Dame Eileen

// 3 August 2008

Oh how the Press love it when any reasonably high-profile woman rips into feminism and other women in general. The latest culprit is Dame Eileen Atkins, an actor who, incidentally, is performing in The Female of the Species (yes, the one which may-or-may-not be based on Germaine Greer’s life).

In an interview with the Radio Times, which I can’t find online, she reportedly came out with things like this:

“Now girls are expected to have sex before they’re 12, which is terrible. It really upsets me when silly girls get as drunk and aggressive as boys. My skin crawls when I see laddish women presenting television shows who almost slap their thighs as if they’re in panto. I think, ‘Stop. This isn’t what we meant by feminism.’ It’s gone completely wrong. Women think they can have a fantastic career and four children, and knock themselves out trying to do it all.”

Oh, Katy Guest, how grateful I am for your column in the Independent. Yes, she mentions bra-burning*, but she comprehensively pulls all this apart:

But this was a curious choice of words. “Women think they can have … it all,” she said, sounding more like a Daily Mail leader-writer than someone in the tradition of the Suffragettes. “This isn’t what we meant by feminism,” she informed us. But what did we mean by feminism? Who are “we”? And who owns feminism, anyway?

Dame Eileen’s rhetoric hits precisely the point where the half of the population that will cheer “Well said!” sheers off from the half that will boil inside at her words. It is not the idea that girls are expected to have sex before they are 12, which most people will think is a point too far – nobody expects girls to have sex before they are 12, and a lot of effort goes into making sure they don’t. The problem is in the injustice of her comparisons. Does it upset her when boys get drunk and aggressive? How many children can a woman have and still expect to enjoy a career? How many for a fantastic career? And how many children can men have?

Dame Eileen says that feminism has gone wrong. Too right it has, if the word itself is now used as a way of embracing these tired old double standards. What is upsetting is not that laddish women present television shows; it is the insidious creep of these values into everyday discourse, to the point that a “feminist” will claim them as her own.

*Take note any subeditors reading this – bra burning is a myth!

Comments From You

Aimee // Posted 3 August 2008 at 1:36 pm

How awful. I don’t think ‘feminism’ was meant to be about it being alright for men and boys to act as they please but not for women to, either? Quite frankly, I DO expect to be able to have as many god damn children as I want AND to have a career, because I expect that my partner take an equal role in the raising of said children, giving us both ample time in order to pursue our respective careers. This silly women doesn’t deserve to play or maybe not play a feminist icon.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 3 August 2008 at 1:45 pm

Eileen Atkins like so many is taking the easy way out wherein it is once again women and girls for society’s problems. No it is not girls under 12 wanting ‘sex’ it is males increasingly promoting the belief they have the right of sexual access to any woman or girl irrespective of age. Take a look at how our culture deliberately attempts to persuade all girls the only way they can be accepted by males is by being males’ sexualised playthings.

Our male-dominant culture is sexualising young girls in a particular way wherein it has become a commodity for men and boys to consume. I’m glad Katy Guest mentioned it is still overwhelmingly males who engage in binge drinking and then commit acts of violence. But hey we must’nt criticise males because it is so much easier to blame feminism. Feminism is supposedly responsible for everything wrong in our society. It is called scapegoating.

Shea // Posted 4 August 2008 at 4:16 pm

Aimee & Jennifer — well said.

I hate this moral panic that shifts the blame onto the behaviour of women while completely avoiding the culpability of men. If girls are having sex at 12, then there are men out there committing statutory rape. Isn’t THAT where the real problem lies?

Virginia Harris // Posted 4 August 2008 at 4:33 pm

Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

I find any discussion of how women can improve their lives useful, and expect to disagree frequently with others.

The benefit of the debate is that we can all learn from other points of view – if we choose to.

There were many disagreements among the various suffragettes, and it produced a stronger movement!

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Holly Combe // Posted 4 August 2008 at 9:38 pm

I would guess a lot of what Eileen Atkins is saying stems from recently having to get inside a character who is, by the look of it, constructed to be an anti-feminist’s feminist.

And who are these “laddish” female presenters she was talking about anyway? Charlotte Church? I’m really not sure…

Bit of a shamefully belated, shameless plug here, but I took part in a Radio 5 discussion about elements of what Eileen Atkins said (i.e in the Radio Times article) on the Rachel Burden show last Tuesday evening. It’s on the Richard Bacon page and I think it’s still available online until tomorrow evening.

Leigh // Posted 5 August 2008 at 10:26 am

Oh Gods.

I feel like posting a ‘Parents: Talk To Your Children About Feminism Before Somebody Else Does.” thing. Maybe I should just print it on a T-Shirt.

I mean I tried with my niece I told her that women can do anything men can do, I Told her that Great Cthulhu was neither a girl nor a boy and what’s more, her monkey toy thought that having to be a girl or a boy was a silly idea. I went out and bought a female action figure to replace her male explorer one in her xmas present and told her about female explorers in the past and present. But how am I supposed to compete with this, in a national newspaper, from a prominent, high achieving woman?

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