Problematizing Patriarchy Wholesale

What a week it has been for the striking of poses.

Serena Williams, who I am sure needs no help from me, is being criticised for remarks in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine about a sixteen-year-old girl who was raped. Presumably (I haven’t read the interview) these remarks were by the way, and the thrust of the interview was about tennis or fashion or the other things that make Serena Williams such a remarkable person. She is reported as saying that the girl who was raped, having been very drunk at the time, was lucky that the outcome was not worse. Ms Williams has been roundly accused of suggesting that it was the girl’s fault that she was raped. Here for instance is Eris Zion Venia Dyson:

The rape and sexual assault of women in this world has been a tactic of war and control since the beginning of time.

Our bodies politicalized [sic]. We as women are constantly guilty for being women, for being beautiful, for being afraid, for being drunk, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Search for one woman that was “asking for it” … and you’d have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding one. Williams’ statements hurt plenty of us to our core.

In other words, it is not about the girl, or even about Serena Williams, it is about the very real feelings of hurt experienced by Eris Zion Venia Dyson.

And here is Jill Filipovic, also in the Guardian:

There are few sports more popular in Americans [sic] than beating up on women. While men are disproportionately the aggressors in both physical and emotional abuse, women certainly aren’t immune from attacking our own – particularly, it seems, with words.

Two things occur to me.

The first is that that to suggest that it is foolish to put yourself in harm’s way is not at all the same as saying that the harm that results is your ‘fault’, which has been the universal assumption of the commentators. They are two entirely different things. Rape is inexcusable. Putting yourself unnecessarily in harm’s way is reckless – and that is not a moral judgment but a practical one. Both propositions are true and neither detracts from the other. By the same token, nothing excuses the police when they hurtle along the pavements in their cars, mowing down members of the public in their pursuit of wrong-doers; but to suggest that it is wise to stand well back when you hear their sirens is not, pace Ms Filipovic, ‘beating up on’ pedestrians.

Secondly, Serena Williams is not only one of the supreme sports people of our time, but she has achieved it with grace, style and a very unusual nonchalance. Her post-match interviews do not follow the usual anal and brow-furrowing analysis of the player’s own technique. It would be presumptuous of me to say if she is a positive role model for women: she is certainly a positive role model for human beings. She is entitled to some gracefulness in return.

And then we have Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi.

Just as the reaction of the people who were in the room when the American girl was being raped was to film the incident and put it Facebook rather than helping her, so those present when Mr Saatchi put his hands on Ms Lawson’s neck, rather than intervening, took photographs which one of them then sold to a Sunday newspaper for, apparently, £14,000. Ms Lawson has preserved a dignified silence, so we don’t know the context of what happened. Mr Saatchi has been given and accepted a police caution. You might think that the sorry affair had returned to the realm of the private and that journalists who professed solidarity with Ms Lawson would allow her the space to deal with the incident in her own very capable way unaccompanied by little shrieks from the media.

Not a bit of it. As with Serena Williams, a number of commentators have drawn their habitual conclusions about the position of women in society. Eris Zion Venia Dyson has not yet so far as I know confided her views to us, but I dare say that she would assert that this incident too was an example of a tactic of war and control since the beginning of time. People running women’s hostels have opportunistically called for more money from the government.

Most sinister have been the calls on public figures to ‘condemn’ Mr Saatchi. A few, such as Nick Clegg, have declined on the grounds that it’s not clear what happened and in any event it’s none of their business. The editor of the Standard has been urged to cancel Mr Saatchi’s column in the paper. Her refusal has been met with howls of abuse. Failed Tory MP Louise Mensch wrote: ‘”The amount of domestic violence apologism that has gone on is absolutely shocking.”

Again, two things occur to me.

Charles Saatchi may have acted like a pig and a beast. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But even if he did why are we all expected to join in a huge communal bellow of condemnation? Is there really no place in society any more for saying, ‘It’s none of my business’, or ‘That’s a shame but I’m more bothered about anthropogenic climate change’, let alone ‘I disagree’? Is our liberal metropolitan society, which we are so fond of comparing to the detriment of Islamist intolerance, to revert to that of Salem or the penultimate scene of Lord of the Flies?

Secondly: ‘our bodies politicalized’; ‘domestic violence apologism’? No one who actually cares for people who suffer talks like that.


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