#MeToo movement has been in the making for decades: 'Bitch Doctrine' author Laurie Penny
Bitch Doctrine author Laurie Penny chats with Firstpost about navigating the Donald Trump, #MeToo, Brexit era
On 4 November 2016, Laurie Penny handed in the manuscript for Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults to her publishers. It was a collection of the many columns the British journalist-author had written over the years, preceded by an original introduction. Less than a week later, Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the United States, and Penny took the manuscript back. “There was a new sense of urgency to the politics in the book and I had to change the whole introduction. The only person who was allowed to be happy about that was my agent, who said, ‘Laurie, this is great news.’ And I said, 'It’s not. The world is on fire',” she says.
Narrated with a sharp wit and Penny’s trademark piercing commentary, Bitch Doctrine explores gender and power wars, women’s agency, the rise of the far right, and the transgender rights movement. Reading every essay feels like a slap on the face, as the British journalist and author lays bare hard truths about present-day identity politics, and how toxic masculinity is destroying the world. “I love essay books because you can pick them up even if you have 10 minutes on the train. That condensation of thought is really attractive to me and I felt some of my best work was ephemeral. I wanted to organise it in a way that made structural sense, as books reach different audiences,” says Penny, who was a panellist at the recently concluded Times Lit Fest in Mumbai.
In the first essay, on Trump and the aftermath of the US elections, the 31-year-old writes: "What we’re dealing with is a man who wants to grab the whole world by the pussy and is bewildered and furious when the pussy grabs back". Penny had been covering the elections and asserts that it affected everything she was writing. “The story was like a lodestone sucking all of politics towards it, everything was circling that totemic figure of Trump. But I think for better or worse, mostly for worse, the election of Donald Trump has made a few things quite clear in feminist, radical and anti-racist politics,” says Penny.
A graduate from Oxford University’s Wadham College, Penny became the youngest recipient of the Orwell Prize, for her blog Penny Red, in 2010. A history enthusiast, much of what she learned about the British empire was though reading Indian writers. “What Shashi Tharoor says is absolutely correct. We didn’t learn one line of colonial history, the Partition or how the empire came to be. The entire emotional backdrop of Brexit is colonialism and nobody talks about that”. She picks up an important point in the book about how ruling governments rattle the left, by suggesting that issues of race, gender and sexuality are “at best a distraction from class politics and at worst a bourgeois tendency”.
Among the several young Brits angered by Brexit, the writer believes all arguments about it were couched in terms of race. “They said the failure of the left or liberal society has been its emphasis on gender and sexuality and not talking to real people. And real people are obviously white men in the UK who are cis gendered and straight. Brexit is pure identity politics. They were so confused about what they want their country to be that they blew themselves right out of Europe.”
A theme in Bitch Doctrine that finds echoes in modern India is the trivialising of the fight of people in elite, privileged circles for the justice and dignity of women and queer people. “I don’t know where these right-wing intellectuals get the idea that people who are not wealthy cannot be gay, or can't be women with an interest in their freedom, or people who wish to fight against multiple forms of oppression,” says Penny. It’s an argument that while lazy, is very effective, she adds, because it gets at the guilt of people from more comfortable backgrounds.
In October, three months after Bitch Doctrine was published, the #MeToo movement swept the Internet, with millions of women across the world speaking out against sexual assault in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Penny had been touring with her book and was frequently asked whether the movement had gone too far, if there would be a backlash and when it would end. “I think it’s wonderful that we don’t know where it’s going to end. Obviously you can’t change rape culture and patriarchy overnight. The work and consciousness raising that has gone into this moment has been going on for decades… years of telling and sharing stories, getting up the courage. The hashtag was invented 10 years ago by Tarana Burke, but it just felt like this was the moment and this was the story it condensed around.”
An important discourse that emerged with the campaign was around the culture of complicity — men and women, many of whom had suffered themselves, remained silent or actively covered for perpetrators. Penny says she believed it when men expressed shock about the numbers associated with #MeToo. “It has been women’s responsibility in society to protect men from knowing the true extent of the harm they have caused, and continue to cause. And that’s kind of the last barrier of what men like to call victimhood,” she says, adding that complicity can be complicated. “For instance, if someone who is precariously employed saw his boss touch up a female colleague, he or she may be more able to speak out, but only just. It’s horrible to feel powerless and you start rationalising – maybe it wasn’t that bad, maybe she led him on. You start arguing to protect yourself and your sense of self as a good person.”
While Penny’s gonzo journalism has earned her 1.73K followers on Twitter, there’s been no dearth of abuses and vitriol. In 2012, she won British Media Award’s Twitter Public Personality of the Year and in a statement made in absentia, addressed how social media had become a hostile place for women journalists. She spends limited time on the platform today – her friend has her password. “The digital age is what made #MeToo important. That’s why they want to scare women off the internet because it’s the tool that allows us to link up movements and to raise our voices together. I’m often asked how I cope with it. I don’t want to tell women how to cope with it. I want to tell men to stop doing it because that’s where the responsibility should be.”
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