Anne Harris: The word ‘misogyny’ is losing all meaning

It is a serious charge that should be reserved for when it really fits, as in the Rayner story

We should be thankful for small mercies. The Dáil chamber is built like the sloping auditorium of a great theatre, which is probably appropriate given that politics is the nation’s favourite drama. Panels protect against the danger of falling. There is absolutely no possibility of observing anyone’s legs.

The media tumult last week around the deputy leader of the UK's Labour Party, Angela Rayner, could not have happened without the architectural quirk of the British parliament: two front benches, with government and opposition leaders and MPs facing each other; only a podium, the "despatch box", partly breaks the view. It allows no place to hide.

Angela Rayner has legs and in this setting you can see them. It's a fact. Her feisty exchanges with Boris Johnson during prime minister's questions are also a fact. But is she an exhibitionist, as an offensive article in the Mail on Sunday claimed?

She clearly loves showing how she can demolish Johnson’s “old Etonians” rhetoric with her unsparing working-class wit. She delights in mocking his vanity. When she speaks, she rubs entitled Tory noses in the industrial devastation of those north of England seats they “borrowed” to push through Brexit.

And yes, in all of this, her secret weapon is undoubtedly the “L” word. Laughter. Not legs – crossed, uncrossed and open – as the Mail article asserted. Its premise, an “anonymous” Tory MP alleging Rayner had joked at the bar about her effect on Johnson, resulted in a spectacular own goal for the Tories.

Everyone, everywhere clamoured to support her; Boris Johnson led the charge.

Criticising a woman if the same criticism can be levelled against a man is not misogyny

And as always there was confusion about what constituted misogyny. It’s complicated and it’s almost simpler to define what misogyny is not than what it is. Sexism – gender-based discrimination even – is not misogyny. Ageism us not misogyny. Criticising a woman if the same criticism can be levelled against a man is not misogyny.

The definitions matter because misogyny – hatred of women because they are women – is a very serious and a very specific thing.

Woman of the moment

Nobody explicates this better than Fiona Hill, Russia expert and woman of the moment. She has advised three US presidents on foreign policy and was the nemesis of the last – Donald Trump. At his impeachment hearings, she was fearless, testifying on the systemic interference by Russia in the 2016 presidential election. Like Rayner, she has a north of England working-class background. The put-down – the Trump administration called her “The Russia Bitch” – sought to make a pariah of her.

As the 'misogyny' word thickened the air after Ryan Tubridy asked Jamie-Lee O'Donnell of Derry Girls her age on the show, there was a dodgy moment

Yet in a recent interview she emphatically refused to concede that Trump was a misogynist or even disliked women. She said he had huge respect for Angela Merkel and hung on her every word. To the suggestion that he had slighted Theresa May on her second visit, Hill was categorical – that visit had been after May’s disastrous election: it was not about her being a woman but about her lack of power. Nasty, rude, contemptible even – but not misogynistic. Because misogyny means hatred of women and you could certainly see Trump being equally churlish to a man.

Few people's critical thinking is as nuanced as Fiona Hill's. But The Late Late Show team come close. As the "misogyny" word thickened the air after Ryan Tubridy asked Jamie-Lee O'Donnell of Derry Girls her age on the show, there was a dodgy moment. Would the accusation inhibit debate? Would the hyper-scrutiny of language create a self- consciousness about every word uttered, which is death to a chat show?

Last Friday night, Tubridy asked a “young woman”, Ella Thompson, Katie Taylor’s protegee, her age. There was no outcry. The previous week (immediately after the Derry Girls outcry), the chat was about a “fat” young woman, her nipples and her contraceptive coil. Taboo smashing? Not quite. It was the exceedingly engaging Alison Spittle in self-deprecating mode. No outcry.

The reclaiming of language was a subtle rejoinder to the potential for the Derry Girls controversy to gag Tubridy.

Women’s agency

The millennial invention of cancel culture usually involves extrapolating from one incident, such as Tubridy’s question, to seeing misogyny everywhere, deeply embedded in all men’s psyches.

Of course, language matters. But we have to stop flinging the word “misogyny” around carelessly. Labelling everything misogynistic has the effect of obfuscating the real issue and impedes women’s ability to lead independent lives with their own agency and authority.

So was the Mail on Sunday article misogynistic?

The Commons clearly has a “laddish” culture. Female MPs feel disadvantaged and vulnerable: the lack of electronic voting necessitates many late nights. There are 56 complaints of sexual misconduct; some of the victims are men. It can’t all be misogyny.

Rayner herself donned a trouser suit and gave interviews more in sorrow than in anger

But the Rayner question has to be precise; could a similar slur of using one’s genitalia to discommode the prime minister be used against a man? Of course not. The idea is, frankly, laughable. The fact that the article backfired and the misogyny was mitigated – as some feminists said – does not deflect from its intention.

Rayner herself donned a trouser suit and gave interviews more in sorrow than in anger. Hard to believe now, but once upon a time, feminism would have encouraged the owning of the sexuality trope. After all, what was a woman’s liberation about if not the freedom to enjoy one’s sexuality?

Women’s freedoms are still in the ring. Especially in public life.

We shouldn’t need protective panels to stop falling.