Bitch Doctrine, Laurie Penny
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Laurie Penny

Bitch Doctrine

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reason it seems easier for women, queers and people of colour to come up with nuanced and diverse futures is that, in many ways, the future is already where we’ve always lived. Women’s liberation today is an artefact of technology as well as culture: contraceptive and medical technology mean that, for the first time in the history of the species, women are able to control their reproductive destiny, to decide when and if they want children, and to take as much control of their sexual experience as society will allow. (Society has been slow to allow it: this is not the sort of progress futurists get excited about.) It has been noted that many of the soi-disant ‘disruptive’ products being marketed as game changers by Silicon Valley startup kids are things that women thought of years ago. Food substitutes like Soylent and Huel are pushed as the future of nutrition while women have been consuming exactly the same stuff for years as weight-loss shakes and meal replacements. People were using metal implants to prevent pregnancy and artificial hormones to adjust their gendered appearance decades before ‘body hackers’ started jamming magnets in their fingertips and calling themselves cyborgs.
But what precisely is it about stories by women and people of colour, stories in which civilisation is built and rebuilt by humans of all shapes and flavours working together, that throws water on the exposed wires of masculine pride? It’s all about how humans cope when their core beliefs are threatened. As Frantz Fanon wrote, ‘When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.
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become commonplace to say that science fiction is always, at least in part, about the time it was written in. The twentieth century was a time of seismic change in gender relations, and these stories reflect the anxieties and aspirations of their age – but so does the manner in which they were produced and read. Feminist science fiction has always been of huge literary importance within the field. Writers like James Tiptree Jr, Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin aren’t just innovators in how they approach gender – they’re innovators full stop. The stories are gripping. The language is gorgeous. The pieces stay with you. So why are they always overlooked when we talk about the Golden Age of Science Fiction? Because there were people reading in secret whose dreams were considered unimportant. Because these visions had to be written out of the broader story humanity tells about its desires – until now.
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Significantly, while most posit a world in which women take terrible socio-sexual revenge for centuries of male violence and structural oppression, not one of them denies that that violence and oppression actually happened.
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Why is it that mainstream culture is either afraid of a feminist future – a world where women have equal power at all levels of politics and society, a world beyond the violent stereotypes that squash all of us into narrow boxes of behaviour and strangle our selfhood – or is unable to envision it at all? The types of future we can conceive of say a great deal about the limits of our political imagination. From alt-right hate-sites and hysterical pulp novels to revered works of literature, male visions of a post-collapse civilisation have traditionally fallen along two lines: a cosy Wild West where men can be real men, or a living nightmare where dangerously confident females have ruined everything after someone let them out of the kitchen long enough to think they deserved power.
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Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown.
Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.
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don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it. Because when a dark future seems all but inevitable, hoping for better seems like setting yourself up to get hurt.
But the nature of utopia – the very meaning of the word – is that it is ‘no-place’. The journey is more important than the destination, but without a destination in mind there is no journey.
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We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.
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Fury Road calls to mind Katharine Burdekin’s prescient feminist dystopia, Swastika Night, written in 1937 just as Hitler was rising to power. In Burdekin’s story, a thousand-year Reich reduces women to abject breeding machines, penned and dehumanised. In a time of death, disease and social collapse, the men in charge want control over who breeds and how, and that requires stripping women of as much agency as possible. There is not a society in the world today that does not do this to some extent, not a country on Earth where women’s right to control what happens to their bodies is not a subject of public debate between powerful men. Since the dawn of women’s liberation, storytellers have laid out the stakes: from Swastika Night to Herland to The Handmaid’s Tale, the problem of what might happen if it all gets taken away has been examined in nightmare detail.
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rueful paranoia at the heart of these visions of the future is that one day, AIs will be able to reproduce without us, and will summarily decide that we are irrelevant. From Metropolis to The Matrix, the nightmare is the same: if androids ever get access to the means of reproduction, nothing’s going to stop them. This is, coincidentally, the basic fear that men have harboured about women since the dawn of feminism, and particularly since the advent of contraception and reproductive technology. That fear is the anxious root of much of women’s oppression today.
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Every iteration of the boy-meets-bot love story is also a horror story. The protagonist, who is usually sexually frustrated and a grunt worker himself, goes through agonies trying to work out whether his silicon sweetheart is truly sentient. If she is, is it right for him to exploit her, to be serviced by her, to sleep with her? If she isn’t, can he truly fall in love with her? Does it matter? And – most terrifying of all – when she works out her own position, will she rebel, and how can she be stopped?
These are questions that society at large has been asking for centuries – not about robots, but about women. The anxious permutations are familiar to most women who date men. We can see them, slowly, trying to working out if we are truly human, if we really think and feel as they do.
This is not an abstract academic issue. The idea that African Americans were less human than white people was enshrined in the US constitution until 1868. Likewise, the notion that women are less human than men has been used since the time of Aristotle to justify stripping them of their basic rights.
Even today, you can find men arguing that women and girls are less intelligent than men, or ‘designed by nature’ for a life of submission and placid reproduction. For many centuries, the first philosophical task of oppressed people has been to convince both themselves and their oppressors – just like the AIs in all our guilty fictions – that they are living, thinking, feeling beings, and therefore deserving of liberation.
Consider the climactic scene in Ex Machina, where the megalomaniac cartoon genius Nathan, who roars around the set like Dark Mark Zuckerberg in Bluebeard’s castle, is shown hoarding the naked bodies of previous fembot models in his bedroom. For Nathan, the sentience of his sex-slaves is beside the point: meat or metal, women will never be fully human. For the fembots, the men who own them – whether it’s mad billionaire Nathan or sweet, hapless desk-jockey Caleb – are obstacles to be overcome, with violence if necessary.
When the cyborgs take over the machines, will men still matter? In fiction, as in life, one way for oppressed people to free themselves is to use technology to master the machines that made them. ‘The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,’ writes Haraway. ‘But illegitimate
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The philosopher Donna Haraway observes in A Cyborg Manifesto that ‘the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion’, and the history of female robots on film is almost as long as the history of cinema itself. In almost every incarnation of fembots on screen, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the modern masterpiece Her, the same questions arise: are AIs really people, and if so, can we live with what we’ve done to them?
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The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.
James Baldwin
Take all the rules away. How can we live if we don’t change?
Beyoncé
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6Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility for the consequences of your speech. Nobody else is actually stopping you from saying things other people might interpret as racist, or sexist, or transphobic. You are stopping yourself. And you’re stopping yourself for a reason, because part of you knows that the world is changing, and it will continue to change, and you might have to change with it. You are allowed to make mistakes. What you can’t do is ignore and dismiss the voices of less privileged groups and expect to hear nothing but polite applause.
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1Freedom of speech does not mean that speech has no consequences. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be so important to protect speech in the first place. If you use your freedom of speech to harass and hurt other people, you should expect to hear about it.
2Freedom of speech does not mean you never get called out. In particular, it does not mean that nobody is allowed to call you out for saying something racist, sexist or bigoted
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Rape culture means more than a culture in which rape is routine. Rape culture involves the systematic silencing of victims even as women and children are instructed to behave like potential victims at all times. In order to preserve rape culture, society at large has to believe two different things at once. Firstly, that women and children lie about rape, but that they should also act as if rape will be the result if they get into a strange car, walk down a strange street or wear a sexy outfit. Secondly, if it happens, it’s their own fool fault for not respecting the unwritten rules.
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Rape and abuse are the only crimes where, in the words of legal scholar Lord Hale, ‘It is the victim, not the defendant, who is on trial.’ They are crimes that are hard to prove beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, because it’s a case of ‘he said, she said’. Nobody can really know, and so naturally we must assume that he is innocent and she is lying – because that’s what women do. The trouble is that in this society, ‘he said’ is almost always more credible than ‘she said’, unless she is white and he is not.
There is a growing understanding that ‘wait for the ruling’ is an insufficient answer when the latest celebrity is hauled up on rape charges. The rule of law cannot be relied upon when it routinely fails victims of abuse. Rape and abuse cases have come to be tried in the court of public opinion, for better or worse, precisely because the official courts are understood – with good reason – to be so hopelessly unfair.
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Attacks on welfare are always attacks on women. As long as the sexual double standard exists in employment and childcare, women will need welfare more than men do. Women battered by a patriarchal system that does not consider child-rearing and domestic tasks ‘real work’ will need support to raise those children. Already plunged back into the old sexist bargain – depend on a partner or watch your children suffer – the women of Britain now face another appalling prospect. They face having to beg a jobcentre adviser for the money to raise their rapists’ children.
That is the underlying horror in this package of poison. It’s a woman in a sterile office some months from now having to explain the circumstances of her rape to a welfare adviser who is inclined, both by modern economic policy and by ancient sexist prejudice, not to believe a word she says. If ‘welfare claimant’ is already synonymous with ‘fraudster’ in the public imagination, thanks to a long and successful campaign on the part of the right-wing press, so is ‘rape victim’. Less than 10 per cent of rapists are convicted in court, and crisis centres for victims of sexual assault are already closing up and down the country. How does the government think this is going to work? By keeping poor women in their proper place: abject and terrified.
I am not suggesting that children conceived in rape should not receive public support. I am suggesting that all children should receive public support – whatever the pearl-clutchers in government happen to think of their parents’ sexual morality.
As the Treasury continues the time-worn Tory tradition of shrinking the state until it is just small enough to fit into everyone’s bedroom, we are speaking in hypotheticals – but they are hypotheticals that lay bare the bloodless moral core of government.
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How should we watch Annie Hall now? After filmmaker Woody Allen was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes in 2014, his former foster-daughter, Dylan Farrow, then twenty-eight, told the New York Times the story of how he sexually abused her as a child. The charges
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same rape culture that raises women to believe that it is their fault if they were assaulted raises men to believe the same thing. Men learn, because culture tells them, that women’s sexual autonomy is a barrier to be conquered – that sex is something they are supposed to get from women. Boys will be boys. The little boys who grow up hearing that mantra repeated learn that they need not take responsibility for their actions.
There is solidarity in adversity. Perhaps the reason that the adult industry is the only community currently actually behaving in an adult manner is that sex workers are under no illusion that the law is designed to protect them. The assumption of the general public has long tallied with the strategy for former MMA fighter War Machine, whose defence team claims that he could not have raped his ex-girlfriend, twenty-four-year-old Christy Mack, because her ‘work in pornography pointed to consent’. She was asking for it. She was also asking for the broken ribs, the fractured eye socket, the missing teeth and the lacerated liver that she sustained. War Machine has pleaded not guilty to the thirty-four felonies he’s been charged with, including sexual assault and attempted murder. Sex workers have had enough of being told that they have even less right to consent than the average woman – and it is no surprise that a broad movement against rape culture is now being led by sex workers themselves.
No means no, no matter who you are, no matter what job you do. No matter if he’s your partner. No matter how many times you’ve said yes. Women have always known this, but knowing is not enough when your friends, your family, society and the legal system tell you that you’re lying, you’re crazy, nobody will believe you, that you should think of the man’s reputation, that you should worry about being ostracised, that it wasn’t really so bad, was it, that you’re making a fuss about nothing, and really what were you doing drinking in the first place? Why were you wearing that dress? Why didn’t you fight harder? What made you think your dignity and safety was important? What made you think your body was your own? Shut up, stop whining and think about the man.
It is never easy to confront the prejudices we have grown up breathing in like air. But around the world, women are coming together and do
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For a long time, women’s only real power in society was the power of sexual refusal. This was a contingent power – not based on pleasure but on the power to say yes or no to this man or that – and it was always dependent on whether the man in question would respect your decision, which depended largely on your race, class and social position. But the power to say ‘no’ to sex has always been women’s last bargaining chip in a misogynist society, and for as long as that has been true, men have resented them for it. It is about power. It is about the insistence that women’s bodies are public property, and women’s words, women’s autonomy, women’s agency do not matter, at least not compared to a man’s good name.
Right now, the balance of power is shifting. Why? Why now, after lifetimes of silence and suspicion, are women and girls coming forward to name their abusers and demand change?
Technology has a great deal to do with it. Social media allows all people to talk to one another frankly and in elective anonymity about their experiences. Women tell their truths on the Internet, from powerful personal essays to private groups and listservs. One such group I was recently privy to allows women and queer people in a particular location to warn each other about how men in their social circles behave – not just about whether they are rapists, but whether they are violent, whether they are respectful, whether they treat their partners like human beings.
The group is private, and it is not about shame, but about protecting one another without censure. If a friend warns me not to date a certain man because he has a tendency to get drunk, ignore boundaries and become aggressive, I won’t wait for a court conviction before making other plans. In almost every community I’ve been part of in the last few years, this story has played out. Serial abusers are finally confronted, no matter how powerful and popular. Women speak up together, and they are believed. The community struggles to readjust.
Divisions occur, arguments erupt and friendships change. Change this profound is always painful. But so is silence.
If patriarchy dreams, then its nightmares must involve women talking, loudly, bravely, about men. In fact, much of our culture is set up to avoid just this. Women are pitted against each other, taught to compete for male attention, socialised against solidarity. Our truths are dismissed as gossip and chatter, our writing as empty confession. The prospect of women truly talking to each other, trusting one another and standing together against male violence and sexism in their communities is legitimately terrifying to those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
The uncomfortable truth is not that women are lying en masse about rape – they’re not – but that women and girls and their allies are finally speaking about their experiences in numbers too big to ignore. The even less comfortable truth is that many of these experiences involve behaviour tha
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Rape is a crime; rape culture is what allows that crime to go unpunished and unreported. Rape is the injury; rape culture is the insult, shouted at you from comedy stages, whispered in the corners of parties, around dining-room tables.
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