November IFN Book Club – Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women by Susan Faludi
What happened to feminism is the 1980s? You might have heard that it finally succeeded, or that it finally failed. In Backlash, Susan Faludi argues convincingly that the setbacks feminism experienced during that decade were due to a cultural backlash against the advances women were making.
At first glance, Backlash may seem like a daunting read, 498 pages of small print, packed with research and stats, full of venom for those who participated in waging ‘the undeclared war against women’. Most book-club attendees agreed that it was difficult to get through, American-centred and perhaps dated. It was published in 1992.
On the other hand, the book provided no shortage of outraging facts for us to discuss. Faludi’s academic approach and comprehensive research (80 pages of footnotes!) lends her a lot of credibility. Backlash bears witness to some grave injustices, like the female chemical plant workers who were told to get sterilized or lose their jobs (to Hell or to Connaught!) due to trumped-up fears over the effects of some chemicals on foetal development. In fact, alongside its facts and figures the book offers real insights into women’s lives, via Faludi’s innumerable interviews with women about their experiences. Thus she compiles an immensely readable and important social history (or should I say herstory).
This relatively recent herstory is vital context for modern feminist campaigners. Faludi paints a full picture of the cultural landscape of the 80s and its effects on women. She analyses the fashion and beauty industries, women in politics and popular psychology among other topics. Members of the book-club were struck by the dated feel of some stories (that would never happen today!), and the familiarity of others. We balked in disbelief at the description of the ‘Women who love too much’ groups, where grown women were encouraged to cuddle teddy bears blame themselves for the abusive behaviour of their partners. Meanwhile we recognised the magazine stories celebrating single women finally being taken off the shelf after forty. In Sex in the City 2 (2010), Carrie’s magazine celebrates her no longer being ‘the last single girl in New York’ upon her engagement to Big. After all, ‘women are more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married after forty’.
This is just one of the multitudes of myths that Faludi exposes in Backlash. Spawned throughout the decade, they are best summed up in tabloid ‘trend stories’. Journalists would handpick a few women with a particular condition and portray this as a condition of all women, for example ‘nesting’ (the return of the domestic goddess) or ‘burnout’ (you can’t have it all). This misinformation explains the confused legacy of feminism in popular culture. Why do most women no longer call themselves feminists? Because feminism has succeeded and we’re all equal now. Because feminism has failed and we’re better off without it. Because feminists are militant wet blankets.
Understanding where this perception has come from is an invaluable tool in reclaiming the f-word. As the story of the latest blimp on the radar of our movement, Backlash illustrates both how far we have come and what’s left to do. I would appeal to you to read this book.
Padded bra available in the girls section of Dunnes
The children’s section of a department store should be filled with toys, clothes, and coloring books…so why is Dunnes Stores marketing lingerie to preteens? A walk-through of the kids section of Dunnes’ Stephen’s Green location yields several clear examples of padded bras and matching frilly knickers available in childish prints, a combination that seems incongruous and just plain disturbing.
The sexualization of children is an issue that crops up all too often these days, with the likes of baby beauty pageants and Bratz dolls routinely making headlines. Earlier this week, the Metro Herald reported that Take That singer and X Factor judge Gary Barlow had to ban music videos in his house because their content had become too racy for his three children to watch. Barlow linked this to the bawdy dance moves displayed by young X Factor hopefuls, presumably culled from such videos. Children imitating Beyonce or Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas seems harmless enough until you realize how much our society has latched on to these images and turned them into marketing tools aimed at what is arguably the most impressionable demographic. Dunnes peddling padded bras in the kids department is a prime example.
Padded bra available in the girls section of Dunnes
That a preteen girl is now expected to have (or look like she has) breasts is worrying. So is the lesson that a young girl’s power is derived from her sexuality – now taught before she even fully grasps what sexuality is. We have somehow skipped from bras, which after all serve an anatomical function, straight to lingerie, which is intended for titillation. That’s grand for adults, but when a girl who has not even started her period yet is expected to pad her bra, something is very wrong. When the first brassiere she ever wears is designed not for her own comfort, but to render her attractive under a male gaze, what is that telling her?
Furthermore, it teaches young boys that it’s okay to regard girls as sexual objects. When I was a preteen back in the mid-90s our only option was the classic white cotton ‘training bra’. Nothing else was made in our size, because, as my mother phrased it, ‘you have nothing to put in it!’ But I suppose my generation was lucky in that we didn’t live with the expectation that girls of 10, 11, or 12 years of age face today to don frilly knickers and matching push-up bras. Of course there are some girls that age and even younger who genuinely need to wear a bra. This is not the issue. It is the design and the marketing of products that are indistinguishable from adult sexual attire wrapped in pink, bubbly, childish packaging and sold in the children’s section next to fuzzy slippers and teddy bears.
This is hardly a new issue. In September the Irish Independent published this article citing Dunnes’ (and Penney’s) sale of children’s padded bras. But considering that this week we found several sets of them prominently displayed in Dunnes’ St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre location (though it should be noted that Dunnes did not appear to have such products for children as young as three as noted in the article), it doesn’t seem to have done much good.
Blame who you want in Hollywood or the music industry for sexing-up the popular culture consumed by today’s ‘tweens’ and teens; that is a far wider issue. The truly ridiculous thing here is that a popular family brand like Dunnes is participating in marketing such attire to girls who are simply too young for it. I know people will say we’re grumbling here, that we have no sense of humour, or that it’s simply a fashion statement, but you wouldn’t see, say, men’s boxer shorts adorned with lip prints in the boys section. Admittedly, there are few comparable products which could be aimed at young men to illustrate the point, which should only highlight their inappropriateness.
Unless people speak up and tell Dunnes Stores that selling padded bras to children and preteens is not acceptable, nothing will change. The IFN will be sending a letter to Dunnes Stores to voice our outrage over this issue and we’d encourage anyone who agrees with us to do the same. They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Erin - IFN Co-ordinator
In recent years, the State has made progress in protecting women and children from domestic violence through, for example, the establishment in 2007 of Cosc and the recent amendments by Minister Alan Shatter to the Domestic Violence Act 1996. However, much more needs to be done. By Alison Spillane of the Irish Feminist Network.
Following the Universal Periodic Review of Ireland’s human rights record in early October the Irish government accepted recommendations from five UN Member States in relation to domestic violence. These recommendations included a request by Switzerland that Ireland “submit rapidly its national report to the CEDAW committee that was due in 2007 and include a section on violence against women as requested by the committee”.
The Irish government also agreed to examine a further four recommendations including Austria’s suggestion that Ireland sign the Council of Europe Convention on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.
This failure to meet international standards in tackling domestic violence was highlighted elsewhere this year when SAFE Ireland published its Domestic Violence Services Statistics for 2010 which showed that while over 7,000 individual women received support from Domestic Violence Support Services last year, on over 3,236 occasions services were unable to accommodate women and their children because the refuge was full or there was no refuge in their area. Ireland has just one third of the refuge capacity recommended by the Council of Europe. With budget cutbacks, essential new refuges are not opening and existing refuges are finding it more difficult to maintain their services.
As well as the above, government must also be aware of new developments around the issue of domestic violence such as the way in which technology – and particularly social media – can be manipulated to facilitate abuse. The increasing role played by technology was emphasised by Women’s Aid in June this year when the organisation published its Annual Statistics for 2010. The report found that social networking sites are being manipulated by abusers to intimidate victims. Women have disclosed abuse such as their mobile phone calls and texts being monitored and social media and technology being used to stalk and control them.
In Budget 2012 the government must, at a minimum, protect existing levels of funding to services for violence against women. As the National Women’s Council noted in its pre-budget submission, these services are historically under-funded as it stands – additional funding cuts introduced since the onset of the recession mean that the situation has reached crisis point. As the NWCI observes, “The consequences are that more and more women are not being accommodated in refuges or are on waiting lists for support services. Services have been forced to cut positions, programmes or hours of operation. Moreover, domestic violence frontline services have not been able to develop adequate initiatives to better respond to the needs of marginalised women such as migrant, refugee, asylum seeking, Traveller women and women with disabilities”.
In addition to protecting funding for existing specialist services, the government should also commit to meeting the standards set by the Council of Europe as regards refuge capacity and produce a detailed timeframe for the achievement of this goal. Further legal reform is also necessary in areas such as the eligibility criteria for applying for Safety Orders and the length of cohabitation requirement for Barring Orders. One in five women in Ireland experience domestic violence at some point in their lifetime – government inaction on this issue cannot be tolerated.
This post originally appeared on the Women’s Aid 16 Days Blog as part of the One in Five 16 days of action campaign which aims to raise awareness of the reality of domestic violence and to push for positive change to increase women's safety. For more information see here: http://www.womensaid.ie/campaigns/
Reclaiming the F-Word
Review by Clara Fischer
How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran, Ebury Press, £11.99
The wide-spread rejection of feminism, particularly by younger women, is a phenomenon evinced by the standard discussion opener “I’m not a feminist but...”, with feminists pointing out that Feminism itself has become a dirty word, the F-word of an apolitical generation whose collective false consciousness continues to perpetuate a disavowal of the women’s movement. And yet, when particular issues, such as reproductive freedom, political representation, and sexual violence are broached, women, of all ages, seem to share explicitly feminist views, much in the vein of even the most ardent Germaine Greers or Kate Milletts of this world.
The difficulty, then, must lie with the term, feminism, which has borne the brunt of reactionary and insidious de-legitimating, as Susan Faludi so brilliantly described in her Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. Stereotypes of feminists as dungaree-wearing man-hating women-beasts are replete with the sexist assumptions feminism seeks to undermine.
It is therefore refreshing and timely for Caitlin Moran’s book, How to Be a Woman, to make a splash on the best-seller lists this summer with a whole-hearted embrace of both the word, feminism, and the liberatory beliefs it entails. Indeed, references to “women’s liberation”, “consciousness-raising”, and “patriarchy” are unashamedly brandished throughout, punctuating her often hilarious autobiographical tales of maturation from dreary puberty (“sex hormones are a bitch that have turned me from a blithe child into a bleeding, weeping, fainting washerwoman”) to rock’n’roll adulthood (“whilst it’s easy to slide into a gin-sodden, decade-long bout of Lego-stippled self-pity, I prefer to look at the whole business of being a mother from a more positive angle”).
She covers the complex topics of women’s objectification in the media, parenting, abortion, and marriage, amongst others, with an intense passion for the realisation of gender equality, and surely manages to convince even the most sceptical of readers of its merits through her comedic talent, which makes one, from the get-go, want to be on Moran’s side. Who could fail to laugh at her description of a wedding reception – “a uniformly high-heeled occasion” – as the “annual AGM of Tina Turner Impressionist Union”, or the assessment of her teenage flirting skill as being “very, very rudimentary...the majority of it revolv[ing] around ‘bold’ winking, a bit like a mad pirate”?
Squeamish readers, though, beware: Moran’s writing is not for the easily shocked. Intimate details on menstruation, masturbation and cystitis – to name but a few – are discussed and interspersed with the odd willy or boob joke. While this might be off-putting to some, it is consistent with Moran’s rationale for the book: to speak about issues which are rarely publicly discussed by women, which are significant from a feminist perspective, and which we therefore ignore at our peril. Pornography, Katie Price (aka Jordan), plastic surgery, Brazilian waxing – these are all topics relevant to women, and, increasingly, girls today, and Moran wishes to break the silence surrounding such phenomena, while highlighting, in a humorous manner, the sexism which sustains them.
While this is of course a laudable task, and Moran deserves credit for bringing feminism to a mainstream audience through her pop-culture memoir, it is unfortunate that she somewhat overstates the silence on contemporary feminist issues, and her pioneering role in uncovering same. She argues, for example, that feminism has “ground to a halt” with a “couple of increasingly small arguments” being “carried out among a couple of dozen feminist academics.” Besides the fact that feminism has flourished, particularly over the last decade before the financial crisis, in academia, and that many young women and men now encounter feminism for the first time during their third level studies, there is ample evidence for the proliferation of feminist texts, and intense activism, aided particularly through blogs and social media sites, by feminists the world over.
There are also some clunkers in the book, such as her incongruous references to Third World women, or her comparison of India’s and Pakistan’s partition with skimpy knickers, and one remains unconvinced that sexism is somehow related to rudeness and can be addressed through an increase in manners. To be fair, this is not the only assessment of patriarchy Moran provides, and her writing is unequivocally a call for women’s (re)discovery of feminist principles and language. Outraged at the low numbers of women willing to call themselves feminists (29% in the U.S. and 42% in the U.K.), she asks “What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you?” and concludes that the debate is moot anyhow, as “without feminism, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate on woman’s place in society”. How to be a Woman thus questions and challenges women’s uneasiness with the F-word and all it stands for, but does so in an entertaining and enjoyable manner.
There are increased signs that the period of eschewing feminism is in decline, and certainly in Ireland, groups like the Irish Feminist Network and Cork Feminista constitute apt examples of people’s growing interest in and support for feminism. Caitlin Moran’s high-profile book rides the crest of this new trend toward rather than away from feminism, as she imbues it with her own brand of shabby-chic coolness. For the uninitiated, but intrigued, this book forms an accessible introduction to some of the values and ideas of feminism; importantly, though, it also simply constitutes a funny account of a woman’s developmental escapades, which is enormously pleasurable to read.
Clara Fischer is a coordinator of the Irish Feminist Network. The network holds a book club on the first Tuesday of every month, and met on 6th September to discuss Caitlin Moran’s book.
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