Words by Lucia Messent
“What a joy it is to dance and sing!” Angela Carter, 1991
These words conclude Wise Children, the final novel by Angela Carter. Dora, Carter’s 75-year-old protagonist, marches off into the sunset armed with the twin babies she has just spontaneously adopted. This gleeful rejection of traditional motherhood sees an older woman repositioned at the centre of the action. It is poignant, I think, that one of Britain’s most controversial feminists should choose to end her career on so exuberant a note. Despite the dark content of Carter’s work, filled as it is with references to sex, pornography, and gendered violence, her lasting legacy is one of hope. Even 30 years on, her reminder to dance and sing, to make noise whenever patriarchy seeks to repress it, has a powerfully contemporary feel.
We would do well to take heed of Carter’s passion for speaking out. I’m writing this on March 8th: International Women’s Day. Earlier this evening, I headed over to Twitter, expecting my feed to be flooded with posts about female empowerment. I was met with a disturbing silence—not a single reference to Women’s Day before #28 on the trending page.
Perhaps this absence is linked to the divisive nature of contemporary feminism. Thanks to media scapegoating, Gen Zs tend to mistrust Millenials who in turn mistrust the generations before and after them. The term ‘Boomer’ has become a kind of buzzword, a loaded term implying both conservatism and intolerance. Let’s not forget that it was Boomers who pioneered our second wave of feminism. And, as anyone who reads Carter will know, this earlier branch of feminism was not always so different from our own.
Take Carter’s stance on female sexuality. In The Sadeian Women, her book-long cultural critique, she argued against the commonly held assumption that all pornographic material is inherently misogynistic. While more traditional feminists were preoccupied with campaigning against the publication of pornography, Carter recognised that, for women as well as men, “sex is the most elementary assertion of the self.” She called for the invention of “moral pornography”, a type of material that would respect female selfhood by taking women’s pleasure as seriously as that of men. Needless to say, conversations about women and the sex industry remain as pressing today—in the age of adult video websites—as they were to the second-wave feminists who introduced them.
In her short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, Carter put forward another visionary idea: the beautiful woman of the fairy story is nothing but a mirage, a tantalising but ultimately impractical mythology. In each short story, she takes a traditional tale—Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White—and highlights the perverse gender politics lying beneath. Each of her protagonists realises the true cost (passivity, voicelessness, victimhood) of being “the perfect woman”. In today’s world, where filters and photoshop ensure we are constantly surrounded by images of beautiful women, Carter’s belief that perfection is almost always a mythology ringer truer than ever.
Carter was also ahead of her time in her views on intersectionality. When asked during a late interview which was more important to her, socialism or feminism, she replied, without hesitation, “the latter is really a branch of the former.” Her belief that feminism should encompass a range of movements also extended to her discussions of race. In Notes on the Front Line, Carter addressed the issue of incorporating postcolonialism into feminist/socialist discourse: “white women can’t get out of our historic complicity in colonialism, any more than the white working-class can.” An early critic of white-washed feminism, she preempted the discussions about inclusivity which remain prevalent to this day.
I had originally intended this piece to be a celebration of Carter’s life in honour of Women’s History Month. Once I began writing, however, I realised that good feminist writing belongs as much to the present as the past. We have plenty to learn from Carter’s piercingly insightful works. If you haven’t already, I urge you to give them a try.
Image credit: https://www.angelacarter.co.uk/