Saturday, 14 September 2013

Using our bodies against us

Back in May I wrote It's All About the Money, on the lack of women on UK banknotes, following the news that Winston Churchill would be deposing Elizabeth Fry - the only woman, on the new £5 notes.

The campaign to reinstate women on our banknotes was led by journalist and feminist Caroline Criado-Perez.

As a result of her campaign she received rape and death threats, via Twitter, and has now shut down her account.

I'm not going to talk about her motivation for doing that - it's not as simple as being chased away, and she explains it herself, here. But I want to talk about the results of the campaign, the nature of the threats and what this means.

The Austen tenner

In July this year the Bank of England announced that the new £10 note would feature Jane Austen.

Since my blog, written in May, provided a random list of five women who might be suitable candidates for the face of the British banknote, and Austen was one of them, I take full credit for this.*

The Bank of England clearly read Rude Nasty Girl and chewed over my suggestions, before remembering that Colin Firth really did look lovely coming out of that lake, all credit to Miss Austen, and so decided to go with her.

Criado-Perez took a more balanced view - she thanked the Bank of England for listening and described the announcement as "a brilliant day for women and a fantastic one for people power".

Is it about feminism?

At its heart, I'm not sure how much Criado-Perez's Twitter harassment is a feminist issue. It's a symptom of intolerance and of the power that the internet provides, giving a public platform to air all kinds of views, no matter how unpleasant.

Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian had a similar experience when she drew attention to sexism in video games and had to disable comments on YouTube.

It suggests that there are elements of our society who can't accept freedom of thought and views opposed to their own.

You may not agree that Jane Austen is a suitable candidate for a UK banknote, but there are better ways of expressing this than menacing someone who stood up for what they believed.

Sexist threats

However, the nature of the threats Criado-Perez and Sarkeesian received, which covered graphic sexual violence and rape, is a feminist issue because it makes use of her femaleness to harass her.

If you want to attack someone, attack the substance of what they say, not their vagina. You may succeed in as much as you upset and unsettle them, but your argument won't hold a lot of weight.

It's a symptom of a sick and sexist society when a woman who speaks out has the parts of her female body used against her. And it's scary that there are still men in the world who think that this is the best way to 'shut the bitch up' - that she needs shutting up less because she doesn't agree with them than because she's a woman who doesn't agree with them.

It speaks of an innate belief in the superiority of the male body and intellect, and its right to dominate. It's shocking that their are some people - albeit a very small minority - who still retain this belief. Maybe that's something that feminism will never win completely.

* Of course, it's perfectly possible that the Bank of England had planned to do this all along - it seems pretty stupid to me that they would actually bring out an entire new range of banknotes with absolutely no representation of women. Then, in the wake of the shit storm, they brought their announcement forward. But maybe I am giving them more credit than they are due. 

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