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BOOK REVIEW: Misogynation – The True Scale of Sexism by Laura Bates

| 11 August 2018 | 1 Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Misogynation – The True Scale of Sexism by Laura Bates

Simon & Schuster Ltd
April 2018
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Society & Culture

6.5/10

We do not live in a bubble. Feminist author, advocate, and Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates knows this all too well. In her third book, Misogynation – The True Scale of Sexism, she delivers a collection of provocative and smart essays analysing society’s big picture with respect to things like inequality, misogyny, and sexism. The result is a timely and bold look at some complex and important issues that remain insidious problems for us all.

These columns grew out of frustration, out of a need to bear witness. To try, week after week, to say: ‘Look! There, and there, and there again! See the pattern. See the similarities?’ They grew out of a hope that perhaps, by documenting as many as possible of these incidents of the type that are so often instead ignored, there might be a chance of the bigger picture emerging. And they grew, too, out of a sense of awe and admiration of the women who fight on, tirelessly, in spite of everything, striving to join the dots and change the picture.
So this book is a labour of anger, yes, and of frustration. But perhaps it is a labour of hope as well.

Bates’ essays share some things in common with Clementine Ford’s work. Both writers produce essays that are challenging to readers but also have substance and are easy to understand and follow, even when tackling quite complex things like structural inequality. Bates’ work is coloured by her own personal experience living in the UK and by the testimonials she has collected from women around the world through her website, the Everyday Sexism Project. A lot of her work looks at tackling the unacceptable behaviour that has become normalised by society, like catcalling and other forms of street harassment that are all too often dismissed as casual banter.

This is one of the things I think some men don’t understand, the men who ask you what the big deal is about street harassment, say they’d love it if it happened to them, or suggest you just ‘take it as a compliment.’ It’s not a simple, one-moment experience. It’s a horribly drawn-out affair. The process of scanning the street as you walk; the constant alert tension; the moment of revelation and the sinking feeling as you realize what is about to happen…
Too many times, in my own experience, this situation has turned from leering to aggressive sexual advances, from polite rebuttal to angry shouts of ‘slag’, ‘slut’, ‘whore’. Once, I was chased down the street. Once, I was trapped against a wall. Once, my crotch was grabbed suddenly, shockingly, in vitriolic entitlement.

The essays in Misogynation were originally published at The Guardian. They are not published here in chronological order but are instead grouped together under various topics like: ridiculous sexist arguments, handy guides for confused dudes, face-palm fails, what women are still putting up with at work, and shouting back, among others. The content varies from lighter articles where Bates uses sarcasm, jokes, and humour to highlight things like ridiculous gaffes made in the press about female Olympians and made-up lists containing advice for some rather clueless individuals. There are also more serious topics and commentaries where Bates presents facts and figures and tackles tougher subjects like rape and assault. The stories are predominantly sourced from the UK but they do have wider applicability throughout the world.

Being a feminist means listening to a lot of really stupid arguments. It simply comes with the territory. People’s efforts to justify, excuse or deny sexism are so numerous that you can even divide them into different categories.
There are the self-defeating trolls: ‘There’s no such thing as sexism…you stupid bitch.’
The anti-feminists, who don’t realize the answer is feminism: ‘Why should I support women’s rights when men still have to pick up the bill at dinner?’ (Answer: because feminism fights for women to have the financial independence required to split the cheque.)
And then there’s the downright ludicrous. I once genuinely encountered somebody who argued that women in Saudi Arabia were lucky not to be allowed to drive because it meant they were involved in fewer car accidents…
In an unequal society, much goes unchallenged because we are so used to hearing the ostensibly reasonable justifications that help to maintain the status quo. But when we begin to unpick some of these commonly recited mores we start to realize that the arguments we’ve accepted for so long are actually full of holes.

It can be interesting and rather thought-provoking to see Bates step back and paint a greater picture of misogyny. She argues that there is a spectrum of things impacting women’s lives from the pink toys and lack of support for STEM subjects as girls through to the victim-blaming, sexist jokes and workplace discrimination experienced as adults. Bates also wants us to consider these things happening not in a vacuum but in a wider environment that also sees the rates of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault remaining high. In many ways this book – like her website – should speak to some readers and galvanise them to take appropriate action against perpetrators, even in cases where victims previously chose not to speak out.

How often do we praise little girls for being pretty, sweet or beautiful, and little boys for being smart, strong, or clever? These might seem like benign and well-meaning words, but repeated over and over again they start to ingrain the notion that girls are judged on their appearance and beauty, while boys’ action and intelligence matter more. Of course, the same is also true of insults – few little girls reach their teen years without hearing someone ridiculed at least once for doing something ‘like a girl’.

The topics and arguments in this title can get repetitive at times. Bates makes good points but she often repeats these in different essays (but this could also be because the problems are insidious and need to be tackled in multiple pieces.) The articles themselves are great stand-alone pieces and are well-written. They can be dipped in and out of and perhaps have a greater impact when they are read in this way rather than in one long session where the point can be lost after being made so many times.

To be a feminist, I have learned, is to be accused of oversensitivity, hysteria and crying wolf. But in the face of the abuse the [Everyday Sexism] project uncovered, the sheer strength, ingenuity, and humour of women shone like a beacon. The dancer who performed for hours on the Tube to reclaim the space where she was assaulted. The woman who waited five years to present her contract and a salt cellar to the careers adviser who had told her he would eat her paperwork if she ever became an engineer. The pedestrian who calmly removed the ladder of a catcalling builder, leaving him stranded on a roof.
That’s why I can honestly say that the experiences and lessons of the past five years have left me more hopeful than despairing…In five years, I have learned that the problem is immense, but the will to fight it is greater still.

Some readers may be disappointed that book doesn’t include any new opinions or commentary from Bates. It is merely a collection of her previously published articles that readers may have already read at The Guardian. It’s also obvious that while many of the essays are snappy and worked well in their original format, in book-form it highlights a missed opportunity for Bates to extrapolate on meatier topics that could have benefited from added discussion and analysis.

This collection is designed to shock and educate readers. It also gets them to reconsider their beliefs about sexism and discrimination but it may only achieve this with those people who are open to hearing Bates’ opinions. One can’t help but wonder whether some of her best arguments would fall on deaf ears to the naysayers who need to hear from her the most. It is troubling that Bates may be preaching simply to the choir or the converted.

It’s probably true that people who are sexist or commit acts of abuse are unlikely to be swayed by a Guardian blogpost. Revelatory. But I’ve heard from a lot of men who say reading these articles has made them rethink sexist behaviour that they had previously considered to be harmless. And it’s my belief that there’s a critical mass of people out there who wouldn’t dream of carrying out such abuse, but also aren’t aware that it’s going on. If we can engage them, and open their eyes to the problem, they will be more likely to take action and become part of the solution.

Misogynation can be a difficult or challenging read because it covers some bitter pills and complex ground. But it’s for this reason that this is also an important volume because it should help in opening up a dialogue on the systemic, ignored and ingrained issues involving sexism and discrimination that permeate society. One can get dismissive or overwhelmed by such problems but at its best Misogynation empowers us and proves that kernels of hope can be found within the darkness.

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com

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