Only very embarrassing and uncool people

Sarah Ditum reviews Laurie Penny’s new book in the Times.

“This is a story about the choice between feminism and fascism,” Laurie Penny announces in the first line of Sexual Revolution. That’s not true. Actually, it is a story about Laurie Penny, a 35-year-old manic pixie dream person (pronouns they/them) who blundered to public attention as an angry young woman blogging about feminism, went on to chronicle the Occupy movement, and has spent the following years maintaining a white-knuckle grip on whatever the latest trend for the online left happens to be.

Just as the online left itself has, which economically explains why it’s so horrible.

“Fascism” is nothing but a placeholder here for “things Laurie Penny thinks are bad” and the concept of “feminism” is similarly abused. The traditional understanding of it as a movement for women’s rights is, alas, tainted by the fact that only very embarrassing and uncool people would use the word “woman” in its ordinary sense these days. (In Penny’s moral universe, one of the worst criticisms you can make of something is that it’s “embarrassing”.)

So Sexual Revolution cycles through ungainly formulations such as “women and femmes”, “women and queer people”, and “people who can become pregnant”. Roughly translated, these mean “women and anyone who wears make-up”, “women and anyone who claims to be mildly kinky”, and “the people formerly known as women”. In what sense these groupings make a plausible political class is never explained, although it is unlikely that any explanation would improve things.

If only Laurie Penny could write as well as Sarah Ditum…but then she wouldn’t be Laurie Penny any more, because to write that well you have to think that well, and Laurie Penny…doesn’t.

The biggest question left by this book, though, is: “Why?” Penny claims not to be a woman, and claims furthermore that women have no shared qualities as a group, so why identify with feminism at all? Why not leave the politics to the people who know what they’re talking about, and just spend more time doing whatever it is you get up to in Berlin?

Really. Why is a woman who says she’s not a woman writing about the choice between feminism and fascism? What’s it got to do with her? Why should anyone pay attention to her?

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