Talkin loud but sayin nothin

If you’re still refusing to read the Daily Review for its exploitation of unpaid bloggers,° you may not have seen Helen Razer’s latest tirade against contemporary feminism. Couched in a review for Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism, a book based on the eponymous internet campaign initiated by the author, Razer rants her way through 1500 words or so, cursing the ‘bitches’ who rage against sexism on the internet, who aren’t a patch on de Beauvoir and Greer in the literary stakes, and who take to Twitter to vent their frustration with the status quo but don’t dare stir from their armchairs for fear of actually changing anything.

If this seems familiar, perhaps I’m getting it mixed up with Razer’s previous denunciation of contemporary feminism – the one about the meaninglessness of Destroy The Joint, another hashtag-cum-online community, which, incidentally, involved Razer venting her frustration on Twitter while not daring to stir from her armchair… etc. To borrow a Razerism: Look, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether or not the irony is conscious.

So let’s be frank: hatchet jobs are fun to read. The hatchet job is an art in and of itself. But Razer’s excoriating review of Everyday Sexism isn’t just a scathing denunciation of a book; it’s another attack on the preoccupations of today’s feminists and one that spends more time swearing and snarking than it does proposing anything of value (other than, perhaps, everyone ought to read Spivak). Even better, it includes asides about the flagrant use of unpaid labour that went into the creation of Everyday Sexism, while simultaneously being published by a business that does not pay many of its content providers.

Now, I’m not contemporary feminism’s biggest defender. I’ve argued on Overland and elsewhere before that feelings are an unreliable barometer of political righteousness, that contemporary feminism should focus on action over spectacle, and that one cracker speech does not a feminist revolution make. There are shades of all these themes and more in Razer’s work – her arguments aren’t new, and sometimes they’re not even wrong – but her selling points are venom and disdain.

Her combativeness is not spirited debate; it’s outright toxic. Denigrating the breadth of feminist theory that’s come out of the academies and elsewhere (except for the usual suspects, because if Razer doesn’t mention Judith Butler at least once in every article her head might explode) is hardly comradely for someone who purports to be on the left. She opposed the Biennale boycott for being merely ‘symbolic’, no matter that it resulted in an actual win for the refugee campaign (there is no question that the arts will struggle for it, but it was a win all the same). Outcomes should be valued above all else, she cries, except hang on – didn’t she just argue in this same review that we should all stop focusing on action and read more? She wants it every way at once: theory instead of action and action instead of social media, all from behind her TV column and a Twitter feed that flicks on and off like an old fluorescent light in a camping ground toilet block. It seems to me like what she really wants is the ability to rage into the void from her little cocoon and be paid for it, and her favourite axe to grind relates to those pesky feminists who are always doing everything wrong.

But the biggest issue isn’t even that we should all be nicer to each other – although it is actually possible, believe it or not, to disagree vehemently about politics on the left without becoming a reactionary in the process – but that being on the left means working towards progressive change. Not once has Razer proposed anything other than a bunch of insults which smack of precisely the condescension and elitism she claims are falsely standing in the way of feminists educating themselves about the history of feminist thought. Some progressive.

But hey, saying ‘fuck’ in a book review is funny.

Everyday Sexism may well be little better than tabloid fodder, but opposition to sexism is good, and the fact that there is more and more of it gives activists greater opportunities to build a deeper opposition to injustices in the world. If Razer really wanted to make a difference, she could have channelled some of that energy into, for example, helping the organising groups that have been working in opposition to mandatory detention for the last decade. She could easily have joined the campaign against Geoff Shaw’s proposed private member’s bill to restrict Victorian women’s abortion rights in late 2013 and early 2014.

She didn’t. Because there’s no need to get off the couch when you’ve staked out territory for yourself as a freelance troll.

° Note: since the publication of this article, Ray Gill from the Daily Review has asked that I clarify the Daily Review’s policy on paying writers. You can read its payment policy here.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

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  1. uh well of course outcomes are important, but what exactly are online manifestations of “feminist activism” such as #destroythejoint #makeupfreemovement #everydaysexism achieving other than… well nothing really. What they do is act as distractions by making people feel like they’re doing something important when they aren’t. It’s feel good feminism, decaf resistance, feminism without the punch or the risk.
    Treating symptoms/effects of inequity that are deeply grounded in philosophical/theoretical constitutions of the world is pointless. Taking a step back from the distracting bullshit and seriously engaging with important ideas isn’t armchair elitism, it’s an ethical move that allows a complete reconceptualisation of the world… sounds pretty radical to me.

    1. But the problem is Razer isn’t “Taking a step back from the distracting bullshit and seriously engaging with important ideas”. She’s generating more distracting bullshit.

    2. What you are in fact saying, is that only women in situations conducive to *seriously engaging with important ideas* can be active feminists.

      I’ll tell that to the next domestic violence victim I talk to. If only she’d seriously engage with important ideas!

  2. Seriously engaging with important ideas is no more or less important than seriously engaging with practical action. I would really like some proof that #destroy the joint, for example, achieves nothing. How is this lack of achievement measured? What are the criteria for measurement? As the movement has only been around for a few months, but difficult to authoritatively write it off, isn’t it?

    Am absolutely fed up with this false dichotomy between theory & practice. As far as I’m aware, theory without practice is a waste of time and about as far from radical as anyone can get.

  3. I totally support Jennifer Wilson’s view.

    There is an old saying along the lines of:

    Q: How do you eat an elephant?
    A: In small bites.

    No matter how small the action, the action contributes. Not every woman is an academic able to theorise, but every woman is a woman entitled to equal rights.

  4. I have in the past appreciated Helen’s views and writings as a way to snap me out of useless click-bait rages. That said, I get it, I think we all get her points now. Don’t we? Even when I agree with a point she is making, it usually leaves a bad taste, like, ‘you all are doing it wrong so just fuck off and die useless bitches’.

  5. As a bloke, I tentatively dip my toe in to say that without hashtagged social media campaigns such as destroy the joint et al, I’d be much the worse informed. And I imagine a great deal many other men. Can only be a good thing I would have thought.

  6. Much of feminist theory is a mystery to me. I don’t know whether Destroy the Joint and Everyday Sexism is useful to the movement. What I do know is that they’ve both opened my eyes to the toxicity of my own attitudes and that of many of my peers. A rural Australian upbringing conditioned my childhood mind to accept sexism & inequality as normal. I’m tremendously grateful for the people in my life and the likes of DTJ/ES that have helped me see differently.

  7. All’s quiet now. Funny how it takes a couple of blokes to put some sense into the comment stream, which hardly lifts beyond the level of gossip. At least one of them has gone out of his way to think outside himself in order to effect some kind of change, even if only of himself. Still, that is an action in the world, a transformative one, and is good.

    1. Describing the comments of women as ‘gossip’ is a traditional way of discrediting those speakers/writers and trivialising their concerns.

      “Shrill” and “emotional” are adjectives often used in the same way.

      And, to digress a little, I have difficulty with the term thinking outside oneself. That sounds like it requires an operation.

      1. ‘thinking outside oneself’ — it’s metaphorical, a trope, if you like, and your difficulty in grasping figurative language is evident in your attempt to literalise it and thereby discredit it, to literalise it (stupidly) as an actual operation conducted on the person in order that they may perform cognitive functions outside their body.

  8. I can never quite work out whether I want to punch Helen in the nose or hug her. Her acerbicism is so self-indulgent at times but I find myself laughing despite myself because I really do admire her mind.

    I just wish she’d employ it in a bit more of a positive way. I mean, I would like to be able to come away from reading something she’s written having learnt something more rather than feeling I’m being finger-pointed to by someone who considers themselves superior.

    Still, she makes valid points. There is a difference between doing something that will change people’s minds and hearts and changing societal structures operated by the most powerful. I presume that her problems with DTJ and its like is that it can easily be a self-indulgent way of making you feel like you’ve done something for structural change when in fact you haven’t.

    However, Dan and Drew both point out that for them it has made them think harder and change their ideas on things. And in the end, I think the changing of structural power at the top comes from the people pushing back from the bottom.

  9. Apologies for straying off topic, but I’d just like to address Ray Gill’s “clarification” on paying writers, since it was my blog on the subject that led to the boycott by other arts writers. Let me be absolutely clear: I was basically headhunted for a position for which I was expected to work for nothing. I still have the emails to this effect. I was told, both in writing and by phone, that there was no budget for contributors. Yes, that policy may have changed since Crikey was publicly shamed – and I am quite sure they would never have DARED to ask Ms Razer to work for nothing – but much of what Private Media have claimed after the fact is false. They are at least right to say they would be nothing without their writers and cartoonist, First Dog On The Moon, but since First Dog has decamped to The Guardian, that doesn’t leave them with much, so I won’t be renewing my subscription when it expires. And yes, I still refuse to read The Daily Review.

  10. Let me get this straight, when fourth wavers and clicktivist feminists create #everydaysexism hashtags they are changing the world, but when Helen writes articles featuring counter-arguments to their points, she is changing nothing? Everyone is in an armchair, here. Logical fallacy.

  11. You can be as logical as you like Miss Minute, but if you argue from false or imaginary premises, your arguments will go nowhere. #Everydaysexism was an exercise in collecting a massive amount of data points illustrating what happens to women and young girls as they simply try to go about their day. #Everydaysexism is not, and was never made out to be, the sum total of feminist effort and feminist discourse today. Razer’s “arguments”, such as they are, posit something like that.
    Young feminists in their exploration of r*pe culture and intersectionality are starting to really gain some traction on problems that have been very hard to solve for first and second wavers. Good on them and I really hate it that “contrarians” deliberately mock and misrepresent their efforts for clicks.

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