In certain circles, Laura Bates is considered a legend. She founded The Everyday Sexism Project in 2012– a website touted by some as ‘the beginning of fourth-wave feminism’. Since then she’s delivered a TED talk, killed it in The Guardian, and authored several non-fiction books about ‘the true scale of sexism’
Her latest work differs. It’s called The Burning and it’s Bates’ first foray into fiction. The story is YA and, much like the rest of her work, is deeply rooted in reality. It tells the story of Anna, a teenage girl, ‘slut shamed’ for taking nude photos. It also tells the story of Maggie, a 16th century ‘witch’. As you can imagine, the stories overlap. I reached out to the legend for a chat – we spoke via email.
So, I just finished The Burning and loved it. Tell me about the choice to tell this story as a narrative as opposed to another non-fiction piece?
I was visiting hundreds of schools and hearing about the experiences of teenage girls who are bombarded with sexualised pressures […]but whose stories are rarely heard. They are often silenced via slut shaming and victim blaming and when their stories are told, they’re presented as either the problem (by schools who punish them and not the boys involved) or as helpless victims. I wanted to tell their stories in a way that did them justice and forced people to listen.
I was also excited about the possibility of reaching young people through fiction: when I was a teenager I didn't read a lot of non-fiction and I didn't know what the word 'feminism' meant, but I was captivated by YA fiction.
I found Maggie’s story especially resonant – and an incredible reminder of how ancient patriarchy is. What was it like digging up her tale?
It was really moving and made me so angry. Uncovering the true stories of the thousands of women accused of witchcraft, tortured, and put to death in Scotland in the 16th-18th centuries really brought home to me how much we’ve sanitised and romanticised the idea of witches – when, in reality, we are talking about a form of mass misogynistic murder.
The more I researched, the more I saw the parallels between Maggie's story and those of the teenage girls I work with today, which was both shocking and frustrating – to see how little has changed.
Tangent – what are your thoughts on people like Donald Trump using the term ‘witch hunt’ to describe a political investigation, considering what actually happened to so-called witches like Maggie?
It’s incredibly frustrating and breathtakingly ignorant – in fact, it was one of the things that drove me to want to re-examine a real witch hunt – and to try and show how obscene it is to misuse the term in this way.
What’s most hypocritical is that the #MeToo movement has been described as a 'witch hunt' against men – as if a handful of men having been brought to justice can possibly compare to the persecution, abuse, and murder of thousands of innocent women over centuries.
The parallels between Anna’s story and Maggie’s story are stark and undeniable – though the context has changed, the idea that a woman’s body is shameful has hardly changed one bit. Who do you think most needs to hear this message?
I think this is a message we need to recognise as a society – because a lot of what underpins the modern treatment of teenagers like Anna is the persistence of some very old assumptions about women, sexuality, and bodies that we can trace back over centuries to Maggie's time.
Most of all, I'd like schools and teachers to think about these parallels in order to question some of the 'normalised' ways in which we teach and discipline young people at school – often blaming and shaming girls rather than tackling boys' behaviour.
For adults reading this story, the omnipresent horror of social media may come as a bit of shock. All the adults here are a bit misguided in their approach to Anna’s problems. How do you suggest adults approach these sorts of issues?
This portrayal was very much based on my experiences of working with both young people and adults. We are currently living through a seismic moment in history, where a generation of non-digital natives is parenting and educating a generation of digital natives – and that creates a real gulf in understanding
Sadly, that sometimes leads to some very unhelpful responses from adults (well-meaning though they often might be), and a real lack of support for young people with what they are actually experiencing. My advice would be for adults to try and educate themselves about the reality of young people's online lives, and to create as much opportunity for open, non-judgemental conversation about these issues as possible.
This interview has been edited for length. The Burning is available in bookstores.Support Villainesse