The same structure that makes our current political situation hopeless should make feminists today hopeful despite Giles Coren’s stupidity. This week he wrote an obnoxious and offensive article in the Daily Mail (the only possible kind of article in that publication) in response to the removal of Richard Keys and Andy Gray, the two trivial and unintelligent nonentities who have been fronting Sky’s football coverage since it began in the dark days of Thatcherism’s first flowering. They had been caught on mike making misogynist comments about a woman referee, and it was delightful to see them losing their jobs as a result. Coren’s response – not original: it’s a standard idiot thing to say – is that their removal typifies a climate in Britain today which is virulently anti-men. We, he argues, are the new underdog, unable to function according to what he believes is our ‘biological imperative’ to belittle women. There’s a fine and well-reasoned evisceration of it by Sarah (I’m afraid I don’t know her surname) on the Scottish Socialist Youth website here.
The important question about both the Sky football decapitation and Coren’s print tantrum is what this says about the contemporary state of feminism. A similar question arose in response to another tantrum by another Daily Mail columnist this week, Melanie Phillips, who suggested that it is now the poor homophobes who are suffering at the hands of gay bigots (this in response to another delightful news item about a bigoted Xtian couple who attempted to turn away a gay couple from their hotel). Johann Hari had this to say, inter alia, in an article published in the Independent and on his website:
Yet in one strange way, the current backlash is reassuring. When I was a kid in the 1980s, these sentiments were so widespread that a law – Section 28 – was passed to resolve them, and the cowed critics were derided as “the loony left.” Today, the opinion polls show 80 percent of the British people support gay marriage, and the people offering these views are regarded as the loons. It’s worth pausing and saying to all the people who have been open to persuasion and have changed their minds on this question: thank you. It’s incredibly moving to see how many heterosexual people have rallied to the defence of gay people, and it’s a reminder that we will never go back now.
Alain Badiou argues that when there is a truth-event like the declaration of equal rights for women and gay people, there are several ways to respond to it. We can be faithful, reactive, or obscure (there are other ways, but let’s keep it simple). The faithful response is to recognize the uniqueness of the event and to create a new understanding out of it; the reactive way is to deny that the event is really unique and to try to accommodate it within existing structures of understanding; the obscure response is to try to destroy the event utterly. What’s important to understand is that all these responses keep the truth-event in force.
Consider the Thatcher-event, which rejected the postwar social-democratic settlement (itself actually a reactive response to communism) and replaced it with a free-market economic model that favoured the rich and greatly increased the potential for exploiting the poor. She, Major, and our current objects of hate, the Cameron–Osborne–Clegg–Kawczynski axis (I know, the last is a minor Tory MP, but it spells COCK, which I like), are faithful to the Thatcher-event. But Blair and Brown, despite their attempts to curb some of the excesses of the brutality of her economic model, were reactive subjects. They attempted to accommodate Thatcherism with their own (or Brown’s own: let’s not make a saint of Blair) social-democratic instincts. So we had help for the poor, but continually spiralling orgasms of success for the rich. The effect of the reactive response is to keep the truth-event in force. We have no way out of Thatcherism until it is replaced by a new truth-event of similarly revolutionary force.
Back to Giles Coren. His article has provoked a good show of responses that are faithful to what we can call the feminism-event. So, when he says that women are allowed to make jokes about murdering men (and that it would not be funny if men made jokes about murdering women), it is pointed out why this is the case: men do murder women every day, and women do not generally murder men. Joking about murdering women isn’t funny because it happens; joking about murdering men is actually a way of demonstrating the weakness and danger of the female position. But it’s an important victory of feminism that this kind of joke is allowed and understood for the ongoing political statement that it is. The joke is only funny because the state of affairs is intolerable. The joke doesn’t actually help to change the state of affairs – satire tends to work in support of ideology (‘I’m happy for you to laugh at me; it shows what a nice guy I am. Now let me get back to oppressing you.’) – but it represents a radical realignment of our discourse. Before the feminism-event it wasn’t possible either seriously or jokingly to make the point that the biggest single problem in our world is masculinity. Now it is, and those of us who are faithful to the feminism-event must continue tirelessly to show how this is the case (while finding ways to avoid simply glorifying and thus perpetuating the present situation: but that’s a separate issue).
Coren’s response, meanwhile, shows classic signs of reactiveness. His appropriation of the language of oppression and restriction actually demonstrates that he believes in the basic claims of feminism, such as that the use of language is a way of oppressing people. His whining, misplaced as it is, is actually a sign that he and misogynists like him recognize the uniqueness of the feminism-event. He is simply attempting to find an accommodation with the existing patriarchal situation: ‘Yes, human beings are oppressed by the views that people hold about them: words, like sticks and stones, do hurt.’ (and then the reactive twist) ‘But the people who are suffering are men, not women. We must do something about this. Throw ourselves in front of the queen’s horse or something. This state of affairs cannot continue!’
We need a new event in our politics to eradicate Thatcherism, but I think there are grounds to hope that we don’t need a new event in feminism. It’s continuing to reform our world, point by point. We need to continue to be faithful to it by working not just to expose but to destroy the means by which patriarchal ideology subjugates women. But the Giles Corens of the world can do as they please. They don’t realise they’re helping the cause even as they moan about it. The event has – for now – won.