In her Quarterly Essay, Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny, Anna Goldsworth writes, among other things, about the messages that books such as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey convey to female readers. Book Thingo invited readers to share some of their thoughts on the essay. (You can find a list of participants here.)
Kat’s note: Of the many bloggers and academics I’ve met online through the romance reading community, I’ve found Jessica’s style to be one of the most accessible, so I was super excited when she agreed to read Anna’s essay and write down her thoughts. Please note that I have (loosely) applied Book Thingo’s house style, and I’ve included some additional links to some of the information that Jessica refers to, so any strange non-academic-y looking formatting is all my fault!
Anna Goldsworthy’s essay, Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom, Misogyny, is one I wouldn’t have read if Kat hadn’t asked me to contribute a comment on it. I would have missed not only a very thought-provoking piece, but a glimpse into some significant cultural events of particular relevance to women in Australia. Although most of the issues Goldsworthy touches on were familiar to me as a USian (body image, the double bind, rape culture, the messages of pop culture), the specific context was not.
For example, I didn’t know much about former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s—the first woman to hold that position—scathing rebuke to opposition leader Tony Abbott. Now referred to as simply ‘the misogyny speech’, it was a takedown of Abbott and his fellow conservatives’ tacit endorsement of ‘sexism and misogyny’ to contain not only Gillard, but any woman who threatens their old boy network. I cannot imagine any of the top women in US politics giving a speech on the floor of a national political body calling out male colleagues on gender injustice. I can, of course, point to stirring and brave performances in defense of women. Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s marathon filibuster in June to block a restrictive abortion bill comes to mind. And I can point to oblique references to sexism: Texas State Senator Leititia Van De Putte’s quiet but forceful, ‘Mr. President, parliamentary inquiry. At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognised over her male colleagues? during the same filibuster. But to raise, in such a public forum, the sordid indignities that misogyny foists on women (for example, that she has been referred to as ‘a man’s bitch’) is to draw attention to a particular kind of vulnerability that I think most women politicians feel is too dangerous to highlight.
Goldsworthy points out that Gillard’s speech was a detour from the safer and more common female politician’s tactic of ‘cop it and move on’. Until that moment, Gillard had always ‘risen above it’, just gone ahead and done what needed to be done without providing an explanatory narrative of her life and choices. Goldsworthy wonders, though, whether doing so created a vacuum into which Gillard’s opponents could foist any kind of negative image they chose. She asks whether ‘we have backed Gillard into a corner. Misogyny and feminism each obscure the face behind her femaleness.’ Here, as in the entire essay, Goldsworthy tries to spring the traps she believes have been set by both sexism and by feminism.
Anyone who watches that speech—and if you haven’t, I heartily recommend it, for political theatre alone—can see a woman at the end of her rope. The saddest part of the whole story is that Gillard’s speech was necessitated by Abbott’s party’s call for the ouster of the House Speaker, who had sent sexist text messages to a colleague (comparing, for example, female genitalia to molluscs, as in ‘salty cunts in brine’). Since the Speaker was part of Gillard’s slim majority coalition, she was in a completely untenable position. Today, Mr. Abbott is the Prime Minister of Australia.
In what follows, I take a closer look at a few of Goldworthy’s points.
1. ‘There comes a point at which female stoicism becomes complicity.’
Goldsworthy recognises that as admirable as ‘getting on with it’ is, sometimes a woman has to speak truth to power. This theme runs throughout the essay; for example, in her discussion of harassment of women bloggers and in her discussion of the endurance sport that pornography has become.
To make a connection here to romance novels: they portray a variety of kinds of female strength. One of those is the suffering stoic heroine. She may have been subject to sexual abuse, to domestic violence, to employment discrimination, to the tyranny of body image, to any of the things we can point to as manifestations of sexism. But her strength is in reaching deep into her inner reserves and bearing it without getting angry at the system. If she was raped, for example, it was an individual man with a unique psychological problem, not a political, social, structural issue. The oddest thing about romance novels and feminism, it seems to me, is that feminism is more likely to be mentioned in a casual way, or during a light-hearted moment, than it is when a material manifestation of sexism has occurred.
2. ‘The problem is there are no real winners in the looking contest. Beauty might be a form of power, but it is a limited power, predicated upon the approving gaze. It contains a note of beseechment, however artfully concealed. And it is a power with a built-in redundancy.’
I like what Goldsworthy has to say here, and to make another connection to romance: While the default status of the romance novel heroine continues to be beautiful, today’s romance novels focus less on how the heroine appears to an anonymous third person (whether she meets some purportedly ‘objective’ standard of beauty), and more on how she feels, and on how the hero views her in her particularity.
3. Sadly, Goldsworthy goes off track with the following comment:
It would be comforting to blame this on the patriarchy, except that women police beauty as much as men.
I am not sure Goldsworthy understands what ‘patriarchy’ means. If a social system is patriarchal, everyone in that society participates in it. Individual men and women accept it, to the extent they do, because it’s the way society is. It seems normal. So I would blame the patriarchy for the fact that women believe that policing each other’s looks is okay. Patriarchy provides one kind of explanatory framework for why a certain practice is accepted. It doesn’t absolve individual women of personal responsibility for actions that are hurtful or demeaning (and for this week’s sad example, see My Embarrassing Picture Went Viral).
This is why I didn’t much like another of Goldsworthy’s comments:
Like us, men are both its beneficiaries and its victims. In fact, masculinity can be a more restrictive straitjacket than femininity. Casting ourselves as victims and calling upon men to fix it only strips us further of agency.
Of course it is true that patriarchy affects men as well as women, and that it sometimes has negative effects on men, as, for example, when non gender-conforming men are subject to harassment. I’ve never met a feminist who denied that. I’m not sure how Goldsworthy’s point about ‘casting ourselves as victims’ jibes with what she says in much of the rest of the essay about women who choose to ‘get on with it’, but in any case, attacks on straw people do not make her arguments looks stronger.
4. And this is even worse:
It is futile to campaign against beauty. We are a visual species; sight remains our dominant sense. Women’s and men’s magazines alike are glossy tributes to female beauty. We are all looking, and we are all looking all the time. And beauty is beautiful. To do away with it would be to inhabit the bleak egalitarian universe of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeren [sic.] …
Again, I have no idea what straw (wo)man Goldsworthy is attacking here, but I have never heard of a ‘feminist campaign against beauty’. What I’ve seen is feminists campaigning to raise awareness of the way beauty standards translate to unjust material inequalities for women (for example, a fat woman being less likely to be hired or promoted than a slender woman), and of the way beauty standards intersect with other systems of dominance, like racism and ableism. Goldsworthy’s tendency to talk about Beauty as if it is some Platonic ideal is the exact opposite of what feminists are trying to do when they point to the political nature of the concept. When she writes ‘beauty is beautiful’, I have to ask whom Goldsworthy is picturing.
5. ‘Trolling of this kind becomes an inverted form of homage, the warped adult version of the inarticulate schoolboy crush. The boy tugs on the plaits of the girl sitting in front of him because she has disturbed him and the only response he can think of is to disturb her back.’
One of the wonderful things about being an avid reader today is the possibility of finding other like-minded readers in online spaces. Unfortunately, whenever a woman participates in an online discussion, especially in a male-oriented space, she is vulnerable to online harassment. In this passage, Goldsworthy attempts to explain male on female trolling as an ‘inarticulate schoolboy crush’. While she might have gotten some aspect of the psychology right, I find this analysis dangerously reductive. Online trolling is part of the same society and happens for the same ‘reasons’ offline harassment does, and its effects can be just as terrible for its victims.
6. ‘…given that privileged white people exist, are their (our) lives ineligible subjects for art ? And why was this criticism not extended to Girls’ many precedents, ranging from Friends to Frasier? Could it be because white privilege here is regarded from a previously unsanctioned point of view: that of a young woman? And could this be related to the notion that women disqualify themselves from literary greatness by writing about female experience?’
Here, in her analysis of Girls, is yet another example where I wanted to take Goldsworthy aside and whisper, ‘Intersectional analysis is your friend.’
In general, Goldsworthy’s essay follows a distressing trend in pop feminism: being focused one particular subset of women. Never mind the way she analyses, but just looking at what she deems worthy of analysis (Gillard, Hilary Mantel, Germaine Greer, Fifty Shades of Grey, Girls). Goldsworthy knows this critique is coming, and her response—‘insisting that any feminist must speak for all women is a great way to shut feminist conversation down’—is less than compelling, especially since throughout this essay, Goldsworthy refers to ‘girls’ and ‘women’ in exactly this kind of universalising manner.
I don’t think it’s ‘shutting the conversation down’ to analyse Girls through the lens of race. Why does she feel the need to either condemn or defend the show tout court?
When it comes to romance, for example, it’s possible to both celebrate what it gets right (positive portrayals of female sexuality) and critique what it doesn’t (the fact that 95% of the those portrayals are of white able bodied heterosexual middle class women).
7. ‘[A girl today] probably spends a lot of time in front of a screen, words and images flickering in her eyes. Facebook, SlutWalks, Lady Gaga, Girls, Mad Men, gonzo porn, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey. What messages are being broadcast to her, and what messages is she hearing? Are they going to make her bigger, or smaller?’
This passage encapsulates what I think goes wrong in much of Goldsworthy’s discussion of visual culture. To think of interaction with digital media in terms of a behavioural model in which the media has effects on viewers is much too simplistic. While Goldsworthy has a lot to say about online culture, she seems not to understand the social aspects—some of them positive, even emancipating—of media. To take the example of Girls, many of its viewers are ‘hate watching’ it: they actively dislike the show, but watch it in order to experience a moment of what the Chicago Tribune calls ‘perfectly rounded contempt’. I don’t mean to trumpet hate watching as some feminist panacea for the negative effects of the internet age, but I think any decent analysis, even a popular non-academic one, ought to take into account the fact that girls and women do things with media: they create, alter, critique, and delete it, and those actions are worth exploring, too.
For example, Goldsworthy had a perfect opportunity to look more closely at women’s engagement with digital media in her section on Fifty Shades, a book which began as fan fiction, but couldn’t even be bothered to get the basic facts right, claiming that the author removed it from the internet when it ‘became more lurid’.
Romance criticism is still subject to some extent to the same overly simplistic model of media effects: either romance is bad for women because it dupes them into accepting patriarchy, or good for women because it bolsters their sexual subjectivity and convinces them of their worthiness to be loved. Both tend to flatten and homogenise a group of readers, and both tend to minimise their agency.
The best thing about Goldsworthy’s essay was the writing. She may not say anything new, but her turns of phrase often had me stopping to reread. Here’s one example:
There should be a word for the particular helplessness that descends upon a woman when she opens a glamour magazine. It would be something German and crunchy, a particular flavour of dismay.
And I do think she had some interesting things to say, for example about Fifty Shades. Goldsworthy points out that in contrast to gonzo porn which views the vagina as the least interesting of women’s orifices, ‘Anastasia’s pussy is not bullshit’, and that ‘If anything, Fifty Shades offers a fetishisation of the idea of consent.’, a claim which is not possible if everyone is focusing only on the power differential between young virginal Ana and her older, billionaire, dominant lover.
So I thank Kat for sending the essay along to me, and if you are still reading this rambling set of reflections, I thank you for sticking with it!