On Monday 25 April, Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism, talked at Waterstones for the Bristol Festival of Ideas. She discussed her new book Girl Up, which is aimed at giving teenage girls information on everything from body image to sex and consent.
‘Congratulations, you have a penis!’ was one of the responses that Laura Bates advocated girls give to unsolicited dick pics (my personal favourite was, ‘omg I think I just had a boregasm’). This summed up the tone of the talk: pragmatic and humorous. Or ‘what you can do right now’ to combat the sexism you experience. Like a benevolent app.
One great thing about the evening was that there seemed to be just as many teenage girls nodding knowingly as there were older women in their 40s and 50s waiting patiently for an explanation of ‘dick pic’ and then quivering in empathy when they realised what girls are growing up with today. The same happened when Bates read out examples of the titles of the top videos that come up when you Google ‘porn’ and the thumbnail that goes with them — all some variant on ‘slutty bitch gets ruined’ beside a clip of a naked woman getting penetrated by a seemingly ownerless penis.
There were outright gasps of disgust at various points in the evening including when Bates recounted an anecdote about some school children being shown around the houses of parliament and the guide saying, “don’t worry girls, there’s a gift shop with cookery books in at the end.” Or when she recounted learning of biology textbooks that leave out the clitoris in diagrams of the vulva and vagina, deeming it ‘irrelevant’.
A genuinely moving movement was in the audience Q & A when a mother started crying when asking Bates how she should talk to her daughter about body image. We’d just seen Bates hold up illustrations of how five-year-old girls had drawn themselves when asked what they would like to be like (all drew stick people — they wanted to be thinner. The boys drew themselves with money or with a girlfriend or with muscles). The woman’s daughter is 5 too and the realisation of the world that she is to inhabit was obviously too much.
But Bates answered with characteristic optimism; children with parents aware and responsive to these sorts of issues are better equipped and more likely to seek advice when they come across things that trouble them. She showed her optimism on numerous occasions, telling stories about grassroots feminist societies in schools and shows of solidarity among girls against pressure and misogyny.
At times I wondered how she could be so optimistic. After one particular barrage of facts about rape, sexual violence and street harassment, I felt the familiar sinking feeling in my stomach, tinged with anger and frustration that we haven’t sorted this out already. If there was one thing that Bates wasn’t, it was angry. At first I found this puzzling but then, I’m not her target audience. Perhaps overt feminist anger would put off girls in this age group at the moment (I remember seeing a TV show featuring Germaine Greer at this age and being completely unmoved). I have very little idea what it’s like to be a teenager growing up online.
Bates seems to get it though. She understands that teenagers live their lives through the currency of social media and doesn’t say things like ‘just stay offline’. Instead she works with the situation that these teenagers are in and gives solutions, or coping mechanisms, from within their world. In this way she offers an incredibly palatable feminism for teenagers to latch onto: friendly, accommodating and practical. In some ways it tallies with much online feminism that these girls might have come across, but with the stark difference that she manages to transcend the strict categories and identity politics often found there. For instance when she was talking about porn she managed to avoid taking an overall stance by saying, “whether you’re in the camp that thinks it just reflects broader societal inequalities, or the camp that thinks it is intrinsically bad…”
A review of Girl Up by Helen Lewis for the Guardian takes issue with the kind of glossy, no-judgments-here feminism that seems to spring up rootless and take place entirely on the surface. I sympathise with this, given that individualistic, empowerment feminism shuts down genuine systematic concerns, so long as women are ’empowered’, and has been co-opted for capitalist ends.
Certainly, Girl Up is not going to change structural patriarchy or question exploitative economic systems. It’s not going to politicise girls in the traditional sense, or teach them about the history of the movement they might find themselves joining. What it may do is help a generation of certain girls with what they’re dealing with and perhaps that’s enough. It certainly seemed to be enough for the audience on the night.