If we don’t count crushing guilt and disappointment, there is just one Roman Catholic habit I can’t seem to shake. Liturgy is difficult to forget in the weeks before Easter, and the appearance of Creme Egg always makes me remember Lent.  As I am not Jesus, I can hardly refuse the temptation of Cadbury, but I generally do try to practise some instructive form of self-denial starting Ash Wednesday.

This year, I had given up writing about feminism for Lent.

It is peculiar, perhaps, to think of feminism as a kind of seduction, but you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you it has lately become a profitable sin. Thanks to the reliable spending habits of their readership, Australian women’s publications have long paid journalists better than anyone else. There is a reason many content providers appeal explicitly to a female audience, and it is not, as is often claimed, that ours is an era in which women Finally Have a Voice. It is because women buy most of the shit in shops. The voice used to sell this shit has just changed its register a little.

Once, women’s mass media publications wrote about diets. Now they write about body-image and self-esteem. The new advice to “celebrate your difference” such as we might read in mildly reformed publications such as Cosmopolitan magazine is, for mine, not that different from the old advice to “wear a chunky brooch” to distract from the girth of your hips. Similarly, the tendency to inspire fear of rape among readers, such as we might find in Daily Life, has a tabloid resonance that cannot even be muffled by cries to Reclaim the Night. Urging to autonomy in a range of local start-ups including Mamamia, Women’s Agenda and Essential Baby never seems more vehement to me than that we might find in a Cathy comic strip.

Familiar themes of dread, loathing for one’s body, parenting and Treating Yourself are re-branded as feminism. It took me a year or two to overcome the irritation I felt in seeing a useful account of power tamed into a form of SEO — and right up until Ash Wednesday to vow never to engage with what had essentially become a debate with corporate interests.

There is no point arguing gender and power with people who are in the business of collecting clicks and buying and selling Girls’ Weekends Away. Even if they do throw in peculiar argot like “rape culture” and “hegemony”, there is no more reason to think of this stuff as meaningful resistance to the stricture of gender than, say, the memory of Thelma Bullpitt  hiding her Myer receipts from her husband.

So I gave up. I do not wish to have the “What Is Feminism?” conversation with a new orthodoxy fuelled by new enticements because it can only end in being called a “hater”, and there is no shade more offensive in the safe pink space of women’s news analysis than cynicism.

For a whole week, it was going pretty well. I’d shunned this vice throughout International Women’s Day, and I’d even managed to turn my cheek when my works on the matter of gender were impenitently used by Elle Hardy in the Murdoch press to praise liberal democracy.

Then I met Satan in the second week of fasting.

Get behind me, Janet.

As a Roman Catholic, one is encouraged to identify with our Lord. It is not, therefore, improper for me to say that when I was yesterday offered kudos by Janet Albrechtsen I felt a bit like Jesus did in the desert when Satan reminded him how easy it was to turn stone into bread. Wrote Albrechtsen:

“Though she will hate the praise from this page, kudos to freelance writer Helen Razer for being honest enough to tell the sisterhood to lift its own gaze and its game. ‘Feminism has become a middle-class wank fest devoted to feeling good,’ wrote Razer last year. Worse than that, there is something deeply unsettling when a clique of well-to-do women spends more time lamenting its own petty grievances and ignores the real human rights abuses that plague women in the not-so-rich world.”

Just as The Australian can praise an opponent of conservatism for her feminist critique, the Horned One can cite scripture to lure even the best Christian. But I am emboldened by Lent, and I know that the holy word of feminism is as out of place in The Australian as it has lately become in other mainstream conversation.

Those to whom feminism remains one useful account of the world might also do well to atone, as I am attempting, in the desert. These crude conversations about power are had not to shepherd us into a pasture of radical democracy but to keep us baaing the same old evil.

Peter Fray

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