A Straight White Guy’s Guide to Feminism Today

A forewarning before I begin- I, a privileged, heterosexual white male, am about to deliver a commentary on sexism. As such, I don’t expect to get everything ‘right’ and I can’t offer first hand accounts to the cause. Some may say I have no right to write on the subject, but frankly I find the field intensely interesting and it’s one of relatively few areas in which I have a strong opinion- so this is happening.

The feminist movement has, over the past few decades, achieved most (or at least many) of the goals it set its sights on when the movement first began. Most employers now advertise themselves as ‘equal opportunities’, there are next to no discriminatory pay scales nowadays and most of us wouldn’t find it odd to deal with a female doctor, lawyer, or politician. On the face of it, therefore, our society seems to be ideologically equal- ‘yes there are still some issues of execution’, so the argument goes, ‘but ask anybody in the civilised world if men and women are equal and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who’ll answer in the negative’. And that statement is, broadly speaking, true*; as such, it is the opinion of large sects of the population (both men and women) that feminism has won. It’s done, we finally live in a (mostly) equal society, and the feminists of today are just hardcore lesbians & man-haters.

(*or at least, that’s the impression I get in the circles I move in)

This is reflected in the delightfully dismissive name given to the feminist movement since the 1990s; ‘post-feminism’, a name implying that the movement is over. Unfortunately, the picture is nothing like as optimistic- the fact that feminism still exists as a movement and is a constantly throbbing discourse should alone demonstrate that women still face discrimination, as do statistics relating to the average salary of female employees and the number of women in high-ranking positions in society (particularly politics and the military). For some examples a little closer to home, I recommend the Everyday Sexism blog, provided you don’t mind having your faith in men the world over heavily shaken. To use a racial comparison, the Civil Rights movement was ‘won’ 40 years ago, yet racial discrimination still occurs on a large scale- even though most of us think of racism as A Bad Thing.

The problem is that feminists of today face a far more complex challenge than their predecessors, and feminism as a movement is a great deal more fractured. ‘Third wave’ feminism, for example, originated during the 1990s and placed a heavy focus on sexual liberation- however, it also attracted radicals and is the main source of the ‘man-hating lesbians’ stereotype. The more recent fourth-wave feminism has focused on the sexualised attitude men have towards women and the highly controversial concept of ‘rape culture’. Some feminists contend that there are no practical differences between men and women other than societal constructs and making babies- others acknowledge fundamental differences between the two and are engaged in constant infighting with the former group. Still others don’t conform to any faction within feminism at large but merely focus on one particular issue they care about- recent high-profile campaigns against female genital mutilation are one example.

Such is the challenge to a modern feminist- there is no clearly-defined goal, no obvious laws that need striking down (at least, not in the western world), no single bad guy to defeat. Instead, feminists find themselves attempting to navigate & restructure a minefield of tangled social constructs and attitudes. Not only have most of these attitudes been ingrained in society for decades or even centuries, no-one seems able to agree if they are wrong- the black and white certainties of early feminism have been replaced with shades of grey.

Sexualisation provides a good example- the idea that women are, from a young age, formed into and treated like sex objects by men a lot of the time. On paper, this seems like a quite clear cut Bad Thing- a girl walking down the street minding her own business is unlikely to appreciate a ‘get your tits out for the lads’ comment from a passing car, and it’s straight up insulting that that a woman is thought of as nothing but a set of T&A in that situation. However, consider a counter-example; that same girl on a night out being hit on by a guy, dancing close & giving his best pickup lines a go. The guy in that scenario is quite clearly viewing the girl as someone to have sex with, but this wouldn’t be considered dodgy- both are out attempting to have a good time, and if both end up enjoying in bed afterwards then well played to them both. So this we consider OK. Now consider what happens if our girl decides she isn’t particularly interested; she moves on, perhaps heads to get a drink, but our man is still interested and follows her. She starts to find this creepy, and attempts to ignore him, but he is insatiable, continually flirting with her and making her uncomfortable. OK, we might say, so now the guy is in the wrong; she’d not been interested, he should have left her alone. But think of it another way- in the sweaty confines of a dancefloor, he was just another guy and she just another girl, but by following her he had shown genuine interest. Is it wrong for a girl to not settle for the first guy to start hitting on her on a night out, but instead see who has the dedication to follow up his initial advances and try and hold his own in conversation? What if, rather than his continued presence making our girl feel uncomfortable, the conversation continues, and it ends up that both get lucky- in that case, by making continued advances beyond the initial rejection, our guy has been pro-feminist, attempting to go for women other than those so drunk or dismissive of sex that they’ll fall into the arms of the first guy to show any interest. Thus, the shades of grey begin to emerge; at what point do flirtatious advances stop being compliments and start being creepy?

That isn’t even the only confusing feminist topic to be had in the ‘nightclub pull’ situation; some feminists would accuse me of taking a patriarchal point of view by having the guy take the dominant role in the above described situation, arguing (quite correctly) that the idea of a girl being the one from whom sex is sought, of ‘giving out’ sex to those who sufficiently impress her, is a demeaning and objectifying social construct. Others might say that by rejecting the idea (in my penultimate sentence) of girls who are ‘dismissive of sex’, I am guilty of ‘slut-shaming’; the word ‘slut’ is currently the subject of a titanic battle in the feminist community, as it is seen to imply that women should be virginal and pure according to old-fashioned doctrine, and that women are forbidden from simply enjoying sex in the same way men do. In my defence, I turn to a bit of advice I was given once and have held onto ever since; “never have sex with someone who is less interested in it than you”; my issue with the word ‘slut’ is that it is always applied relative to one person’s code of prudishness and implies that someone else’s attitudes towards sex are ‘wrong’. Having said that, it’s true that that penultimate sentence of the last paragraph comes across as judgemental- and I’m writing this specifically to try and be sex-positive and pro-feminist in my attitudes. You see how difficult all this gets; and this isn’t even the most hotly-fought battleground.

In short, modern feminism finds itself attempting to collectively rewrite the world’s psyche with regards to how we all think about women, and attempts to do so without a cohesive idea in mind of what exactly it is after. Scarcely a more ambitious task has been attempted in human history, and most likely it won’t be ‘solved’ for decades to come- indeed, if it ever is. But, then again, there has never been a world as fast-changing and open-minded as our current one. One day, we might be able to use the phrase ‘post-feminism’ a little more honestly.

Rock Royalty

Queen are frequently (and quite rightly) regarded as being among the greatest bands in musical history, responsible for what are frequently considered the best single and live performance (Bohemian Rhapsody and their Live Aid set respectively) of all time and the biggest-selling album (Greatest Hits) in history. In my household growing up, they were required listening, to the extent that a family holiday to Zanzibar (Freddie Mercury’s birthplace) was half-jokingly dubbed a ‘pilgrimage’. Not only are they popular, but they are highly respected musically; having overseen every musical revolution from punk to grunge, they were able to draw inspiration from music of all genres and adapt it to their own particular, bombastic style, and you’d be hard pressed to find even the most embittered of metal fans who didn’t rate their music.

Some weeks ago, I started to consider this fact, marvelling at the way they had managed to achieve both respect and popularity within the music world. That combination is a very rare one; many bands are respected musically and many others have enjoyed major mainstream success, but few are loved by both the ‘lay’ public and the ‘serious’ music world to such a massive extent. Hell, even The Beatles, the most successful band of all time, have more detractors (me included). So, I began to deconstruct the music of Queen, identifying common threads, themes and suchlike that might explain their appeal.

Certainly large swathes of Queen’s mass-market appeal come from their heavy pop influence, or at least the numerous pop music features that find their way into Queen music. Unlike the guitar-heavy sounds of Jimi Hendrix (so beloved by music nerds everywhere and yet never the recipient of mainstream success) and other ‘hard sounds, Queen always based their songs around vocals, with instruments frequently taking a back seat. For example, whilst Brian May guitar solos are many and varied, they are never a focal point of the song or particularly long. This vocal focus, allowing people to sing along to the melody, is a common feature of pop, made Queen’s music distinctly radio-friendly (helping from a publicity end of things) and has surely contributed to the enduring popularity of so many Queen songs- I mean, who doesn’t know the words to ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’? On the subject of vocals, Queen take another leaf out of pop’s book with regards to themes. Freddie Mercury reportedly took quite a bit of persuading to perform at Live Aid due to his reluctance to mix music and politics, and it shows in his choice of lyrics; Queen wrote possibly the least controversial music in the rock world (‘I Want To Break Free’ excepted, and that was only controversial in America by accident), despite having a gay, wildly flamboyant partygoer as a frontman. This helped them to avoid courting controversy and giving them a clean, suburbia-friendly image that kept them very much in the mainstream. The pop influences don’t stop there; whilst the hated autotune wasn’t invented in their day, they heavily experimented with the rough 70s/80s equivalents, messing around with their vocal tracks to create echo effects and endless voice looping and adding in more than a few sounds with an electronic origin. Since these couldn’t be performed live on stage, the band were not averse to using them as pre-recorded backing music in places (another hated feature of modern pop), although they did perform all the stuff that they could live.

However, Queen are quite clearly not just a pop group; indeed, much of their success could probably be put down to the way they have straddled the pop/rock boundary. They fit right into the classic rock group formula of singer/guitarist/bassist/drummer, and also adopt the tried and tested verse/chorus/solo formula that has been a rock mainstay pretty much since its inceptions. Despite a musical style that is frequently softer in nature than much of the rock world, they have their share of heavier songs with a stronger guitar lead that allow fans a chance to rock out properly; for every ‘You And I’ there’s a ‘I Want It All’, a second half of ‘Save Me’ for every opening to ‘We Are The Champions’ (and vice-versa). Crucially, it is this harder sound that tended to prevail at live shows, not only making the experience for fans more fast-paced and exciting but also increasing their reputation in ‘serious’ circles. This mixture of hard and soft sounds is really just another part of a musical style that constantly evolved and sampled from pretty much every genre imaginable, and a comparison of any two Queen songs selected at random will frequently yield wonder that they were even composed by the same band. This varied selection means Queen have something for everyone, increasing their popularity from all sides, and means their sound never grew stale throughout their long history.

Not only are their songs varied, they are also supremely well-written. All members of the band were intelligent, aware musicians and highly gifted songwriters- Queen wrote all their music themselves, a feature that endears them to all parties, and all members individually contributed significant numbers of pieces to the band’s repertoire. But merely being good musicians or songwriters is not enough for a lot of bands to achieve success (The Velvet Underground spring to mind by reputation alone, even if I’ve never listened to their music), even though it does contribute significantly to the longevity of their music, and it isn’t really at the core of what makes Queen such a special band. To me, their own ‘X Factor’ is simply the sheer force of personality exuded by the band- and by band, I mostly mean Freddie Mercury.

John Deacon, Roger Taylor and Brian May are all extremely good musicians, as well as very skilful songwriters- but with all due respect to them, Freddie Mercury managed to overshadow the lot of them by being possibly the most charismatic, energetic and show-stealing frontman of all time. Blessed with a unique voice in its range, style and sheer power, he had an amazing ability to carry a song and hold an audience transfixed just by the energy and charisma he was able to imbue onto any show or live record. Lead by Mercury, Queen were able to put on a show, full of drama and fun and excitement, like no other band before or since, playing loud, proud and bombastic with such confidence in themselves and their music that one cannot fail to be carried along for the ride. There’s a reason why they are usually considered the highlight of Live Aid- if ever there was a band and a person destined to play for the entire world, it was Queen and Freddie Mercury. In ‘We Will Rock You’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘We Are The Champions’, Queen created music with the specific intention of being sung along to by a crowd; crowds had of course sung along before, but this was the first time they had been specifically invited to do so, to make themselves part of the experience, and that speaks volumes about the band. For Queen were never really a band- they and their music were and are an experience, and one that few will ever be able to replicate.