New review: Beyond Noughtie Girls

// 2 August 2009

Ed: This month we’ve got two reviews of a book which has stirred up a lot of debate among feminists in the last few weeks.

Ellie Levenson’s guide to feminism for the “noughtie girl” apologises too much and asks for too little change, says Laurie Penny

levensoncover.jpgI’m facing a feminist dilemma. A few weeks ago, I agreed to review a book for this site, a book written by a friend and ally of mine, a woman I deeply respect. The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism by Ellie Levenson is an attempt to merge the type of froth-feminism peddled by Cosmopolitan and Glamour into something more meaningful and coherent. It’s a flouncily inoffensive go-to guide for the type of modern woman who likes the idea of self-respect and empowerment but is frightened that feminist politics comes with a mandatory buzz-cut, all wrapped up in a kitsch pink cover with the ubiquitous pair of disembodied stillettoed legs that screams “whatever this is it’s disguised as chick-lit!” Unfortunately, the disguise works a little too well.

Which is where my dilemma begins. I agree that feminism needs to reach out to the mainstream, to women who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as feminists, but still enjoy the rights feminism has won for them. I applaud the fact that more feminist books are being written with today’s young women in mind. I’m definitely over the moon that one of my feminist mentors has finally managed to secure a publishing deal and expand the remit of websites like The F-Word which have kept the coals of feminist movement glowing in these dim post-backlash times. But I can’t get around it: The Noughtie Girls Guide to Feminism makes me angry. It makes me want to throw things at walls. It makes me want to actually set fire to my actual bra whilst I’m still wearing it and run flaming through the streets of Hackney yelling “How did we come to this?”

Petty arson aside, the real heartbreak of Noughtie Girls is that both the concept and execution are so very spot on. I adore the fluffy, frilly presentation, the demotic language, the stubborn refusal to get bogged down in high theory, which has its place, but not in an introductory book for sceptical feminists. I love the way the whole thing is structured in bitesize crossheads, making it easy to open at any page and find something interesting. I even like the silly little Cosmo-esque “what kind of feminist are you?” quiz at the front of the book, which shaves gleefully close to self-parody. It’s perfect Tube-reading. It’s fun. It’s accessible. It’s the sort of thing that I might give my little sister for Christmas, sandwiched between something smelly from The Body Shop. But here’s the rub: it apologises too damn much.

The book comes across as an apology for a brand of ‘man-bashing, bra-burning’ feminism that never really existed. It spends altogether too much time dismantling the straw woman of the feminist who would forbid pretty young ladies from waxing their legs and wearing pink, and altogether too little time explaining why it is that that sort of feminist only exists in the nightmare fantasy Britain conjured up by editors at the Daily Mail. It spends so much time debunking the myth, telling its readers that it’s okay to be a ‘Noughtie Girl’ who likes high heels and pink drinks, that it ends up reinforcing the idea that ‘traditional’ feminism is something to fight against.

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