Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, Virago, RRP£12.99, 336 pages
Since the walloping success of Fifty Shades of Grey, there have been many opportunistic rip-offs: Fifty Shades of Gravy, Fifty Sheds of Grey, Fifty Shades of Lady Catherine Grey, Fifty Shades (a book about sunglasses) and, more obscurely, Fifty Shades of Niall. The latter turns out – disappointingly – not to be about the historian Niall Ferguson but about a member of the teen band One Direction.
The newest addition to the pile is different. Fifty Shades of Feminism is neither comic nor kinky nor naughty in any way. Indeed, it is serious, sincere and so straight it makes one rather long to be tied to a bed and spanked.
Fifty years on from the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, writers Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach have invited 47 prominent women to join them in marking the occasion. “This concert of shades is a multi-vocal chorus,” they claim in the introduction to their collection of essays, making bold both with metaphor and interpretation.
In fact, there aren’t 50 shades here at all. There is only one, identified by the critic Bidisha as red – for anger, blood, survival, etc.
Variously the contributors complain of the ills still facing women – of little girls being sexualised, of footballers’ wives, page three models, men running the world, discrimination, rape, unequal pay, sexism, the lack of female judges, the evils of pornography, child prostitution, glass ceilings. Many of them make important points, but surely there is a positive case to be made too? Highly educated, privileged, successful women, as many of these writers are, have had a better time of it these past few decades than any other group in the world, so couldn’t just one of them shout hooray?
Even the actor Juliet Stevenson, who admits that her own life is really rather nice, complains of the poverty of the roles she now plays. As a woman in her fifties all she gets to say is “’Ere’s yer lamb chop, luv,” and stomp off back to the kitchen.
Even less excusably, Joan Bakewell feels in need of commiseration for her unusually rich and varied existence: “I have been lover, wife, mother, broadcaster, journalist, divorcee, grandmother, citizen, novelist, struggling to combine many identities without cracking under the strain,” she moans.
Natasha Walter points out that most of the powerful stories of feminism are autobiographical, with personal suffering used to incite rage.
But what happens if your own story doesn’t induce rage but gratitude? Can you be a feminist and dare to say so?
My story goes like this. I am the daughter of a much-loved English teacher at Camden School for Girls, a famous feminist hotspot. My mum hated -ists and -isms and never told me that it was hard to be a woman – and indeed it hasn’t been. She brought me up to think I could say and do whatever I liked. Thanks to the work of fighting women these past couple of hundred years, I have been given opportunities and benefited from positive discrimination.
I cannot think of a single thing I wanted to do that I couldn’t because I was a woman – except possibly use the men’s loos at the interval at the theatre because the queues are shorter. I have hardly ever come across sexism, and when I have I have either laughed or told the other person to sod off – depending on the circumstances.
When I read Siri Hustvedt’s essay, bleating tiresomely about women being undermined in subtle ways, I wanted to give the novelist a spiteful pinch. She recounts the distressing story of being told by a distinguished French man of letters: “You should keep writing,” a remark she chose to find offensively sexist. I hear my mum’s voice clearly: just take the compliment. The Frenchman may have been a patronising old git but he was saying that her writing was good – and she should have been pleased.
I’m even more at odds with Sandi Toksvig, who reports (amusingly, at least) on going to a degree ceremony to collect an honorary degree and seeing the young women graduates in heels so high they had to cling on to their parents for support. I’ve also been at one of those ceremonies recently and seen the astonishing shoes. Yet I didn’t conclude that the young graduates were infantilising themselves. If they wanted to dress up as prostitutes to collect their MBAs I couldn’t see any particular problem with that. In my day you could be bluestocking or harlot, but not both.
With the Toksvig essay comes a picture by Posy Simmonds, drawn with all her wit and delightfully precise detail. Only here, too, the message is too thumping. The 10-inch heel is next to a picture of a tiny Chinese shoe for bound feet.
Throughout the book the words of today’s feminists are leavened with the sprightlier words of dead ones. My favourite page is given over to a quote from Dorothy Parker: “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue”.
The tongues of some of the contributors in Fifty Shades have got blunt with overuse. Only Jeanette Winterson’s essay on how porn destroys love is written with a tongue so sharp it cut me. And then at last I saw some red.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT associate editor and columnist