Laurie Penny’s recent book, “Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism,” is an incisive commentary on the exploitation of female flesh in the global economy. She writes, “Femininity itself has become a brand, a narrow and shrinking formula of commoditised identity which can be sold back to women who have become alienated from their own power as living, loving, labouring beings.” This sentence perfectly illustrates her point that modern capitalism completely relies upon the alienation of women from their own selves. She argues that all female sexuality is work and women are both consumers and consumed. It’s a fascinating read, expanding on the theories of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Shulamith Firestone to provide a materialist vision of gender and society. She even addresses controversial topics found in feminism, including sex work and anti-trans feminists.
Laurie Penny is a journalist, blogger, author and commentator from London. She is a columnist and reporter for The Independent and has written for New Statesman, The Guardian, The Nation, Salon and many others. She is a contributing editor at The New Inquiry. Her blog was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing in 2010, and she was nominated for Young Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards 2012. (Fun fact: She was apparently saved by Ryan Gosling from a taxi too!)
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Laurie Penny.
Anna Sterling: In your book you write, “If all women on earth woke up tomorrow feeling truly positive and powerful in their own bodies, the economies of the globe would collapse overnight.” What can we do today to bring us closer to this revolution?
Laurie Penny: I would give anything to be able to wave a magic wand and make every woman and girl who hates the way she looks, including women and girls who are very dear to me who I see hurting, feel instantly beautiful. But that’s not enough. It’s not enough to strive to feel beautiful – we have to rethink what beauty means, whether it’s something we want to engage with, what our bodies are for, and how much time and energy we devote to the endless quest for conformity that we could be devoting elsewhere. Imagine how shocking it would be if women everywhere began to say ‘I don’t care whether or not I look beautiful.’ For me, that’s why the Pussy Riot protests are so effective – they turn traditional expectations of gender, beauty and good behavior entirely on their head, and use that radical statement to draw attention to the abuses of the Putin regime.
AS: You also mention that feminist stereotypes exist because it “terrorises women with the fear that radical politics will destroy their sexuality and gender identity.” Why do you think this is women’s greatest fear?
LP: Whatever sex we are, we come to learn, particularly after we start school and the social segregation really begins, that our gender identity is the most important part of our overall identity, and that not fitting properly into the big pink box marked ‘F’ or the big blue box marked ‘M’ will lead to ostracizing, loneliness and shame. One of the things I’ve learned from my transsexual friends is how powerful and frightening the fear of being misgendered can be – it feels like a form of identity destruction, like a tiny part of us is being killed. Stereotypes about feminists – that we are sexless, masculine-looking, ‘hairy-legged’, aggressive – are often designed to imply that women who question gender norms on a personal or political level lose that feminine identity that is so important, as important as it ever was thirty years ago, to social and intimate acceptance. The fact that it’s not true – I know feminists of all ages and genders, and some of them are incredibly femme, and some are magnificently butch, and most fall somewhere in between – that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is that we have allowed feminism to be rephrased as somehow anti-sex, anti-gender, when feminism is all about liberating gender and sexuality.
AS: Do you think it’s possible to still play into gender stereotypes and be revolutionary at the same time?
LP: Look, we all play into gender stereotypes. We live in a social world that’s constructed almost entirely from gender stereotypes, and the first thing to do is understand the choices we make about which ones we play into. Some are more harmful than others, particularly when unquestioned, and I’m especially worried by the tendency I see amongst some of my peers to play with a sort of cutesy opt-in faux-fifties retro-domesticity, when the battles of Friedanite feminism are far from won, and women still do the vast majority of the world’s caring and domestic work for free. But to say that you can only be a feminist if you renege all gender stereotypes is a bit like saying you can only be an anti-capitalist if you stop buying things in shops.
AS: When did you begin identifying as feminist? Where do you see academic feminism colliding with activist feminism?
LP: I decided that I was a feminist at the age of 10, when I accidentally read a book by Germaine Greer that my mum had lying around the house. I wrote her a letter with my best
friends pens telling her that I wanted to be a feminist writer just like her, and went into spasms of delight some weeks later when I received a postcard in return. As I’ve grown up, though, I’ve come to believe that being a feminist isn’t important in terms of identity – it’s an active thing, a verb, something you do. I’m doing feminism when I’m writing, when I’m reading and learning, when I try to build solidarity amongst and between the strong women I know and raise consciousness amongst the undecided, whenever I fight for gender justice on a macro or microcosmic scale. Other people have different ways of doing feminism, and they may not always think that that’s what they’re doing. Academic feminism is indispensable, otherwise where would the rest of us get the statistics to put on our placards – but no effective social movement can confine itself to the academy, not even radical student movements.
AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
LP: Oh, that’s a really hard question. I used to love River Song from Doctor Who but then Stephen Moffatt ruined her character, so I’ll say Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine of my favorite book. I must have read it twenty times. In real life, there are so many women I look up to- Mona Eltahawy the feminist journalist, Naomi Klein, the writer Bonnie Greer, the brave young women of Pussy Riot, Arundhati Roy, the comedian Josie Long, Selma James, the screenwriter Lena Dunham, the French feminist
Valerie Solanas Virginie Despentes, the British writer Nina Power – am I allowed to say Annie Lennox, MIA and Lady Gaga? – and of course Molly Crabapple, an artist and total badass with whom I co-authored my latest book, Discordia. Most of my heroines aren’t very famous. They’re the writers, artists and activists I see doing brave ambitious things to change the world every day – and my biggest heroines of all are my two younger sisters.
AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?
LP: My mum’s shepherd’s pie, which she calls ‘”away day pie,” because it was what she used to make for me and my sisters to heat up while she was on training courses. Infinite quantities of proper strong tea (I’ve decided this is a cold desert island, but if it isn’t I’ll drink it anyway out of spite and homesickness). If it has to be a famous feminist, I think bell hooks would be great company, but if the shepherd’s pie ran out I’d have real trouble eating her, so I’ll have to go for Sarah Palin, whose repeated misuse of the f-word would only make her taste more delicious.