My feminism is the feminism of bell hooks: “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (hooks, 2000, p.1). But my feminism existed before I knew what the word meant. This is a personal stroll along my own path to feminism, looking at three texts which have influenced me over the past four decades.
1977: the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee; women in the north of England were being raped and murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper, the first Rape Crisis Centre opened, TV was full of casual sexism in shows like Are You Being Served? And my school made me learn sewing while the boys in my class learned metalwork.
I didn’t know what I wanted, but it wasn’t any of this.
1977: I was fifteen years old. Punk had exploded onto the music scene and the angry, discordant sounds of rebellion blared nightly from the tinny speakers of my radio. One night, a new voice screamed out; exhilarating, playful, energetic and full of attitude:
Some people think that/ little girls should be seen/ and not heard/ But I think, “Oh bondage, up yours! (Styrene, 1977, for the music video, click here).
Most punk bands were male, but this was a woman: Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. And she was singing songs for me, songs that directly applied to my life and to the way I felt. She sang about consumerism, identity, patriarchy, capitalism, individuality, equality and what it was like to be a woman in a male-dominated society. I didn’t necessarily understand all those terms yet, but she was speaking out on my behalf.
O’Meara (2003) states that “punk’s emphasis on eccentric self expression…opened the genre to women”(p303). And punk, for me, was a way of expressing myself. Punk gave me an identity I was comfortable with. I didn’t need to look pretty or be a girly-girl. I didn’t like the way that society expected me to dress, act and think; and ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours’ was a huge ‘up yours’ to all forms of oppression, and expressed exactly how I felt. “It was about being in bondage to material life. In other words it [the song] was a call for liberation” (Savage, 1991, p.327).
While few women in punk identified as feminists (and, indeed, some of them specifically went out of their way to renounce the label and anything to do with it (Reddington, 2012, pp.182-183)). Cooper (2007) states “Although they may not have declared their feminism, female punks were trailblazers for their sex.” Similarly, Lee (2002, pp.42-43) notes that the anger of women in punk was, in itself, a feminist act, since it was behaviour contrary to that which girls are taught. It was not something I thought about at the time. All I really knew of feminism was the disruption to the Miss World contests in the early 1970s, and I didn’t know what to think about that: I found the contests demeaning in their portrayal of women as empty-headed simpering bimbos, but I didn’t particularly identify with the protestors either. So, although my beliefs and ideas were aligned with feminist principles, it wasn’t until the early 1980s and the TV images of Greenham Common Peace Camp that I began to expressly identify with feminism as a movement. Seeing those women from all backgrounds, making huge sacrifices for something they really believed in, gave me a new perspective on what women could do individually and collectively.
Throughout the 1980s I became painfully aware of how much discrimination, misogyny and inequality there was in the world. Not just the wider world, but in my own world. Several months after starting work in the office of a hi-fi company, I learned that a tour of the factory on my first day had not been simply a thoughtful introduction to my colleagues, but was something only women employees were taken on – to enable the mostly male factory workers to ogle and score us out of ten. I was in a Miss World contest without even having been given the courtesy of choosing to participate.
In 1991 I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. Just as Poly Styrene had sung so angrily about identity as the crisis that couldn’t be seen: “Do you see yourself in the magazine / When you see yourself / Does it make you scream” (X-Ray Spex, 1978b), Wolf, too, angrily rails against the impossible and unrealistic standards that are expected of women and how the ideal of beauty is a way of oppressing women:
We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth. (Wolf, 1991, p.10).
The beauty myth is not about women, says Wolf. Instead it is about institutional power (p.13). She rages about how women are made to think they are not good or attractive enough, about gender discrimination in the workplace, about eating disorders, about violence against women, about violence done to women in the name of beauty via cosmetic surgery, about the lies told by the beauty industry and about how women are reduced in meaning by the focus on the way we look rather than on the way we are (p.18). If we are so intent on expending our energies on looking how patriarchal society expects us to look, then how can we escape from our oppression?
Her final chapter asks what next; what we, as women, are going to do about it. It is a rallying cry for a return to the ‘deeds not words’ of first wave feminism. This really resonated with me. A couple of years later, Wolf said that if she were to rewrite the book, she would focus more on the positives (Nemeth, 1993, pp71). I agree that, on a re-read, it does come across as rather depressing, but it made a powerful impact on me at the time and left me raging against the media, women’s magazines and the cosmetics industry. This was my feminism – the angry voices of Styrene and Wolf, furious at the way women are made to feel by a patriarchal society: “When you look in the mirror / Do you smash it quick?” (X-Ray Spex, ‘Identity’, 1978b).
In the twenty or so years since the book was published, things have not improved. The ‘ideal’ size of a woman’s body is smaller than ever and cosmetic surgery is commonplace (Wolf, 2011). The focus remains more on what a woman looks like than what she says or does, as demonstrated in the recent obituary of Australian writer, Colleen McCulloch (Shaw, 2015).
The seed which was planted in me by Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex; the idea of consumer society forcing women to conform to its vision of femininity, with lyrics such as “When I put on my makeup/ The pretty little mask not me/ That’s the way a girl should be/ In a consumer society” (X-Ray Spex, 1978a), started to grow. I became particularly interested in questions of identity, image, and messages that women and girls are bombarded with every day. I am especially fascinated by the lessons we learn from fairy tales and so my third example of a text which has been influential on my feminism is Advice For Young Girls From Snow White (Second City Network, 2010b).
Fairy Tales tell us that the most important thing for girls is to be beautiful (Parsons, 2004, p.135) and then your Prince will come (deBeauvoir, 1986, p.318). Fairy tales (particularly the sanitised Disney versions) are “narratives of patriarchy” (Yarberry, 1996). Just as Wolf talks about the perfect woman as being feminine, beautiful and compliant (1991), in fairy tales, the heroine is weak, passive, dependent on men, and waiting for the handsome prince to wake them from their slumbers. But only if she conforms to stereotypes of beauty – the fairest in the land. Fairy tale princesses don’t define their own destinies. They leave that to the brave, powerful and dominant male characters. If there are powerful women in the stories, they are either wicked stepmothers or magical fairy godmothers.
I agree with Bates (2013) that humour is a great way to expose and tackle sexism and misogyny. Second City Network’s fairy princess advice series give us that humour and an alternate perspective. So, when Snow White tells us “It’s important to be fair…fair, fair, fair” (Second City Network, 2010b), or The Little Mermaid says “My best feature is my voice, so I sold it for plastic surgery” (Second City Network, 2010a), it makes us look again at tales we have heard over and over and wonder why it needs to be that way.
Walton (2007) talks about the “textual inheritance of feminism” (p.1) and how works of fiction have introduced women to feminism, allowing us to reflect on our own lives and experiences (p.2). In the same way I feel that the ‘texts’ that have been influential on me are ones which reflect the reality of my life and experiences and in which the voices reflect my voice. Styrene uses music, Wolf uses anger and ‘Advice For Young Girls From Snow White’ uses humour (to see the videos, click here). Parsons (2004) says that we need to disrupt the dominant, hegemonic discourse and “identify and promote feminist texts that are liberatory” (p.152). We need to support and encourage women and young girls to find their voice, take power, construct their own subjectivities and give a punk rallying cry that Poly Styrene would approve of: Oh Patriarchy, Up Yours.
By Donna Moore
Donna Moore is a first year PhD student at the University of Stirling. Her thesis is Sources and Silences: A Creative Intervention in Historical Crime Fiction. For the last seven years she has worked at Glasgow Women’s Library where she is Adult Literacy and Numeracy Development Worker. She is a published author of crime fiction and an old punk. She tweets about books, film noir and the occasional political rant @badsvillebroad.
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Image: Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, © Wikimedia Commons