So I’ve been wanting for a while to write about this “raunch culture” debate, but, having recently covered the lad mag circulation crisis and the culture of sexual hypocrisy on the left, now seems as good a time as any. This is something that you associate on the left with our old friends in the SWP, and can be seen as a revival of their campaign against “New Laddism” in the late 1990s. Their championing of Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs (a real curate’s egg of a book – there are sharp insights alongside half-developed ideas and some outright silliness) provides the official logic for the current line. I direct readers to this excellent treatment by Anne McShane, but there is more to this than meets the eye. The SWP, of course, are not straightforward puritans, as you might gather from the swinging lifestyle of many of their leading cadre, and their ultra-libertarian defence of Tommy Sheridan. Nor are they simply adapting to their conservative Muslim allies – there is a bit of that, but they still attack Catholic moral teaching with what can only be described as gay abandon.
The root, I think, is to be found in the organisation’s uneasy relationship to popular culture. This is encapsulated as well as anywhere in a 1996 Pat Stack column in Socialist Review. Unfortunately, it’s not one of Pat’s better articles, and tends to make him sound like both a humourless git and a puritan, neither of which he is. But Pat does cover the main bugbears of the New Laddism period: Loaded, Men Behaving Badly, Fantasy Football etc. Over to Pat:
The new lad is apparently harmless. Unlike the traditional ‘working class lad’, the new lad is not violent, nor is he racist. He is an educated, middle class, witty character who is only reclaiming parts of harmless masculinity from the horrors of feminism and the terrible wimpishness of the ‘new man’ era.
The new lad is, according to his defenders, only reaffirming the fact that men like a pint, like their sport, and find women sexually attractive. The new lad is still ‘alternative’ when it comes to comedy, but is free of the sexual prudishness of the original alternative comedy scene.
In fact, Pat’s description sounds a bit like, well, your average straight man. There is an interesting idea here struggling to get out about the embrace of faux blokishness by a layer of middle-class youth, but Pat quickly leaves that aside to bang on about the political virtue of the alternative comedy scene in banishing demons like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson, who thought that minorities were fair game for comedy. New Laddism, apparently, was rolling back these gains.
Now, I’m not sure about this. We don’t often like to admit today that Terry and June regularly got three or four times the audience of The Young Ones, but I’ll go along with the idea that the alternative comedy scene was massively influential in terms of comedic fashion. Where I take issue with Pat is that he’s assuming a list of taboo subjects and arguing in favour of a good, progressive comedy that takes aim at the right targets. I find that profoundly problematic. It seems to erase the context and nuance that a lot of humour depends on – for instance, an ethnic joke from Sanjeev Bhaskar or Jackie Mason will be rather different than one from Bernard Manning or Jim Davidson. Besides, only very strange people will listen to a comedy routine while preoccupied about whether it is PC to laugh at this or that joke. To someone who didn’t know the SWP in the flesh but only from its press, the long-running debate on the letters pages about Ali G would simply have appeared insane.
Then we have the dreaded “irony”. Often this was amped up to “postmodern irony”, but since Alex Callinicos doesn’t know what postmodernism is, and most comrades never got past page four of his little book, we can assume PoMo in this context to be an all-purpose intellectual swearword. The line was that New Laddism was all about “using postmodern irony to rehabilitate sexism”. This was deployed particularly in relation to the SWP’s official Most Evil Show On TV, Men Behaving Badly. If you watched the show, you might have noticed the traditional sitcom device (you find this also in Till Death Us Do Part, Love Thy Neighbour and Home Improvement, to name a few) of showing the men as idiots and the women as the sensible characters. How could a show portraying sexist men as idiots be endorsing sexism? You see, comrade, this is merely a cunning use of postmodern irony. Portraying the men as idiots is just a sly ruse to allow them to talk about Kylie’s arse.
Maybe this is just me, but I find this a paranoid mode of thought. I’m reasonably sure that, when Loaded was launched in 1994, it had a business plan rather than an intellectual manifesto. And I’ll lay money that, when Frank Skinner writes his routines, he does not say to himself, “Hmm, what bit of patriarchal ideology can I sneak in under the guise of postmodern irony?”
I think, and I’ll stick my neck out here, that there is a certain amount of class-biased thinking involved. As Des Fennell likes to point out, the working class is more concerned with how things are and the middle class with how things appear. An anecdote from Mark Steel’s autobiography springs to mind. The young Mark has heard middle-class comrades talking about “sexism” and, while he knows what racism is and why it’s bad, he isn’t sure about this sexism. A comrade explains that pinups and Page Three girls are sexist, to which Mark’s response is “Thank God I wasn’t a socialist when I was fourteen.”
Women face plenty of material obstacles in society. The absolute worst feature of the Dworkin-MacKinnon school of feminism was its idealist assumption that the major obstacle women faced was “sexist” imagery, extremely broadly defined, and this was the logic in Dworkin looking to the Reagan administration to “liberate” women from porn at the same time as it was gutting equality legislation, slashing social programmes and restricting abortion. Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, which is a good deal better, nevertheless has a strong streak of this idealist thinking.
But this sits rather well with a milieu saturated in middle-class PC thought, where it is considered sexist for men to find women physically attractive (I suspect too much reading of Jane Austen is a factor here) and where working-class women who wear revealing clothes are damned as suffering from alienation and false consciousness. Consider Judith Orr’s interview with Levy in SR. Some of the most interesting comments are to be found in Judith’s editorialising, as in “the sexual freedoms the women’s movement won have been swallowed up by capitalism, commodified and sold back to young women as boob jobs and push-up bras”.
Well, commodity fetishism is basic ABC Marxism. But the sneering tone is the key here. I suspect the push-up bra has become a symbol of evil because it’s a garment you associate with the slappers on the estates. At its crudest level, this becomes the argument – which I actually heard at an SWP public meeting a year or two back – that capitalism is forcing women to have boob jobs. No it isn’t. Yes, cosmetic surgery is a profit-making enterprise, but women have boob jobs because they want bigger breasts. That can be explained with reference to psychology, media images of women or what have you, but the capitalist system does not require women to be lugging around big plastic breasts.
It’s all quite delicious, isn’t it? Of course you need to stand by “the sexual freedoms the women’s movement won”, or it might begin to cramp your own lifestyle, but the deity forbid that anyone might express these. You have an opposition to legal censorship combined with horror at what the plebs are reading and watching. Nudity in art-house cinema is perfectly fine, but Michelle Marsh in her undies on the cover of Nuts is the death of civilisation. What we end up with is a sort of systematic doublethink, perfectly mirroring the Orwellian template in that its skilled practitioners don’t even notice the inconsistencies.