Sister of the 21st century

August 4, 2000

Feminism has slumped into enmity between the sexes since Angela McRobbie firstembraced it in the 1970s. Now, as women are pushed into an unequal jobs market, she calls on academics to reinventthe 'f' word. Harriet Swain reports

Utopia, of a sort, for Angela McRobbie, a professor of communications at Goldsmiths College, was Birmingham in the 1970s. As a young mother and postgraduate at Birmingham University's department of cultural studies under leading sociologist Stuart Hall, she happily pooled - and endlessly debated - child care with other parents, mapped out a career as a female academic with few role models in a relatively new discipline, became embroiled in the underground music scene and trawled rag markets to invent her own kind of style.

At the heart of this golden period and the key to its allure, despite low pay and an uncertain career path, was feminism. It provided, McRobbie argues, "a political vocabulary" for understanding what was happening and for working out "on a shared, collectivist basis" what the issues were.

In the 1970s she was employing this political vocabulary in church halls and at the odd demonstration. Now she is invited to speak before ministers from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport - in June she took part in the government's "body image" summit, which discussed what could be done to reduce young women's dissatisfaction with their bodies. McRobbie retains a strong belief in the feminism of her youth, but is concerned that it has degenerated into simple antagonism between the sexes.

"Early '70s feminism wasn't man-hating at all," she says. "It was actually - which sounds completely crummy - about changing men, challenging men but in a very warm and generous and provocative way. That was the great fun of revolutionary politics, having long arguments with men about what was wrong with them, about how they had to change, about challenging them in the most energetic and positive and well-intended way and not just undermining them, not just making them feel redundant but pulling them into a shared commitment to sexual politics."

McRobbie, who rarely pauses for breath, is a great believer in the importance of female energy, and spends much of her working life tracking it down. But she acknowledges that its nature has changed.

On the one hand, young women's self-confidence has grown beyond recognition. They now do better than boys in most school subjects, go to university in equal numbers and, once there, no longer need to be prompted to speak up in seminars. On the other hand, they still earn less than men in the labour market and often face other career obstacles, especially if they decide to have children.

Worse, says McRobbie, they no longer have a common way of expressing these problems. "Because the language of feminism has been so ridiculed and trivialised, the absence of a viable feminist language means that these antagonisms between young men and women are reduced to the worst form of radical feminism, which is a kind of man-hating, or the popular discourse that men are all bastards." Young women have been depoliticised, she says, and she lays the blame on pressure to be postmodern and ironic and on the "bland and blonde Hollywoodisation of the mainstream media".

McRobbie has a lot to say about the tyranny of what she calls "the TV blondes". These women are not necessarily blonde - and not necessarily on TV. Some of the worst culprits are the columnists who obsess about whether their bum is too big or how they are going to get a man; other examples are Calista Flockhart, who plays Ally McBeal, the female cast members of Friends and British television presenters Gail Porter and Zo Ball. McRobbie's gripe is that all these introduce young women not to the values of female sharing and utopianism she knew in Birmingham, but rather to a ruthless pressure to succeed and gain wealth and glamour.

Part of this was tackled by the body image summit. One of its outcomes was reportedly the agreement of the Broadcasting Standards Commission to monitor "the degree of diversity in shapes of women in TV programmes" - something that sparked a diatribe in The Times from blonde TV personality Mariella Frostrup.

Whether the summit actually agreed even this much was the subject of much debate, led mainly by the fashion editors accused of featuring over-skinny models. But for McRobbie, body image is only a small part of the problem. While she welcomes the government's attention to the problems of young women, she says the government is also partly to blame for the "TV blonde" culture.

New Labour's emphasis on career success and economic independence represents a seismic shift for young women, and it has made young women "a metaphor for social change", McRobbie argues. "For the first time ever, young women are told that making a living is not just something that is secondary or coexists with being a woman, which in the past meant being a mother and wife. They are being told that from now on they have got to be able to earn their own livings over a lifetime."

This expectation is realistic in view of the likely pressures on the welfare state from family breakdown, says McRobbie, who is attracted to its social justice element. But she also identifies serious problems. First is the growing threat of poverty in work. She has done a number of studies of young people working in the cultural labour market and found that they are far from being economically self-sufficient. While most love their jobs, they work long hours for little - sometimes no - money and often find themselves at 40 with a great portfolio CV but no savings and unable to compete with younger rivals.

Second, there is the price of child care. McRobbie says women are too busy and too individualistic now to indulge in the kind of shared child-care arrangements she recalls from Birmingham. Yet many do not earn enough to afford anything else. Finally, what happens to women who are not TV blondes - those from poor backgrounds or poor schooling, those suffering racial discrimination or low expectations, the teenage mothers? They, McRobbie says, will simply get left behind as the TV blondes power to the fore, spending their earnings on making themselves even blonder and more marketable. What then becomes of sisterhood?

This is something that has dominated McRobbie's life. From a family of sisters, she attended a convent grammar school in Glasgow and now shares her north London house with her only child - a 24-year-old daughter.

Early on, she identified popular culture as a vital influence on women's lives. She found in it a release for her energies and those of other young women. Her schoolmates, whose career expectations were usually limited to becoming secondary school teachers and good Catholic mothers, were obsessed with fashion and magazines. In them they found insights into social change simply not available from the nuns. It helps explain what became for McRobbie an "ongoing defence of the trivial", leading to more than 20 years of research into Jackie magazines, fashion and pop music.

At least it used to be an ongoing defence. Now, McRobbie finds her belief in the value of popular culture beginning to waver. Although she still refuses to call women's magazines trivial, she now says of them: "there is a sense in which there is a disparity between the kind of content found in any issue of Marie Claire magazine and the increasing high qualifications of female readers."

McRobbie attacks the way in which intellectual debate in this country is seen as old-fashioned, "worthy" and tarred with the brush of political correctness. She calls for "perhaps a greater degree of seriousness and perhaps less irony and perhaps less hedonism and perhaps less of a kind of individualism".

In achieving this, she says, universities have an important role to play. They remain one of the few places where women still have time for the kind of debates and social engagement that rapid career progress prevents.

"I think it is unfair to expect young women to be like us," she says. "But I suggest there is a need for some kind of new feminism. To reinvent feminism seems to be an important and valuable political aim to have."

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