Last night, two white middle-class women – Conservative MP Louise Mensch, and left-wing activist Laurie Penny – sat on BBC Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, discussing Louise Mensch’s article in the Guardian, about whether you could be a feminist and also a Tory. Exciting stuff, I think you’ll agree. Roughly 765.94 watched these two feminists fighting over who represents women the best, which, by the standards of programs-about-feminism, is not bad going.
Jodie Marsh was not on Newsnight, of course. She was on Channel 5. And if it’s controversial to call a Tory a feminist (which it shouldn’t be, really, seeing as how Emmeline Pankhurst joined the Conservative party in the end, but never mind), then, let’s face it, a glamour model, mainly famous for reality television shows, and sleeping with one of Jordan’s boyfriends (so I’m told), has to be pretty far down the list of people that get named as top feminists. The uncomfortable truth is, Jodie Marsh is the sort of woman that a lot of feminists like me – geeky, Newsnight-watching ones – usually talk about. We don’t watch her programs. (I don’t even know if she has other programs.) I mean, it’s not that we’re not interested. We have theories about the Jodie Marshes of the world. Is she exploiting the patriarchy? Is the controlled by it? Just an inevitable product of it? Is she actually a feminist; a liberated sexual woman just doing what men have done for centuries? Is she a dangerous role model for young girls? Can feminists help her, or should we ignore her? We analyse Jodie Marsh. Or rather, let’s be honest, we judge her. Then switch back to Newsnight for intelligent discussion. Or at least, I usually do.
But last night, as it turns out, millions of people did watch her, all over the world. While a handful of people were tweeting bland, predictable comments about Louise Mensch and Laurie Penny, #JodieAgainstBullying was trending worldwide on Twitter. Friends of mine – also from around the world – started posting on Facebook that they were in tears. So tonight, I got home from work, and for what I think is the first time ever, went to the channel 5 website, then watched it.
And Jodie Marsh, as it turns out, is pretty amazing. She was a straight A-student at school, and wanted to be a vet. She was smart enough, hard-working enough, certainly ambitious enough. Then she went to secondary school. And was bullied. For being “ugly.”
“I know if I hadn’t been bullied, I’d be a vet,” she says, to the camera. “And I’d be a really good vet. I let the bullies change my whole career path.”
While Newsnight is showing the now infamous clips of Louise Mensch posing in a £485 Dolce & Gabbana leather skirt (which, just to clarify, she doesn’t actually own), ‘Jodie Marsh Bullied: My Secret Past’ is showing pictures of a sweet, pretty young girl which gradually change into pictures of a young girl with her shirt tied up around her breasts, pictures of a girl posing and pouting. And we watch as the ambitions to have a successful career as a vet were slowly, painfully, turned into ambitions to be attractive. Not attractive to women, but desired by men. Because that’s what makes us all worth something, don’t you know.
Fed up of seeing her bright, ambitious daughter miserable and tormented – on the verge of suicide, according to Marsh herself, in tears on the This Morning interview she did ahead of the program – Jodie Marsh’s mother bought her a nose job.
Her mother breaks down into tears on camera at this point, and says she’s sorry “for putting you through it,” and Marsh tells us how she was then bullied for having had surgery. But Jodie cheerfully tells us, “The bullying didn’t stop. But at least I wasn’t ugly.”
And it’s not just Jodie. Zoe, another woman interviewed on the program (by Marsh herself, who it turns out, incidentally, is also a good interviewer, with a real sensitive ability to get people to speak, to know when to shut up and listen, and a genuine interest in what they’re saying to her) says she was bullied for being too clever and into her studies. Kids put hair removal crème on her hair, she says, making it fall out. They threw urine on her.
And now we come to the point, because here’s the bit of the program that made me cry: Zoe says quietly to Marsh that she “feels embarrassment” telling us what they did to her. She feels embarrassment. She does.
This isn’t just a random channel 5 program anymore. Suddenly, this is feminism and misogyny in microcosym.
Less than 800 people could be bothered watching Louise Mensch and Laurie Penny argue about the role of the state and the speed of the government’s cuts (important issues though they are), but all around the world, women and men were watching ‘Jodie Marsh Bullied: My Secret Life’, and learning something terrifying: that as children, girls like Zoe are taught never to be clever, and then, later in life, women are blamed and mocked for acting dumb. Women like Jodie Marsh are taught they are ugly and deserve abuse for it, and then, later in life, get taught that they deserve abuse for being too into their looks or for having plastic surgery. It goes on and on. Girls get taught to be permanently sexually available in order to be respected or loved – then, later in life, we get told we don’t deserve respect or love because we are sluts and whores.
Perhaps it’s just me, but this is the stuff that’s actually important. Politics should be about power, and its uses and abuses. How did it become about political activists having circle jerks over Sunny Hundal making a typo on Twitter?
That’s not to say that we should forget the discussions about Tory feminism versus left-wing feminism, or discussions about whether the state has replaced the patriarchal powers of the husband and father, because of course we shouldn’t. And after all, this is me. I’m interested in that stuff. It’s just that I’m also already a feminist.
The paradox of feminism is that it’s not just about feminists: it’s not about us, it’s about all women. Feminism is useless if it’s only interesting to the women who are on Newsnight, or watching and tweeting about it. It’s useless if it’s only about people who know they deserve to be treated with respect, and to feel safe. Feminism is, ultimately, about girls like Jodie Marsh. It’s about the girl wants to be a vet but learns that she will get more respect by taking her top off. It’s about the girl who drops out of school at seventeen because she’s pregnant. It’s about the girl who thinks she doesn’t deserve love because she enjoys casual sex. It’s about the girl who thinks she doesn’t deserve good consensual sex because she’s in love. It’s about the girl who says there’s nothing wrong with giving her boyfriend sex when she’s in pain, because boys and girls think differently about sex anyway, and she’s in a relationship with him, and that’s what girlfriends do. It’s about the boy who gets beaten up for acting gay and leaves school at seventeen because he doesn’t feel safe there. Feminism is no use if it’s just about the girls and women reading the Guardian. Who’s going to listen to the girls who grow up reading the Sun?
Louise Mensch wants to bring feminism “out of the ghetto.” I wish, sometimes, that it would get out the… well, whatever the of whatever the opposite of a ghetto is. Because the best trick of everyone who wants liberals to all calm down and shut up is to pretend that liberalism is all a load of complicated, middle-class, waffling rubbish, that real, ordinary people don’t have time for. Feminism isn’t complicated. It is about treating individuals with respect. That’s it. Mensch tweeted this morning that feminism starts with Emmeline Pankhurst, but doesn’t end there. Well historically, maybe so, but in the here and now? Perhaps should start with things like not calling the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition Mr Potatohead for a cheap laugh, from a position of privilege, in a national newspaper.