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Artillery Row

The new mean girls

Young women should stand up against ageism

I was fourteen when I first saw anti-Suffragette propaganda from the early 1900s, stumbling across it in a book when researching the history of voting for my Modern Studies homework. Some images have now become notorious, most notably the “Origin of a Suffragette” cartoon, which depicts a sweet, demure, golden-haired little girl morphing from maidenhood to spinsterhood, finally becoming a haggard, witch-nosed “Suffragette”. I hardly need to spell out the subtext but in case you missed it: Young women, be careful YOU don’t become one of these bitter, ugly hysterical sub-species of menopausal women.

On Tuesday, Oxfam International realised a short animated campaign video in honour of Pride month to raise awareness of the persecution of “LGBTQ+” people around the globe. The video features an assortment of characters, including a monstrous female figure bearing the word “TERF” on her clothing. She only appears for a second or two but steals the show in all the wrong ways. Many have read into the caricature a deliberate resemblance to J.K.Rowling. I will admit it was not an association my mind made when I first saw it — least of all because its ugliness was hard to square with Rowling’s luminous glamour. Looking into her gnarled, shouty and — as an extra touch of othering — demon-eyed face, I found it impossible not to see a mutant cousin of the suffragette hag. In light of the backlash, the video has now been withdrawn, re-edited and re-released, accompanied with a typically remorse-light statement from the organisation.

There’s a more disturbing picture than the TERF with shinigami eyes circulating though: the photos of the production team that thought her up. While presumably the cruel suffragette propaganda of the early 1900s was designed by chortling, brandy-swishing men in corridors of power, looking at Oxfam’s animation and production team, it would seem ageist misogyny has quite a different face now: that of young women.

A lot of women who are branded TERFs adopt the term ironically as a sticks-and-stones coping method but there’s no getting away from the intent of those who wield it, exemplified by Oxfam International’s caricature. While the phrase is often bandied about near-meaninglessly towards anyone who displays scepticism towards the demands of trans rights activists, it has a tragically stigmatising effect, as does the image that accompanies it. It’s not just that Oxfam’s “TERF” is ugly, it’s that she’s old and therefore ugly. Not only does it humiliate and ridicule perfectly decent, rational older women who oppose gender ideology, it scares off younger women from listening to them, weaponising a fear of being devalued through loss of looks and status all young women harbour, if even we don’t realise it. 

Hatred and disgust of aged females is a patriarchal tale as old as time

In the poisonous treatment towards visibly gender critical women — Kathleen Stock, for instance — young women are a big part of the problem. In fact, we are just as much the problem as misogynist men. It’s time to admit it. This is not to let those men who gleefully degrade (and threaten) older women, on and offline, all day, every day, off the hook. Hatred and disgust of aged females is a patriarchal tale as old as time (there are a fair few young male faces in Oxfam International’s production team). But complicity deserves to be called out. I have always been squeamish about the idea that all woman-on-woman nastiness stems from “internalised misogyny”. While I acknowledge its place, we can quickly get into apologist territory, robbing women of our agency. Yes, we face societal pressure to act against the interests of our own sex but we still know right from wrong. 

I scarcely need to explain (youngsplain?) to older women, particularly those who have the audacity to reject the holy teachings of gender so many of their daughters love preaching to them, the discrimination and hostility they endure. If I’m going to say anything useful here, it has to be directed at my demographic. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can say that Victoria Smith didn’t already say better in her book Hags: The Demonisation Of Middle-aged Women:

[Misogyny directed at older women] is a misogyny directed, if not at the self you already are, then the one you will one day be…We are uncanny, causing discomfort by failing to conform to the standards others have set for us. We are also, most inconveniently, the future of each and every woman on the planet.

Of course, there are massive exceptions; it’s not just young women who participate in this mortifying self-own. There are many dismaying examples of, generally elite, self-styled “trans ally” middle-aged women (and older) who partake or turn a malicious blind eye to the abuse heaped on fellow women, and who would be facing the exact same treatment were they reciting the right mantras. (Nicola Sturgeon’s deliberate deafness to the abuse of Joanna Cherry comes to mind.) 

Also, there are plenty of young women who have recognised the ageism and misogyny beneath the cloak of gender activism and stand proudly with our older sisters — I know plenty, including myself. In fact, if you’re a young gender heretic, you practically have your youth card revoked, in the same way many black conservatives or gay men and lesbian women who reject the LGBTQ+ label are treated as (dis)honorary whites and straights by progressives. Nonetheless, as a young woman, disgrace to my demographic though I may be, I offer this plea to the animators who brought demon-Rowling-hag to life; to the waitresses who spit “Karen” under their breaths towards stroppy middle-aged women while having no such equivalent label for entitled male customers; to the young “intersectional” feminists that joined in screaming down Kathleen Stock outside Oxford Union.

In the 2004 cult movie Mean Girls — which if you’re a baby millennial like me, you will know backwards — Tina Fey stands in front of an assembly room of high school girls and groans: “You’ve got to stop calling each other sluts and whores! It just makes it okay when guys do the same.” The exact same logic applies to whenever you tear down an older women on the basis of her looks, or throw an ageist slur at her, or monster her, or misrepresent her words as violence because it’s easier (and kind of fun) bullying older women you don’t like rather than standing up against the actual male perpetrators of violence. Or, all too often, don’t bother listening to her in the first place. Assuming we don’t make acquaintances with an untimely double decker bus, we’re all going to be middle-aged and older women one day, and if this is how you treat older women in the name of “progressivism”, you’ve just given our future daughters, nieces, students and mentees full permission to treat us with the exact same contempt and discrimination — only to the benefit of misogynist men.

I’ll end with a quote from the alleged inspiration of the Oxfam hag herself: “Feminazi, Terf, Bitch, Witch. Times change. Women-hate is eternal.” Let’s break the cycle of complicity.

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