Durham Book Festival: The New Feminism?
A caution to youthful readers of Palatinate: we should all endeavour to prepare ourselves for that ‘unsettling but highly familiar day when we wake up and hardly recognise that middle aged person that we have become.’ The issue of middle-agedness and all that it entails in the times we live in is at the heart of Jane Shilling’s new book Stranger in the Mirror, in which she questions our terror of ageing, and refuses the conventional stereotypes of being a middle aged woman.
Jane Shilling is 53. She has, she professes, undeniably crossed the threshold into middle age, yet she feels as though she is still waiting for it to happen. Popular Anglo-Saxon culture promotes the notion that once we enter our forties, a grand metamorphosis takes place and all of a sudden we must be content to substitute ‘farting and nose-picking’ for the previous thrills of our formative years. She observes that there are two ways of dealing with the onset of middle age in the mainstream, and that both for her, are inadequate. One is the premise of Germaine Greer with her famous line ‘we’re all oddballs once we’re middle aged’ deeming it acceptable to begin exhibiting traits of the social pariah in public, and embody the typical personas of Grumpy Old Women. The other is, quite simply denial, propelled by the marketing of fake youth in the mass media. Shilling has evident feelings of antagonism towards the popular Channel 4 programme 10 years younger. According to this mindset, the way to deal with middle age is to pretend it isn’t happening. It is a disease that we are encouraged and even expected to treat under the glinting knife of the cosmetic surgeon.
Despite the classical antiquity of the front cover image and title, Stranger in the Mirror it is actually very funny, intelligent and all-encapsulating. She manages to touch on everything from Der Rosenkavalier to the Wife of Bath to clothing ranges in M&S. Far from being maudlin, it contains no hints of defeatism, but instead offers the reader a defiant and uplifting take on ageing.
Next to speak was Dr Catherine hakim, who has ignited much controversy with her book Honey Money. She presented the thesis that no matter how rich, educated, or clever we are, we should also make ourselves as attractive and beautiful as possible. According to her, when seeking an efficient new employee, ‘erotic capital’ should have equal weighting alongside qualifications, intelligence and work experience.
She backs her provocative theory with a myriad of research statistics, and proposes ‘erotic capital’ as an addition to the well established forms of individual capital set out by Pierre Bourdieu. She doesn’t stop there however. Patriarchs of society work against the interests of women to allow them to capitalise on their good looks. Christian monogamy is a ‘political strategy’ devised by men to ensure that men do not suffer the consequences of what she calls the ‘male sex-deficit’. Although Hakim’s provocative theory had been met with fierce opposition by many feminists, to my surprise, the majority of the almost exclusively female audience seemed to be in agreement with her. Interestingly, at the Q&A session, the only real challenge to her theory came from a male member of the audience.
Hakim somewhat veered away from the more controversial points of her book during the event, placing greater emphasis on charisma and charm over anything else. ‘’Erotic capital is not about sexuality’’ she said. If she could have named it anything else, it would have been ‘‘being-quite-a-nice-person capital’’. It just wouldn’t have the same gravity.