Sunday, 30 August 2015

Laurie Penny on Feminism and the Potential for Cultural Change: we must not wait for it.

By Carla Silbert

I dont think it is possible to live outside politics - Laurie Penny. 

Exploring the linkages between gender identity, capitalism and class, English journalist, feminist and activist Laurie Penny enthralled her Melbourne Writers Festival audience with her whip-smart and insightful take on just how much the politics of gender are entrenched in everything around us.

Laurie Penny is a radical feminist socialist-anarchist who leaves no political stone unturned. Her astute and nuanced understanding of the interplay between gender and the capitalist system makes her an incredibly effective activist. Her arguments are so informed and compelling she could convert even the greatest skeptic.

Pennys writing pulls no punches - it is both powerful and eloquent. In person, she spoke with the same clarity and ease, telling the crowd that patriarchy doesnt care how you identify while advocating for an inclusive feminism that embraces transgender politics as vital to the movement.

Discussing the Unspeakable Things investigated in her 2014 book of the same name, Penny and interviewer Clementine Ford reflected on the ways in which women are silenced and the momentum that is needed to bring about change. 

Pointing out that women are constantly subjected to various methods of dehumanisation, Penny noted that calling women ugly continues to be used as the ultimate insult to strip them of their power. If the word ugly is the most common insult used towards women, the greatest insult that society uses against men is one that is emasculating and challenges their manhood. Penny doesnt ostracise men from her feminism, but rather considers masculinity a damaging construct that demonstrates the insidious nature of patriarchal oppression in which men suffer too.

Reflecting on the epidemic of sexual assaults at schools and college campuses in the US, Ford raised the media narrative that questions whether young men who have committed these assaults deserve to have their lives ruined by being punished for their crimes. Penny called for a cultural discussion of rape and sexual violence to counter this idea that allows mens reputation to be more important that womens agency. In part, this relies on objecting to the shaming of girls for their sexuality when young men of the same age are never punished in the same way.

But despite these challenges, Penny still sees potential for cultural change. Responding to an audience question about where the hope lies, Penny reflected that while dark things are happening in the social and political contexts, we must work towards change and not wait for it.

Her faith that the new generation of smart, motivated young people will be the force of change into the future was boosted by the fierce nods of agreement coming from those still wearing their school uniforms in the audience.

Edited by Vanessa Wiltshire

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