Talks and Debates: Catherine Mayer FFS
The Old Market, Brighton 24th February 2019
Writer and journalist Catherine Mayer is co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party and this, the first stop on a short UK tour entitled Catherine Mayer FFS* offered 100 minutes of this respected writer in, as she terms it ‘a show about how our world became so damningly polarised and how to fix it’.
Part of The Old Market’s ‘Reigning Women’ programme, this one woman ‘anti-TED talk’ (including a limerick, musings whilst moving about the stage, a haiku and some pee-proof underwear) was an informal, chatty exploration of the nature of discourse in our current political climate, and its effect on sex and gender.
Drawing on her extensive journalistic background, she sets out to focus on salient points about social media, the polarisation of debate, identity politics, and to create a polemic on the inability of the ‘snowflake’ generation to take ownership of their beliefs through a process of no-platforming – the practice of preventing someone holding views regarded as unacceptable from contributing to a public debate, something taking place on Twitter on a daily basis.
Loosely written and allowing for a conversational style, in the first half the show, Catherine touched on a wide range of topics including Behavioural Economics and David Cameron, her dislike of TED talks (and the strict rules governing them), and that anti-feminists had crowdfunded to attend various points on her previous tour – thereby inadvertently supporting the Women’s Equality Party to whom the event funds were going. Something of an own goal.
She only briefly alluded to challenges within the Women’s Equality Party by mentioning humorously the multiplicity of opinions held by feminists, touching on the current storm about gender self-identification (the very first policy document having made clear that the party supported “the right of all to define their sex or gender or to reject gendered divisions as they choose”)
Mentioning her solitary campaign to have German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the cover of Time magazine as person of the year (whilst Editor of the journal), she spoke of her joy at finally getting her placed on the Time shortlist and having called to tell her, only to find out that she’d later been removed as there was already another woman on the list. She discussed the most searched terms on the Time.com website – Sex and Porn and shared a selection of tweets she’d received from admirers e.g. ‘Why is it always ugly women who complain?!’ leading her to the conclusion that ‘fear is very good at silencing women’.
As someone who later took legal action against her employers at the magazine for age and sex discrimination she assessed as a woman how much of the need to fight these battles had informed her politics, and that politicians ultimately need to legislate for equality as it just won’t happen as a natural process, thus ensuring there’s more equality to go round, not less.
Mayer touched on the inevitable Brexit discussion, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s skill at utilising not just data, but metadata (data about data), hence her reference to pee-proof underwear and adverts for said pants on her own private Facebook profile before she’d even realised she was actually menopausal. In the second half of the event, Mayer was joined by Icelandic lawyer and academic María Rún Bjarnadóttir – currently based at the University of Sussex and working on a PhD entitled Her research titled: “Does the internet limit human rights protection?”. Discussing the differences between the Icelandic model and the UK model with regards to male and female roles, affordable childcare, and the ‘Red Sock Movement’, both speakers discussed legislation formulated to be ‘gender neutral’ but that this almost always meant playing to the lowest common denominator, i.e. men, so that the neutrality was not starting from an equal stand point. Mayer signalled that ‘market forces should lead us to gender equality but they don’t, leading us into the opposite direction’.
I enjoyed the debate and the variety of ideas during the show but at times found that the discussion wandered further from the subject matter, making it hard to be clear about the overall point of the experience. My feeling is that this will become more polished as the tour goes on and offer greater clarity. I hope so as Mayer is an engaging and relevant speaker so I do recommend this talk.
At this, the start of a new tour, Catherine Mayer played to a home crowd of (mostly) women and Women’s Equality Party activists in particular with three WEP candidates present in the audience. Suggesting that ‘Fear builds fear and builds walls’, she highlighted key changes to promote fundamental equality including a women’s strike, legislatory amendments, the political will to make distinct changes and a system of proportional representation to promote diversity. She declared that ‘making change starts with the vision you’re running towards, and concluded the show with the realisation is that the simple truth is that life is complicated – and we’ll reach this shiny bright feminist future only by embracing that complexity.
*For Future Sake