Two titles that breathe new life into feminism

Fifty shades of feminism, or 51 including the awesome Hadley Freeman

Hadley Freeman: optimistic, encouraging and often very funny, if sometimes a little glib

Hadley Freeman: optimistic, encouraging and often very funny, if sometimes a little glib

Thu, Feb 13, 2014, 12:47

If you had told me 10 years ago that one day British publishers would be publishing so many feminist books that I’d have to cram two of them into one review, I’d have been very pleased, but also very surprised. It wasn’t that feminists of all ages didn’t exist back then, it was more that the mainstream media, on this side of the Atlantic at least, seemed determined to ignore their existence. But the last few years have seen the welcome return of feminism to the mainstream, and these two books are among the latest results.

Virago’s Fifty Shades of Feminism is a collection of short pieces by a wide variety of women, all talking about what feminism means to them. Medical doctor Sayantani DasGupta’s Can Sisterhood Be Global? asks why so many white feminists seem determined to save “oppressed brown women” rather than listen to them. Author Kate Mosse explains why she co-founded the literary award formerly known as the Orange Prize. Naomi Alderman compares the world of literature and video games and reveals where she’s encountered the most misogyny. And journalist Laurie Penny, best known for her insightful reportage and comment pieces, contributes an exhilarating poem about her generation of feminists.

There are, of course, many more than 50 shades of feminism, as the editors acknowledge in the introduction: “[These women] don’t pretend to be representative and neither does this volume.” And while there are a diverse range of voices in the book, they seldom contradict each other (there is a lot of criticism of the sex industry, but no sex-work advocates are given space). But what unites all the writers is a sense of community with other women, a belief that things will keep getting better, and a sense of continuity summed up by a wonderful illustration by the great cartoonist Posy Simmonds. It shows an Edwardian suffragette and a 1980s Greenham Common protester, each being led away by policemen dressed in the uniforms of their respective eras. The policemen are solemn. But the two women are looking at each other and smiling.

Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman’s Be Awesome is also optimistic and encouraging, though in a very different way. It isn’t specifically a book about feminism. Instead, it’s a very entertaining book of essays and personal advice written by someone who happens to be a feminist, looking at everything from how to cheer up an unhappily single friend to the danger of over-identifying as a teenager with characters played by Winona Ryder (a common malady among dark-haired girls of Freeman’s generation, as I can attest).

Freeman may focus on the concerns of middle-class and, for the most part, straight women, but she tackles them very well. She’s particularly good on the complex relationship between women and fashion, acknowledging the industry’s misogynistic aspects while pointing out that men often dismiss high fashion as trivial because it’s not about making women look sexy: “[Male] desires are being ignored.”

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