Monday, 22 March 2010

BBC 4 Women: Activists

NOTE: For my other writing about the BBC4 Women series see:
Libbers 1
Libbers 2

I admit, the reason I'm so disenchanted by this series is because I'm not represented.

In my quiet little corner of the internet I found blogs such as Fertile Feminism, Blue Milk, and Mothers for Women's Lib, to name a few. Oh yes, I read the big feminist websites too, but those few women who were both feminists and mothers were the ones who were really saying things that meant something to me. Alongside those blogs, I would say that my developing feminist identity has been shaped by: my university work, my interest in gender, rather than Feminism, and my role as a parent.

I give you this information because I believe it heavily contributes to my analysis. Whether it is because of these factors or not, I've found it difficult to find anything I can relate to in the 2nd and 3rd episodes of this series.

The "Libbers" episode was actually great, it spoke to me and I could relate to the women involved (I know that sounds different to my original views but upon reflection I realised it was a great contextualisation, if a little dry and limited for novice viewers). I found the "Mothers" episode weak because there ARE women out there who are not constantly reinforcing the gender binary, but the documentary didn't represent them.

Now, the Activists episode? How about a few words from the notes I made during my viewing tonight:

limited causes, narrow definition, alienation.

I'm not intending to personally attack anyone, I simply felt that the representation made by this episode painted a very specific picture of Feminism today, that isn't entirely accurate or inspiring. I felt that the women who were interviewed were poorly prepared for the questions they were given (example - the question to the woman with the nail varnish? I imagine she's kicking herself now for not having prepared a solid reply).

Aside from Reclaim the Night, the causes that were being demonstrated against also seemed poorly prepared - I agree with Germaine Greer from the Libbers Episode: march (or, in this case, demonstrate) if there are lots of you, but if there aren't, don't! It seems pointless to me to try to fight the status quo when there are only a few people protesting - it makes the protest seem powerless and irrelevant. Why not wait until the opportune moment, with a large amount of radicalised people? Then the protest may be taken seriously and a powerful statement might prompt the average passer-by to question their own thoughts.

Anyway, something that did seem powerful was the interview with the woman talking about a rape case. This involved an 18 year old girl who was gang raped, but was cautioned by the police for 'lying' about it because a few seconds of mobile phone footage showed some kind of acquiescence on her part.

That is something that most women can identify with - the fear, the weakness in face of strength and, when it comes down to it, the complete lack of choice to say 'no' that the girl in question must have felt. That is something people can get behind and get angry about, surely that is the kind of injustice that will bring people to the movement?

However, the power of that section was buried underneath the mundane preparations for putting on a conference, please, tell me, what relevance is there in making salads?

I'm also really frustrated about the interviews with the parents of these young activists, I found this to be completely undermining of the young women's politics and passions. By not commenting on it personally, Engle seems to be mocking the activists. Filming the women worrying about salad, asking their parents 'how did she get like this'? and then refraining from challenging the parents narrow views, it feels like the women are represented as little girls playing at Feminism, when this is obviously not the case - they have worked hard to do what they do, but all this is completely undermined by a number of parents in the film, and Engle's lack of comment.

For example, one lot of parents paint their daughter as an 'angry teenager' because their discussions end with 'banging doors'. This young woman is in her twenties and is passionate about helping other women, but because 'her life' is charmed, her parents think she shouldn't be worried about those causes? To me this feels individualistic and narrow.

Obviously, there are cultural/generational differences between these women and their parents, the growth of online communities makes it easy for young people to feel connected to other people in the world, and encourages individuals to care about the needs of whole groups, rather than simply caring about themselves. This is blatantly a difference between women in their 20s and their parents. But it scares me. I get so scared seeing these parents so detached from their children's feelings and politics. I never want to be like that with my daughter. It's not like that with my parents, for which I am eternally grateful.

So, overall? I felt the program lacked depth, compared to the "Libbers", these women are just starting on their feminist lives, the same as me, so, obviously, their politics is unrefined and emotional. The interviews and footage, in my mind, only serves to reinforce the weaknesses of the young movement today. I am not an activist. It is difficult to be so when you have a young child and don't live in London. Perhaps if I were in a different situation I may feel some affinity to these women, but their causes are not particularly my causes, and their way of expressing their causes is different to mine.

This is not just a personal thing, there are even two women in the documentary who say they probably wouldn't join that particular group because their personal feelings about issues are different. It is telling to hear a women say 'they wouldn't like that of me' in reference to certain views. Should Sisterhood be that selective?

Unfortunately, I couldn't identify with the women included in the documentary. Whether this is because of how I have approached feminism, because of my academic interests or simply because I'm not from London, who knows? I felt Engle let people dig themselves into holes, and didn't get them a ladder, and I would have liked to see daughters and parents engaging each other in debate, rather than interviewed separately, which mostly served to infantalise the activists (particularly the ones who were interviewed in their bedrooms, rather than the lounge, like their parents!).

I'll leave the final word to Charlotte Cooper and Jess McCabe (of the F word) who are obviously not speaking about me, but their analysis can apply to anyone who would be turned off from feminism by these programs:

" for every woman who has turned away from feminism because they feel they are not welcome, these films will simply act as another erasure of their lives, their existence and their autonomy."


  1. Yeh, spot on! I was so excited when the BBC trailed this program but sooo disappointed when I watched it. The third ep really shouldn't have been called 'Activists' when it merely focussed on one group of middle class white women from London! Does feminism not exist outside the capital?

  2. Brilliant! Exactly how i felt. After watching that program I wanted to weep but i wasn't sure why.
    I stumbled upon it and thought 'what's this? A Louis Theroux type documentary or a poor mans Charlie Brooker.
    Why is it poking fun at women who have an un-healthy interest in lentils and salad variations, short hair & who cant figure out the logistics of passing food onto homeless people.
    These women were mocked throughout and sadly it was all to easy to mock them given the questions posed,their responses and the editing.
    Seriously damaging to the cause, I shouldn't wonder. I've completely gone off the idea of being a feminist, it conveyed feminists as the very creatures i was scared they may well be.

    Cant we have some "normal women" or women like me fighting the cause, instead of ones who dress purposely to look like men ranting with their raised fists like some ripped testosterone pumped Neil Kinnock shouting...... "Because you're worth it" ewwww how cheesy!
    And what was the constant , "Are you angry?" Questioning supposed to expose?
    I was waiting for the director to say, "oh you're all just angry, nuts and bored aren't you, just spit it out."

    I dont feel like i fit in with these women at all. I would like to see equal pay, whereupon i'd have more expendable income to visit one of those seedy B&Q bars which line the street, where men of all ages frequent standing in darkened rooms wearing dirty overalls and tool belts, for £50 they will come home and unblock your sink and fix that dripping tap.

  3. Thanks for the comments, I think it's important the recognise that the documentary was so narrow as to be damaging to the image of feminism to the un-initiated viewer! It's a shame that has to be the case because there is such a wealth of variety amongst feminists.

    @Nicola, feminism in the UK does seem to be SO London-centric, but with so many people grouped in one area I suppose it makes unfortunate sense.

    @Anon: I actually had to go and check whether the doc maker was a feminist or not, and it appears at least she has been. Her lack of comment and the editing did make it seem as though she was being scathing to the young feminists though, don't you think?

  4. Great post Liz, spot on comments. I too was infuriated at certain parts, especially the 'why are you angry?' inquisitions and the focus on the women preparing the food for the conference. WTF?

  5. Thanks FF, it's really sad to see that so many women were disappointed by the film, it could have been a really great thing, but unfortunately it fell far short.

  6. The worst moment of the programme for me was the "gang-rape" speech - it was troubling for all the wrong reasons.
    Miscarriages of justice in rape cases are something I'm particularly sensitive about, but - here's the "legal" part of my brain working - ONE WORD in her account made the whole story difficult to believe. `This "tiny" 18-year-old...' - even if she happened to be 4 ft 10, "tiny" is a demeaning adjective! And if it doesn't mean that, it must be an insult to 18-year-old womyn in general, implying that in the speaker's view, they are or should be as helpless and sexually naive as 8-year-olds!
    As I've said elsewhere (hint), my other objection to the programme was its anti-porn/anti-men's mag argument. To me it makes no sense to be pro-free-speech but anti-porn - which plenty of women enjoy! Are these womyn just religious-extremist prudes in disguise?

  7. Thanks Anon, whilst I agree that 'tiny' is a troubling diminutive, I think it also highlights the power imbalance between the girl in question and her attackers.

    Would you agree that there's room to suggest that mentioning the difference in size highlights the fact it could not be proven whether the girl gave true consent?

    e.g. She's small, (as most women/womyn are in comparison to men) she doesn't have the strength to overpower these rapists.

    The fear of being hurt more, or even killed, because the of strength difference between her and the rapists make it nigh on impossible for her to refuse.

    So in the mind of the girl, overpowered by 3 rapists, it is easier to consent than fight a losing struggle, which was the crux of the matter because she was seen to have consented by the court due to a short video clip.

    I'd like to read your objections if you'd like to leave a link!