In thinking about my New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve realised that lately I’ve become quite a boring, repetitive feminist. I slightly (and very lazily) blame Twitter for this, because it gives me a chance to tut or sigh at pretty much everything I see in public life that I don’t really approve of (See my outraged retweets, hear me roar, etc.).
I’m trying to work out a better approach for 2012, one that might actually make a difference. Should I save it all up and concentrate on actions, rather than words? Should I have infrequent and finely wrought opinions that might change someone else’s mind? Or should I continue to boringly point out things at the kind of low level that makes my response predictable and irrelevant to people who aren’t really interested in the first place?
It might sound as if I’ve answered my own question there, but on the other hand I think that not mentioning things is a kind of complicit hypocrisy – and I find it difficult to stop the twitch of agreement or disdain that so easily fills up my Twitter feed and my conversation in the pub.
This brings me to the fact that I just finished reading Mindy Kaling’s book. It’s pretty good – like sitting next to someone clever and funny who’s talking out loud to herself – and the best bits are extracted in this New Yorker article, which you should read, as it will make you laugh out loud and wonder why so many women in films work in art galleries.
But the most striking thing (to me) is how much of the book is about Kaling being “chubby”. It’s the subject of two whole chapters and a load of self-deprecating comments and asides. In fact, I recently read a Vanity Fair interview with Kaling that, despite taking place “Over Lunch”, went on and on about her eating dessert like it was the most remarkable thing a human woman had ever done in front of a journalist, so she’s not the only one can’t stop talking about her eating habits and her weight.
I would totally agree that I prefer all men/women/animals in the public eye to be nice to look at (whatever they weigh), but I much prefer it when they’re good at what they do and (even better) are good at making jokes. Yet, like Tina Fey in Bossy Pants, Kaling talks about being stitched into sample sizes so she can be in magazine shoots, which just seems mean and boring. I mean, why can’t stylists do their job properly, do some reasearch and bring along correctly sized clothes?
Anyway, at the end of the book, Kaling makes the following excellent point:
Why don’t you talk about whether women are funny or not?
I just felt that by commenting on that in any real way, it would be the tacit approval of it as a legitimate debate, which it isn’t. It would be the same as addressing the issue of “Should dogs and cats be able to care for our children? They’re in the house anyway.” I try not to make it a habit to seriously discuss nonsensical hot-button issues.
And that leaves me in two minds: is talking about Kaling calling herself chubby a “nonsensical hot-button issue” or is it more ingrained and pernicious than that? I think the latter, and that it’s the kind of thing that needs calling out. Losing weight might make her more confident and get her on more magazine covers, but it won’t make her funnier or more hardworking, although it will probably make her more successful and famous. Because I don’t run an American TV network or edit a glossy magazine, there’s literally nothing I can do to make that different, but I still think it needs commenting on, even though it’s hardly news.
So I still don’t know what kind of feminist I should be, but I guess I should be the kind who comments on things that make me feel uncomfortable, while also doing what I can to change the bit of the world that I live in. Mindy Kaling is smart and successful already – she clearly doesn’t need my help – and she certainly doesn’t need turning into a hot-button issue of the kind that bores and divides opinion (for an example of which, see also BBC Panda of the Year). Not every woman who does a thing needs to do it as a representative of every other woman, because life is too short for that kind of self-reflexivity.
But if as many of us as possible continue to comment on girls’ toys being pink, pay and career imbalance, token women appearing “in the second hour”, and all the other tedious things that recur throughout modern life, then surely it will make some difference in the longer term? Or will we just end up talking to ourselves, reassuring ourselves in an echo chamber of humourless feminism while everyone else is getting on with their lives? I feel quite anxious about the second scenario, as reflected by Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books, where she characterises feminism as “overwhelmingly … a movement of that 13 per cent – mostly white, mostly middle-class, speaking from, of, to themselves within a reflecting bubble.” Just as I feel anxious about people who say, “well we don’t want to make this about feminism, do we?”, because of a fear of both –isms and tedium, neither of which need to be justified.
But I guess, in my heart of hearts, I know that calling things out to my self-selected group of liberal friends and acquaintances is probably just making me feel better. It’s not changing anything, besides letting me have the odd brief pompous thrill of looking down from the high ground. I should do more, comment less and remember that being boring is the worst crime of all. So in the spirit of popping my own reflective bubble, I’ll end on this from Caitlin Moran, which advocates – I think – not overthinking it, being rather than saying. and generally, just getting on with life:
If the things that concern you, as a modern woman, are the bewildering rise of the Brazilian, the pressure to have a baby, and the unfairness of the Daily Mail constantly printing pictures of Christina Aguilera where she looks a bit fat when she’s only a size 10 FFS, then start your feminism right there. You don’t need to do all the gnarly bits you’re not really interested in.
After all, it’s not like men are walking around going “I’m only going to declare I’m equal with women when I’ve gone on a march to prevent all war and suffering.” Feminism isn’t a competition for the moral high ground. It’s just a piece of ground that’s usefully above the flood. There’s a difference.