Arifa Akbar: Don't listen to the lipstick feminists

The week in books

I remember going to the launch of one of Shere Hite's sex surveys which focused on female desire, and being stunned not by what she said but by how she looked. She was heavily made-up and wore a spray-on dress with precipitous heels. It looked like a book launch that could burst into burlesque at any moment. I was studying French feminism at the time and had tortured debates on whether Hite was a lipstick feminist or if she was cleverly illustrating Simone de Beauvoir's theory that femininity was a performance.

Reading Catherine Hakim's Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, this week, I was reminded of that moment. She is an academic at the LSE who advocates that women use their sexiness strategically at work and in their relationships, as it is their unique advantage over men (who, she suggests, are hungrier for sex than women). She also works with the conspiracy theory that while some feminists urge women not to use their looks to get ahead, this is really playing into men's hands as it they who have put this notion out there in order to sideline a powerful asset: "It is not surprising that many young women regard feminism today as irrelevant," she concludes.

Yet her brand of feminism is based on a need for acceptance by any means necessary. Where I was in awe of Hite, I'm discomforted by Hakim. Let's leave aside the fact that erotic capital is a currency that women have long traded in, mostly out of a lack of other options. Let's also leave aside the fact that there is already a hysterical focus on women's body image (from its pornification in mainstream advertising to the unattainable ideal in fashion, to the sexualisation of young girls in the consumer industry). It seems as if Hakim is urging women to use sexiness as a weapon against men (and possibly other "fat" or "ugly" women). Hakim has examples that equate sexiness with success: the beautiful sister who does better in life than the dowdy one, Michelle Obama, Christine Legarde, the French MD of the IMF, for whom fitness is apparently more important than getting enough sleep. We are supposed to believe in the equation Hakim draws. Yet isn't it shallow, to draw the comparison between a commercial version of beauty and success (which surely should be defined by high levels of happiness and contentment)?

Period dramas like Mad Men remind us that women in the workplace did not gain their advantage by flashing décolletage or wearing pretty outfits, otherwise the impossibly curvy Joan would have got further than the dowdier, more successful Peggy. Nowadays, a women who sexes up for work may not be taken as seriously in the boardroom. Hakim concedes this, though she presses on with her argument. Nicola Horlick, the fund investment manager who famously juggled the care of six children with her career, speaks of a kind of glass-ceiling for women who rely on erotic capital - it will get them so far: "I think it is very important to dress well and to look smart at work... Thereafter, women must be totally professional and seek to be judged on their skill and worth to the organisation. I have seen women progress by other means, and this may have helped them to make progress in the short term, but they have generally failed in the long term. This is because they did not have the respect of colleagues."

What is depressing about erotic capital - which Hakim will discuss next month at the Southbank Centre, is that it reduces feminism to economics. The suggestion is that women need to use all they've got in our straitened times. It is a market-led theory - a Capitalist Feminism.

Caitlin Moran, the columnist and author of How To Be A Woman, says such "capital" is akin to trickery: "The rule I have in my book to see if sexism is happening is "Are the boys doing it? Fairly obviously, men are not having to be sexy [in order] for women to get on at work, and that's because the balance of power still rests with men, and women basically have to "trick" men into their fair share of the money/power with such things as sexiness.

"I would say you're working in a company that's not really operating at its full potential if women are only getting ahead because they're being successfully, effortfully and expensively sexy... I mean, what kind of tuppenny ha'penny organis-ation is disabling 52 percent of its potential brainpower in favour of only listening to the chicks who have nice legs?"

"Why not champion femininity rather than abolish it?" Hakim asks, reminding me of the eccentric theories of the French feminists I studied. They talked about female sexuality that was essentially distinct from men's and urged women to talk with their "lips" (the labial variety). I wonder what Dr Hakim would make of that.

Shortlist for Muslim writers

The Cairo-born author, Bahaa Taher has been shortlisted for the Muslim Writers Award (sponsored by Penguin). His book, 'Sunset Oasis', despite being set in colonial Egypt amid the embers of failed uprisings and disenchanted antiheroes, provides a trajectory that traces Egypt's past with its most recent uprising, and Mubarak's trial. As one of the best-read contemporary novelists in Eygpt (he won the first International Prize for Arabic Fiction) his readership is spreading well beyond the Arab world. The shortlist also includes the Iranian writer, Shahriar Mandanipour as well as Aamer Hussein, Farahad Zama and Roopa Farooki.

A night with a poetry whore

A 'Brothellian Movement' for poetry has been growing apace in recent times, originally conceived in Brighton and quickly spreading across America and Europe. Timothy Grayson, host of the UK Poetry Brothel, explains that it is a mix of "poetry, burlesque and debauched entertainment". The point, he says, is to sex poetry back up so that it resembles the status it held in the Romantic Age. For clients willing to pay extra, there is a personal service in which a Madame will lead them to a 'poetry whore' of choice declaiming original poems. Each show is themed: the last was called Belshazzar's Feast, while the next major event, opening on 27 August in Leicester, is the decadently named Gomorrah. It includes"all manner of Caligulan delights", promises Mr Grayson, as well as an enormous range of poetry. Like the touring show, The Theatre Brothel, which takes place in unexpected spaces, this too has an edge of the illicit, and it is a wonderful way to enliven the performance aspect of poetry.

a.akbar@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones