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Lindsey German

Babes, Barbie and the battle of the sexes

(April 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 185, April 1995, pp. 17–19.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The storm over the recent film Disclosure has thrown up debate about women’s sexual freedom and sexual liberation. Is the fight to end women’s oppression about ‘equality in a man’s world’ or should it be linked with the fight to end class society? Lindsey German investigates

‘I like my hair like I like my men – great looking and easily changed’ is the slogan on a current advert for shampoo. It’s a slogan that advertisers think will click with many women. And they are probably right. It’s now common to hear the same kind of attitudes expressed even by socialist women. Others in the same vein run along the lines. ‘At least Madonna’s a woman who’s in control.’ ‘If you push hard enough you can get your own way.’ ‘If a bloke makes a joke about the way I look, I just make a joke about the size of his ass.’ ‘I’m in control of my own sex life.’

A sexual revolution has taken place within the lifetime of most women. Images, attitudes and subjects of discussion that are commonplace today would have been unimaginable to people only 40 years ago.

Yet sometimes it seems that the demands for sexual liberation – which played such an important part in the radicalisation of the 1960s – have been turned upside down. It is as if sexism has made a comeback by masquerading as sexual liberation.

So sexual freedom is symbolised by the poster at every bus stop of Demi Moore on top of Michael Douglas. The demand for women’s equality is supposed to be met by turning women and men into sex objects – Club 18–30 advertises its holidays with a picture of a man in bulging underpants while the Chippendales draw in huge crowds of women to their shows.

The slogan ‘burn your bra’ – always more popular with the media than with ordinary women but nonetheless symbolic of a search for freedom from restrictive clothing designed to portray women’s bodies in a particular way – has been superceded. Now we have the Wonderbra ads – thought up by a woman and supposedly a sign not of women’s oppression but of assertiveness and control.

The subtext of all this is that women’s oppression no longer need concern us. Women can compete on equal terms with men. They no longer have to be sexually submissive. Their aggression comes from their personal stance, lifestyle and job. Indeed, in many areas they are becoming so successful that it is the traditionally dominant sex – men – who are under threat. (Michael Douglas has cornered the market in films perpetuating this view.)

The idea that inequality can be overcome with the right mixture of confidence and assertiveness is strongly reinforced by some of the new young postfeminist writers. Katie Roiphe made her name with a book, The Morning After, which argued that date rape (rape between acquaintances) was a figment of feminists’ imagination. Roiphe’s view that ‘there is a grey area in which someone’s rape may be another person’s bad night’ is an assault on the whole attempt m the 1960s and 1970s to demand that women should not be treated as sex objects in rape cases.

Only after much argument and campaigning did it become unacceptable for the judges, the police and the media to condemn a woman victim because of her dress, social life or sexual history. The move toward anonymity in court cases was a recognition that women did not usually make false claims of rape but on the contrary were often too distressed to make any complaint at all.

Seeing women as victims is, however, definitely out of fashion for the postfeminists. Roiphe feels that the issue of rape is used as a ‘call to arms’ for feminists and that it, like sexual harassment, is much exaggerated. Buy a new dress, put on some lipstick and snap out of it, seems to be the general message.

Naomi Wolf – more of a feminist than Katie Roiphe – also believes that no one will help a woman who doesn’t help herself. In Fire with Fire she argues that women need to show their power and if they are strong enough they can gain equality. She talks of the ‘genderquake’ in recent years and embraces ‘power feminism’. To her this means, ‘Learn from Madonna, Spike Lee and Bill Cosby: if you don’t like your group’s image in the media, decide on another image and seize the means of producing it.’

Wolf feels that ‘women deserve to feel that the qualities of stars and queens, of sensuality and beauty, can be theirs.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of her great heroines of power feminism is Princess Diana.

What sums up both the images of aggressive and sexually predatory women and the notion of women becoming empowered on the same basis as men is that collective struggle is a thing of the past. We no longer need social conflict. Just celebrate identity and difference – or, as it used to be called, do your own thing.

This is women’s liberation viewed from the privileged comfort of the upper middle classes: a world of elite schools and universities, access to the media and lecture tours commanding high fees. Missing from the analysis is any real assessment of the world as it confronts millions of women. But many socialists and feminists who do not come from privileged backgrounds have accepted some of these attitudes, and prefer to see women’s liberation as about changing lifestyles and confidence in a world where greater social change seems a long way off.

Sexuality here becomes detached from wider society. The sexual revolution is not then about a more equal and fairer society, or about a complete transformation of social attitudes and values. It is about women becoming more like men, accepting all the inequalities there are in sexual relationships, but this time making sure that women come out on top.

In sexual attitudes as in so much else we see the limits of a women’s liberation which will not challenge the fundamental inequalities of a society whose major division is that of class.

And of course this sort of power feminism cannot really challenge any of the attacks on women’s rights which have come from right wingers over the 1980s and early 1990s. Instead, their answer to the ‘backlash’ they see against women’s rights is to get more women in positions of power.

Yet to pose power dressing strong women as the only possible opposition to a backward looking and male chauvinist reaction is to misinterpret both the real position of women today and any strategy for liberation. It also leads to an overestimation of the backlash and therefore a tendency towards stressing the individual solutions to women’s oppression so beloved of the postfeminists.

There has been an attack on some of the gains of women’s liberation inside the US in recent years. The general climate which has led to real wages being cut, massive public spending on new prisons and millions of people being denied any real welfare benefits has had its impact on the position of women. Single parents – especially young black women – have been scapegoated as ‘welfare queens’.

The vicious onslaught against ‘political correctness’ and the movement against affirmative action (positive discrimination) reflect the attempts of white middle class men – often given cover by career women who claim they can ‘make it on their own’ – to claw back the very limited concessions which blacks and women won in the 1960s and 1970s. In many recent rape cases it seems there are now two equally suffering victims: the accuser and the accused.

But we are not about to return to the 1950s. It may be fashionable to call women ‘babes’ and Barbie may be have made an astonishing comeback as a role model for some women. But that is not how most women are, not how they see themselves. The behaviour of the ‘new lads’ may be one of the less savoury aspects of the 1990s (old fashioned sexism dressed up as detached irony) but it does not result in women being pushed into the home in a way that the worst sorts of bigots would like.

Instead, women are on the labour market in unprecedented numbers, making up nearly half the workforce in Britain and over half in the US. They are the new flexible workers eulogised in the press. The unemployment rate for women in Britain is half what it is for men – showing that capitalism may be an exploitative system but it doesn’t necessarily always favour men for exploitation.

Although women’s wages are substantially lower than those of men taken overall, there has been a narrowing of the gap in some areas and for a layer of managerial and professional women there has been a fairly dramatic increase in earnings.

Indeed the growth of that layer of women has been one of the most notable social developments of the 1980s and 1990s. In 1991 in the US there were 2.3 million women with personal incomes over $50,000 a year. Around 7 percent of Hispanic, 7.4 percent of black and 11.9 percent of white women were executives or managers. Whereas in the early 1970s less than 5 percent of business masters degrees went to women, by the mid-1980s that had risen to 40 percent.

The change in women’s role – at work, with access to new careers and in higher education – has altered social attitudes. Most noticeably this is true of abortion, where a large majority of women favour the right to choose. Even right wing Republicans are reluctant to launch a frontal attack on abortion rights because they fear it is electorally unpopular. The ‘Contract with America’ on which the Republicans fought last year’s mid-term elections was conspicuously silent on abortion.

Attempts to roll back the clock for women always meet with spirited opposition because of women’s changed political role. Even the much maligned single parents have refused to accept attacks on welfare without a fight. Most women do not see why they should have to put up with unequal treatment, sexist remarks or have to choose whether they work or have children.

Even film and television programmes now reflect this change. Whether it is the distasteful Disclosure or the invigorating Thelma and Louise, women are much more likely to be given a role as independent beings. The material conditions in which women find themselves have incomparably more impact than the reactionary attitudes surrounding home and family which right wingers constantly reiterate.

But what the ‘backlash’ is able to do is create a more unfavourable ideological climate. Women’s problems become their own fault. If the burden of the family is too great then there are only individual solutions. If welfare is under attack, then women just have to accept more responsibilities in the home as well as going out to work.

There is therefore in the 1990s a strange combination of assertion of equality and a more egalitarian reality for millions of women, coupled with a shift to the right by those in government, media and other positions of power to blame the victims and put more pressure on individuals.

So what is really happening? Over the last 20 to 30 years more real women’s equality has developed – whether in pay, jobs or in reforms of the law. There has been much greater general acceptance of women’s equality over the same period.

But there has been an ideological backlash over the last 10 to 15 years. This has often been supported by middle class feminists and postfeminists keen to show that they can succeed in a ‘man’s world’. The backlash has only been partially successful, but does have resonance among some on the left. There has over the same 10 to 15 year period been an increasing attack on welfare. This is an attack on us all, although it does affect women in particular in some areas.

Some on the left have the attitude that we should adopt personal and sexual assertiveness in the here and now – while also arguing the need to go further in the transformation of society. But there is a difference between assertiveness which develops from political awareness and collective struggle, and assertiveness which is simply about ‘getting ahead’ of everyone else. The individual attitude puts a barrier between socialists and the majority of women who have little illusion that merely asserting themselves can reverse the disaster afflicting their society. In fact it can prevent unity of working class women and working class men by creating the impression that individual men are in reality the problem.

A theory of women’s liberation based on class is more essential than ever: oppression is part of a wider system which exploits and oppresses nearly everyone, which divides and rules on the basis of sex or race, which tries to turn everything – even human beings – into commodities to be bought and sold.

The postfeminists are ill equipped to develop or to understand such a theory. Their ideas represent the thin layer of managerial and professional women who have done so well out of the 1980s and who see their role as playing a part in the exploitation of the rest of us, or at best, trying to run the system in a slightly more humane way.

The aspiring Labour MPs around Emily’s List – the campaign to get more women into parliament – do not challenge the stereotypes of women’s oppression with their identical suits and neat haircuts. Rather they mimic their male middle class counterparts and have a simple demand: more jobs for the girls.

Most importantly, they have no way of really challenging those who have done even better out of the advances women have made in the past decades. Capitalism has an amazing ability to use the changes in society to its own advantage, even if the capitalists and their supporters have done little or nothing to bring these changes about.

The capitalists are quite happy to use greater sexual openness where once they counselled repression – so long as they can make a profit. The more sex becomes a commodity, the more everything connected with it – and even the sex act itself – becomes for sale on the open market. Hence the Chippendales, the lacy bras, Disclosure, Cosmopolitan and page three of the Sun.

Having sexual matters openly discussed and advertised is a step forward. It makes it very difficult for the church or reactionary governments to keep the wraps on sexuality and relationships, as they did in Portugal and Spain right up to the mid-1970s, or in Ireland till even more recently. It makes people more aware about aspects of sex and sexuality than they might otherwise have been. It makes society more open.

But treating sex – and people’s bodies – as objects to be bought and sold does not and cannot in itself lead to sexual liberation. That is why socialists have to go beyond the sexual stereotypes and beyond simply a postfeminist response to the question. Most socialist feminists don’t like the postfeminists. But because they too stress that individual men are the problem, they are incapable of developing a strategy for ending women’s oppression. Their main answer during the 1980s was to join the Labour Party – no wonder they now see individual solutions as the way forward.

The answer to women’s oppression is not ogling at the Chippendales or picking up a different man every night. However enjoyable or otherwise these occupations might be, making men into sex objects or admiring their penises – as Camille Paglia urges us to do – does not negate or abolish the inequality which women suffer.

A socialist response to sexual liberation should be one which recognises the stultifying and destructive effect that class society has on social and sexual relationships, and which understands that only a society where there is no competition, inequality or alienation can truly produce sexual freedom and liberation – not just for women but for all humanity.

When we stress the importance of a class analysis of women’s oppression therefore, it is not simply about our criticisms of middle class women. It is about developing a strategy which can end class society and the many inequalities – not least those of gender and sexuality – which it produces.

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