The “F” Word

‘I honestly don’t know what self-respecting women are supposed to call themselves now that “feminist” has grown so tainted’

If you’re looking for a pint of Slater’s “Top Totty” ale, don’t head for the Strangers’ Bar in the House of Commons, where the small independent brewery’s beer has been withdrawn from sale. The pump clip features a waitress in bunny ears, bow tie, and bikini, and the naughty image paired with the jaunty appellation “disturbed” the Labour MP Kate Green, who was concerned with “dignity at work in Parliament”.

The very fact that the offending product was removed from the bar within a mere 90 minutes of Ms Green’s objection was a give-away: it didn’t matter to the authorities.

I have been pressed numerous times on whether I consider myself a “feminist”. My answers have been conspicuously inconsistent, and I bet I’m not alone in alternately embracing and eschewing the label.

Yeah, sure, I believe in equal pay for equal work, legal abortion, improved rape prosecution rates, affordable childcare (and blah-blah-blah). I’ve never been keen for chromosomes to define who I am, and I hated the way wearing a dress kept me off the swing sets as a kid. While in awe of how rapidly my gender has largely upended whole millennia of being treated like chattel, I don’t regard the “women’s liberation movement” as having summarily achieved its ends. Indeed, when a police officer from the Met muttered at me recently, “Stupid woman! Stupid woman!” — his inflection leaving no doubt that the “woman” bit was an epithet far more insulting than “stupid” — I was reminded of how far, on that deep, sneaky, attitudinal level, we still have to go. So on a strictly definitive level, I am a “feminist”.

On the connotative level, however, the word gives me the willies, and it is little stories like Top Totty that make women like me uneasy about inviting the tag. Self-confessed feminists are, it is broadly accepted, humourless, earnest, touchy, on the lookout for slights, sexless, and probably ugly. They are party-pooping pills who don’t know how to have a good time or take a joke. They are a big drag. Little wonder that younger women these days run a mile from the word.

If we were really down to the itty-bitty stuff now that the big wars have been won, maybe it would speak well for Western culture that rather than battle it out over genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour killings, and marital rape we are banishing beers from bars. But I personally couldn’t care less about tongue-in-cheek, retro-raunchy pump clips in a parliamentary pub.  Further, I’m inclined to agree with UKIP MEP Mike Nattrass that “this sort of knee-jerk puritanism does more damage to the cause of equality than a thousand beer labels. It suggests that to be in favour of equality you must be a dour-faced, insult-searching misery”. Top Totty’s ejection from the Strangers’ Bar adds one more pejorative to that list of a feminist’s attributes: petty.

What actually matters is that advancing into the 21st century only one in five MPs and one in six cabinet ministers are female, and that a Guardian Weekend cover story on the incidentally fetching Tory MP Louise Mensch focuses on whether she has had plastic surgery. Being tight-arsed and prim about innocuously racy labelling not only gives us a bad rep, but lets the powers that be off all too lightly. We get fobbed off with sensitivity to our “dignity” when it’s offended by a hardly salacious pump clip, all the better to distract us from the fact that boardrooms and the ranks of government are still overwhelmingly male. Therefore I was entirely sympathetic with David Dimbleby, who’s fielded regular objections that the panellists of Question Time are in majority men: “We reflect public life.” Ditto in the US Congress, where only 17 per cent of senators and representatives are women: public life, not public houses, is the problem. 

I honestly don’t know what self-respecting women are supposed to call themselves, now that “feminist” has grown so tainted. We have yet to coin a term that means “doesn’t expect to be treated like an idiot but is not insufferable”. Meantime, images of attractive, often scantily clad ladies have been used to promote products from the year dot; call this “objectification” if you like, but I’m not fussed. At least somebody likes to look at us, and male models are no less objectified.  In the big cultural context, the simple drawing of a blonde with bunny ears on Slater’s pump clip is positively innocent. Kate Green has done her sisters no favours in huffing and puffing over a bit of playful kitsch — in contrast to the commentator Claire Fox, who Tweeted with brio, “What really demeans women: idea we’ve no sense of humour and MPs acting as sanctimonious killjoys in our name.”

Look, we’re not all battleaxes and school marms! We like tight jeans! We go, “Ha, ha, ha!” At least Top Totty is set to sell fabulously well, thanks to Ms Green’s heaping the F-word with yet more connotative baggage.

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