Book review / Trashed by tabloids

Different for Girls: how culture creates women by Joan Smith, Chatto pounds 10.99

Joan Smith's well-received Misogynies - the scape-nannygoats' catalogue for 1989 - necessarily missed a thousand targets. Even the most vigilant recorder of patriarchal hostilities is obliged to wrap it up once in a while. The sniping carries on, and you've never said it all.

Now we've had eight years' worth of scape-billygoats' manuals. They have instructed blokes to bang drums in the woods and blame their mothers, or warned of dire consequences if we fail to mug up on our girlie wiles so that our half-arsed mates can go pretending they're king of the hill. There's no amnesty in the sex war. Apart from time out wondering whether sheer determination wouldn't make us gay, there is little respite. We underestimate the militancy of the sexually timid at our peril.

Different for Girls jumps some big guns, as well. It lacks an update on the great Queen of Hearts farce, on the spate of spectacularly unpleasant tabloid opining about the perversity of young women who elect to remain childless, and some absolutely beezer stuff about how the feminist lifestyle gives you cancer.

Smith's basic premise is that culture creates women as we know ourselves, and that in the process we are warped into being lesser mortals than we might otherwise be. Her stance in the great nature/nurture debate remains ferociously against any sentimental pragmatism about being born like it. If you bring up a child to be an idiot, chances are it will become an adult with symptoms of idiocy. It wouldn't be fair then to turn round and say the fault was genetic.

Smith's contention is that gender dimorphism - the wilful polarisation of the ladies and the gentlemen based on the slender imperative of their secondary sexual characteristics - is a mere conceit. It is a false construct from the wishful thinking of emotionally fragile power freaks and the women who collude with them. Our unconscious ideas about ourselves and our limitations reflect a prosaic barrage of sexist bigotry we are too enervated to challenge on a daily basis. So we wander forlornly through a world where nobody bothers to distinguish between the meaning of the words "different", "female" and "inferior". The cap doesn't fit, but what else have we got to wear?

To support her thesis, she is by no means strapped for thrilling circumstantial evidence. The evil excesses of the Taliban militia, the deification of sexism in the Christian tradition, silly Victorian moralisers who continue to enjoy respectable reputations, art-house sleaze, the vilification of single mothers on one hand and the new medical orthodoxy that perceives infertility as more terrible than life-threatening disease on the other: all these are put through Smith's thought-processes to emerge as muted, post-feminist, sensible prose. The world's a bad oyster: swallow it and you won't grow up.

When "culture" is gleaned from the media, or more specifically from its tabloid department, Smith is less measured but more fun. Her years in journalism have taught her that headlines rarely conform to the information in the report beneath them, and have invariably been penned by sub-editors who learned their craft from chaps who never recovered from the disappointment of their sex lives in 1952 and continue to hanker for the compliant Miss Right kept from them by her ugly sisters.

The whole business of describing the allowable parameters of womanhood has been in their capable hands. They create the goddesses and the bitches so that we may know where to aim and what to avoid. Which is why Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O and Princess Diana are the three most famous female images in the Western world. Blonde and dead; rich, dark and dead - and thick as a plank, respectively. Oh, and sad. Sad, sad and sad. There's nothing like a tear on a cheek to make a man feel manly. Vapidity is still the most reliable aphrodisiac.

It is her deconstruction of popular bitchery that Smith is at her most courageous and original. She gives us Rosemary West and Myra Hindley and the special place they occupy as living proof of Mr Kipling's spitefully indelible insistence that the female is deadlier than the male. This is an unpalatable question, but the best in the book. Why are these women the receptacles for our deepest loathing? Why can we not grasp that they, like the sadistic beasts who corrupted them, are creatures of the culture - and that the culture is our very own?

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