you must love your job so much that if you weren’t getting paid, you’d do it for free: all waged labour has become the Girlfriend Experience”.

I would have liked to see Penny more fully articulate the “revolution” part of her title; her discussion of revolutionary politics appears to be limited to her involvement in the Occupy movements in Britain and the US.

Nonetheless, Laurie Penny writes with wit and honesty, and Unspeakable Things marks her as a powerful new voice in socialist feminism.

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