:: Article

Along Came Laurie: Song for Penny Red

By Max Dunbar.


Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism, Laurie Penny, Zero 2011

‘A stupid, ugly, miserable, evil ignorant sack of weasel-vomit being paid too much to write filthy, lying, hyperbolic bullshit.’ ‘Anagram for thick as pig shit and twice as smelly.’ ‘Feminist leftie know-it-all who ‘writes’ for The New Statesmen. Probably a lesbian too.’ ‘Do you think the workers appreciated paying for your expensive education? Your pathetic posturing fools nobody.’ ‘Socialist media darling, economic illiterate and all-round arse.’ ‘A word of advice dear – get Daddy to buy you a new frock, do something feminine with your hair & try to get a hsuband.’ ‘A stupid hypocritical bitch.’

The above is a random sample of comments on blogs, and comments from bloggers, that you get when you type ‘laurie penny’ into Google’s search box. It’s not as if there aren’t legitimate criticisms of Penny’s approach. She can be hyperbolic, she can be pretentious, she sometimes makes assumptions. Yet her enemies tend to rely on predictable lines about her youth, her gender, and her background – note the use of the dimunitive ‘Miss’ in this article, and others. Telegraph blogger Toby Young attacked Penny for ‘making common cause with the oppressed when she herself was educated at a fee-paying school in Brighton and Wadham College, Oxford’ – this from a Brasenose alumnus who has had fistfuls of money hurled at him every day since he was a child, and ended up a second-rate provocateur on various rightwing media sources.

It’s not just the frothing Tory blogosphere. Penny has taken hits from the SWP establishment left that still somehow sustains delusions of relevance; and from the Labour right that believes social justice begins and ends with the rights of the public sector management class. All the ‘criticism’, from left and right, comes down to this: You are a silly little girl with ideas above your station. And you can’t help but think there is more to this than politics. ‘I now receive rape threats and death threats on a daily basis,’ Penny wrote on her blog.

By the twenty-first century, second-wave feminism had become lazy and irrelevant. During the 2000s the feminist movement underwent a strange retreat into domesticity. Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls is a good example of what I mean. The first half of the book is riveting. Walter goes out into London and interviews strippers, prostitutes and glamour models. With humanity and sympathy she listens to the casualties of the sexual revolution. In part two, Walter switches her focus to consumer and childrearing issues, discussing at length the impact of pink lunchboxes and Disney films. It’s as if she has gone into the real world, witnessed hurt and exploitation and then fled home, terrified by what she has seen.

Walter is not alone. Serious feminists now write broadsheet articles about the patriarchy inherent in, say, the bikini, or Mad Men, or the pubic wax, or breast milk ice cream. You would think that, in a world where six out of every ten women experience physical and/or sexual violence, there were more important things to think about. An exasperated Brooke Magnanti said that ‘I’ve tried to give a shit about maternity leave and who does the housework… Why this need to publish endless tomes on the subject? It seems a pretty lame preoccupation when there are still eight countries in the world where a woman can legally be put to death for adultery.’ But the obsession with Mattel and Playboy hen nights was a tacit recognition of defeat. Second wave feminists were saying that ‘Listen, we can’t fix the pay gap or the rape conviction rates, we can’t help the victims of domestic violence or trafficking, we can’t reach out to women in the developing world but look, let’s campaign against this Calvin Klein ad with the naked woman, because these marginal symbolic things are all we can control.’

It is a myth that we live in a hypersexualised society. As Penny points out, most young people do not have sex until they are sixteen and there is no evidence that our generation is any more promiscuous than that of our parents. And yet young women today are portrayed as borderline alcoholic and sexually indiscriminate. This is reinforced by reality TV shows like The Only Way is Essex, and churnalist stories about female binge drinking that appear on rotation in the Sun and the Daily Shriek. Penny highlights a case where a teaching assistant lost her job after being photographed for a tabloid, dancing around in Cardiff city centre (ironically, the woman was stone cold sober at the time.) The Mail‘s Quentin Letts confirmed that feminism had created ‘an entire generation of loose-knickered lady louts’:

British girls have become fat-faced ‘ladettes’, goose pimples rising on the skin of their exposed thighs as they clack-clack-clack along the pavement en route to the weekend disco, destination bonk…Older generations would call these women ‘slappers’ – and they would be right.

And yet the liberal feminists who worried about the effects of supermodel culture shared the same condescension. They’d become disillusioned with sexual freedom and were as likely as a Mail writer to advise women to stay out of the bars and concentrate on finding a husband. Thinkers of left and right both assumed that young women were impressionable, without agency, incapable of discrimination and rejection. Penny: ‘Apparently unable to look at a glossy magazine without becoming pregnant, anorexic or both, today’s young women are imagined as special objects of pity and contempt.’ The Mail and the Guardian joined forces in the reclamation of fallen women.

Penny argues that this attitude has led to a fundamental misreading of the rise in eating disorders. People assume that girls starve themselves because they want to be skinny like Kate Moss. But Penny found that body image played little or no part in the sufferers she spoke to. ‘Anorexia has nothing to do with looking pretty,’ a twenty two year old economics student told her. ‘I wanted my heart to stop and my bones to thin, my organs to give up on me. If I had a heart attack caused by starvation, maybe that wouldn’t really count as suicide.’ Penny’s conclusion: ‘the idea that eating disorders are solely an effect of beauty culture is disingenuous and demeaning to sufferers.’

Meat Market reads like Dworkin rewritten by Kathy Acker. Again there’s a sense of misplaced priorities. There’s a whole chapter on trans issues but nothing about the religious ideas that keep millions of women in slavery and misery, nothing about the cult of childbirth that is the true curse of working-class women. And there is little attempt to resolve the problems that Penny does highlight. Again, this is deeper than politics.

For example, we know about pro-anorexia websites, certainly since Johann Hari’s interview with the idiotic and appalling Kenneth Tong. Recently the Guardian found that teenage girls using pro-ana sites were being targeted by pronography agencies that specialised in photographs of emaciated women. ‘Bones and ribs must be very visible. If their BMI [body mass index] is above 15, they are not attractive,’ was a typical comment on an anorexia pron forum. The paper found one agency that was actually paying a pro-ana site for each girl it groomed for anorexia pron. There were YouTube videos, and discussions on how to groom anorexia sufferers. You live in a world in which there are men who jerk off to images of women and girls, who are dying of a psychotic mental illness. There is a deep sickness in the contemporary male.

It’s a cruel world, it’s Austerity Britain, and everybody has to feel the pain. England these days is like being in a room where the walls are gradually closing in. Inadvertently, Laurie Penny has become that true and beautiful cliche, the voice of a generation that has been fucked over by the political class, and she provides a refreshing counterpoint to the legions of complacent middle-aged men who can’t write. Her writing doesn’t always have the answers or even the right questions. But Laurie Penny has fire.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 17th, 2011.