Fem­i­nist pu­ri­tans can­not cen­sor every­body else

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday Comment -

You’ve got to feel sorry for the pro­duc­ers of the Fifty Shades tril­ogy. The first two films were greeted as a cel­e­bra­tion of fe­male sex­u­al­ity, but the third is be­ing re­leased, with dis­as­trous tim­ing, in the mid­dle of the #MeToo spasm. Sud­denly, a story about a woman who en­joys be­ing dom­i­nated is wholly at odds with the spirit of the age.

How abruptly the moral weather can shift, strand­ing us like moun­taineers in a storm. A year ago, the fem­i­nist line seemed to be that sex­ual lib­er­a­tion was a good thing, and that the fur­ther it was pushed the bet­ter. As Lisa Simp­son told her mother in the clas­sic car­toon se­ries: “As a fem­i­nist, vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing a woman does is em­pow­er­ing.”

Then came Har­vey We­in­stein and West­min­ster pest­gate al­le­ga­tions and, al­most overnight, cen­so­ri­ous­ness be­came the new or­tho­doxy. It is no longer ac­cept­able to have walk-on girls at darts games or in For­mula One. A Pre-Raphaelite paint­ing of sul­try­look­ing nymphs in the Manch­ester Art Gallery is briefly re­moved, then re­stored fol­low­ing protests.

We have been here be­fore. In 1914, a suf­fragette called Mary Richard­son at­tacked Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, surely the most volup­tuous nude in the Na­tional Gallery, with a meat cleaver. Miss Richard­son, who later joined Oswald Mosley’s fas­cists, ex­plained that she didn’t like “the way men vis­i­tors gaped at it”. They still do: watch peo­ple in Room 30 and you’ll see that al­most all men, and most women, are drawn im­me­di­ately to that can­vas.

The odd thing is the es­sen­tially pa­ter­nal­is­tic and con­ser­va­tive tone that fem­i­nism is now as­sum­ing. Lis­ten, for ex­am­ple, to James O’Brien, the tal­ented ra­dio pre­sen­ter, who would, I think, gladly call him­self a Leftwing fem­i­nist: “Un­less there are lots of par­ents who would gen­uinely pre­fer their child to dream of wear­ing a skimpy out­fit and be­ing sprayed in the face with cham­pagne for money rather than dream­ing of be­ing a rac­ing driver, this ‘grid girl’ busi­ness seems rather straight­for­ward.”

Per­haps we are in a more au­thor­i­tar­ian age, and fem­i­nism’s pu­ri­tan man­i­fes­ta­tion is part of the same phe­nom­e­non that has seen the re­treat of lib­eral pol­i­tics.

But my sense is that, un­der­neath the rad­i­cal vo­cab­u­lary com­pul­sory in our pub­lic dis­course, we re­tain the sen­si­bil­i­ties of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. Our prob­lem with wealthy busi­ness­men grop­ing wait­resses at the Dorch­ester Ho­tel is not that they rep­re­sent the pa­tri­archy; it’s that their be­hav­iour is squalid.

Such words, though, are out of fash­ion. We cleave to an older moral­ity, but no longer feel able to ar­tic­u­late it. We don’t say “lewd”, “unchival­rous”, “faith­less”, “dis­si­pated” or “sor­did”. In­stead, we de­scribe sit­u­a­tions we don’t like as “sex­ist”, be­cause that has be­come the cor­rect way to sig­nal dis­ap­pro­ba­tion. Yet our sense of what is right has barely changed. We don’t want grid girls pushed out of their jobs or nudes re­moved from gal­leries, but nei­ther do we like louche or seedy be­hav­iour. Is that so dif­fi­cult?

Out of fash­ion: For­mula One driver Lewis Hamil­ton sprays cham­pagne over ‘grid girls’

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