Black tie, reactive feminism, and gay marriage

The uniform of the imperial ruling classes

Last year I was invited to a dinner at which the dress code was black tie. It was the first time in about a decade that I’d been to one and I had a major freakout before the event. I first wore black tie when I was at university, and in that social context it was marked as something fun, just a bit of dressing up while getting ludicrously drunk. But it isn’t just fun, and I was so concerned about having to wear it last year that I vowed never to do it again.

Black tie – the coming together of a black suit with silk lapels and a black bow tie – is the uniform of the imperial ruling classes. It was formalized by the Edwardians, in a dark period of bloody imperial overreach (rather like the one we live in now, under the American empire). When we read those two words, ‘black tie’, on an invitation, we should be aware of its undertones: only men count (women’s dress isn’t specified, though they’re expected to wear something that emphasizes their bodies), and the rigid separation of men and women is to be insisted on with full ideological force in a performance of separation into intellect (men, all blandly and identically dressed, so that the qualities of their mind in their conversation can be observed the more keenly) and body (women, there to simper, delight, and arouse). It is no more politically neutral to slip into black tie than it is to have a Brits-and-Zulus party with pith helmets.

So when I received an invitation this morning to a feminist dinner at which the dress code was ‘black tie’, I blenched. It is extremely heartening to see so many self-declared feminists in the 18–30 age bracket I spend a lot of my time with as an academic. Even in the outwardly conservative environment of Royal Holloway there is a feminist society and many of my students, irrespective of sex, draw heavily on feminist theory in their undergraduate and postgraduate work. All of this is, I think, an unqualified good, but there are grounds for concern.


According to Alain Badiou there are three subjective responses to a revolutionary Event such as the cry for women’s emancipation: faithful, reactive, and obscure. The faithful response to the Event involves the coming together of individuals into a collective body which in various ways devotes itself – very often selflessly, with little concern for personal safety – to bringing about the ends of the cause. This requires a radical overturning of the existing situation: Badiou refers to the Spartacus revolts in which an army of slaves unite behind the call for freedom. The reactive response acknowledges the validity of the Event’s claims to truth – in this case, that slaves should be free – but seeks to accommodate it within the existing situation. The reactive response seeks a more moderate reform, something a little less bad than the existing situation but not something that will put its existing structures in peril. Badiou’s example is the slaves who do not join Spartacus’s army, hoping that by proving their loyalty to Rome in the face of revolutionary upheaval, they will gain some small benefits – better treatment, if not actual liberty – without facing the worst excesses of fighting and bloodshed. The third response, the obscure response, denies that the Event has any claims to truth at all, and with sometimes massive force restores the ‘natural’ order of the old world, covering over the fact that this ‘natural’ order is merely one that is artificially constructed to benefit the powerful. The obscure response to Spartacus is to deny that slaves can be free or that any body of slaves can unite behind this call, and reassert the rule of the city of Rome by lining the Appian Way with the crucified corpses of the rebelling slaves.

Classically the feminist struggle has involved direct attacks, at the level of public discourse and of law, on the privilege of men. That is its faithful response, and one that needs perpetually to be kept active. What I think we see in much contemporary feminism, both in the likes of Louise Mensch and among students and young professionals, is a reactive feminism, one that accepts the validity of the need to change the discourse – so that all the manifestations of patriarchal sexism are brought publicly to book – but seeks a means of accommodating the feminist revolution to existing social forms. ‘Yes, we can change the way we talk about women in public, but no, we can’t eradicate the institution of marriage – which formalizes the subjugation of women and their economic, material, and sexual subservience to men – or eradicate the pay differential between men and women. Such things are not “realistic”. We have to work with what we have.’

Precisely the same kind of response is seen in liberal support of gay marriage. ‘Yes, of course two women or two men can live together in a sexual relationship. We embrace their difference. But they shouldn’t be too different. They should be permanent, stable, ideally civilly partnered or married relationships, that affirm the essential relationship structures of our society.’ What made the gay rights movement revolutionary was its challenge to existing forms of relationship. And the right-wing press has the matter precisely wrong when it claims that allowing gay marriage will ‘weaken the institution of [heterosexual] marriage’. Far from it. By insisting on the need to conform, albeit with minor adjustments (there may only be one kind of genitals in the bed), to the normative scripts of legal monogamy, civil partnerships and gay marriage only strengthen this reactive response to a sexual revolution that could, in its faithful form, radically redraw the insistence on existing, conservative forms of sexual relationships. I don’t, incidentally, disparage people who enter into such relationships. The pressures to conform are immense, and it is difficult enough even to declare the minimal difference – ‘I’m gay’ – without going so far as to reject the entire paraphernalia of publicly acknowledged sexual-relationship behaviours. (And of course I don’t think that some form of gay relationship is the only way to revolt against the marriage model: a man and a woman can do it just as well.) But what concerns me is the liberal support of these things, because as so often with the centre-left it serves an unintended conservative purpose.

Reactive responses risk two outcomes. First, there is a danger that reactive feminism can be simply folded into normal patriarchal structures after an initial period of flowering. Just as a monogamous straight man can say ‘Oh yes, I experimented a bit with gay sex, or I sowed some wild oats while I was at college, but I’m totally straight and committed to my wife and children now’, so too can a reactive feminist say ‘Yes, I’m a stay-at-home mum and rarely see my breadwinner husband, who never looks after the kids, but I was an active member of my university feminist society, I read de Beauvoir in the evenings, and I distribute pamphlets on women’s reproductive freedom and so on’. Reactive feminism has the potential, that is, of becoming at the same time a badge of honour for women who want to feel better about their own subjection to patriarchal scripts, and a defence for men: ‘Yes, I earn all the money and decide where we’re going to live, but she makes sure I do the bottle feeding and most of the cooking, and we’re both big feminists like that.’ Reactive feminism can therefore allow some of the benefits – like changing the discourse – without any of the real consequences of the Event’s call – like equal pay and political representation for women.

The second risk is even more worrying. Because the obscure subject feeds on the reactive subject’s ‘less bad’ accommodation of the faithful response to the Event, these reactive responses can lead to a return of the bad old situation. One outcome of reactive feminism in recent years has been the establishment of the expectation that women should be allowed to breastfeed in public. Presented as a small victory for women’s freedom, because it allows mothers to leave home and live a fulfilling life – even at work – while they’re nursing babies, it is a reactive response in the sense that it does not deny the essential binary of the pre-feminist moment: women and men are fundamentally different, women must care for babies, and it is their bodies (with the milk-giving breasts) that mark them out from men. A faithful feminist outcome might be for men to take babies to work with them, and bottle feed. But the entire industry that argues that ‘breast is best’ and that ‘women should be free to breastfeed in public without opposition’ is profoundly reactive. The image of woman as body, as distinct from man as intellect, is powerfully reinscribed. And the obscure response can feed off it. Just yesterday it was reported that scientists in Canada had discovered that women who did not bear children early in life would be depressed in later life. This naked pro-natalism is a classic obscure response to feminism. ‘It is entirely wrong that women should attempt to break the essential connexion between their role as factory-bodies for new children and their subjugation by legal, religious, and other cultural scripts to men. The reactive feminists have already accommodated to the existing patriarchal network so that, while we have to mince our words a bit, and make sure we make all the right New Man noises, we can still retain the benefits of the old power relation. Now is the time to stress the dangers of even that qualified freedom of developing a career first and having kids later. We must prove a medical – and therefore an essential existential – need for women to reduce themselves to factory-bodies at the earliest possible moment, and lock them out of the public economic and political world for good.’

Finding ways of making small, often very positive, adjustments to an existing situation is always a safer and more attractive option than fighting for truly radical change. And sometimes reactive responses can have a positive effect. (I blogged a while ago about the whinging of men like Giles Coren, who insist that in the new feminist environment men are denied certain freedoms. This is reactive because it accommodates the language of feminism – the need to address sexual imbalances – within the patriarchal network, and it is beneficial in a small sense because it maintains the sense that there are imbalances between the sexes, albeit not the imbalances that Coren believes, and as long as that remains part of public chatter, there is hope for further real improvement in the situation of women.) But the risk of reaction simply being a balm to the conscience of structurally exploitative men, or a fig-leaf for the pride of women who have effectively submitted to their mandate to subject to men, remains – and the threat that the obscure response will work to undo all the positive changes in the situation for women and homosexuals in the West is an ever-present danger.

6 thoughts on “Black tie, reactive feminism, and gay marriage

  1. I’ve just re-read this post: it’s a really useful reminder to always work toward the big picture—the radical overhaul—and don’t get bogged down in detail. Very timely for me just now, so thank you.

  2. 1. Why is the passage beginning “It is entirely wrong that women should…” in quotation marks? Is it a quotation from somewhere? If so, where?
    2. Perhaps I am being stupid, but I fail to see why scientists reporting that women who did not bear children early in life would be depressed in later life is an example of “naked pro-natalism”. If it’s a biological fact, in what sense can it be an example of pro-natalist ideology? Would a scientist reporting that as people get older, they tend to die more be exhibiting “naked pro-deathism”?

    1. 1. No, it’s not a quotation. It’s me rhetorically voicing an imaginary pro-natalist.
      2. I see your point, but your ‘if’ (‘if it’s a biological fact’) is a huge one. Nothing establishes a biological cause-and-effect relationship here between not giving birth and being depressed. It is more likely that the depression is caused by a woman’s socially constructed worries – concerns about what she considers her social responsibility, her ‘natural’ function, and so on – and not by the biological fact that she has not had a child. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a correlation between childlessness and depression, simply because the pressures to have children are so extreme, but I would suggest that it is the social pressure and not the biology of the unproductive womb that causes the depression. (Similarly, maybe more gay teenagers are depressed than straight teenagers. It is not being gay, but the response of others and one’s own feelings of self-worth, that cause the depression.) The assumption of a biological rather than a social link between not giving birth and later depression is therefore clearly pro-natalist. And your comparison to death doesn’t work because with death the matter is clear-cut. People only ever die for biological reasons, even if the biology is interfered with (for instance by murder or suicide). It isn’t clear that depression is always and only caused by the single biological fact that a woman has not had a child, and correlation is not causation – as any scientist worth their salt should readily confess.

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