Melissa Benn’s manifesto for young women all but overlooks them
Melissa Benn‘s What Should We Tell Our Daughters? The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female ought to have served an important purpose: we do need “a manifesto for modern womanhood”, as it’s billed, to help young women inherit the benefits of feminist history.
Sadly, Benn’s book is an exemplum of why many young women reject their mothers’ version of feminism. In covering familiar ground thoroughly ploughed by Susan Faludi, Carole Gilligan, Susie Orbach and Natasha Walter, she does identify some of the pressures on young western women, such as perfectionism, pornography, work-life balance and fragile self-confidence. But her own migraine-inducing prose style, the lack of rigour she brings to her data, and the banality of her proscriptions showcase what not to do to enlist young women in the feminist cause.
Manifestos must manifest opinions. But Benn’s editor is as much at fault as the author for tolerating the sloppy tic of starting endless paragraphs with questions. “So why do I still cavil at that ‘ambition’ word then?””Have we somehow come full circle, I wonder?” “Perhaps we should [be] grateful to pornified culture that provides more information than we dare?” “Is sexism rather than sexualisation the real problem?” “Does the talk not now have to come much closer to home?” I don’t know: does it? One has paid the cover price in order to find out.
This tissue of relentless, flutteringly phrased musings undoes Benn’s “manifesto” claim: the reader struggles to figure out just what she believes, let alone whether to follow her lead. It finally feels passive-aggressive, as with the relative who requires 10 minutes of urging to take the last cream puff (“Should I? No, really…”).
This equivocation is more than a stylistic problem; it’s a failure of moral courage in a task that requires it. If you’re going to write a book that’s setting a goal for others to follow – the work of a manifesto – you must at least come out in the open in declarative sentences to assert what you think, and take the hits or plaudits that follow. Masking self-protective equivocation as opinion is very negative role modelling for young women.
What should we tell our daughters? First of all, not to dither in print. Another serious flaw in the book is that the “daughters” rarely appear – except as statistics illustrating helpless folly: faceless victims caught up in a hell of anorexia, of passionless “hooking up”, of a zombie-like search for perfection and, in a passage that lumps together the serious illness of anorexia with the perhaps less dire trend of shaving off all of one’s pubic hair, as sacrifices to full-body depilation.
Benn expresses sadness about anorexia rates at length but interviews no young anorexics. Why are they starving? (You’d be interested by how many times anorexic young women will start by complaining not about patriarchy, but about their mothers.) She bemoans those shaved and waxed young women but doesn’t ask one of them why they do it. Is it all coercion by porn? Or is it because many young women like the way it feels during sex? Or both? We don’t find out. She wonders if girls are having all that sex because they like it or because they feel pressured, but again she fails to ask them directly. She quotes the chief executive of the Guides by name – Julie Bentley – but interviews no Guides.
Benn cites the SlutWalk protest movement but doesn’t interview any young organisers to find out why it, rather than the Take Back the Night marches of their mums’ generation, took off internationally. In every case, where the “daughters” are left out we lose a chance to learn something about cultural change that might help us all renew feminism.
She interviews, rather, plenty of middle-aged, British professional women and treats them as exemplars – without exploring with young women why they’re turning away from these very models of women’s lives: “Rita Clifton is chief executive of Interbrand, one of the world’s largest corporate consultancies…. “Journalist and TV presenter Caryn Franklyn…” You hear reverentially from “mum” again and again – Benn asks several friends what they told their daughters about sex. But she does not ask the daughters their – perhaps appalled or amused – reactions. Benn can also be seriously tendentious with her data. She cites many statistics on the economic suffering of women – which is all too real. But when she must address, in a poorly argued chapter on work-life conflict called Breakpoint, the fact that Hannah Rosin has written a thoroughly documented book – The End of Men – drawing opposite conclusions to Benn’s, she dismisses Rosin’s important identification of the new demographic in the “seesaw marriage” (in which well-educated couples trade off work priorities and tasks fairly) as “little to do with feminism and everything to do with lifestyle and economic expectations’. Class, can we spell tautological reasoning?
Benn sometimes twists data in other ways. She claims, which would suit her argument, that anorexia has returned and is increasing. But all the data confirms that anorexia rates have remained steady for 30 years; it’s body dissatisfaction (dysmorphia) that’s on the rise – a big difference.
Most importantly, Benn consistently fails to explain why the issues she raises are in fact women’s issues. The daughters’ generation rejects this kind of feminism for good reason. Their mantra is “race, class, gender”. Does porn affect only girls negatively? Benn acknowledges that it must affect boys too, but insists that girls must be more victimised by it. Is the “search for perfection” not something that young men feel too, in a social media-heavy, economically stressed world? Young people say it is. Is sexual violence a women’s issue alone, or even primarily? The new groups on campus that are inclusive of the 17% of young men who are raped or molested, would see this women-only framing as offensive or just dumb. Many activist young women don’t identify with Benn’s type of 70s-to-90s feminism because it is too simplistic, casting complex questions in pat gender binaries.
Benn’s insights can be agonisingly trite: “Divorce is never easy.” Her analysis can be school-essayish: “Revolution has always provoked stern reaction.” Her conclusions are usually vague, stale and girly: “We need to persuade policy-makers that raising a child is a communal responsibility.” Yeah, we have known that and tried to for 40 years – and now Europe teeters under the burdens of austerity. (Benn airily cites the need for a mother’s “lobby” but doesn’t interview members of the only one up and running – MomsRising – so we might actually learn how to break this hoary stalemate.) Other solutions are retro New Labour: forcible quotas or retro essentialist feminist: make them talk more nicely in parliamentary debate. These shallow notions insult the reader’s awareness of the well-established critiques around many of them as theoretically unrigorous and materially impracticable solutions.
Search in vain here for concrete advice for daughters: how should they be financially autonomous? How should they speak in public with authority? How might they start a movement? What should they do with their desire?
The erasure of Benn’s intended audience makes for just the kind of one-directional, condescending harangue (“You never clean your room, young lady!”) that teens and twentysomething women who reject feminism often complain about. When they identify self-referential feminist mothers, or the feminist organisations where they’re continually being told how lucky they are – and how ungrateful for their foremothers’ sacrifices – smart young women cite Benn’s approach.
What thinking, self-respecting young woman would rally to that banner? This book reveals just why many of “our daughters” have turned away.
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663879/s/322490a6/sc/38/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cbooks0C20A130Coct0C0A70Cwhat0Etell0Edaughters0Emelissa0Ebenn0Ereview/story01.htm