The focus of Laurie Penny’s Meat Market will be familiar to readers of her blog and columns, with chapters confronting sex and sex work, eating disorders, transphobia and domestic labour. Meat Market is at its best when challenging media orthodoxies on these issues, and particularly when unpicking the disturbing collusion of conservative moralism and anti-porn feminism on the issue of ‘raunch culture’. The problem, Penny points out, isn’t that women are having sex – it’s that a lot of the time they aren’t really enjoying it, trapped in what she calls the ‘ruthless logic of performative irony’. Penny’s socialist-feminist perspective is a welcome challenge to the voices most often offered a platform in tabloid and broadsheet alike, typified either by Julie Bindel-esque transphobia or single-issue myopia, neither of which reflect the vitality and self-critique of much grassroots feminist activism.
A few things don’t quite add up. Penny joins fellow Zero author Nina Power in arguing for the relevance of Shulamith Firestone. Yet, despite Penny’s frequent recourse to Firestone and other second-wave thinkers like Juliet Mitchell, she refers to ‘second-wave feminism’ as if it was a monolithic chorus singing the praises of essentialism rather than the flawed but discordant rumble of emerging consciousness to which a thoughtful review of the period attests. Meat Market is a bit too derivative of Power’s excellent One-Dimensional Woman at times. I wish Penny had queried some of that book’s arguments, particularly Power’s tendency to conflate liberal feminism with Sex and the City (a problematic interpretation of feminism is not the same thing as a wholesale capitalist co-option of feminism). Penny has been criticised for embellishing her eyewitness accounts. Certainly, she’s a lone radical voice charged with representing an impossibly complex constituency. But while holding journalists like Penny to account, we should be attacking the culture that only gives one feminist the mic at a time. And do books about gender always have to be pink?
Meat Market by Laurie Penny (Zero Books, 2011)
Reviewed by Sophie Jones