There is, as BuzzFeed would put it, a weird new trend in women’s rights activism. The starvation and violence of suffrage campaigns, the powerful liberation movements of the ’70s, the ferocious internationalism of the 90’s – all have yielded to this decade’s most radical phenomenon of all: twee.
It’s been coming on for a while. The better women have it, the better things get, the less we care. And the more complacent we feel, the narrower our focus becomes, and the sillier our rhetoric. Smashing the patriarchal-capitalist-cishet-imperialist-bourgeois consensus, brought to you today by Cath Kidston.
Let’s have a look at the evidence. On the normal end of the spectrum, you have OUSU’s WomCam with their annual ‘Love Your Body‘ garden party. Cakes and plaiting each others’ hair. On the less normal end…well.
It was not my intention to pick abortion as the main culprit in this festival of idiocy. The fact that the internet is absolutely bursting with knitted cervixes was, at the outset, unbeknownst to me.
Unfortunate. And Abortion Rights, however noble or otherwise their cause is, are serial offenders:
(For reference, I also believe state-sanctioned torture is wrong and that the Iraq war was probably a mistake – but I don’t want a pink fucking cushion about it.)
2, 4, 6, 8. You can't make us procreate! pic.twitter.com/Lrf8GDVh96
— Abortion Rights (@Abortion_Rights) May 16, 2015
Knitted womb brooch made by AR Cardiff member, Susie Baker. It's called Wilma as in 'Ma will & no one else's' pic.twitter.com/UR7aNS2f3O
— Abortion Rights (@Abortion_Rights) March 12, 2015
This is, it must be said, partly an aesthetic issue: afternoon tea, bunting, and cake-stands have really never done it for me, to the extent that I wish they’d all get in the fucking sea. But this isn’t about personal taste.
Menstruation has also attracted the tweeifying masses, and for all the anti-corporate backslapping that seems to accompany these politics, the industry’s done pretty well for itself:
Obviously, women’s bodies are not something to be ashamed of. Celebrating femaleness, womanliness, femininity, or any combination of the lot is important; the female body is subject to abuse, criticism, shame, mutilation and more in most of the world.
But the sublimation of that vital fact into cutesy knitting, kitsch clothing and accessories, and self-congratulatory tea parties – it’s fucked up. A charitable option would be to say that this kind of culture is a coping mechanism. We could say that, in a world which despises our bodies and tramples our autonomy into dirt, sublimating our oppression into joy is one of the bravest and most noble pursuits we can adopt.
Bullshit. Unremitting bullshit. This movement isn’t coming from women around the world, who are finally owning their lives and taking back the control they deserve. It isn’t noble. It isn’t some raw, bold challenge to patriarchal oppression. It isn’t brave: nothing is at risk. It’s the equivalent of a “#solidarity” tweet to war-ravaged Palestinians. Slacktivism at its finest.
It is also the preserve of rich, predominantly white, Anglo-American university students with nothing better to do. And it is, fundamentally, a refusal to engage with the atrocities perpetrated on the female body in non-Western spheres. The cognitive dissonance is astounding. Try writing “FGM” on your cupcakes and then seeing how cutesy you feel.
Women’s bodies are not, and have never been, ‘cute’. Women’s bodies are, as we are constantly reminded, a battleground. So why is it that, as soon as we discuss abortion, menstruation, or any other function of the female anatomy, we need to colour everything pink and break out the crotchet? There is something profoundly unnerving about the transformation of such violent, expansive debates into daisy-chains and face-painting. Perhaps poor Harriet Harman was right, with her ridiculous van. We get the politicians we deserve.
Personal taste aside, there’s nothing wrong with being twee. Go on, sing your Mumford and Sons, strum your ukuleles, pick your flowers, sew your bunting. Have a fucking Alice-in-Wonderland-themed cake sale if you really have to – but don’t pretend it’s “for women”. Don’t pretend you’re helping ‘the cause’. None of it is helping anybody outside one very specific, very privileged social group.
If I have to spell it out, and I think I probably do: this is not about campaigning for one cause over another; it’s not a criticism of Anglosphere women dealing with Anglosphere issues. Of course people can do more than one thing at once – caring is not a zero-sum game (although fundraising, for what it’s worth, plainly is). The issue is that this brand masquerades, or tries to masquerade – particularly on university campuses – as the face of contemporary feminism.
Women can be powerful, and brave, and fierce. Pretending otherwise – or, worse, pretending that your Stepford-esque, nostalgic, tea-drinking, circle-sitting clique embodies those values – is damaging us all.