Stop the War, punk and sexism (and Attila's reply)
On 27 May, a group of young AWL members went to a Stop the War benefit gig in Balham and caused a bit of a stir by objecting to some lyrics in one of Attila the Stockbroker’s songs. Here one of them shares her thoughts with him.
Dear Attila the Stockbroker,
A GROUP of us, young people, mostly women, came to your recent benefit gig for Wandsworth Stop the War. After enjoying your set, we were shocked by the words of your song “Supermodel” and the hateful language you used to describe women exploited by the fashion industry. We felt uncomfortable that the majority of the audience was oblivious to the sexist undercurrents this poem contained.
Two songs later, when you sang “Hey, Celebrity! Tabloid whore!” we felt there should be a challenge to the acceptance of sexist language from a left-wing singer by a left-wing audience, and we chanted “Sexist” from the back of the room before engaging you in a row outside.
We are not accusing you of being a sexist person. I think it is positive that your politics, the politics you put forward in your songs, include the fight against women’s oppression and that you feel strongly enough about these issues to include them in your act. I do not deny that many women will have welcomed the poem, as it goes some way to identifying the exploitative fashion industry as a problem that needs to be challenged.
But “Supermodel” also conveys negative, hateful depictions of women. It opens: “Prebubescent imagery / Empty, stupid eyes”. And continues: “No fat / No body hair / No character, no love, no personality — no brain / So thin and yet.... / so thick”.
Do you honestly think that women in fashion photos have “no personality”, “no brain”?
Our starting assumption should be that women are exploited by the fashion industry precisely because their abilities are not displayed in these images – because they are used to make money without any interest in their qualities as human beings. For me, branding women in the fashion industry as stupid underestimates the abilities of women. It is based on assumptions that can be deemed sexist.
The most openly sexist aspect of the poem is when you complain that, “I’m supposed to fancy you...../ Well I don’t..../ You revolt me.... I love a real woman”.
Women’s liberation is not about who men fancy, or choosing a “more progressive” form of objectification, promoting one stereotype of a woman’s body over another. We are trying to break away from the idea that women’s bodies are just objects to be fancied. We need your solidarity as human beings, unconditional on our shape and size.
Less openly sexist but also politically problematic is the idea that women are complicit in their oppression: “you connive/ in the corporate enslavement of your sisters”.
Undoubtedly some women will choose to be involved in the industry. But it is wrong to focus your fire at the women and not at the fashion houses, the corporations, the media, the high street labels that produce their garments in sweatshops. You say their bodies are “the unnatural creation of capital”. But your response seems to be to say “I hate you” to the women, not the system that exploits them.
Women here are not victims. But they are exploited. And our response should be to reach out to exploited people to help them end their oppression.
When we talked after the performance, you defended yourself against the allegation that “hating is wrong” by talking about Adolf Hitler! We think it is right that you feel hatred about injustice – but it matters to whom it is directed. We do not think you should focus your hatred on the very people that you should be linking up with in solidarity.
The general political problem with this poem is that it does not see women as the agents of their own liberation. After blaming and scorning them, and positing your own male preference for a larger woman as an alternative, it leaves little space for respect and solidarity.
The attitude is that the fashion industry is a “bad thing” that should be condemned as a whole, including the women who participate in it. A common strand in many women’s rights campaigns at the minute seems to be to campaign to “protect” women from “bad things”, rather than encouraging women to fight their oppression from inside the system.
Thus some feminists are against sex workers fighting their exploitation by joining trade unions; anti-sex-trafficking campaigners want to “protect” what they see as passive “victims” of the industry, rather than helping them to fight for themselves; and there is a campaign to move all sexual images of women to the top shelves, censoring women’s sexuality, rather than allowing them to determine it.
Some of the young people you spoke to are in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, some are our friends. Some of us have been involved in organising Feminist Fightback, a socialist feminist conference last October, and other events to put women at the centre of their own liberation.
In our view, it is understandable that your poem should miss the mark, as there is no wider women’s movement to shape the culture we live in. We’re working to change that!
I remember hearing one of your poems, “Contributory negligence”, a brilliant send-up of a judge who acquitted a rapist on the grounds that the woman “asked for it”. Presumably, this poem picked up on the broader messages of the women’s movement of the time.
We hope you take these comments seriously. They are part of a fight for the best possible ideas on women’s liberation within our movement, which is part of our broader fight against exploitation and oppression.
Yours for women’s liberation and socialism,