Artillery Row

Penny’s pointless battle

Fighting about pronouns gets in the way of real feminism

Some things add to the gaiety of the nation — and Laurie Penny’s self-absorption is one of them. In case sensitive readers get hold of the wrong end of the stick, I’m using gaiety in the sense of “the state or quality of being light-hearted or cheerful”. 

Penny, as we all know, is as polymorphously perverse as my cat is vegan; it’s a lovely idea but the reality is my idiot cat does not like butternut squash. I just have to live with my disappointing pussy cos them’s the breaks.

There are lots of deeply terrible things going on in the world and I hardly need list them, but surely beneath the imminent invasion of Ukraine we must designate the misgendering of Laurie Penny in a book review by Julie Bindel in the top ten list of horrors. 

Who knows what Bindel’s pronouns are? She Who Must Be Obeyed is my guess. Anyway, Bindel reviewed the latest Penny pamphlet and called her “she” throughout the review. Bindel is an utter monster make no mistake — but she read Penny as female because… she is? 

Bindel doesn’t have the time; she has actual feminism to do

Penny’s publisher complained, for she must be called they. For they is genderqueer and what they wants, is what matters. The new binary exists all right: there are those who want to smash it and those who desperately need it to declare they are not part of it. Penny is in the latter group here.

I probably differ from Bindel on pronoun use — mostly out of laziness — and will call people whatever they like to be called. “What did you do in the great pronoun war?”, my grandchildren will ask me. “I largely could not be arsed,” will be my reply. If Penny wants to be plural, plural they can be. It’s no skin off my several noses.

But I do find it bizarre how an actual lesbian, à la Bindel, can be criticised by a person (I won’t use the offensive word woman) in a heterosexual marriage to a bloke for putting down “LGBTQ authors”. (I don’t know if said bloke is self-identified as a bloke, and care even less.) Penny plays as ever to their American audience; Bindel doesn’t play this game at all. She doesn’t have the time; she has actual feminism to do. 

Bindel gave Penny’s book a fair hearing by saying there are things they get right, but overall, their ignorance and misrepresentation of feminist history and activism is a travesty. 

I haven’t read the book because obviously I am too busy force-feeding Quorn to the cat. And — as well as meat — gender is murder in my house; my youngest is beyond all reason on the matter.

I do realise it is very “bio-essentialist” of me to refer to myself being the mother of an actual young person, because the Penny persona depends on being young, tiny, and odd when they is in fact 35 years old and a married, successful adult. 

Nonetheless, when I read their account in Wired of marrying a bloke from Australia, I was happy for them. As happy as anyone who doesn’t believe in marriage can be. 

My issue with Penny is with their lack of substance, not their surplus of style

But Penny is at her best when she understands her own ridiculousness: “We talked about how we were both suspicious of the heterosexual couple form, which is one of my favourite ways to flirt.” Oh man, who hasn’t been there? 

They describe themselves as “a wild and untameable trauma-twitchy anarcha-feminist” at one point. At which point we are in star sign territory, but you know what? Whatever floats your many boats, Admiral. 

Penny’s overwrought sentences are not for me any more than their overwrought emotions. Less is more. More is always more. For them. They can be absolutely brilliant at times but God, it’s a trudge. 

 This is real generational difference speaking. I find so many of today’s lauded young women writers and their hyperbolic self-abasement not to my taste. My issue with Penny is with their lack of substance, not their surplus of style. 

I have read their explanations of the horrible rise of English Terfdom written to their Californian fanbase and think, my God, they are better than this, surely? I expect more, partly because, in my experience, the one thing privately educated people have over us plebs is nearly always a better grasp of history and geography. 

These people are increasingly desperate to find some way in which they are not privileged

The history of British feminism and American feminism, their relationships to race and class, reproductive issues and trans rights are entirely different. Only a fool would do a straight read across. The refusal of many British feminists to accept a nailed-on version of gender ideology has as much to do with European philosophy and basic Marxism as the cherry-picked stuff from the school of Butler and the ninnies who know no better. 

The dismissal of gay women, trade unionists and solidly left-wing women as simply transphobic is neither true nor good enough. I think Penny knows this, or maybe they don’t, but at least go away and understand where gender identity theory originates and read some John Money.

 The refusal to explain what gender identity means cannot be ignored. Penny’s publishers and Penny themselves operate in a class-based business in which they are hard pressed to compete in the Olympics of oppression. I was astonished decades ago when one of my books came out to enter what I call the “world of Camillas”.

These people are increasingly desperate to find some way in which they are not privileged. But now you don’t even have to be gay and suffer the prejudice that goes with it, you can just declare oneself open to possibility. For Penny, it is this whole bollocky queer deal which is an utter confusion between sexual orientation and some contrived notion of innate gender ID. I think it just means they is bi. 

To say no one cares is something of an understatement; if no one cared we wouldn’t have to have this superimpose the language of Cis vs Trans for folk like Penny to kick against.

Penny is not cis and nor am I. The very idea of one being what other people think you are is an anathema to me. I am my own special creation, yet at the same my body does all sorts of peculiar things I wish it wouldn’t. Blood leaks of out it, milk too, other people have been grown inside it. I have been raped because of it. I am paid less because of it. I am prone to certain illnesses because of it, and I understand had I been born in a different place all sexual pleasure would have been denied to me because of it. 

None of this makes me transphobic, it simply makes me an embodied person. And when Penny speaks of their distress as an anorexic kid, I feel deeply for them. They write fantastically well about it. But feeling unhappy in your body always involves the fantasy of “the other”. That other who feels happy and comfortable in their body. Guess what? I have never met that woman.

This idea of a fit between the inside and the outside is a fantasy for trans people as it is for straight and gay people. It is how it is to be human in a culture of human mirrors. To be in love or lust, to be lost momentarily when it all unites is a universal fantasy. In short, no one feels the things that others imagine they do. Penny is so invested in defending those they see as outsiders when there is a huge blind spot: women, boring, working-class people. Women who are utterly alienated in ways Penny projects onto her necessary “other”: trans people and sex workers. Who is more “genderqueer” I wonder, Katie Price or Caitlin Jenner?

You know it has become ridiculous when lesbians like Bindel have to kowtow to a white, bourgeois, married woman in the name of what, radicalism? Give over. You cannot misgender someone if you don’t believe in the concept of gender, however suck-ass the business of publishing now is. 

Likewise, when many gay people say they no longer want to use the word queer because it was the last word some gay people heard before they were kicked to death, I think we should listen. 

The last word someone hears before they get glassed probably isn’t going to be “cis”, is it? 

 As I’ve said, I am not unsympathetic to Penny because I know what it is to be called something I am not. It’s devastating, a shard of glass in my heart and all that. But I won’t wang on for another 1000 words, don’t worry, I will just take my case to the ECHR because all my life people have called me the wrong thing. 

My name is not Susan. 

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