Unflinching and sharp, relevant and radical, British writer Laurie Penny has become a pin-up for fourth-wave feminism. Her fifth book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies And Revolution, is a powerful call to arms.
Photo credit: Jon Cartwright www.joncartwright.com
Between gulps of strong American coffee, Laurie Penny explains her take on modern feminism. Words gush out of her at speed, fuelled by caffeine and passion – fierce, almost palpable passion. “One of the questions I get asked most often is, ‘Don’t you think the word feminism is threatening?’ along with, ’Don’t you think feminism should be rebranded?’” Penny smiles, shaking her head slightly in disbelief. “That’s a statement of the immense power the word feminism has; the genuine fear it inspires in a lot of ordinary men and I’m going to say a lot of women too.
“Yes, feminism is threatening: that’s the point. There’s only so far you can rebrand a movement about dismantling patriarchy; there’s only so fluffy and unthreatening you can make it. Can we make feminism less threatening? Well, sure, you can if you like,” she shrugs, “but I don’t understand what the use would be.”
“The word feminism has been used to malign people,” she adds. “There’s that stereotype of the ugly feminist, which is of course the worst thing a woman can be in the world – ugly and unfeminine. It’s political resistance framed as ugliness: nobody will want to date you and you’ll be alone forever. Threatening people with loss of love is so much more effective in the long term: you can get them to do almost anything; to compromise themselves in ways you couldn’t with torture or physical abuse. Acknowledging that and taking away its power is one of the most important things we can do.
Penny certainly knows the power of words and is careful to get things right as she speaks, often stopping to correct herself, pausing, thinking, replacing one word with another. The anger that seems so gladiatorial in print is, in person, tempered with a sincerity and desire to be understood both intense and endearing.
Contributing editor at New Statesman, and a regular writer for The Guardian, Penny’s recent feminist polemic, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies And Revolution, is a gutsy, clear-eyed and smart dissection of modern feminism. It is not, she writes, “a cheery instruction manual for how to negotiate modern patriarchy, with a sassy wink and a thumbs up.”
Since gaining attention with her award-winning blog Penny Red, which she began writing in 2007 aged just 20, Penny has often been framed as the angry young woman of fourth-wave feminism, unafraid to make demands for a braver wave of modern identity politics, freedom for all. She describes herself as a ‘journalist, activist, feminist, troublemaker, nerd and net denizen’ and her opinionated, combative prose isn’t concerned with getting more women into boardrooms or out of sexy music videos; rather Penny calls for a “mutiny” against neoliberalism, which she believes reduces every human endeavour to its profit-making capacity. Chapter one concerns itself with ‘Fucked-Up Girls’; chapter two addresses ‘Lost Boys’: far from being anti-men, as far as Penny is concerned, we’re all in this together.
Not everyone feels the same. Penny’s 100,000 Twitter followers are split pretty evenly between devotees and detractors, with some of the latter very vocal about their feelings that Penny has too much to say for herself. “There’s been a lot of flak, a lot of push back, which I didn’t anticipate, possibly naively, I must say, but I didn’t set out to make so many people so angry.”
She’s not kidding about people being angry; “angry”, in fact, doesn’t quite cut it. Penny, like many women expressing opinions in cyberspace – and also in what Penny terms “meatspace” – has received abuse that ranges from slagging her off on social media to violent torture and rape fantasies, from threats to her family to threats on her life. Penny admits to feeling understandably frightened by such abuse, but she also takes heart from it.
“It’s only three weeks since I was last in a police station talking about more threats I’ve received,” she says. “I don’t take this lightly at all, but I think we should also recognise that it’s a sign that things are changing. It’s not just an attack; it’s a backlash against a massive tidal wave and massive change of political consciousness and it’s going to be very hard to put that back in its box.”
In Cybersexism, her brilliant chapter on the internet, Penny explores the freedom and problems for women that the online world presents. “One of the most important things that I wanted to get across in that chapter is this idea, which is more and more coming into public consciousness, that the internet is bad for women,” she says. “‘Don’t let your daughters go online’; ‘Keep your female relatives off Facebook, because they’ll get stalked or have their naked pictures published or both or be groomed’.
“I hear the same Victorian moral handwringing and moral panic about women in any public space,” she continues. “We’re being told not to assume we have the same human rights in a public space as men do; not to assume we can take the same advantage of this new technology as men can, because it’s not for us. It’s really disturbing, but if the response is just ‘don’t go online’ then a) that’s madly insufficient and b) it’s letting them win.”
For Penny, this makes it all the more vital that women stake their claim to the internet. Despite the abuse, the trolling, the ‘but-meninists’ and #notallmen BTL of every column about feminism, and the scaremongering of it not being a safe place for the ladies, the internet is a transformative space for women, a hugely hopeful space.
“Austerity and the internet happened at the same time and people have started questioning all kinds of previous political certainties just as it’s become easier than ever to do that questioning in public,” she explains excitedly. “And I think people are just better read. I speak to young women today in schools and universities and they just know so much more than I did, than my peers did, at that age. When I was that age, or a little bit older, you’d meet maybe one or two people who were really obsessed and had done that particular bit of reading but the breadth of knowledge today, wow… It’s just so much easier to access it all and I find that so exciting.
“I’m jealous as well – of course I am,” she laughs. “I think life is going to be really interesting in about 10 years time, when people have grown up immersed in that world where nothing is taken for granted and information is instantly accessible have power. There’s infinite hope and infinite stuff to play for. Right now is when the political consciousness of the next 25 years is going to be formed. The greatest feminist activists of the century are probably yet to be born or they’re yet to come to full political consciousness, so what we do now will have a really important impact on those people growing up. It’s one of the reasons I wrote this book now rather than waiting a few years time for when I’d done even more reading and was a little bit more grown up – I had this great sense of urgency.”
She continues: “I’m quite keyed into reading blogs, reading tumblr and the things that people are saying are becoming common currency about things like rape and slut-shaming and sexual violence and work place rights on tumblr and on Twitter – it’s so much more radical than it was even a year ago.”
Yet Unspeakable Things isn’t Penny’s manifesto; the book doesn’t come to concrete conclusions; the “mutiny” she suggests is a personal revolution; an investigation and nudging of our own boundaries. Unspeakable Things names the problems and suggests that people find their own avenues for individual and structural mutiny. “I don’t really see it as my job – and particularly not at my age – to be prescriptive and say, ‘you should do this right now’,” shrugs Penny.
“For me, my work is quite easy in terms of what I’m doing, in that I write; I write and I can talk and that’s my contribution, but I think change starts with trying to analyse the compromises you’ve already made in your own life,” she explains. “That’s a deeply threatening idea: analysing the compromises you may have made at work, in life, in love, with your family. So basically for women – and for all kinds of people, but for women in particular – I see what needs to happen as an enormous coming out in terms of sexuality and identity and politics, reclaiming a sense of economic and sexual agency.
“One thing I do regret,” she adds, “is there was a lot in the book that I cut out, which was a lot more sexually explicit, about fucking and being sexually adventurous and running around having a great time. I felt, and I still think this is the case, that if I kept all the dirty stuff in there, it would just become treated as a book solely about that. But although talking about people’s experience of sexual violence and abuse, and at the other end of the scale disappointment and heartbreak, is very important, talking about the ethical sluttery and shagging around, having a great time and a lot of sex, would almost have been more controversial. I think it’s important for women to embrace their own sexuality and, whether they’re straight or gay or bisexual, like me, I think there’s still a lot of coming out to be done.”753 Views
Aged five, Mickey Noonan shoved an apple pip up her nose to see what happened. Older, wiser but sadly without a nose-tree, Standard Issue's editor remains curious about the world. Likes running, jumping and static trapeze.