Laurie Penny is an English journalist who came into the public eye last year with her gripping coverage of the student protests and occupations. She writes a column for the New Statesman, as well as appearing in The Guardian and the Evening Standard. Her first book Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism is out on Zero from April 29th. I caught up with Laurie recently to talk about her book, and the situation facing women today.
Emily Manuel: Ok, so Meat Market. It’s a short book, but packs quite a punch in its 60 pages. What was the basic goal with the book?
Laurie Penny: Hmm, the basic goal… I wanted to see if I could extend some of my feminist thinking into a larger space, and I wanted to explore the ideas I’d had for ages about gender, power and the body. It was an experiment, really. I never thought anyone would read it, I was entirely unknown when I signed up to do it. Not that I didn’t put time and care into it, of course.
E.M: Of course. In the book you say that for women,“our bodies are not our own.” That’s a really bracing comment given some feminisms’ bias towards liberal individualism, was there any particular strain of feminism you were conscious of writing against?
L.P: Oh God yes. I think the notion of choice and individualism as shibboleths of all contemporary feminism is really, really pernicious. Women grow up surrounded by messages that our bodies are not okay, not acceptable, need to be changed, everyone has an opinion on how we look and what we eat and what we wear. We also live in a world of physical threat – the threat of rape, sexual violence and other violence – and finally the work our bodies do and our reproductive capacity are not ours to determine. Then we are told that the ultimate liberation is to have control over the body, to ‘free’ the body from this artificially-induced state of liminality, that freedom, that individual liberation, always somehow seems to involve being quiet and well-behaved and buying all the things. And that’s freedom. The absolute limit of what bourgeois feminism can offer us is terminal exhaustion and a cupboard full of beautiful shoes. I think that’s massively unambitious.
E.M: Ha! And maybe a few women in power making the same neoliberal decisions. It seems to me that in particular a lot of American feminists don’t really like thinking about economics as a form of coercion… echoes of the rugged American individualist?
Laurie: Oh, I think that’s the case in Britain too. And it’s also a deeply uncomfortable thing to think about, emotionally. for women in particular, spending power is often the only form of power we really feel we have. To question that is to question people’s identities – and a purchased identity is still an identity. But identity is not unassailable, nor should it be. All politics are identity politics!
Also, there’s a strain of feminism springing up on both sides of the pond, I think, which is being touted as a ‘feminist revival’, but which really doesn’t have any of the radicalism or ambition of previous feminist ‘waves’. None of the depth or breadth of social critique – limiting its ideas to isolated discussions of sex discrimination or sexual violence, which are important, but context is important too
E.M: It’s not world-making.
L.P: No, nor world-shaking.
E.M: Which is a depressing development to be sure, because there’s a narrowing of ambition. I wanted to talk a bit about “erotic capital” – which is a wonderful phrase. What’s the relationship between women and erotic capital?
L.P: I think a lot of women don’t really believe that their individual, private problems are politically important, or have any relationship to the world of work and money and power. And that’s a scam, because they do. Well, erotic capital is all about placing a price on sexuality – not just sex, but sexual performativity. Many women grow up understanding that our net worth to society is directly proportional to the erotic response we can provoke, chiefly in men. If you’re not hot, you’re not a person of value. and the definition of hotness narrows every year – quite literally, in many cases.
E.M: What I really liked about this idea is you introduced Judith Butler to Marx.
L.P: I’m sure Judith Butler is deeply aware of Marx. It remains unspoken, though, that aspect of commodity value – although we do speak of the ‘commodification’ of women’s bodies, there isn’t much acknowledgement that femininity and sexuality really are commodities, purchased and traded for profit. Sex work is a part of that, but not the whole part by any means.
And I think a lot of current feminist anxieties around sex work – the huge, interminable debates about how and whether feminists should support prostitutes – reflect that inability to deal with the wider problem of commodification, the violence of erotic capital. We discuss sex workers as if they existed in a dark, separate sphere, when in fact there is a spectrum of sexuality and profit that encompasses all of us.
E.M: Right. So what’s the place of men in this economy of erotic capital?
L.P: Not as powerful as they’re told they are. Men are almost entirely consumers, and almost entirely marginalised as individuals. Instead of intimacy, excitement and individual tastes and desires, they are given an empty purchasing power and told to feel big and strong and fulfilled because of it.
E.M: So men’s dehumanisation is that of the consumer, women’s is the product?
L.P: Not just of the product, that’s what makes it interesting. Women are required to purchase their own marginalisation because they are told that if they don’t, they are degendered, they will be mistreated or ignored and definitely unfulfilled.
E.M: As a punishment, that degendering seems to link into your discussion of trans women.
L.P: Well, trans women are no different from cis women in that they are also obliged to purchase their femininity and play at erotic capital. But for trans women that balance sheet starts out in deficit. And trans women offend a lot of people because their very existence makes it clear that femininity – not femaleness, but femininity, erotic capital and the gender identity that is facilitated by erotic capital – is something that you can walk into a shop and purchase.
E.M: And that’s scary because the whole inorganic system is legitimated with a discourse of the “natural.”
L.P: Oh yes. Since when did you need to buy a pot of moisturiser to be a ‘real woman’?
E.M: Reading that section, I was thinking – is trans-misogyny (as Julia Serano calls it) one of the more intense forms of sexism? Why have some cis feminists been hesitant to see it as part of the same system?
L.P: I think trans women scare a lot of feminists, especially trans women who are feminists! They challenge a lot of lazy thinking and prejudice within the movement as well as outside it, again, by their very existence. To acknowledge that trans women are women is to unpack a lot of received orthodoxies within traditional ‘radical’ feminism (which i don’t believe is radical at all). Practically speaking, as well, I felt it was important to have some trans-positive feminism within the context of a book written by a cis feminist. A lot of trans friends worked with me on that chapter.
E.M: Getting back to the idea of identity-as-purchase – you talk about anorexia as a kind of tragic resistance to compulsory sexualisation.
L.P: It’s a way of evading patriarchal surveillance. It’s also a form of violent submission! Doing exactly what you’re told to an extent that it hurts you and others around you. It is self-harm, but it is also a lethal form of passive aggression. Always has been, since the first documented cases in the 1500s. We hunger strike because we haven’t the energy or the ideological framework to offer any other form of resistance, but a hunger strike is also aggressive, we must never forget that. It’s peaceful, passive aggression. a way of saying to one’s captors: look what you made me do. A way of expressing the inhumanity of the way we are obliged to live, as women, as workers and as consumers.
E.M: Right. Your solution to this ideological deadlock is “riot, don’t diet” – what kinds of steps did you have in mind? A literal riot – taking up physical space?
L.P: I think a lot of revolutionary potential is wasted in moral decisions over whether or not to eat a given cookie. We need to focus our energies outward, we need to stop fighting to control our own bodies and try to take back control of our own lives. By force if necessary.
E.M: And sometimes go on strike?
Laurie: Oh yes. Striking, organising, occupying, agitating, reading, resisting – all this can go on within the home as well as outside it.
E.M: A labour movement dedicated to the kind of work women do every day, for free?
L.P: That would be wonderful. People really did used to think in those terms, too. There is enough work for everyone in our economies, if it were shared out fairly.
E.M: That’s the trick, the fairness. that strikes me as a good place to finish up – I could really talk about feminism and socialism all night.
L.P: Me too!
E.M: Thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Front page photo: English anarchist feminists at anti-globalization rally and protest quote Emma Goldman. Photo by carolmooredc, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Edit: This article originally mistakenly attributed Ms. Penny as co-editing the collection Springtime (Verso 2011), which was edited by Clare Solomon and Tania Palmieri.