Twitter storms, sexism and the relevance of novelty feminism

The New Statesman taught us two things last week: women are capable of being angry (or ‘ANGRY’) about more than one thing at once and ranting on Twitter about it won’t actually solve anything.

Depending on whether you’re in the Lewis or the Ball corner that means you either woke up on New Year resolving to make 2012 the year you would become less outraged or vowed to make it the year that you would become outraged about absolutely everything.

In highlighting the way online anger-fests like ‘Pandagate’ are essentially futile, James Ball had a point. The structural sexism that displays itself in multiple forms and affects (at least) half of the people on the planet will not be solved by ensuring that next year the BBC makes everyone on their ‘Faces of the Year – Women’ list a human. I imagine few thought it would.

It isn’t just the thinking of those expressing anger that matters though but those they hope are listening. Even being generous enough to believe women capable of tweeting about a panda and lobbying for better representation in Parliament, it’s a genuine worry that it’s the trivial point that will get noticed. Whether it is actually being said louder or not, it’s a reality that the superficial – or ‘novelty feminism’ – is easiest to hear.

It’s time we questioned this sense of constant competition – both in what feminists are permitted to care about and what we want others to. If it’s insulting to claim women can’t be angry about two things at once, it’s just as insulting to suggest who we are trying to reach can’t do the same. Having read a tweet about the chauvinism of ‘the woman on the left’ trend for instance does not render anyone incapable of hoping the Leveson enquiry investigates media sexism – and more to the point, are they not often part of the same pattern?

Pandagate or ‘woman on the left’ aren’t distractions from the ‘real issues’ but representations of them. They may be novel, they may have the easy digestibility that celebrity and an internet storm can bring – but that a concern can be shrunk to a tweet does not mean it is small. They are mainstream depictions of big problems, problems that for multiple reasons the public too often shy away from and the media bury in the Life and Style section.

On Friday Michael Winner tweeted a defence of Roman Polanski, claiming people should learn the ‘facts’ and remember the thirteen year old girl was “no virgin” and that “Hollywood [was] full of underage girls who looked older putting themselves about.” I replied with my disgust, as many others did.  Did tweeting about it improve rape convictions or draw back the cuts to legal aid and rape centres? No. Did it spread the message that rape is rape and that it is misogynistic apologists that say otherwise? Perhaps.

Few cared enough to get angry because a posh pensioner with a catchphrase off the telly said something offensive. They cared because it was a representation of an ignorant victim-blaming view of rape, one that is horrifically common, heard down the pub, in the papers, or on social networking sites. The tweets were about rape, not Michael Winner. He was simply the inspiration. Just as a professional lawyer presented as a flirty school girl was and a panda (and those humans revolved around marriage) judged as the most relevant women.

Is it that “perpetual outrage [is] obscuring the important issues”  – or are the important issues creating perpetual outrage? That those getting attention may present themselves as trivial does not mean there aren’t crucial issues lurking underneath.

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