Feminist puritans cannot censor everybody else
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’