Books are a Feminist Issue

There’s been quite a bit of cyberdrama about this poem, and its video.

Mark Grist – Girls Who Read

Some women feminist poets, and some male poets who are undoubtedly feminists (or allies, if you deny that men can be feminists) are really angry that performance poet Mark Grist has produced a poem celebrating that intelligence is sexy, and that there is more to women than ‘tits’ and ‘arse’. They complain that this poem is still in the business of objectifying women. I can’t see how appreciating a woman’s mind objectifies her. The opposite, I would have thought. Grist’s poem delights in the idea of conversation and intellectual argument, in enjoying debating issues with a equal. One guy actually asked me on twitter: “What about women who don’t or can’t read?” presumably trying to be totally PC and inclusive. He might have been joking, but if not, then I’m sorry, but I found his comment unintentionally funny.

The feminist poetry magazine ‘tender’ was writing and  tweeting about this too. They didn’t give the video three cheers, they thought that telling us that women actually have brains was rather underwhelming. I’d rather be encouraging to a man who seems like a feminist ally, even if his commentary didn’t go far enough. They tweeted a link to poet and blogger delladilly who wrote a bitter parody of Grist’s poem, one which wilfully misunderstands his position. Instructing someone to ‘date a girl who reads’ assumes a position of entitlement to that date which Grist never claims. In fact the video is mildly self-deprecating. The girl who sits alone in the pub, reading, who inspires the poet’s tirade against his “tits and arse” loving friends, is so obviously reading to deflect unwanted attention from men. At the end of the poem, just as the poet is thinking of going over to talk to her, her boyfriend arrives, so the poet, for all his fantasies about life with an intelligent woman, is left on his own.

A further objection was that the poet mentions that he finds women who read sexy. It makes some feminists uncomfortable that Grist is still viewing women as objects of male lust. Well, I think any poet is entitled to discuss his thoughts and emotions. If you read Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, Robert Herrick’s Delight in Disorder, or the supremely naughty To His Mistress, Going to Bed by John Donne, you will see male lust very openly displayed in great poems. To ask a man not to talk about his sexuality in poetry is to shut off a powerful strand of human experience. We should not be in the business of creating taboo subjects. To try to shut people down by dismissing their views – isn’t that what women have struggled against for centuries? Besides, if we ask the same self-censorship from women, there would be female friends of mine on Facebook who would need to keep their thoughts on David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch to themselves.

I suspect the people who are picking holes in Grist’s poetic performance are not his target audience, which is laddish young men, and women who seek validation in adopting a sexualised appearance. Granted, the poem does not give us a sophisticated view of gender relations, but I saw it as generally a positive feminist statement. Some commentators have asked whether it is a “feminist anthem”. Well, no. But it does try to counter the prevalent “rape culture” with a different view of women; one where their “passion, wit and dreams” are appreciated. I think in today’s cultural climate we should be grateful for that. Let’s not dismiss a feminist ally by saying he’s not feminist enough. There’s a slightly patronising note to the poem, and a faint note of self-aggrandisement (“Hey, look at me, I like women with BRAINS, aren’t I right on?”) but I’m prepared to take the sentiments expressed at face value.

So on the whole, I’d award two cheers to Mark Grist for saying something celebratory about women’s brains. Although seasoned feminists might not find it sufficiently revolutionary, his target audience might get something new to think about from this piece. I’d award one cheer to the feminist critics who have slated this poem, for not embracing what was generally a supportive statement, even if it was a bit “Feminism 101” for their sophisticated tastes.

8 thoughts on “Books are a Feminist Issue

  1. Well argued. I concur! As a performance poet who tries to make her work accessible to an audience who would not ordinarily be ‘into’ poetry I feel his work is valid and important. Intellectual feminists need to realise that more often than not their message is lost and even vilified for its militant and elitist stance. Much of it marginalises the very people who really need to hear it.


    • I count myself as a pretty vehement feminist, but I agree with you, some of the sisterhood do the movement a bit of a disservice sometimes. I’d love to know what they think men should be saying in support of women.


  2. i’m not sure what not treating yourself as an object looks like. i am an object unfortunately so must learn about myself and how to best look after myself as an object? Maybe I’m missing something…


    • That’s a very detailed definition of objectification. I’d hazard the view that Grist’s poem does the very opposite on a number of levels.


  3. I think he pitched it just right. As you say, Judi, he wasn’t trying to pander to feminists (that would be creepy); he was addressing lads in the pub and giving them permission to go beyond tits/arse, blonde/brunette.


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