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May 17, 2011

The phones are manned, vote now on Slutwalk

No one appears to have mentioned the Reclaim The Night marches -- which still continue, though their heyday has long passed -- in the current discussion of the Slutwalk phenomenon.

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Twenty five years ago, I was standing at the corner of Swanston and Lonsdale streets, Melbourne, watching a march go by. In those days I would have joined pretty much any protest but this wasn’t one that you just tagged onto — it was a Reclaim The Night march, a women’s-only protest against s-xual violence and the controlling threat of such.

The march had come, as I recall, from Melbourne University down to what was still the City Square — a mix of women, both activist and casual supporters. As the march crossed Lonsdale, it began to pass the Barrel and the Shaft, the two rather sad adult cinemas — sorry, sinemas — now long gone, victims not of the defeat of porn but of its universalisation on the internet.

Out of the sinemas emerged a few of the characters — actually, greasy men in vinyl jackets — running the joints, to make a few catcalls, only to be greeted by a roar of anger from an entire column of women of all ages. At that point genuine fear crossed the men’s faces, and they scuttled back inside. There was no doubting that the power of the march resided in the march itself, of its self-assertion, not in any image of it. To stand and watch it was to watch a political event — there was no place to be voyeuristic.

No one appears to have mentioned the Reclaim The Night marches — which still continue, though their heyday has long passed — in the current discussion of the Slutwalk phenomenon. (Yes, this is an article about Slutwalk. They are compulsory now, as they were on Madonna in that earlier era). For the most part that may be because Reclaim The Night has simply been forgotten as a movement, having fallen down the memory hole that everything before the invention of the web appears to have been consigned to.

But in other respects, it’s because the assumptions Reclaim The Night and Slutwalk work on in terms of gender politics are so different. Reclaim The Night occurred at a time — the late ’70s and ’80s — when personal style was still directed against old ideas of femininity, and (the punk movement aside) fishnets, underwear, etc, hadn’t yet become retro chic. Reclaim The Night was a strictly dress-down affair, both explicitly and by the very nature of the culture.

As such, its very manifestation resisted the deep cultural pull to make women into objects rather than subjects, to be constituted by the male gaze. There was no way to watch Reclaim The Night and feel like, or be, a voyeur, and there was no way that it could be subordinated to the process of being spectated. When it received media coverage at all, it was often met with mild hostility, which is not a bad thing to stir up if you’re trying to interrupt basic social assumptions and prejudices. Whatever media coverage it did receive did not consume the event. It remained at the time, and in the memory, a little bit separate, a little bit frightening.

Viewed via the politics of Reclaim The Night, Slutwalk represents giving the game away. In actual fact, most of its participants dress normally — in some ways, Slutwalk is simply a rebranding of Reclaim The Night, revived using the chance dumb remark by a Toronto cop running a personal safety class. Yet on the other hand, it’s quite different since the section of participants dressed in underwear, fishnets, fetish gear, etc, become not merely the image of the march, but its reality.

The problem is not, as right-wing critics assert, as to whether such clothes suggest self-respect or lack of it, but the degree to which the event can stand apart from the accumulated images and construction of it. Slutwalk’s political problem is that it could not easily be distinguished from a parody of it – if Showgirls Bar 20 sent its dancers onto the streets with “It’s My Hot Body and I’ll Do What I want With It” placards, it would be literally impossible to tell whch was the march and which was its commercial mirror. Indeed, the distinction would verge on the spurious.

That analysis accords so neatly with my middle-aged nostalgic prejudices that there must be something terribly wrong with it. What could it be? Several possibilities:

  1. The ’80s second-wave feminism that Reclaim The Night represented was the nadir of the movement as a living thing — the “liberation” of the early ’70s had been hived off, and what remained was a puritanism that set itself against deep-seated feminine and masculine desires for display, spectatorship, voyeurism and the complexities of power, crashing and burning in the identity politics of the ’90s. The self-definition of large amounts of women as “not a feminist” dates from that time, as does the huge reversal in popular culture, whereby traditional ultra-femininity returned, often disguised with a light dusting of irony.
  2. Seeing Slutwalk as in the tradition of non-performative “demonstrations” or marches is to misunderstand it. It’s better seen as a political form of the dada-ish “zombie walks”, “santa rampages”, etc, that began on the US west coast a decade or two ago — with a bit of riot grrl thrown into the mix — and have now expanded. Slutwalk is a joke about the way in which divisions that structured second-wave feminist politics are so far beyond relevant that the whole idea of not being a “slut”, can be parodied without danger.
  3. Slutwalk is an entirely post-feminist event, a manifestation of what Michel Houellebecq calls the “extension of the domain of the struggle” (his first novel; in English it is titled Whatever), in which he argues that the character of the current period is one of total competition in all fields, particularly sexual, a real dystopia borne equally of the ’60s and the ’80s. Slutwalk uses feminist themes as a cover for young women to wage war against older women (who would surrender their own power by going on Sl-twalk in a way they didn’t for Reclaim The Night), and conventionally attr — oh God OK, hot chicks, versus the rest. It is a Reclaim The Night march through hell, it is high school by other means.
  4. Slutwalk celebrates not merely play, parody, recuperation, etc, but also the dissolution of boundaries and notions of a respectable self, which is the principal way by which the contemporary dysfunctional capitalism is enforced these days. Thus, it’s inevitable that one of its principal opponents would be chicklit novelist and Tory MP Louise Bagshawe, since the well-regulated world of totally commodified desire that is chicklit’s forte* relies on a firmly bounded Protestant/puritan self-working and consuming in a wholly regulated manner, and mistaking this for liberation. Bagshawe et al can use the language of ’80s Reclaim The Night-style feminism, because that, now isolated from any current possibility of wider political change, has become a mode of class enforcement, not female emancipation — the manner by which professional women mark themselves out as different to service/admin class women.
  5. On the other hand, Slutwalk is a more radical assertion of autonomy than Reclaim The Night. Though Reclaim the Night purported to be establishing autonomy by women dressing for themselves, this was in fact the cultural enforcement of older stereotypes that women needed to dress in certain clothes — drab, formless, originally masculine — to be taken seriously. Slutwalk exposes the assumptions in that position, and the manner in which they reinforce old notions of how women are to be regarded and judged.
  6. On the third hand, the event has no compelling meaning beyond its own spectacle, because the “event” that triggered it — one dumb remark, since profusely, Canadianly, apologised for — represents, per se, no threat at all. Its non-political character can be made clear by imagining what would happen if anyone turned up in slut mode to march against rape in South Africa, femicide in Mexico, etc. Slutwalk is instead of radical politics, but expresses the continued urge to be radically political, and the current dilemma of doing this in the current era.

Vote now, our lines are open. Can’t say I wouldn’t have preferred Slutwalk to Reclaim The Night in the ’80s. On the other, can’t say the latter didn’t achieve more for those who made it happen than the former will.

* “Texan honey Sally Lassiter, English rose Jane Morgan and Jordanian Helen Yanna meet at an exclusive girls school and become best friends. They form a bond which will never be broken. Years later, the three girls are grown-up, co-founders and millionaire co-owners of the exclusive GLAMOUR chain of stores. They are fabulously wealthy, instantly recognisable, adored and revered. Or are they?” — blurb for Glamour by Louise Bagshawe

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