Stereotypes for fame and traffic

28 February 2013 by Jennifer

On the context and effects of Julie Bindel’s bisexuality article for the Huffington Post last summer.

I began this one in June 2012 & never got around to finishing it at the time. Sometimes when that happens, the moment is gone and I don’t bother, but this is one I still wanted to put out there.

First I want to say that the point of writing this isn’t to “have a go” at Julie B. I’m criticising some of her ideas and actions, and using her article to illuminate a pattern,1 not slagging her off as a person.

While pondering how best to express that distinction, I happened upon some writing by Andrea Dworkin:

Women who fight fierce battles, as all radical feminists do, encounter so much hostility and conflict in the regular transactions of work and daily life that they become very complex, even if they started out simple. One must learn to protect oneself.

This means, inevitably, that one exaggerates some parts of one’s personality, some qualities. Or they become exaggerated in the process of trying to survive and to continue to work. So when one sees that in another woman, one loves her for it – even if one does not like the particular defenses she has worked out for herself.

That doesn’t mean one wants to be intimate with her. Just that one loves her for daring to be so ambitious. For daring to continue to associate herself with women as a feminist, no matter what the cost, no matter what walls she has had to build to keep on doing what’s important to her.2

I read that and I thought yes! that’s got some of the flavour of it. I disagree profoundly with JB on some things,3 but I can still appreciate her sheer feisty un-shut-uppableness in the face of a hostile world.

Having said that by way of introduction, I’ll turn to the subject at hand…

Setting the scene

Back in June 2012, Julie Bindel wrote an article, beginning “What makes some of us uncomfortable with bisexual women?”, and going on to reproduce a series of stereotypes.

I’ve already discussed one small aspect of the content: the allusions to Paula Rust’s 1980s research & 1995 book.

Here, I want to talk about a wider context: the structure and effects of writing and publishing the article, in the landscape of 2012.

A commercial organisation gives a platform to a self-identified lesbian, for “a Birchellesque, deliberately un-PC, cat-among-pigeons piece”, claiming that bi women and some lesbians4 are lower on a hierarchy of political merit than other lesbians, i.e. those like herself. Who benefits?

Who or what benefits from the publication of that article?

  • JB herself: to her “name recognition”; to her reputation as someone whose articles will attract traffic to a web site; financially if5 she was paid.

  • Bank account of the Huffington Post, via advertising revenue from web site.

  • People who can obtain amusement from reading snark about women, sex, feminism etc.

  • The current mainstream of “heteropatriarchal kyriarchy“, which is more stable as its potential challengers are less in solidarity with each other and more exhausted.

Is there a sense in which feminism6 benefited from the article? Did women benefit, in some abstract sense separate from the actual women affected by it?

I’d say there were some feminist ideas in JB’s article (e.g. compulsory heterosexuality). That’s not the same thing, though.

… at whose expense?

I think reproducing stereotypes has some kind of cost for everyone in the long run. But in the short run, clearly the expense doesn’t fall equally on everyone.

Of all the common sexual identity groups, bisexual people most frequently have mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, self harm and suicidality. This has been found both internationally and in the UK specifically, and has been linked to experiences of biphobia and bisexual invisibility. A major Canadian study found bisexual men to be 6.3 times more likely, and bisexual women 5.9 times more likely, to report having been suicidal than heterosexual people (in both groups this was also higher than rates for gay men and lesbians).

(source: The Bisexuality Report, 2012; research references given in original; bolding mine for easier skim-reading. See also abstracts for BiReCon 2012, which had a theme of mental health.)

I.e. research suggests (not very surprisingly) that living with anti-bi prejudice has bad consequences for bi people.

What does that feel like in human terms?

Tania at talks about an earlier time in her life, “growing up as a bi woman in a queer world”:

The challenges I faced, how I wasn’t taken seriously, and how at least two lesbian women ruffled my hair patronisingly and told me they could quite fancy me “if I wasn’t a jelly” (ie someone who wobbled about and couldn’t make up their mind). Being bi in the company of lesbians was actually bloody hard, and drove me to tears and confusion on more than one occasion.

JenClaude comments of JB’s article itself:

The very fact that something so one-sided and intolerant made its way into the public domain utterly baffles me, but it did, and it hit me. Hard.

My feeling is that lesbians aren’t served well by the article’s collage of stereotypes either (though some may have agreed with at least part of it). Aside from what was aimed directly at them, some lesbians have friendships or life partnerships with bi women. And some have social/political aims which bi women share, or might be likely to share; there’s lots we have in common when love of women is foregrounded rather than rejection of men.

Even though there were some valid concepts namechecked in the article, I don’t believe that its effect was to nurture solidarity between lesbians & bi women (except inasmuch as some of us can have a collective grumble about it).

But the highest direct cost? I’d say it’s to young and/or newly-out bi women (or young people who think they might be bi). They are who came to my mind when I read it.

The future I want them to know is a valid, hopeful, unstigmatised pathway for their lives.

I hesitate to say this because it seems hard to put without coming over harsh or melodramatic, but the fact is I can’t contemplate JB’s article without also thinking about teenagers’ suicide risks.

The commercial value of controversy

Arianna Huffington was quoted in 2010 saying:

The easiest way [to get traffic] is to do lowest common denominator traffic, and we do some of them. The who’s sleeping with who stories, Hollywood stories, Sandra Bullock, etc.

Of the other responses I’ve seen to JB’s article, this one from jemima101 most closely resembles my own thoughts about it:

… facts and investigation matter less than getting attention. … The editor is happy with controversial articles, no matter how badly argued, because they increase traffic …

But back to the ideas of gender, sexuality and sex that are seen as so revolutionary by some and mainstream by others. If newspapers really wanted to print controversy why not look at some of the people I know, and present them in a positive light? The answer of course is that would take leg work, interviews, good old-fashioned journalistic skills.

(Of JB’s article in particular, I’m not sure “badly argued” is actually the best description. It seems to me that her writing skill was used to create the impression of an argument while actually stating very little of one. Most of the opinions weren’t claimed as her own, thus enabling “I never said that!” or “That’s not what I said!” as responses to any challenge not based on a careful, literal reading.)

“But at least it got people talking”

But wait! you might say. At least JB’s article got people talking about bisexuality! Isn’t that a good thing at least?

By way of answer to that, I’ll mention another online episode of recent times.

There was a bloke who made a video at Occupy, only of women, specifically the subset of women he found sexually attractive, and released it under the title “Hot Babes Of Occupy Wall Street”. Some people saw this as innocent fun, some people pointed out that the framing was problematic:

… an example of women participating in public life – political, professional, social – and having their participation reduced to sexual objectification.

After a blogospherical dustup occurred on the subject, the video-maker, Steven Greenstreet, commented:

However, if you disagree with me, I encourage you to use that as an excuse to create constructive discussions about the issues you have. Because, to be honest, any excuse is a good excuse to bring up the topic of women’s rights.

I remembered this comment precisely because of my reaction to it at the time: Is that supposed to be some kind of justification? You gave people an “excuse” to talk, oh well that must mean it’s all OK then! How far would you take that exactly? Because as far as I can see, the worst events and most failymost statements of all time are still reasons for people to talk!

If someone manages to make lemonade with your bitter lemon, doesn’t mean it was actually a cherry.

So no, I don’t buy “got people talking” as a justification. Yes, lots of people wrote things in response to JB’s article.7 No, that doesn’t justify what’s in it. If you use a public platform to reproduce stereotypes and framings that people are already struggling with every day, then you will increase some people’s pain in that area, and it’s likely you’ll get responses. Well duh. That is not the same thing as changing the world for the better.

Commerce and politics

Lots of people’s paid work involves some degree of upholding kyriarchal structures / values / interests. The degree to which we can choose other paths is at least partially an attribute of privilege. So I’m not meaning to condemn the very idea of having commercial advantage in mind as you work.

I’m just saying, let’s recognise the nature of that article. It’s a product, from someone who has consistently chosen to make controversy and provocation part of her repertoire of saleable skills.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t politics too of course. But the politics isn’t primarily embedded in the details of the article. It’s in who’s framing the territory and setting the agenda. It’s in who’s giving whom a platform, and why.

Footnotes, I like footnotes…

1. A pattern: It hadn’t yet happened when I started writing this, but Julie Burchill’s anti-trans rant of January 2013, and the context in which it was written and published, reminded me vividly of the article I’m discussing here.

(Skim-readers please note: in the sentence above, I’m talking about a different Julie B. They both write controversial articles in the UK press. Julie Burchill is more famous, hence @malefemme’s description of the Bindel article as “Birchillesque”. Julie Bindel‘s piece on bi women is my subject today, though in fact she too has written anti-trans stuff.)

A significant difference is that the prejudice in the Jan 2013 trans article was so blatant, and the outcry against it so great, the piece was subsequently removed from the Observer’s web site. I don’t think the article on bisexual women has a lot less prejudice in it, but far less of it is conveyed by direct abuse.

(I recommend as a useful perspective on the trans article Roz Kaveney’s response in the Guardian. See also Paris Lees’ beautiful open letter in Diva.)

2. Andrea Dworkin essay: Nervous Interview, 1978, in Letters from a War Zone, p58. Paragraph breaks added by me for easier on-screen reading.

3. Disagree with: In particular and for the avoidance of doubt, that includes JB’s version of trans* politics.

4. And some lesbians: E.g.

Lesbians having heterosexual sex are seen as transgressive, when in fact they are simply reverting to a traditional way of being a woman.

Overgeneralisation much?

6. Feminism: Not meaning to imply that there’s one monolithic thing called “feminism”. Different people have different ideas about it, and I’m fairly sure that my ideas are different from JB’s.

7. Lots of people wrote things: A few of them…

Here, have an index…
Stereotypes for fame and traffic
Setting the scene
Who or what benefits from the publication of that article?
… at whose expense?
The commercial value of controversy
“But at least it got people talking”
Commerce and politics

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