Slutwalk, novelty, compromise and making it new
‘Make it new’ commands Ezra Pound. He wrote a book to flesh out this advice. The newness that he called for was something very fundamental to the composition of a translated text. He did not want a mirror image of the original’s words – mimicry despite the novelty of the language. Instead the act of translation would impact upon the original text – we would read a new rendering, new words in a new context resonating through the translator’s chosen language. We would be unable to hear the original without the newness of this translation echoing upon it.
Pound wrote a couple of decades before this era of mass consumerism. Now the speed of innovation, production and shelf life means that new is not new for very long. The speed with which things degrade into yesterday’s trends or yesterday’s news sets a new value on novelty.
There are no new ideas, no new products – only new contexts to express those age-old ideas within – to get them shared anew.
Where women are concerned the idea of the new is all too often co-opted by a fashion industry desperate for the latest trend and its revenue. New is a vintage dress, a pair of shoes, a face-lift. A face-wash, a hair dye or the latest in eastern religion will open up the path to ‘the new you’. It is our best approximation of confidence – an imperative to make a particular kind of impression.
And in the real world: the world of consumers and advertisers; 24 hour news cycles and an attention span arrested, distressed and directed in every direction – we have a thousand and one competing stories clutching for our attention.
There is a thrill to finding a product that connects with your ever-evolving, ever-new identity. Birkenstocks and anything second-hand and less than a fiver are the closest that clothes can come to expressing my identity. I express my lack of interest through purchasing products that are cheap and will last. I express my environmentalism by purchasing second-hand or sustainably produced. I express my ethics by frequenting charity shops and buying fair trade products. I rarely wear short skirts or low-cut tops and yet this weekend I discovered that my choice of clothes – my self-expression – would do nothing to limit the likelihood of my rape.
On Saturday 11th June I joined Slutwalk. Its promise is a new feminism that has erupted across the world, to be translated from Toronto to London to the streets of New Delhi (where violence against women is an epidemic). Social media has allowed an idea – a new version of feminism (or feminism renewed) – to travel into the hearts of women across the world from where it has paraded through our streets and into our newspapers.
Slut. The controversy contained in this four letter word is a piece of PR genius. Unlike other four letter words this one does not affront the censors. It has become such a staple of our daily discourse that we can rely on it to be reprinted across the international media and discussed with relish in a crowded pub.
And Slutwalk? Here the controversy becomes a dialogue – are these women walking for the right to dress like sluts (as many journalists and feminist writers have pronounced) or are they marching (as the organizers profess) to challenge the all too common assumption that rape is a reaction rather than an aggressive act: a response to provocation rather than a sick expression of power.
Can a word like Slut be reclaimed? Can it be renewed? Can it be yelled across continents, repeated in new contexts, new languages until its original meaning has a new memory – the message of the slutwalks – that no-one is ever asking for rape. The slutwalks are full of meaning. Their campaign is not to make ‘slut’ meaningless– to write it two thousand times across the page making its only reference point its own repetition – until it loses all significance apart from the typography of utsslutslutslutslutsl. No the intention of the slutwalks is linguistically complex: to reclaim a word and cast it out full of new meaning into the 21st Century.
I’ve been a begrudging feminist for years. My proudest feminist moment was spent actively reclaiming a word; ridiculing the assumptions that surround it; marching with transsexuals, men, women, black women, sex-workers, immigrants, – all representatives of communities who have been told that the violence enacted against is their provocative fault.
It’s difficult to capture attention (especially if you want to avoid being branded attention-seeking). It’s difficult to court the media spotlight especially with a story as old and as taboo as the fact of violence against women. The organizers of Slutwalk have understood the PR value of novelty, yet their rebranding of a feminist march is no compromise because – intentionally or not – they have not just said no, they have said something new.
The media can be relied on to grab at the word slut. Like it or not our press is obsessed with exaggerated female sexuality and so by marching under the Slutwalk banner we gain unprecedented media attention for feminist issues (so often ignored). The novelty of saying ‘slut’ to talk about violence against women gets column inches, the newness of women loving each other – even the ‘sluts’ – is a challenge to the pathology of victim-blaming. A savvy PR trick has been played and rape is in the news like never before. A word has been reclaimed: made a symbol of victims standing together rather than the provocateur slutting alone.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown did not join the march and so her concerns about Slutwalk remain limited to its name rather than the facts of its execution. She knows nothing of the range of costume (un-provocative jeans, sweatpants, school uniforms, or pajamas – the clothes that women worldwide are actually raped in. Nor does she know (or if she does know, she does not mention) the range of speakers who addressed the rally. She wrote a piece which ended:
“Does it make any sense for us to teach our daughters that they can get pissed and wear whorish garb and still expect to be completely safe?”
If I get pissed and wear whorish garb I don’t expect to be safe. Whenever I go out at night I don’t ‘expect’ to be safe. Yet I do expect to be blameless for any violence enacted against me: I expect people to run and help if I scream.
Two nights ago I was waiting for the night-bus home. A woman stood alone in a dress that reached beneath her knees. Two men leaned over her and she shrank from them. The street was not empty yet noone seemed to notice her discomfort. She would walk away and then return to the busstop at which point the two men would rejoin her and invade her space again. Slutwalk has changed the way I view women alone late at night. I am no longer the sensible one safe from unwanted attention and they’ve stopped seeming foolish strangers. Now they are my sisters and I will stand by them.