Feminismus und Geschlechtergerechtigkeit

Veröffentlicht: 1. April 2016 in Aktuelle politische Probleme, Gesellschaft
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Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things. Sex, Lies and Revolution. London 2014.

„Gender determines the shape of our fantasies. Good little boys are supposed to dream about changing the world, but good little girls are supposed to dream about changing ourselves. […] There comes a time when you have to decide whether to change yourself to fit the story, or to change the story itself. The decision gets a little easier if you understand that refusing to shape your life and personality to the contours of an unjust world is the best way to start creating a new one.“ (p. 21 & p. 38)

Laurie Penny was born in London in 1986 and grew up on the Internet. She studied English Literature at Wadham College, Oxford. In 2010 her blog Penny Red was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing. She is the Contributing Editor at New Statesman magazine and is konwn for reporting on protest and social movements. She currently has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter.


1.) Beauty Work

Men experience body policing too, of course. [But] Men’s physicality is not assumed to be everything they have to contribute. „Beauty“ for men, despite the best efforts of the cosmetics industry to persuade them otherwise, still involves little more than a shave, a slick of hair-gel and a clean T-shirt.

A recent survey by shopping channel QVC claimed that the average British woman spends £ 2,055 per year, or 11 per cent of the median full-time female salary, on maintaining and updating the way she looks. Men, by contrast, spend just 4 per cent of their salary on their appearance, most of which goes on shaving and the gym. („Beauty Bill of a Lifetime“, Daily Mail, 21 February 2011)

Maintaining order on the surface is important [for women]. We are supposed to be objects of desire, not desiring beings. […] Looking „good“, for a woman, involves sacrifice, hard work, illness, even death [in the case of eating disorders]. „Beauty“ for women involves hours of pain and expenses. Our bodies are the most important things about us, and left to themselves, they will betray us, become fat and unmanageable: they must be controlled.

Where once feminists complained of women’s „second shift“ of housework and childcare outside the workplace, the obligation to be highly achieving now infects every part of life: we must be academically successful, socially graceful, physically attractive, sexually alluring but not too „slutty“.

Feminist writer Naomi Wolf refers to „Beauty Work“ – the time, money and effort women have to put into „maintaining“ their appearance and cramming their physical selves into the narrow stereotype of conventional beauty standards – as a new third shift of labour, alongside women’s traditional „second shift“ of domestic and caring work [with the „first shift“ being working on their jobs earning money]

Glossy women’s magazines are manuals of self-transformation: change your body for summer, change your wardrobe for winter […]

Women’s fear of not being considered beautiful is well founded. Recent studies have proven what most of us have grown up knowing on a deep and painful level: that there is a cost, for every woman and girl, to departing from the norm of what society considers „beautiful“. (p. 34) Women and girls who deviate from current beauty norms in physical appearance, weight, style, race or gender presentation face discrimination at work and quantifiable obstacles in terms of pay and promotion.

Femininity, docility and prettiness, by which we mean the lifelong effort to look as much like an even-featured, underweight Caucasian girl in her early twenties as possible, are the entry tickets to a wider variety of jobs in which a few will make it big and most won’t make it out.

A report published in a recent issue of the „Journal of Applied Psychology“ revealed that the pay and influence of test groups of women in America and Germany consistently rose as their weight dropped below the healthy average, even when controlling factors that affect both weight and pay.  By contrast, weight gain was an indicator of financial success for males up to the point of extreme obesity, when men too begin to pay a professional penalty.

(T.A. Judge and D.M. Cable, “ When it comes to pay, do the thin win? The effect of weight on pay for men and women.“ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20853946)

2.) „Ugly feminists“

A great deal of what used to call itself „new feminism“ used to devote itself to reassuring women and girls that they could be empowered, independent political women and still be beautiful… Can I be a feminist if I love to wear lipstick and twirly dresses? Is it all right for empowered women to shave their legs? Feminism is not about telling women what (not) to wear or whether to shave their legs or not. The fall of patriarchy is unlike ly to begin or end with one woman’s decision to wear fishnets or grow out her armpit.politik_frauenstimmrecht_2

A lot of this nonsense is a response to the tired old stereotype of feminism as unbeautiful, and being unbeautiful – being ugly – is the worst thing a woman can ever be. That stereotype is harking back to the „Second-Wave feminists“ of the [1960s], 1970s and 1980s, some of whom did wear trousers and go unshaved. [But there also] was Gloria Steinem, whose classic bombshell looks allowed her to go undercover as a Playboy Bunny in Hugh Hefner’s original club to write an excoriating exposé of how women were treated in that weird world.What the stereotype of the bra-burning, hairy-legged feminist is really supposed to suggest is that feminism, that politics itself, makes a woman ugly. That women’s liberation is a threat to traditional ideas of femininity, of a woman’s social role. Which of course, it is, and always has been.

It’s interesting that „ugly“ is still the insult most commonly thrown at women to dismiss their power, to get them to shut up. Female politicians are called ugly by men who can’t quite bring themselves to say directly that they don’t deserve their power, that their primary purpose as women should be to please and arouse the opposite sex. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been  told, on the Internet or in person, to „shut up, ugly bitch“, when men – or, occasionally women – were uncomfortable with something I was saying. At first I started turning up to talks and debates in my best clothes, in leather, in lipstick – but no amount of lipstick is ever going to make patriarchy comfortable with the words coming out of your mouth, if you have an ounce of ambition or anger.

„Fat“ is even more obvious. You’re gross, you take up too much space, get out of my sight. Men who occupy positions of power, of course, are allowed to run fat, lose interest in their appearance […]: their places at the top table will still be reserved.


3.) Women at work

Perhaps the cruelest trick played on my mother’s generation was the way they were duped into believing that the right to work in every low-paid, back-breaking job men do was the only and ultimate achievement of the women’s movement. Yes, in most Western countries, women now have the legal right to be paid equally for any job a man can do, although they have to get the job first. In practice, women are not working at the top of the pay and employment scale in large numbers. We are instead over-represented in low-paid, underpaid and unpaid work, just as we always have been, in domestic and care-sector work and other professions that remain at the bottom of the social heap in terms of pay and social status precisely because that work is traditionally done by women.

4.) A structure of sexism

Some of my best friends are straight white men. It’s not their fault. They didn’t ask for the privilege, because that’s not how privilege works. But if we want to understand gender, power and desire, we must talk about men.

Feminism has never just been about liberating women from men, but about freeing every human being from the straitjacket of gender oppression. The feminist writer bell hooks claims that „patriarchal masculinity estranges men from their selfhood.“ For the first time, men and boys as a whole are starting to realize how profoundly messed up masculinity is – and to ask how they might make it different.

The „Men’s Rights Activists“ who organize to drown out and silence women on the Internet are usually fearful, lonely creatures who are desperate to speak about gender, but only able to do so as a way of shutting women down. That expression of fear comes from a profoundly childish place, a posture which is as fascistic in its policing of gender roles as a playground bully, and which uses words like „Feminazi“ with apparent seriousness. Because fighting for equality was what the Nazis were really known for.

Some people are complaining that speaking about prejudice is itself prejudice. Increasingly, before we talk about misogyny, women are asked to modify our language so that we don’t hurt men’s feelings. I see this used as a silencing technique across the social justice movements with which I am associated: black people are asked to consider the feelings of white people before they speak about their own experience; gay people and transsexual people are asked not to be too angry because it makes straight people feel uncomfortable. Of course not all men hate women. But culture hates women, and men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to.

Society tends to discourage us from thinking structurally. Pondering upsetting things like poverty, racism, sexism as parts of a larger architecture of violence does not come easy in a culture that prefers that we all see ourselves as free-acting individuals.

Your friend is raped by someone at a party; your colleague has to leave work because she cannot afford full-time childcare. It’s simpler and less scary to imagine all of these things as individual, unrelated experiences, rather than part of a structure of sexism that infects everyone. Even you.

You don’t want to live in a world where women get raped and then told they provoked it in a court of law? You don’t want to live in a world where women’s work is poorly paid or unpaid? You did not choose any of this. What you do get to choose, right now, is what happens next. You can choose to challenge misogyny and sexual violence wherever you see them.

5.) Patriarchy and „traditional masculinity“

For many centuries, money and power have been concentrated in the hands of a few white European men. These men represent only a fraction of the total male population, and yet every boy is expected to aspire to be just like them, and every woman is expected to aspire to be in their company.


There’s a simple word for this system. The word is patriarchy. Patriarchy does not mean „the rule of men“. It means „the rule of fathers“. The word patriarchy describes a structure of economic and sexual oppression centuries old in which only a few men were granted power. Most individual men don’t have a lot of power, and now the small amount of social and sexual superiority they held over women is being questioned [by feminists].

Patriarchy, throughout most of history, is what has oppressed and constrained men and boys as well as women. Patriarchy is a top-down system of male dominance that is established with violence or with the threat of violence. When feminists say „patriarchy hurts men too“, this is what we mean: Patriarchy is hard for men to opt out of.

„Traditional masculinity“, like „traditional femininity“, is about control. It is a way of managing behaviour. There are two big secrets about „traditional masculine power“ that mainstream culture does not want us to discuss, and it is imperative that we discuss them honestly. The first big secret is this: most men never really have been powerful. Throughout human history, the vast majority of men have had almost no structural power, except over women and children. The power over women and children – physical dominance within the sphere of one’s own home – has been the sop offered to men who had almost no power outside of it.

There have always been others. That’s the last great secret of this supposed „golden age of masculinity“ that’s been destroyed by feminism: it never really existed in the first place. There have always been men who were too poor, too queer, too sensitive, too compassionate or simply too clever to fit in with whatever flavour of violent heterosexuality their society relied upon to keep its wars fought, its factories staffed and its women in check. Men who were not willing to bear the clunking fist that was supposed to squash them all into a single understanding of what it meant to be „manly“. Men whose skill was in caring for children and the elderly.

While men are permitted to express desire in a way many women and girls are not, that desire is very specifically directed and any deviance punished, often with violence. The passion of young men is policed twice over, by fear of masculinity gone feral on the one hand and by homophobia on the other. In many parts of the global north we have arrived at a position where outright violence against gay men and lesbians is considered backward, and where gay people have fought successfully for the same rights to marry, cohabit and die in war zones as their straight counterparts.

On 9 September 2010, Billy Lucas went out to his grandmother’s barn in Greenberg, Indiana, and hung himself. He was fifteen years old, and one of the few non-white kids in the small-town high school where he had suffered homophobic bullying for over a year before he took his own life. There was nothing out of the ordinary about Billy’s tragedy: last year [2013] in America thousands of teenagers killed themselves, and just like last year and the years before, young gay, bisexual and transsexual people were particularly at risk, with suicide rates over quadruple those of heterosexual youth. Billy was one of many other youth who had been bullied mercilessly for not conforming to expected stereotypes of sexuality and gender performance and who took their own life. What was unusual was what happened next: The popular advice columnist Dan Savage made a video with his husband, telling gay teenagers to hang in there, promising them, in words that would become a worldwide anti-suicide slogan, that „It Gets Better“. The clip went viral around the world, prompting thousands of others to tell their own stories of hope.

As rousing slogans go, „It Gets Better“ is hardly fistpumping. It’s a promise that erases class, race and gender difference. The painful fact remains that for LGBT youth it gets a whole lot better a whole lot faster, if you’re white, middle-class and moneyed.

The gains that women have made in the workplace, our new relative freedom from the obligation to get married, bear children and submit to male power at home and work are framed uncomplicatedly as a loss to men and boys. It’s as if there was a fixed amount of equality in the world and giving more to women automatically meant taking it away from men. Freedom doesn’t work like that. Freedom is one of the things in the world that enriches the people who give it to.

5.) Slut talk

Here are the situations in which I have been called a slut: when I have spoken out or spoken up. When I have been political in public. Slut is a word of power. I’m taking it back.

In the past the word slut was used simply to mean any woman who didn’t behave: a woman who was „dirty, untidy or slovenly“, a woman who failed to keep her house in order and her legs closed before marriage, a woman who invited violence and contempt.

The Slutwalk phenomenon began in Toronto in 2011, after a local policeman instructed a group of female university students to stop „dressing like sluts“ if they didn’t want to be raped, a point of view not unique among men in positions of power. The global protests that followed infected the imagination of women in cities around the world, who are sick of being bullied and intimidated into sexual conformity.

For over a century, „slut“ has been a word of censure. It has been used to hurt people and make them ashamed. The word „slut“ has been used to control women and girls, queer people and poor people by making them feel ashamed of what they are and what they want. It keeps them in their place by telling them that wanting more than what they’re allowed is shameful, whether that’s a new world order or an extra slice of cake. Slut is a word and an idea that desperately needs to be taken back.

Slut power means speaking up when women who are political are stereotyped as ugly, slutty and masculine because that’s still the worst thing you can say to a woman that frightens you. Being a slut doesn’t have to mean fucking around, of fucking at all. It just means refusing to see desire as dirty. It means abandoning the pursuit of patriarchal approval as far as you can.

It stuns me that female desire is still taboo. Sex is not the problem. Sexism is the problem. Moral divisions are being renewed between „innocent“ women and „sluts“. Young women in particular are expected to look hot and available at all times, but if we dare to express desires of our own, we are mocked, shamed and threatened.

Girls learn from their peers, from magazines and even from their mothers that they’ll never get a boyfriend if they dare express desire, let alone lust. Doing so makes us objects of ridicule, „sluts“ who have been stupid enough to abandon the one power we’re really allowed: the power to manipulate men with sexuality.

Since the so-called „sexual revolution“ of the 1960s, women have more sex, but not freely, and not without fear of punishment. „Dress like a slut“ and get raped. The „cuckold’s defense“ for partner violence, whereby husbands whose wives had cheated on them were given lesser sentences for beating and even killing them, was taken off the statute books as late as 2009 in many countries, including Britain.

6.) Single mothers and scapegoats

Alongside „sluts“ and sex-workers, the most hated character in the shadow-play of modern sexual prejudice is the single mother. The millions of women raising children without a co-parent are spoken of in the same terms as thieves: they are a drain on the state, the scourge of hard-working taxpayers who must pay for the maintenance of these „broken homes“. The charity Gingerbread estimates that nine in ten single parents are mothers; many of these mothers are not raising children alone by choice, but because their primary relationships have ended or broken down.

In the single mother, contemporary slut-shaming and class prejudice find their perfect scapegoat. Single mothers are not just sluts, they’re bad entrepreneurs, lazy workers, dissident subjects who have failed to supply the demands of capitalist patriarchy and now demand that the rest of us pay for it. In the United States there is no male equivalent for the term „welfare queen“. Having a child alone and asking for support with raising that child is considered uniquely selfish.

The logic of neoliberal gender politics insists that no woman is poor or struggling because of structural inequality, but because of her own choices. The single mother, just like the prostitute, must have made bad choices, or shameful, dirty choices, that have left her destitute. She is unworthy of sympathy, much less assistance. She has failed to deploy her erotic capital wisely. Her child is a constant reminder of those poor choices. The slut-shaming and social punishment of single mothers and their children gives lies to modern ideas of sexual liberation – much less of reproductive freedom.

But it’s not just single mothers who are shamed for daring to spawn: motherhood itself is now tacitly considered a selfish, dirty choice, a species of reproductive incontinence. Women are selfish if we have children and selfish if we don’t. Women’s potential fertility is still given as an excuse for not hiring or promoting female employees. Fathers of course are nowhere in this equation. The raising and production of the next generation – the means of reproduction – are still very much the domain of women, and they are resented for it.

7.) Rape culture

Structural sexism does not always come from a place of hate. The clearest example of this is the conversation about date-rape and drinking. A great many people are pleading with young women to stop giving the „wrong“ signals to men, to be careful to walk down strange streets alone. Often, the people making these pleas are good-hearted. But arguing over whether or not it is a woman’s responsibility to protect herself from rape prevents us from discussing the real issue, which is…

  • when precisely society is going to start placing the blame for rape on the men who commit rape
  • the criminal justice system which refuses to take it seriously
  • the wider culture of silence and shame which allows men and boys to continue raping women with relative impunity

In a recent study, more than half of all rape victims in the United States reported being raped by an intimate partner, a boyfriend or husband. Most rapists are known to and trusted by the person they assault. Behaving „responsibly“ is not, ultimately, any protection against sexual violence.


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