Levenson’s book can be summed up in three words: simple, opinionated, choice. She discusses lots of areas in which gender discrimination is still a problem in modern society, but the be-all and end-all of her argument is this: women can do whatever they like, provided it’s their own choice.
In that respect, I agree. No woman should be forced into doing anything or being anything against her will. If she wants to work and never get married, that’s her business and no one else’s. If she wants to stay at home and look after the kids, that’s also completely up to her. If she wants to be somewhere between the two, I’m not going to argue with her, and neither should anyone else.
However, Levenson contradicts herself. She waxes lyrical about how important it is for women to make their own choices, and how no one should judge them for it. But she slates women who wear white wedding gowns and want their boyfriends to ask their father’s permission before proposing:
(T)he minute the marriage word was mentioned, they lost their feminist instincts. Dads were being asked to give them away. White dresses, traditionally symbols of virginity, were being bought. Surnames were being changed. Men were making the speeches.
But she says it’s OK for her to wear an engagement ring. And it is – but if you’re willing to be a walking advert for the fact that you’re getting married, you’ve got to accept that some women want to be a walking advert for the fact that they ARE married – by changing their surname, for instance, which Levenson has a particular problem with.
I personally wouldn’t want my partner to ask my dad’s permission before proposing to me (not that either of us would ever listen to my dad anyway) but I don’t have a problem with women who see that as a respectful gesture. Yet Levenson picks and chooses what she thinks is OK for a feminist to do. She says her friends stopped being feminists when they changed their surnames and yet her entire book is based upon the idea that women can choose to do whatever the hell they want – and this should include taking their husband’s name or wearing a pretty white gown.
(I do, however, agree that, if you promise to obey your husband until death do you part, you can’t really call yourself a feminist.)
Obviously it’s fine for Levenson to air her opinions. This is her book. But I was surprised at the sheer amount of opinions in there, when it’s a book that claims to be a ‘guide’ to modern feminism.
The title is highly misleading. Instead of a guide on how to navigate modern life as a feminist, we are treated to a list of Levenson’s opinions and anecdotes. This is sometimes a good thing – the book is often funny and, by using her own experiences, Levenson makes everything more relatable. However, I wasn’t expecting a memoir, and I’m not wholly pleased that I got one. I expected more explanations of feminist theory, or at least some advice on how to assert your feminism in a society where women are allowed to drive, go to work and vote, but can’t leave their armpit hair unshaven.
It’s also very journalistic. Overall, I found this to be a good thing. Levenson writes a heading and then a couple of paragraphs explaining other people’s views on the subject, and then her own views and/or experiences. This made the book very easy to read and understand. It was simple, to the point and accessible.
However, this also meant that the sections were extremely brief. Sometimes you need a little bit more explanation. Every now and then, she would start to get going on a point and then the section would end and her argument on that particular topic felt unfinished.
One such area was her discussion of rape, which needed a lot more explanation for me not to be as pissed off as I am right now.
Rape is always wrong. I want to write that as clearly as possible. But, and this is where I expect I will get angry letters, I think we do women an injustice when we say that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. It is, after all, just a penis.
It is not just a penis.
Rape is about humiliation, domination and violence. She does say that, when rape is coupled with violence, it is no longer ‘just a penis’. However, I would argue that rape is ALWAYS coupled with violence. Someone does not have to be pinning someone down or holding a knife to their throat for the victim to be terrified of what will happen if they don’t comply.
Worse than this is what Levenson says we should do next:
Following on from this we have to address different types of rape. (…) Is it rape if you’ve sucked him off willingly and he’s then tried to have full sex with you but you say no and he continues anyway? Yes. But is that as bad as being violently attacked by a stranger down a dark alley and not knowing whether you will live or die? No.
Why do we have to differentiate between whose rape was worse? Levenson literally isn’t bothered about the fact that it belittles some women’s experiences – she says that it’s ‘not helpful’ to think this way. But actually it’s very dangerous to think the way Levenson does above. If you start saying ‘this rape wasn’t as bad as that rape’ then you may not end up with the ‘worse’ rapist getting more jail time – you may end up with the ‘less bad’ rapist getting no jail time at all.
Besides, who’s to say one type of rape is worse than the other? Someone who is raped by their boyfriend will have the extra pain of having been betrayed by their loved one. The second scenario is more violent and frightening but both victims deserve equal amounts of respect, and the first victim doesn’t seem to be getting any from Levenson.
Moving on to sections that didn’t piss me off:
Levenson talks about the Dove campaign, which she had some really interesting ideas about. I’ve always thought the Dove ‘love your body’ campaign was a step in the right direction, but Levenson opened my eyes: it’s not about everyone being beautiful. It’s about the fact that it’s OK to be ugly as well. Men aren’t encouraged to love their bodies – they’re shown, through the fact that there are men of all shapes and sizes on TV (and not just the one tall, skinny, perfect shape that women see), that it’s OK to look like a normal human being. Women, whether ugly, plain or beautiful, should have this representation too.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone believed they were beautiful, and Dove is right, a freckly face or a plump body doesn’t necessarily exclude you from this. But the campaign, which attempts to show less conventional forms of beauty, completely fails to accept the idea that some people are ugly, and more importantly, that this is OK and ugly people are just as valid as people. This isn’t just a Dove thing, it’s society generally and specifically an issue affecting women – I can think of many ugly men on television for example but no ugly women.
Actually, there was another section that pissed me off – the section on contraception. It’s not so much that I disagreed with her views on contraception: her view and mine is, essentially, that men and women should have access to different types of contraception. However, she worded certain things in a way that I didn’t agree with, making it sound like it’s more the woman’s responsibility than the man’s, or making somewhat derogatory comments about men. She also mentions an exchange with a man who thinks women are always trying to trick men into having babies:
Me: Then wear a condom
Him: What if I get tricked into it?
Me: If you’re worried about them using pins then wear your own condom
Him: If you were single and wanted a baby would you do that?
Me: Well I wouldn’t lie and say I was on the pill but I might not say anything if I wasn’t using contraception
The whole exchange and the discussion under this particular heading is quite funny, but that part about not saying anything if she wasn’t using contraception made me do a double-take. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about a new contraceptive pill for men – what if that takes off? Can you imagine the outcry if men who didn’t want to wear a condom just didn’t bother to tell us they weren’t on the pill?
(Also, where’s the fucking punctuation?)
I don’t see why Levenson thinks it’s OK to withhold this information. I mean, obviously it’s not just her responsibility – this hypothetical man should be wearing a condom if he doesn’t want a baby – but just because she’s not telling an outright lie doesn’t make this OK.
It sounds a bit like I hated this book, but actually I thought most of it was really good and I enjoyed reading it. However, you can tell she’s not an expert. The book boils down to a list of opinions rather than actually giving any guidance on how to be a feminist in the noughties (or 2010s). I thought Girl Up by Laura Bates did a much better job of what Levenson was trying to do, and would rather recommend that to anyone trying to fight for feminism in a world that thinks women have achieved all the equality they need.
And the rape section made me really mad.