Overheated, overhyped and over here: Hot American Feminists - that's what's on offer in London this week. Katie Roiphe is just the latest of them. In Ruth Picardie, a Cool British Feminist, they provoke only one question: who needs them?

Ruth Picardie
Thursday 13 January 1994 00:02 GMT

Katie Roiphe got in from New York on Monday. She's in London until the end of the week, off to Amsterdam, comes back to London, heads back to the States . . . . I catch her for coffee at her smart hotel in Notting Hill Gate.

'It's all a blur,' she says, crossing her long, slender, platform-tipped legs and smoothing down her short black skirt. 'I hate being on TV so much.' Her minder, Fiona, goes off to wait for the next media arrivals. Apparently, she's doing 'everything'.

So who is Katie Roiphe? The superest model since Kate Moss? The sexiest young actress since Julia Roberts? Of course not] She's the hot young feminist whose little book, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 7.99), has got the American media in the biggest froth since, well, the last one. Based on her experiences as a student at Harvard and Princeton, she delivers what the publishers call a 'scathing critique' of the women's movement today.

Her targets include 'Take Back The Night' marches which apparently teach women to be afraid of men and afraid of sex; campus rape alarms (ditto); safe sex counselling (ditto); self-defence classes (ditto); and rape statistics (vastly exaggerated). 'Myself,' she writes, 'when I used to walk over the golf course to the graduate college, I was more afraid of wild geese than rapists.' Now Hamish Hamilton has rushed out a British edition (I use the term British loosely, since it comes with American spelling) so that we too can enjoy her 'extraordinary indictment of the women's movement today'.

You can hardly move these days without moving into a Hot American Feminist. Naomi Wolf and Camille Paglia are both in town to promote their new books. They hate each other, but they're more or less saying the same thing as Roiphe. Wolf's Fire With Fire (Chatto & Windus, pounds 11.99) is all about how women should abandon 'victimhood' in favour of 'power feminism'. Paglia's collection of essays, grandly titled Sex, Art, and American Culture (Penguin, pounds 9.99), attacks weaklings like Anita Hill and celebrates powerful types, like Madonna and Camille Paglia, who get what they want.

Anyone who has the slightest inkling about British society, never mind feminism, will be wondering what all the fuss is about. We did 'victim' feminism years ago - at Greenham Common, for example, where we talked endlessly about how women were naturally peace-loving and closer to nature. But we soon realised, with Margaret Thatcher in power, that of course women weren't naturally nice and soft and kind. However, Katie Roiphe was born and bred in New York, so she's still harping on about how feminists think all women are innocent and oppressed and men are all rapists.

So who is this fascinating scholar? First of all, it's Royfee, not Royf. Next, she's 25 years old, very thin (I ate all the biscuits that came with the coffee), has dark, shoulder-length curly hair, and lives alone in the West Village, New York City, having recently split up with her boyfriend of two years. She grew up on Fifth Avenue, daughter of an old-school Freudian psychoanalyst and feminist writer. She has four sisters, ranging in age from 22 to 37. One is at graduate school, another is a film producer, there is a psychiatrist and one 'lives in Minnesota and she's kind of nothing'. When Katie's not working on her PhD on poets and writers of the Thirties and Forties and their relation to Freud, 'I hang out with my friends and do stuff.' She recently gave up smoking though she still has a nasty cough.

And the book? 'I'm writing about what I see as the dangers of projecting certain kinds of images of men and women,' says Katie. 'I think that a certain strain of feminism is promoting images of women as victims and men as aggressors, and the idea that women are always about to be violated, that men are potential rapists. Basically, feminism is endorsing these archaic ideas of what men and women are and what sexuality is. For a complicated set of reasons this is appealing. For a complicated set of reasons they're doing this. I think it's all more complicated than that.

'The other strain of this is, to me, it's more important to say that women are responsible for their actions than to keep presenting this idea that they're not. Certain rules about sexual harassment and certain ways of looking at things like date rape institutionalise a kind of woman who is gullible, passive and nave.' Katie, bless her, has not yet mastered the soundbite, despite months of media exposure.

Luckily, the book is more pungent. 'Sarah,' she writes, 'wore baggy clothes in shades of brown and burnt orange. Looking at her, you couldn't see any curves or angles, just fabric. Her blond hair was short, and she wore an ear-ring in the shape of a woman symbol.' God knows what she thought of me, as I turned up for the interview in DMs, black jeans, a lumberjack shirt, no make-up, no jewellery and glasses. However, I stopped panicking when I remembered she was especially harsh on 'radical cover-girl chic feminists' who have 'dieted, exercised and gossiped about boys'. A lucky escape.

And what about British feminists? 'Um,' says Katie - there is a longish pause - 'I've always been interested in Germaine Greer.' (I make no comment on the national identity of our adopted feminist hero.) Another pause. 'Um,' says Katie. 'Give me some British feminist names.'

This, unfortunately, is precisely the point about Katie Roiphe and the Hot American Feminists. It's not so much that I think The Morning After is a weakly argued, inaccurate and muddled book which should have remained a provoking Op Ed piece in the New York Times, where it began, more that it has very little to do with Britain.

The February issue of Elle, the magazine of choice when I was a campus feminist, contains an opinion piece (by a man) in favour of polygamy; a picture story on the new trend for celebrity nudity; a fashion story on the new 'powerful icon of awakened sexuality, schoolgirl playfulness and female knowing'; four men writing, humorously, on the subject of male impotence; a story on a woman who makes a living as a phone sex playmate; Kurdish girl guerrillas not a victim in sight. Victim feminism is long gone here.

Where are all the British feminists, cry the publishers and editors? They're under your nose, writing about Peter Sutcliffe (Joan Smith), the sexual revolution (Linda Grant), why women vote Tory (Bea Campbell) - everything except whingeing on about why they need protection. These women are at least as glamorous as (and no older than) Paglia, as articulate as Roiphe, as literate as Wolf - they just don't speak with an American accent.

A Sunday Times-sponsored debate on the issues raised by Roiphe's book will be held next Thursday at the Institute of Education in London. The only British contributors are those well-known feminists David Thomas and Andrew Neil. Boys, you're welcome to it.

(Photographs omitted)

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in