Review by Joanna Horton
To be featured in the upcoming “Cliterature” issue of Wom*news!
A feminist classic, Misogynies was first released in 1989 and created controversy with its cutting analyses of everyday woman-hating sentiments and behaviours. In 2013, it has been re-released by The Westbourne Press in conjunction with Joan Smith’s newest book, The Public Woman.
Let me start by saying straight up that I LOVE the idea of a book that sets out to explore and prove the deep-seated societal hatred towards women that increasingly shows up the in the cracks of modern ‘equality’. While I’m being honest, I will also tell you that I am a bit tired of hearing things like equal pay or affirmative action being touted as self-contained ‘feminist issues’. Are these problems important? Yes. Are they definitive? No. Rather, they’re symptomatic of a wider problem, and fit into a wider system. I call this system patriarchy, but Smith seeks to explore it from the angle of misogyny – or, in a nod to Roland Barthes, misogynies. The scope is too broad for one book, and so Smith chooses examples from current events, history, literature, and pop culture to demonstrate how anti-woman sentiments are surviving – nay, thriving – even in ostensibly ‘equal’ societies.
All Smith’s chapters take the same theme – that is, misogyny – read through different lenses. The everyday language and subject matter make it easy reading, and Smith nails the idiom that every English Literature student will be familiar with: complex ideas, simple language. Her analysis is sound and easy to follow, making Misogynies ideal both as a ‘starting-out’ feminist text and as a refresher for those of us who no longer need convincing. (One chapter, instantly familiar to most women, simply takes the form of a transcribed conversation between a man, a woman, and a plumber engaged to do work on their house.)
By exploring the nuances of misogyny, Smith also touches on several intersecting themes. The most salient of these is class (which I believe contemporary feminism doesn’t explore nearly enough – but that’s a rant for another day), examined through the iconic figure of Margaret Thatcher. This was particularly interesting to read in the aftermath of Thatcher’s death, during which countless conservatives named her as a glass-ceiling shatterer and elected to ignore the brutality she exercised against Britain’s working class, the worst of which was borne (as it always is) by women. Cuttingly, Smith exposes the hypocrisy behind Thatcher’s insistence that women can ‘have it all’, and reveals the Iron Lady as anything but a feminist icon.
In other chapters, however, this intersectionality falters. Examinations of misogyny and race, or misogyny and sexuality, are sadly absent. When recounting the experience of a Page Three woman mobbed by fans at a promotional event, Smith veers away from the rich analysis that seems obvious. Rather than thoughtfully and critically exploring how Page Three women’s bodies are exploited to line the pockets of so many men – from Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun newspaper where Page Three women appear, right down to the women’s mostly-male managerial teams – Smith actually blames the women themselves for unwanted (and sometimes dangerous) attention from male fans, claiming that they are extending a sexual invitation that they have no intention of fulfilling. Despite explicitly noting that the women in question usually embark on Page Three-esque careers due to financial hardship, Smith hopes that the fans who mobbed Page Three woman Samantha Fox at her event got their money back. (The same theme is picked up again in a chapter on Marilyn Monroe, where Smith’s claim that “no woman squeezes herself into a tight dress, appears on stage before thousands of soldiers who have been isolated from female company for months, and presents them with a suggestive song without knowing exactly what she’s doing” smacks strongly of victim-blaming rhetoric warning women to watch their behaviour.)
These bizarre sentiments are doubly strange considering that Smith spends the second chapter of Misogynies reminding us that a woman can engage in whatever behaviour she likes and still say ‘no’ at the end of the night. Does this statement only stand true for some women? Does posing naked in a newspaper remove your right not to be physically assaulted by fans? Are some women in fact asking for it? Smith’s sudden turns of victim-blaming appear as failures of analysis – she blames women for fulfilling roles (Page Three ‘girl’, seductive femme fatale) that society has set out for them. She hopes the fans get their money back; I hope the Page Three women do.
This conclusion, perhaps, is one effect of reading Misogynies twenty-four years after its release, during which time continuous debate has brought up new questions and perspectives for feminism. However, another effect of this retrospective reading is the haunting sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “Three or four times a year,” Smith writes, “we in Britain go through a ritual known as Outcry Over Judge’s Remarks In Rape Case”. These days, as the Internet allows for information to be shared further and faster than ever, this ritual takes place more like three or four times a month. (At the time of writing, I can think of at least one news story along these lines that occurred in the past week.) The sentiments of the judges quoted by Smith could easily have been expressed today. This, I think, is one reason why it’s so crucially important to read and re-read classic feminist texts – the realization that some things don’t change points to the conclusion that they are culturally ingrained; always present, in one form or another, in a culture that is essentially misogynistic. This, after all, is Smith’s ultimate argument.
One final note: to paraphrase Lenin, what is to be done? Smith delivers a stern critique of misogynistic culture, but offers little in the way of suggested remedies. Finishing the book, I wished that she’d included just one final chapter on the power (and the complex difficulties) of women organizing together against misogynies. Leaving this out amounts not only to a lack of ‘solution’, but it also has the unfortunate effect of casting women only as the victims of misogyny, rather than three-dimensional people who have the ability to fight back. Perhaps, with much of the groundwork laid by feminist forerunners such as Smith, this is the task for today’s feminism.
~ Joanna Horton
Wom*news was asked to review Joan Smith’s new release books ‘Misogynies’ and ‘The Public Woman’ by her publishing house’s distributor, Inbooks. You’ll also be able to read Lotte’s review of ‘The Public Woman’ in Issue #10 Wom*news: Cliterature. If you’d like us to review your feministy book, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.