“I Don’t See Anyone Asking Justin Bieber If He’s a Feminist”: Laurie Penny on Activism, Gender, and Her Book ‘Unspeakable Things’

Laurie Penny is a wildly precocious 28-year-old journalist who knows how to shake up the system. As a prominent feminist, columnist for The New Statesman, blogger for her Orwell Prize-shortlisted site Penny Red, and contributor to august institutions like The Guardian, she’s a bright and sometimes controversial voice for the feminist left.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution, her new book on gender and power in the 21st century, comes off like a revolutionary call to arms. A witty, stylish writer, she starts with her own experiences — life online, her hospitalization for anorexia, dating today — and sharply relates how the mundane interactions of our lives are shaped by political forces: power, gender, and capitalism. Currently at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow, Penny discussed the issues and passions that spur her writing in an email interview.

Flavorwire: In Unspeakable Things, you write that “feminism isn’t an identity, feminism is a process.” What do you mean by that?

Laurie Penny: Feminism isn’t something you that are, it’s something you do. I like to call myself a feminist because it’s upfront, it’s challenging, and it’s great for warding off unsuitable blokes in bars, but just saying “I am a feminist” isn’t enough. I don’t care what you call yourself, as long as you stand up for every woman’s right to be treated as fully human, to economic equality, autonomy over her own body, freedom  of speech, freedom from violence, shame and sexual double standards.

Feminism isn’t monolithic — there are feminists, for example, who don’t believe transgender women are really women. I think those feminists are wrong, and I’d rather say so directly than waste time arguing over whether or not they’re “real feminists.” For me, feminism isn’t a set of moral judgements. It’s an adaptive strategy, a weapon we can use to smash our way through to a fairer, freer future. And it doesn’t need “rebranding” to make it “less threatening.” Feminism is supposed to threaten the status quo, if the status quo is structural sexism. That’s rather the point.

Throughout the book you have some harsh things to say about the way that mainstream feminism — particularly in pop culture — takes feminism and sells it back to us as instant empowerment. What are your feelings about the way that actresses are challenged over whether they identify as feminists, while other entertainers, like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, are embracing feminism as a label?

Well, first of all, I’d like to see more male celebrities asked to explain their gender politics. I don’t see anyone asking Justin Bieber if he’s a feminist — I suspect no one wants to know.

Some of the analysis that spoke the most to me was when you were talking about how “the disappointment of young men” is raw — and we (humans that are not young men) have to deal with the tantrums and the scars as a result. Is society just inevitably screwed? Is there something we can do?

laurie pennyI see so many people hollowing themselves out trying to fix the wounds late capitalism has inflicted on young men. More worryingly, I see men attacking women in general and feminists in particular as if it were our fault that so many of them feel so powerless and frustrated — as if there were a finite amount of gender equality in the world, as if feminists weren’t fighting for everyone’s right to live outside restrictive gender norms. Misogynist extremism is rooted in male entitlement, and in the past few months, from the Isla Vista killings to #Gamergate, there’s been an explosion in that rhetoric — from rape threats and death threats to actual murderous attacks.

I’m pretty glad I’m not writing Unspeakable Things right now, because I’d find it a hell of a lot harder to access my compassion for all those lost, broken young men who don’t feel entitled to threaten, harass, and attack women whenever they feel frustrated. If masculinity is hurting young men, if young men are disappointed and angry, they need to recognize that women feel precisely the same way — it shouldn’t be men against women, it should be everyone against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. But try telling that to the #Gamergate trolls.

Is there a difference in what feminism means in the US versus your experience in the UK? 

Because most of us speak the same language and hang out on the same Internet, it’s easy to forget that Britain and America are very different countries, with different experiences of social injustice. In America, the religious right has far greater influence over women’s basic bodily autonomy — denying them vital reproductive healthcare, including abortion and contraception. Partly because the demographics are different, I’ve found that American feminism is much more open to intersecting issues of race and class, and I’ve learned a great deal from reading the work of Black and Asian feminist writers in the United States. A great deal of the sexist bullshit translates easily across borders — but so does solidarity.

You write at one point that it’s hard to recommend to young women that they can be journalists without having to deal with abusive language and threats by trolls. How can women deal with this reality, as “others”? Is there a way for the Internet to be safe? Why is it sold as liberation?

I go with Kranzberg’s first law on this: “Technology is neither good nor bad — nor is it neutral.” The fact that there’s an enormous backlash against women’s liberation online doesn’t mean that the Internet is a bad place for women — quite the opposite, in fact. It’s precisely because of the Internet that we have the engaged, exciting, powerful modern social justice movements I’m privileged to write about, and that’s legitimately terrifying to a lot of people. The answer isn’t to avoid online community, but to change it.

I say in the book that “a woman’s opinion is the short skirt of the Internet.” Telling women that they should stay offline, or avoid speaking up, or be less “provocative” if they don’t want to be attacked and harassed is like telling us we should dress conservatively or not walk home alone if we don’t want to invite rape and violence. It’s victim-blaming, and it doesn’t address the problem.

I’d love to know more about your experiences covering protests as a journalist. Have you been arrested?

I’ve never been arrested, although I have been manhandled by police, horse-charged and batoned, and seen many of my friends and colleagues arrested for trying to cover protests and demonstrations. The fact that the behavior of law enforcement in situations of public disorder is under so much more instant scrutiny from journalists and ordinary citizens is a real problem for many states, including the US — particularly when it’s the behavior of the police that’s the problem in the first place. In Ferguson right now, journalists and citizens are being arrested for exercising their democratic right to free speech, thrown in jail simply for demanding justice in a situation of racialized police violence. Beyond the obvious injustice, it speaks to the fact that law enforcement has absolutely no answer to demands for accountability.

What role can men play when it comes to social justice in a patriarchy?

There’s a huge amount that men and boys can do. For all the ugly attacks and organized anti-feminist campaigns, I’m heartened every day by the numbers of men and boys taking on the cause of women’s liberation, understanding that gender is a structure of oppression that ultimately keeps all of us down. Supporting women’s work, promoting women’s art and writing, examining your own assumptions about women’s roles, confronting sexist behavior wherever you see it — that’s all part of what it means to be a feminist ally today, and I see more and more men and boys joining the fight. It’s fantastic.

Have you read Roxane Gay’s book Bad Feminist?

I’m a huge Roxane Gay fangirl. I think she’s a marvelous writer, and the book is a brilliant piece of political positioning. I haven’t got the T-shirt yet. I want one.

Who are some young writers and journalists that we should keep an eye on?

We’re in a golden age of political writing right now. I could list my favorites all day, but I’d keep an eye on Suey Park, Leigh Alexander, Mychal Denzel Smith, Julia Carrie Wong, Natasha Lennard, and Melissa Gira Grant.