When reigning pop queen Beyoncé Knowles stood, with the unshakeable self-assurance of a warrior, in front of a boldly lit, capital-lettered declaration of “FEMINIST” at the MTV Video Music Awards last month, the media responded with something approximating rapture. “The zeitgeist is irrefutably feminist: its name literally in bright lights,” wrote Jessica Valenti at The Guardian, while Amanda Marcotte at Slate argued that the singer had put paid to the idea that feminists are just “ugly wannabes” who “hate men” and children. The New Republic’s Rebecca Traister called the performance “one of the most powerful pop-culture messages of [her] lifetime.”
The moment marked a crest in the current wave of popularity and recognition feminism has been enjoying in popular culture recently. Young celebrities from Lorde to Miley Cyrus to Taylor Swift have been eagerly claiming the label, while old school media like Cosmopolitan and Playboy have given themselves feminist makeovers. Beyoncé’s performance just made it official. Feminism is cool now: no longer the refuge of, as conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh once put it, women who had been excluded by “the mainstream of society,” but front and center of the mainstream itself—celebrated by queen bees, and Queen Beys.
The resurgence of the women’s movement over the past decade has been a product of two opposite but interrelated impulses. The first has been the explosion of feminist discussion in the blogosphere and on social media, which has sparked lively conversations around issues such as racial inequality, transgender rights, and the cultural factors that contribute to sexual assault. The second has been a concerted attempt to destigmatize feminism and make it more palatable, as exemplified by twin campaigns last year by UK women’s magazine Elle and New York-based media platform Vitamin W to “rebrand feminism.”
At first glance, these two developments seem starkly divided: one niche, complex and devoted to the development of new ideas, and the other populist and unthreatening, designed to appeal to the broadest audience possible. But they have more in common than you might think. It was the eruption of feminist conversation online that informed commercial publishers that there was money to be made from talking about gender. And the desire to popularize the women’s movement has been as much a motivator for parts of the feminist blogosphere as the development of a new set of feminist ethics.
British journalist Laurie Penny, whose book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution launches in the United States this week, has been at the forefront of this resurgence. Like many in the new generation of feminist voices, she made her career online, launching her blog Penny Red in 2007, when she was just 20 years old. With her powerful opinions and sharp turns of phrase, she was quickly noticed by the media establishment and rewarded with columns at The Guardian, Independent and New Statesman. Today, she has almost 100,000 followers on Twitter, an even mix of devoted acolytes and scathing critics.
Unspeakable Things is the 27-year-old Penny’s fifth book, but it is her first to be published by a major publisher and her first to be released on this side of the Atlantic. Part polemic, part feminist primer, it is a journey through the gendered landscapes of the early 21st century: from the psychiatric ward where Penny was treated for anorexia as a tomboy-ish, recalcitrant 17-year-old; to the unfulfilled utopia of the Occupy movement, where disenfranchised young men search for an avenue to exercise their masculinity. But unlike other recent books in its genre, Unspeakable Things is markedly uninterested in converting its readers. “Call yourself what you like,” Penny writes at the end of the book’s first chapter. “The important thing is what you fight for.”
Not for her is the “tepid and cowardly” mainstream feminism focused on getting more women into boardrooms, or stamping out sexy music videos. “Let others construct an unchallenging feminism that speaks only to the smallest common denominator,” she writes. Penny wants nothing less than a mutiny; a wholescale rebellion against the push to be “good girls, tough boys, perfect women, [and] strong men.” Her bête noire is not just patriarchy but neoliberalism, which she believes reduces every aspect of human experience—from love, to labor, to the human body—to its capacity to create profit.
In an era in which much feminist writing (in print at least, online is a different story) seems designed to be as agreeable as possible, Penny’s unflinching politics are a breath of fresh air. Unspeakable Things harks back to the early work of writers like Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone, and bell hooks; to the days when intellectuals weren’t afraid to offend, or to throw ideas at the wall and see which ones stuck.
In person, Penny is less combative than she is in print. “Gateway” feminism, as she calls it, is “incredibly politically important,” she says when we speak on the phone; a “first spliff” into the heady world of modern identity politics. Her own writing, by comparison, is closer to a drug featured on a certain critically acclaimed AMC series (which, she hastens to add, she has never tried). “It’s not for everyone,” she says. “But it’s not trying to be.”
Still, she is sceptical of attempts to take the bite out of the gender equality movement. “I think the whole question [of rebranding feminism] is very indicative of how threatening a lot of people find feminism and gender liberation in general,” she says. “My first response to that is always that feminism is threatening to the status quo. It is a legitimately scary idea for people who are invested in things staying the way that they are. There’s only so far you can dress it up.”
Words like these might strike fear in the heart of some readers, especially those for whom the word “feminist” invokes visions of a cabal of harridans conspiring to render men irrelevant—or do away with them altogether. But Penny is not anti-man. In fact, some of the most touching sections of Unspeakable Things are those that address men’s issues. In the book’s second chapter, “Lost Boys,” she describes the deep sense of disillusionment felt by some of the young men she knows, who were raised to believe the whole world would be theirs, only to find that the economic carpet has been swept out from under them. But “the golden age of masculinity” that feminism purportedly destroyed never existed, she argues, and most of the power that men were said to hold was in fact “concentrated in the hands of a few white European men, usually the richest and most well connected.”
Later in the book, Penny explores the sexism that pervades the digital world where she plays out her politics, laying out in detail the death and rape threats she receives for the crime of being an outspoken woman in the public eye. But she is also sympathetic to the origins of that abuse. “One of the most important things to understand about cybersexism is that it comes from a place of pain,” she writes, an “embattled masculinity” wrought from years of abuse at the hands of peers that for some men manifests itself in a resentment and hatred of women. But what the boy geeks miss, she argues, is that they are not the only ones who have to deal with harassment or ostracism. Girl geeks like Penny, who spent her adolescence on “the type of chat forums where everyone will pretend you’re a 45-year-old history teacher called George,” experience the same sense of alienation that their male equivalents do.
Penny’s self-described “mutiny” is more subtle than it might seem at first glance, as well; less a matter of storming the factories (although she does employ that analogy at one point) than of refusing to accept the roles that have been laid out for you. “It’s about deciding that no one else is in charge of the workings of your own heart,” Penny says when we speak. “I chose the word ‘mutiny’ because it is more personal than ‘revolution.’ It varies from person to person. There are things you can get away with if you’re a young white lady living in London that you can’t if you’re a middle-aged person of color living in New York.”
Ironically, the feminism in Unspeakable Things might just be more likely to reel in new converts than its glossier, more deliberately palatable counterparts. As a teenager, I went to an all-girls’ high school that drummed into its pupils that women could do anything. We wore purple on International Women’s Day, studied women’s history, and were presented with a parade of successful former female students. But this “girl power” feminism always felt hollow to me. It was only when I began to think about how gender influenced our everyday experiences, and saw things I had thought were personal to me put into political context, that feminism suddenly became relevant and interesting. I wasn’t drawn to feminism because people had told me it was cool; I was drawn to it because it helped me make sense of my life.
So it is with feminism’s current “cool girl” resurgence: The celebrity endorsements are nice, but they mean little without heart and ideas to back them up. Movements don’t maintain relevance—or popularity—by trying to be all things to everyone; they do it by dealing with issues that matter to people. I dare say Beyoncé might agree.