A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Kat Banyard: The Equality Illusion

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A couple of years ago, I was queuing for a cashpoint in Queen’s Park, sporting a baggy jumper and the remnants of a hangover, and arguably not looking my radiant best. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help being taken aback when the man in front of me — a late-middle-aged chap with a thick French accent — turned, pointed to a heavily made-up woman in a shift dress and knee-high boots, and informed me: ‘You are not as beautiful as this girl’. I was so surprised to be addressed in this way that all I could do was voice an incredulous ‘So?’ at which this connoisseur of female beauty raised his eyebrows in disgust and turned away.

The world that Kat Banyard describes in The Equality Illusion is full of such incidents. Echoing Richard Dawkins in much more than her title, she sets out her stall passionately in her ‘Alarm call’ introduction, stating that ‘it is time to find the way back’ and recognise feminism as ‘one of the most vital social justice movements of our age’ by debunking the comfortable lie that we now live in an equal world and demonstrating that women are still very much considered as objects to please and serve men. 

There can be no doubt of the work and effort that has gone into the compilation of Banyard’s book. Based on hundreds of interviews with marginalised and vulnerable women, and bristling with statistics, this is an ambitious and heart-felt attempt to unpick the structures of everyday life.

When it works, it is compelling. The discussion of gender creation in young children, for example, with its examination of the active toys, pursuits and clothes we give baby boys and how they contrast to the passive, pretty and impractical objects with which we surround girls — and the way parents have been shown to reward assertive behaviour in boys and punish it in girls — is fascinating.

But it doesn’t always work. Much like Dawkins, Banyard is so passionate about her subject that she is often unable to give the case for the opposition its due (and sometimes neglects to acknowledge it altogether). For example, the possibility that a woman could enter prostitution through anything other than male coercion is never entertained. Instead, Banyard is relentless in her attacks on popular portrayals of prostitution such as the Billy Piper Secret Diary of a Call Girl series, which she sees as a gross and misleading glamorisation of a seedy and exploitative industry.

While she is right that that show is ridiculously silly — and while the sex trade clearly exploits many vulnerable people — Banyard conveniently neglects to mention that the concept for the programme was based on a blog by a real-life former prostitute, research scientist Dr Brooke Magnanti, who chose the occupation and appears pretty unscathed. (‘I didn’t go into it cheerfully, but I wasn’t resigned and broken either… I’ve felt worse about my writing than I ever have about sex for money,’ she told The Times in 2009.)

Similarly, again like Dawkins, Banyard has a tendency to get swept off into irrelevant arguments in her enthusiasm. Her analysis of the way the beauty industry works by playing on women’s insecurities may be accurate but is surely no different to the way advertising works across the spectrum. Fear of inadequacy has always been used to shift units, whether you’re selling compacts, cars or cottages in the Algarve.  

All of which is a shame, because Banyard has plenty of good stuff to say. It’s just that she weakens her argument (to use a traditionally male metaphor) by wanting to score more goals than the opposition in every match, rather than trusting that her line-up is strong enough to win on aggregate now and then and scoop the championship overall.

Nevertheless, I can’t help wishing she’d been standing behind me that day in Queen’s Park. Now that would have been entertaining… 

Picture by The Jordan Collective

Written by Ann Morgan

September 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Very interesting. I definitely agree with the idea that feminism is having a harder time nowadays with younger women believing so passionately that we live in an equal society. It’s just not true yet. It is too bad she didn’t follow persuasive writing 101 and give a nod to her opponents now and then while making her case.

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

    Jessica@Team Rasler

    September 19, 2011 at 9:41 pm

  2. While some women may go into sex work of their own volition, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that that number is vanishingly small compared to the number who go into it, for want of a better phrase, in an unempowered way — through the coercion of men or through crippling poverty, drug addiction and the like. Brooke Magnanti’s experience is so high-profile precisely because it is so incredibly unusual. I think Banyard has blind spots that can be legitimately picked on (such as what she has to say* on the issue of pornography), but I’m not so sure this is one of them. In an ideal world, yes, women would go into prostitution and it would all be fair and three cheers for everyone involved — but in the world we actually live in, mmm …

    *I may be misremembering her discussing porn as inherently anti-woman on the telly as being in the book too. Certainly it’s a bugbear of hers I’ve encountered a number of times, and each time I think she sounds a bit intolerant of sexuality and its expression.


    September 20, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    • Hi Louche,

      Great to hear from you. I don’t dispute that far fewer women go into prostitution out of their own volition than do through coercion, trafficking or abuse (at least, from the few prostitutes I’ve interviewed that seems to be the case), but this is not what Banyard says. She does not entertain the possibility of another even extremely rare side to the story, and that’s my problem – it weakens her argument because it makes her seem unable to confront or acknowledge things that don’t fit in with her agenda.

      Given that the book relies so heavily on personal experience and anecdotal evidence to bring the issues home (and that she references Diary of a Call Girl at least three times) the lack of acknowledgement of the woman behind the brand was an awkward omission.

      Yes, you’re also right that she devotes a long section of the book to slamming porn as being intrinsically anti-woman, which is also problematic.


      September 21, 2011 at 7:47 am

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