Politics & Society

The best books on Gender Politics

recommended by Bidisha

Female empowerment has a long way to go, but reading books to understand the issues is good start. Writer, feminist, critic and broadcaster Bidisha recommends the best books to get you thinking about 'gender politics.'

  • 1

    Sexual/Textual Politics
    by Toril Moi

  • 2

    Right-Wing Women
    by Andrea Dworkin

  • 3

    King Kong Theory
    by Virginie Despentes

  • 4

    The Whole Woman
    by Germaine Greer

  • 5

    Female Chauvinist Pigs
    by Ariel Levy

Female empowerment has a long way to go, but reading books to understand the issues is good start. Writer, feminist, critic and broadcaster Bidisha recommends the best books to get you thinking about 'gender politics.'


Bidisha is a British writer, feminist, critic and broadcaster. She presents Night Waves, an arts discussion show, for BBC Radio 3 and The Strand on the BBC World Service. She appears regularly as a guest on BBC radio and television arts discussion programmes. She is a columnist on social issues for the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday and she judged this year’s Orange prize for women’s fiction. She is the author of three critically acclaimed books, including Venetian Masters, a memoir of Venice published in 2008.

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Tell me about your first book.

I’ve chosen a classic work of feminist cultural criticism, Sexual/Textual Politics by Toril Moi. The work will be familiar to anyone who has studied literary criticism, cultural theory or women’s studies and I’m recommending it because it serves as a crisp and broad introduction to this type of theory (and it also has an excellent bibliography for those who want to know more).

It’s very interesting to me as a writer because it’s an extremely acute dissection of the way women’s artistic output is either belittled and written out of history, or analysed in a specifically misogynist way. There are two examples: one of an 18th-century painting whose creatorship was left anonymous – the painting was lauded, shown in all the major galleries, analysed by experts, praised, shown to art students as a model for their own technique and auctioned at extremely high prices.

When the painting was discovered to have been by a woman, an extraordinary thing happened: auction prices immediately dropped, and the critical appreciation of it turned 180 degrees. Suddenly the painting was flawed, minor, petty, the kind of thing only a woman – a flawed, minor, petty creature – could make. With amazing transparency the critics, who at the time were all men, could not see beyond their own misogynistic ideas about what a woman is.

That is terribly depressing. I always find it odd that ‘chick lit’ automatically means lightweight and is openly denigrated when the male equivalent, the Nick Hornby-ish ‘bloke lit’ is taken very seriously as amusing social observation.

Exactly. Moi’s second example is of a Scandinavian woman poet who happened to have an androgynous name (like Claude in French or some such). When her collection was published it was deemed to have been by a man, and praised to the skies for its rugged depiction of landscape, grand emotions, human destiny and so forth. When the error was corrected and Claude Whoever pointed out her femaleness, the reviews changed. They were just as positive, but the language about them was different. The same poems were now praised for their small epiphanies, their domestic interiors, their private emotions – the language literally became belittling, diminished… Claude was made into a minor poet, simply because of her sex.  Moi quotes the critics Thorne and Henley: ‘In short, the significance of gestures changes when they are used by men or women; no matter what women do, their behaviour may be taken to symbolise inferiority.’

Sexual/Textual Politics was first published in 1985, with a new afterword added in 2002, and, although things have changed a little since then, they have not changed by much. Men in particular still belittle women in language and perception and stereotypes – but the difference is that women artists, critics, curators and commentators are far more prevalent and, like me, consistently challenge misogynist interpretations of work. Still, the overwhelmingly misogynistic male response to female-centred films like Mamma Mia and Sex and the City, and to female phenomena like J K Rowling and Madonna – and, with an added racist emphasis, Oprah Winfrey – is shocking and obvious in its bile.

So what about your next book, Right-Wing Women?

This is a book by Andrea Dworkin, who really is a pioneering American feminist. She was writing about the regime of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior at the time. But the book is really an analysis of the boys’ club, antifeminism brand of conservatism: the hatred of single mothers, the championing of family values, and so on. It also, quite terrifyingly if you read it now, predicts some of the things that we’ve seen happening to women: the pornification of culture, the increase in trafficked women, the decrease in rape conviction rates and so on. It’s really frightening and Dworkin is an interesting figure because, although everything she’s said has come to pass, she’s despised for speaking the truth.

She asks the question:‘Is it possible to be a right-wing woman? Who will right-wing women hate – people who are not in control of themselves, in control of their fertility?’ She pegs it around her feminist activism. There is a wonderful scene where she is frozen out by a group of Republican women and it’s like something in The Midwich Cuckoos where they almost literally push her off a balcony with the force of their hostility.

And what she predicted did all happen – the rise of the Bible Belt, less money for abortion, women being trafficked. Dworkin’s world isn’t hopeful because she sees misogyny as being connected to the status quo and she is not an apologist for the status quo. She doesn’t actually see a direct relationship between the Bible Belt and the trafficking of women, but rather she sees them both as connected to the Republican holy capitalist system. In this system prostituted women are no longer oppressed, it’s all OK if they’ve chosen it for themselves. Republican women’s allegiance to capitalism obscures sympathy for women and, because it’s geared towards big business, there is no money for state-sponsored care and the kinds of things that might help women.

So a very negative view of American society.

Yes. She is a polemicist of the highest order and she resists the temptation to give you consolation at the end. She looks at how bad the situation really is without saying, ‘Look, we have women barristers and politicians.’ It’s not her job to provide solutions like funding for single mothers and their children and the obvious stuff that everyone knows about. She says, ‘Look at the worst aspects of how we treat women.’ She refuses to give in to our tendency to turn a blind eye, which is why people don’t like her.

She also often gets misquoted when people talk about the gender politics of sex and rape. People think she said that all sex is rape but what she actually said is that all sex procured by force is rape, though that force is not always violence. She is misquoted, basically, by people who haven’t read her. She also talks about a fine line in porn between what is erotica and what is the objectification of women.

But women aren’t only objectified in porn.

I know. I wrote a thriller, called Too Fast To Live, specifically to address the sexual tropes of thrillers, where the woman is usually a dead victim, the turf wars operate between men, and the bad girl always gets punished. It’s odd that such standard representations still play in films, plays, books and whatnot, and I wanted to challenge the stereotypes that objectify women. People flinched at the level of violence in my book which they wouldn’t have done if I’d been a man. The book came up for a prize and one of the jurors said, ‘I’m astonished by how violent some women authors can be.’ And yet everyone laps up those SAS books that are true stories in which they kill pregnant women horribly, and yet they get upset if women use ‘the F word.’

Yes, I often find that.

On the other hand, I get a lot of messages from American fans of that book who really love the violence and then I get worried and think, ‘Hey! Don’t hold any schools hostage tonight!’

Your third book, King Kong Theory?

This is a book by Virginie Despentes, the woman who directed the very graphic rape revenge road movie Baise-Moi, which was banned in France. King Kong Theory is a polemic in which she talks about her personal experience of rape, pornography and prostitution. It’s extremely fresh and angry and unique. She says that, basically, whatever has been said or depicted as a reaction to sexual assault is always somehow romanticised and that really it is never reducible to a picturesque narrative.

When the film came out she noted that it was not the film that got trashed but she personally who got trashed. It was a replication of attacks on women, infused with the same violent hatred. In King Kong Theory she describes an incident in which she and a friend were picked up by some boys in a car and she overrode her instincts not to get in. They went through a really shocking ordeal and then afterwards she and her friend didn’t talk about it and sort of drifted apart. She had a paper knife in her pocket but was too frozen with terror to use it. Primal things like that happen and she says that every time she nearly gets over it she goes back to it because of the sheer inhuman hatred that came off those young men and how much women are hated, harassed on the street and at home.

She then went into prostitution.

Does she link that to her rape?

Interestingly, she doesn’t make the equation between rape and prostitution though you might say that rape sets someone up for prostitution in the sense that the woman can then be in control of her body and her sexuality. She didn’t have any choice – she could have been a waitress or a shelf-stacker. The narrative of prostitution is always about the lost girl and she says that lots of men said to her, ‘If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have to do this,’ but she didn’t want that role. Interestingly, she describes feminising her look to become a prostitute from a more punky look and how everyone told her she looked great. Before, she says, some old man with three strands of hair who smelt of wee would say to her, ‘But you’re so pretty, why don’t you try and wear dresses.’

She had therapy after the rape but always found that she was supposed to connect with her femininity as though it’s the core essence of a person and not a social construct.

So it’s another very depressing book.

No! It’s not! It’s very heartening! It was derided in the English press for not saying anything new, but it’s new because it’s a personal voice, a story of how she became herself. The tone is heartening. The dedication says: ‘This is for the all the ugly girls, the punk rockers.’ It’s a really charismatic book because she’s a survivor, asserting herself. She’s saying that not all prostitutes are victims. It can be a way of trying something new sexually. Men, of course, don’t carry the same stigma in prostitution. Rent boys aren’t stigmatised victims, even though they probably are, in reality.

But I thought the problem with the Republican women was that they didn’t see prostitutes as victims, but women who have made a decision to provide a service for capitalist consumers. Isn’t she playing into their hands by saying that she chose prostitution?

Well, the difference is that Republican women want to punish transgressors, anyone who isn’t upholding the strong family and individualised business culture, so there’s no empathy there.

And now Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman.

Yes. This is another one of those books where you highlight the standout phrases and wind up with a completely yellow neon book that smells of highlighter pen. This is the follow-up to The Female Eunuch and, like that classic book, written in an extremely witty, bright, acidic style. It goes right to the heart of contemporary feminist problems within society, and tackles some new phenomena like the rise in body-anxiety. But it casts an unflinching look at certain taboos and realities: rape, domestic violence, the work-life balance, pornography, harassment and so on, reminding us of how crucial – and how horribly un-won – these battles are.

It was under-reviewed when it came out, which is a shame because we need her wit and energy! She says she wrote it because nobody else was writing it. It’s a kind of scattergun survey of contemporary culture, saying – we have female astro-physicists and politicians, but still no freedom. There are more and more new female diseases like anorexia, that lack of self-esteem and obsession with food that is to do, she thinks, with the culture of shopping. Like, when a child falls ill the male might say it’s all in the mother’s mind, but the mother goes on to the internet to become an expert, to demand the right drugs, because she is the ideal shopper, in this case shopping for treatment.

I’ve had that precise experience with a sick child.

Most mothers have. Greer talks about how women are always downgraded, unpaid, not acknowledged and how marriage is weighted in favour of men in that the men get a kind of social endorsement and the women do all the work. And why is it that when a woman is killed or goes missing it is always the husband or boyfriend who is the first suspect. Everyone knows this, but nobody is shocked. Domestic violence is more common than cancer and yet it is male on male violence that is considered a scandal. Why is there so much hatred for women so close to home?

Why is there?

Well, in large measure it is social conditioning. It’s like when women join a corporation to change it from the inside, the corporation always breaks and changes the woman before she can break or change it. Men in business just don’t care if you’re there or not and the macho values are so entrenched that the woman breaks herself to fit in with capitalism. Greer also talks about the rise of capitalism and how it has obliterated women’s contribution, for example in folk art, which used to be a very female thing. It can now be mass-produced and so women have been robbed of their core skills, leaving a brutal cold culture in their place. This generation of feminist books is very anti-capitalism. One of the things she says is that men are the real victims of pornography because they’re so pathetic, sitting in front of their computers having a wank. The idea that life and relationships are so difficult that it’s easier just to have a wank. You know those awful men’s magazines? They really reflect badly on men. It’s the oaf gene.

But why do women stay with these masturbating oafs then?

Girls collude in their own mistreatment. They are brought up to understand that someone who teases you or is horrid to you, pays you negative attention, really likes you. Mistreatment is therefore the norm. She says that nothing will change until women recognise that what they think is love is actually hate. People find this hard to face. We can acknowledge racism, ageism and almost anything else, but we can’t believe that we live in a society that hates women. And if you point it out you are immediately accused of hating men and you are crushed.

This is hideously familiar.

The author Margaret Atwood took groups of men and women and asked each group what they most feared from the other group. The men said they were afraid of being humiliated. The women said they were afraid of being killed. This is why we endlessly exhibit placatory behaviour and try not to believe that they are hated.

Women hate us too, though, which I presume, from the title, is what your last book is about.

Yes. There is a patriarchal structure of how women should be. A total lack of solidarity. Greer says how strange it is. Dentists have solidarity with other dentists yet women don’t show any solidarity for each other. And, yes, Ariel Levy deals with this in her book. So Female Chauvinist Pigs looks at female misogyny and the way women – and young girls in particular – have internalised misogyny and are now signing up for pole-dancing classes in between cutting themselves, giving blowjobs to guys so that they’ll like them and tormenting other girls over their appearance. It deals with the nature of social hate and the pernicious effect it has when society in general is saturated with it. It’s also quite chilling in the sense that this is a mass thing, while the feminist solidarity and anger needed to counteract it at a large scale are rather marginal by comparison.

It made a big splash with young American readers and deals with the phenomenon of girls growing up in their bedrooms wearing T-shirts that say ‘Who Needs Brains When You’ve Got These’. It’s a look that’s derived from pornography and girls as young as 12 are lobbying their parents for a pole-dancing party. Society forces girls into a position of competing with each other instead of getting muddy, being brave and messy. It’s because of a lack of community or home-grown culture; instead we have these images beamed out everywhere. Women are used in porn and fashion from a very young age and as soon as they sign up they magically have no power at all. They think it’s hot to wear cut-off jeans and a g-string. Of course, you can say, ‘So what? They can wear what they want, they still shouldn’t be harassed.’ But it’s a thin world of sexuality and they’re performing sexuality before they feel it or know what it is.

Is this another no hope book?

No. The opposite. She says there is a grass-roots movement that successfully lobbied a T-shirt-making company that was producing this kind of stuff. And Greer is positive too. She says feminism has been the most successful revolution in world history and that women are ever more determined to testify. Sexism, misogyny are now normal words that everyone understands. Female solidarity is the answer.

And perhaps the anger suggests that there is hope?

Well, yes. I met Virginie Despentes and, God, she was really sexy! She was like this angry Boadicea as if she might tear all her clothes off in a rage. But, as Greer says, it’s not her job to be optimistic. She’s a Cassandra and just wants everyone to keep talking about it. You know, if a woman is too scared even to ask a man to wear a condom, claiming her basic right over her own fertility then there is a very long way to go.

And it’s amazing that however feisty the woman is she is still blamed as the victim. People say to women, ‘But you’re fabulous! Why are you putting up with him?’ And again that is blaming her for what he is doing. It’s the core of domestic and sexual violence that it’s our responsibility not to put up with it rather than his responsibility not to hurt us. Both sexes are in denial about it.

So we could get out of denial?

Yes. I think humans are perfectible! In cultures that foreground equality, like Scandinavian cultures, things are measurably better for women. And it is misleading, I think, to emphasise women’s anger. Women aren’t angry. Men are. We have cause for our anger, they don’t have cause for their rage at us. Greer says that women have sorrow, not anger. If we could channel that sorrow the world would take notice. Instead of angry rallies that it’s hard to get women to attend, if they were invited to take to the streets and weep the world would change. Because anger itself is gendered. Boy babies aren’t more angry than girl babies. You can’t tell which ones are the boys in a group of babies. Femininity does nothing for women and macho culture does nothing for men. They just end up being brutalised by other men and somehow blaming women.

So even though it’s other men who brutalise young men, women are the objects of the rage?

You know that girl who fell asleep in the tattoo parlour and got her whole face covered in stars.  It turned out she hadn’t fallen asleep at all but lied to her father because he was so angry?

I thought the stars looked quite nice.

Me too, but I was on the bus and there were these two women talking about it and one said to the other, ‘That stupid cow. That fucking stupid cow.’ The hatred of these women for a girl they don’t even know was incredible. The basic level of hatred for women constantly amazes me.

Interview by Anna Blundy

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Bidisha is a British writer, feminist, critic and broadcaster. She presents Night Waves, an arts discussion show, for BBC Radio 3 and The Strand on the BBC World Service. She appears regularly as a guest on BBC radio and television arts discussion programmes. She is a columnist on social issues for the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday and she judged this year’s Orange prize for women’s fiction. She is the author of three critically acclaimed books, including Venetian Masters, a memoir of Venice published in 2008.