How are you? If you are well, then I am also well.
Congratulations on your excellent article in The Guardian on intersectionality. It was a joy to read and, at the very least, has stirred up an interesting conversation.
This has been an open letter a few weeks in the making. Indeed, the first outline started shortly after drinks here in Canberra. As it seemed that I’d disturbed Adam somewhat with an open letter to him, I figured I’d be more careful in the composition of this one. Despite the failure of that one to hit its mark, I still think that the format can be used for the powers of good.
After a few rounds of thought, your article in The Guardian — or, rather, the comments you received in response — inspired a bit more thinking about the question of academic feminism and the prevailing attitude in society that feminism is something that is supposed to be easy.
As you know, I don’t identify as a feminist. This routinely shocks people — intelligent, educated people — who wonder if I’m trolling them. ‘But surely you believe that women and men deserve equality, don’t you?’ they ask, furrowing their brows. No matter what I say in response to that question, I’m invariably told that I actually am a feminist and that the label would apply to me.
It’s a puzzling situation, not unlike the Mormon practice of baptising the dead: they shall be baptised whether they want to be or not.
In the mid to late 1800s, Marxism was able to get some significant runs on the board by encouraging people to rethink radically the structures of their society. Nobody had a huff and puff that Marx was ‘too academic’ and ‘too Hegelian’. Look at the way societies responded to the ‘threat’ of Marxism: we used words like ‘corruption’ and ideas like ‘infiltration’. Big Bad Marxism infected people’s brains and made them unable to fit into society.
Feminism is no less radical than Marxism (in many ways, moreso) and yet the social response was almost the opposite. Far from building up feminism as a terrible threat, we dismiss it like it’s some irrelevant esoterica. When that didn’t work, individual feminists were just mocked. And when that didn’t work, we fell back on ‘Yes, we understand that there are problems, but we can’t disrupt the traditional way.’
The latter approach doesn’t seem to be working as well these days because appearing to be conservative isn’t ‘cool’. I can’t help but notice that, in its place, there’s a concentrated cultural effort to neuter feminism into something that’s comfortable and easy (which is, in its own way, conservative). One of the criticisms I read of your article was that ‘intersectionality’ was, as a concept, ‘too hard’ and ‘too academic’. Elsewhere, I’ve read essays which argue that ‘academic feminism’ is too exclusionary and prevents uneducated women from feeling like they’re really included in the feminist movement.
About a month ago I wrote about the branding of feminism through celebrities. Celebrities were telling us — both explicitly and implicitly — that feminism meant little more than approving of whatever it was that women did. The woman who is exploited (and is contributing to the exploitation of others) should be encouraged because to discourage her is anti-feminist.
Internet memes — invariably a reflexion of the most basic, crude, and vulgar interpretation of any idea — further encourages the idea that feminism is something simple and basic.
Of course, being a guy and not being a feminist, it’s hardly my place to tell others how to ‘do’ feminism. Here’s a meme that I found while looking for the above one:
(By the way, don’t look for feminist memes using Google Image Search. Holy frijoles, there’s a lot of hate there.)
And into this space we have the word ‘intersectionality’. You have the usual group of feminist-deniers who think it’s obscurantist language to prevent commonsensical reckoning (the ‘Dawkins School’). You have the feminists in the community who try to grapple with the idea and see how they can apply it to their own thinking. And then you have the other group who wants the ‘fast food’ feminism that doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable about the world around them.
It’s this latter group that really astounds me. The sort that wants ‘Girl Power’ but only insofar as it isn’t disruptive. Or, if it’s disruptive, it’s disruptive in an ‘edgy’ and ‘totally cool’ way.
It’s also the group that seems to include every single guy that I’ve ever met who identified as a feminist (or feminist ‘ally’, which is an ugly and awkward term). They’re a feminist just so long as it doesn’t make them feel left out.
But that leaves me in rather a vulnerable position: how does one draw attention to the fact that this latter group of ‘feminists’ merely reaffirm the social structures against which the ‘academic feminists’ are trying to smash without looking like you’re kicking the lower classes? For me, it’s easy. I use my privilege card to avoid the conversation altogether. ‘Oh, you’re “twerking” on Thicke’s groin? Goodo. I’m not going to talk about this.’
((By the way, it was interesting that in the conversation about people playing the ‘gender card’ nobody raised the ‘privilege card’ in response. Or, if they did, I didn’t see it.))
But for feminists who are trying to shift the gendered construction of social frameworks, it must be extraordinarily frustrating. You work tirelessly to deal with big, difficult issues, only for a cynical bunch of guys who run the celebrity industry to troll the f-word. And, when they get annoyed and speak up, they’re shamed by everybody else because they’re not supporting female celebrities. Worst of all, it’s often the men doing the shaming and policing of ‘anti-feminist’ attitudes, such as when Ben Pobjie and Justin Shaw decided that an anti-porn feminist needed to have a firehose-induced orgasm and needed to look at porn through men’s eyes in order to not find it offensive.
Or is it just a culture-wide distrust of anything that looks like theory? We can’t even talk about human rights without people saying the most asinine things:[tweet https://twitter.com/allthepie/status/403766412646166528]
If things aren’t immediately intuited by us, apparently they’re not worth knowing. If feminism takes more effort than reading a T-shirt slogan, it’s not worth understanding. People associate being a feminist with being a good person, so this creates a demand for an easily-obtained label. Further, feminism’s attack on social structures which privilege disenfranchisement make it an easy target for anti-intellectual entitled demands.
In a strange sense, feminism is only permitted into the social debate so long as it knows its place.
As an outsider to it all, I find it interesting to observe. For all I know, I’m miles off the mark and the entire feminist enterprise is all the stronger for having the lumpenproles and the academics all using the same words to describe fundamentally different things. I don’t know.
At any rate, I hope that at least some part of this made the slightest bit of sense. I’m not sure that I achieved ‘part of a dialogue’ as it seems more like me pontificating for more than a few paragraphs. As you write significantly more on the subject, I wonder how you navigate the space — especially when the Internet is chock full of people waiting to tear everything to pieces.
At the very least, I hope I haven’t said anything outrageous.