Are we the trolls? Feminism and the Carnivalesque

16th Apr 2013


In this brave new digital world, it’s impossible to talk about women’s writing without mentioning the trolls.

The web has changed forever the way we interact with others’ opinions, to the point that when a woman sits down to write, she’s already seeing a barrage of cock-waving lads in the comments section, yelling at her to get back into the kitchen before guffawing themselves to sleep in their single beds.

Piss-takers are now a way of life, and it’s very sad that so much of our time is wasted trying to deal with them. But it wouldn’t be quite right to dismiss them out of hand as idiots.

Feminists will, like Carol Ann Duffy’s Mrs Aesop, laugh last, the longest... Y’see, while they’re undoubtedly silly little bullies, feminism shares some traits with the cock-wavers* – and they’re perhaps some of its most valuable.

In their own shitty way,  trolls make their point by subverting what’s being imposed upon them – yah-boo-sucks-to-you tongues out at people telling them how to behave.

You don’t have to look far to find feminists doing the same, albeit more elegantly. One lot does it better than the rest by far. The type of feminists who’re just trip-trap to trolls: female writers.

Angela Carter, for one (and if she’s your one, you almost don’t need others), recognised this. ‘I’m all for putting new wine into old bottles,’ she wrote, ‘especially if it makes the old ones explode.’

Just like all-round clever guy Mikhail Bakhtin, she knew that literature is by nature rebellious: anything can be challenged, anything can be changed.

Bakhtin called this aspect of the art the carnivalesque – forget those private school critics sucking off the canon, he said (probably without reference to blowjobs): literature is not a tool of the establishment. Literature – the best literature – overthrows things. And, wearyingly, feminism is still all about overthrowing things.

You only have to look back to the earliest female writers, not recognised as particularly out there nowadays, to find strong strains of what Bakhtin said was a key element of the carnivalesque: familiar and free interaction.

Snogging, romance, whit-woo.  Look at the most famous couples in literature –  Darcy and Elizabeth, Jane and Rochester, Cathy and Heathcliffe –  and what they show us. The first marriages for love weren’t ordained, they were written.

The Brontes and Austen coupled governesses and rich landowners; gypsy foster kids and married women; modest second daughters and the creme de la creme of society.

They majorly pissed off the critics by doing this – Jane Eyre was called ‘vulgar-minded’ and ‘full of moral deficiencies’, while Lady Davy called Pride and Prejudice a ‘picture of vulgar minds and manners,’ evidence for the astonishing lack of vocab in idiots at the time, if nothing else.  But this disgusting subversion simply made a truth self evident: men and women are, and should be, equal.

The most memorable parts of those romances aren’t the soppy bits, they’re the bits which caused gasps: a girl with no inheritance or title tittering at the richest man in the county, later telling him in no uncertain terms to do one; married Catherine wailing “I am Heathcliff!’

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte has a plain little governess spit to her employer of her scorn of his proposed bride and then yell, oh wonderful Jane –  “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will!”

Her creation of Mrs Rochester is one of the best examples of what subversive literature can achieve. By up-ending the traditional expectations of marriage so radically – a man locking his wife up to protect himself from her murderous tendencies – she heartbreakingly shows the oppressive effects of the contemporary marriage market on women, used, like Bertha, as little more than trade tokens between the patriarchy.

Stuff as carnivalesque (“eccentric behaviour and sacrilege”, in Bakhtin’s  stuffy words) as Bertha’s crazed pyromania is where feminist writers really start to sink their teeth into the bollocks of the establishment: the uproarious and irreverent behaviour needed in literature doesn’t just drive narrative, it reveals truth.

Take Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, where she writes as the wives of famous male figures.

She starts with a proud statement of intent in Little Red Cap:  she’s going to chop her grandmother’s bones from the belly of the old, greying male wolf-writer. Her axe is one made of bloody-minded rudeness and tongue-waggling. Aesop is a crushing bore. Darwin looks like a monkey.

Penelope is fed up of the ‘sort of man/who follows her around/writing poems… sulked for a night and day/because she remarked on his weakness for abstract nouns.’

Icarus is simply a ‘pillock’. Her sarcastic, sharp tongue pops the big balloon of male literary ego with a sad little fart: it’s impossible to read the canon straddlers in the same way once you’ve had a laugh at them.

It’s not just Duffy: the most brilliant feminist writers of recent years have all had a mean carnivalesque streak of irreverence and an itch to annoy the Man.

Angela Carter’s last masterpiece Wise Children is a brilliant, chaotic swipe at the patriarchal construct of familial and cultural legitimacy through piss-taking of the bard and slapstick incest, whilst Bridget Jones, with her comedy big pants, Tory loathing and wild neuroticisms, did more to give a voice to the modern woman than any character had for a long time.

This thumbing our noses at the establishment method of campaigning has started coming under fire in recent months: Ellie Mae O’Hagan’s  recent Guardian column about feminist humour being an attempt to ‘please everyone’, the tutting at Femen and the dismissal of How to Be a Woman as populist trash thanks to its playful tone and cussing.

It’s a shame, because it’s irreverence that has produced our greatest art: the stuff we can hit the Hemingway-lovers round the head with, the populist, funny stuff; the mad, berserk stuff that has arguably turned more women onto being themselves than The Feminine Mystique or Living Dolls ever has.

And as for trolls? You could argue that we should see them as a sign of progress: we have our own carnivalesque. Whether or not that’s to be celebrated, we’re never going to deal with the barrage of piss-taking assaulting us now we’re getting into positions of power if we forget what it’s like to be those piss-takers.

As long as we keep our tongues in our cheeks as well as our placards in our fists then hear this,  cock-wavers, misogynists, get-back-to-the-kitcheners, bantering uni lads: feminists will, like Duffy’s Mrs Aesop, laugh last, the longest.

We are the original morality-offending raspberry blowers, middle fingerers, rude chanters, puerile jokers, and you haven’t got anything on us. We don’t just tease and bully out of hatred, we subvert to be free.

That passionate need to cause chaos, a key cornerstone of our culture, will always, always achieve more than the comment on this article somewhere on facebook, asking if I’m on the blob.

* Disclaimer: Trolls here means those fools who undermine feminist writing by taking the Michael with kitchen remarks in the comments section, period jokes on the facebook feed. I’m not for a minute talking about those disgusting specimens who threaten women journalists and writers with rape and violence. We have nothing in common with those people, apart from the fact that they, unfortunately, also know how to type.

Rebecca Winson
(Image via Cali4Beach)


  • Dan Holloway says:

    Fabulous stuff. Too too little literature these days is about chaos and subversion – it’s as though the passive aggressive proponents of the status quo have decided that the best tactic is to wear anything subversive into exhaustion by refusing to even mention it within their bubble. To that extent the trolls “below the line” on blogs are a much less worrying enemy, because the easy outrage they provoke and the argument they engage in at least keeps the fire of resistance burning. The kind of insidious exclusion shown “above the line” by editors and article writers, the kind evinced by the Vida stats, is much more dangerous, because like a teflon-coated mountain it offers absolutely no purchase, nop point of argument to which it cannot simply shrug its shoulders in denial.
    Keep causing chaos!