Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman and a regular political commentator on the BBC. She currently holds an Honorary Writing Fellowship at Oxford University. Her new book, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 9 Fights is scheduled for release with Jonathan Cape in 2020. In this interview, we talked about sex, economics and feminism ahead of Helen's appearance at HowTheLightGetsIn 2019.
Do we live in a sexualised culture?
I think we do comparative to anyone within living memory. But things are better than they were in recent history as well.
In advertising this is probably most obvious; a huge theme of the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s was the fact that advertisers would just drape a woman over a car to sell it. That assumes men have the spending power.
If men have the money and power, it makes sense to sell things to women that purport to make them more appealing to the opposite sex. When selling make up and cosmetics advertisers can say ‘buy this and people will want to have sex with you.’
There used to be even more obvious different treatment of the sexes in newspapers where men tend to be talked about as active and women were there as passive objects to be looked at. This lingers but we have moved on from it to some degree.
Whereas it used to be a female model or actress alongside a male comedian we are now more interested in funny women and women with something to say.
Panel shows have certainly made progress in the last ten years or so.
Policies that try to regulate this kind of equality are coming in - The BBC, for example, now has a rule to have at least one woman on any panel, show producers are beginning to say there have to actually be two women which is even better because you are labelled with a more nuanced identity than just ‘woman’.
But women are still used as scenery. For example, you don’t get award ceremonies where men in tiny shorts bring the award that is then handed on to the presenter to give to the winner.
Are men and women equally sexualised?
When I talk to people about the popularity of female strip shows, people often bring up the film and stage show ‘Magic Mike’, or the pressure on men, given the popularity of something like Love Island, to have a gym honed physique and to show it off. Do you think male objectification is on the rise?
Yes and it’s a problem. But the word I’m using most at the moment is ‘disproportionate’. These examples are really rare; there is this one stage show but that’s about it. And even in that, men are actually protagonists, not just a backdrop. If you want to write a story about someone who runs a stripping troop, male or female, then do it. It’s like comparing women’s representation as sex objects in film with something like the Full Monty. All the men in it have real stories and real lives. Whether someone has their clothes on or not isn’t everything. My big problem with women’s objectification is that once you’re in a bikini you’re not a real person. There are countless examples of women in films who get raped and murdered so that the male detective can be sad about it. The ‘wall of nipple’ backdrop is more of a problem than having a lead female character who has to take their top off as part of their story.
When women are used as casual sexual backdrops, the implied viewer is heterosexual male, which risks alienating homosexual men as well as women.
"I don't agree with a naked selfie particularly but I want a society in which people have the opportunity to do that."
As a woman in the public eye, do you feel pressure to present yourself in any particular way? Do you think how women present themselveswomen’s public appearances affects their career prospects, or their prospects in the public eye?
For me it’s really about having to look neat and presentable and respectable. That’s a hard standard because it applies in different ways to men and women, and women of different ethnicities. When you talk to black women about natural hair they tell you they’ve often experienced that not being seen as professional; there’s a similar thing about not wearing make up or women wearing comfortable shoes.
There is a great relaxation that for men in politics smart means a navy suit. Nobody will comment on you wearing the same thing every day. Yes, it’s a bit unfair that during summer you have to wear a jacket if you’re a guy and women wear vest tops, but still the unnoticeable uniformity of men’s professional wear is liberating.
There is far more scrutiny and discussion of women’s clothes; there’s a smaller landing strip of your appearance not being comment-worthy if you’re a woman. I want to look completely neutral so that people will focus on what I have to say. But it’s fascinating that people think I care what they think about my appearance.
What has produced this culture in which women bear the burden of being sexualised - is there something inherent in men that they want to sexualise people and women don’t?
Firstly, it’s purely economics. The assumption is that men have the money and power and get to pick their mates from all womankind. If you’re an attractive woman you can attach yourself to a powerful man and syphon off some of that. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously said power and ambition are great things, but competition for women becomes primarily about commanding the attention of men.
My mother would always say that in other animals it’s the males who do the showing off. It’s not a natural thing throughout nature that women offer the decoration. It’s not to do with testosterone. It’s peculiar to human culture and has arisen partly from an idea of a leisure class. Beautified women give the signal that they are rich enough that they can wear impractical things; they are not for work, but for pleasure.
Interestingly, as I see women with more economic power, their grooming choices tend to be more low key as it’s not the thing they are judged on in that social position.
I gather, from doing a little bit of research on your forthcoming book, ‘Battle Cry for Difficult Women’ that you’re looking into a long view of feminism and are presenting a nuanced understanding of its modern history.
Rather than writing a straightforward history, I wanted to narrow it down, approaching the subject through specific fights. The rights that we had to acquire, legally or culturally was an interesting case study of how you get things done. I was looking at which feminists have achieved substantial change, what alliances, what trade-offs, what compromises they made. Now things are tribal, and people are thinking in a very black and white way. There’s a purity test that anyone in a social justice movement has to pass nowadays, we want to know if that person is good or not. But my book thinks about tactics. It’s about when you have to put your foot down and when you can negotiate.
"I’m pretty bored by labels...Feminism has to be something that you do, not say."
Where does the sexualised female body fit into that? Where would sharing a naked selfie fit into that, for example? What are women struggling for when they do something like that?
To me that hasn’t got a massive amount to do with feminism. You should have the right to do it. Female dress shouldn’t be mandated by law. We shouldn’t have morality police. But that doesn’t mean that I would advise doing it.
Something that makes me wary of this is that it’s hard to own your image and keep control of it. For example, Germaine Greer famously posed for Oz Magazine, and she did it for an interesting reason, but since then it’s been used to demean her, and that would be my fear. You don’t own or control the ways in which such images might be used against you.
I interviewed Stoya the porn actress who runs her own business. She does great work about unionisation and being transparent about pay rates. In terms of content, she stages scenes with S&M where people discuss their boundaries as part of the narrative. The problem is these scenes then end up on other sites as just the clip of the act itself without the important discussion. What she is doing is interesting and thought provoking but the architecture of the internet is such that it will be used in a different way.
On the other hand, I know of situations where people have had cancer surgery and a huge part of their recovery has been about saying ‘I don’t now look as expected, or as is considered ideal, but this is my body and I’m happy to be alive in it, I’m not ashamed of it.’
Or you might have someone who has grown up in a religious household taking their hijab off and for them posing would be about their freedom.
Are people who tell women that they shouldn’t present themselves as sex objects violating the same code as people who tell women they shouldn’t get abortions? What about ‘my body, my choice’?
To me it is about a certain amount of liberalism – people should be free to make choices I don’t personally agree with. Saying I don’t approve of something is not the same as saying I think it should be banned. I don’t think it’s healthy to have seven abortions, for example - it reflects something might be very wrong, but would I ban that? No, I wouldn’t.
In the book I talk about the fact that women don’t only deserve rights when they are good. Human rights are independent of whether you are the best or worst person in the world.
I don’t agree with a naked selfie particularly but I want a society in which people have the opportunity to do that.
Why Sexual Morality Doesn't Exist Read more Can we talk about free choice in a patriarchal society? How does choice work if men and women have internalised patriarchal values?
There are no free choices under the form of capitalism we currently have. There are things that if you don’t do you will starve. Survival sex work is just that for some people. To talk about choice there seems absurd.
The traditional Marxist theory of false consciousness is relevant here - the idea that people rationalise their own behaviour to themselves. I was writing about Arlie Hochschild on division of labour in the household. No matter who bore the brunt of the second shift, she found, couples would tend to say that is how they liked it. It makes sense as a human emotion so that you don’t spend your time constantly agitating because that would be a miserable way to live. It’s a lot more psychologically well adjusted to justify it to yourself.
The choices people do make in sexualising themselves are economically rational choices, when the alternative may not be great either. Working minimum wage job somewhere, at a check out for example, is not anyone’s dream career either.
There’s more than denial going on though. There is a real reluctance from within the sex industry to challenge it because that gives ammo to groups like the Christian fundamentalists. It’s true in other areas of feminism as well; so if you say something like ‘most women want to go back to work, they find being with kids hard work and they don’t want to damage their career prospects,’ people will take issue and claim you’re saying women hate children, they’re turning away from traditional roles in some unnatural way etc.
"We can’t have money or power because both belong to men, so we can take off our clothes in the hope that they might share a bit."
Does virtue signalling help feminism because calling yourself a feminist has become incredibly fashionable, or is it actually stifling debate and giving a false sense that being a feminist is easy, that no demands are made of you to do any particular kind of thing, that it’s just a label you can apply to yourself?
I’m pretty bored by labels. I want to look at what people have actually done.
It’s a good thing that feminism has been detoxified from when people were hysterical about the word. The downside, though, is that it’s a thing you say rather than a practice.
Feminism has to be something that you do, not say.
The fact that we tear down women for being insufficiently good feminists is ridiculous. That is not where we should direct our criticism.
We should look above all else at unpaid caring labour, at the fact that we don’t regard it as work even though without it the economy wouldn’t function.
Is one problem that women who present themselves as sexy aren’t representing female sexuality, or female sexual desire, but instead they’re presenting a male ideal of sexuality and a blank space for another person’s fantasy to be projected onto?
I’m uneasy about commercialisation generally. I think there’s a difference between someone wanting to have lots of sex, and someone trying to sell you stuff by telling you how much sex they have. We need to decouple one from the other.
Some people are really turned on by exhibitionism, but some are just performing a sexual script approved by society.
I like that people out there are showing different sizes and shapes, but my question is: how far can you subvert something fundamentally arranged for male satisfaction?
There’s a great comment that Caitlin Moran makes. She asks, if taking off clothes is so empowering, why isn’t Warren Buffet doing it?
By engaging in this, we only get to second tier; we can’t have money or power because both belong to men, so we can take off our clothes in the hope that they might share a bit.
Is it impossible to say that there is such a thing as feminism with a single definition, that there are things that just do or do not empower women, or should we somehow make ‘feminism for all’ work?
Economic independence and bodily autonomy are the two cornerstones of feminism. They express themselves in different ways in different contexts. The fact that women do more unpaid work than men is universal across all societies and this is reflected in our idea of what women are and what their role is.
The idea that a woman’s word is worth as much as a man’s, that women’s lives are as interesting as men’s, that they are not just supporting characters, is fundamental too. And this is as true in film as in the abortion debate.
Pluralism and dissent are inevitable within feminism. Any political movement should have that.
There’s also always the question of who gets to be a leader. Are you looking for the most privileged person apart from the one factor that is their sex, or do you have to work against that?
Women who are disadvantaged in multiple different ways get a very raw deal even within mainstream feminism.
But, there is sometimes a demand that feminism does everything. Feminism gets twisted into a self-help movement or is expected to make everyone else feel better. And that’s wrong.