Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Many Faces of Modern Feminism


A few days ago Jezelbel.com posted this list of the reasons female celebrities have given for their personal disconnection from feminism as an ideology or label. It’s about as saddening as I expected it would be: the most common reasons are because they like/love men, because they’d rather identify with the term ‘humanist’, because they don’t identify with the anger and complaining that they hold as a defining component of third-wave feminism, and because they don’t like labels. Far fewer are the women who argue that we no longer have a need for feminism.
            These kinds of responses to the words ‘feminist’ and ‘feminism’ are extremely common amongst both public figures and everyday people. I used to see them as simple misunderstandings of the ideology, which I figured most everyone would agree upon in its most basic form (i.e. the belief that people should be treated equally irrespective of gender, sex or sexuality). But I feel increasingly that this is not a result of people misunderstanding the ideas shared by most feminists, but rather of people witnessing expressions of broad, conflicting ideas all claiming the label of feminism, and coming to the reasonable conclusion that feminism is either: a) stupid and unhelpful; or b) too much hassle to figure out any further. In short, people associate feminism with man-hating and hypocrisy and anger because the women they’ve seen promoting feminism do it with a lot of man-hating, hypocrisy and anger.
            This isn’t limited to people who’ve had minimal exposure to feminism, either – Brooke Magnanti (research scientist, former sex worker and author of the works which became Secret Diary of a Call Girl as well as the wonderful nonfiction book The Sex Myth) stopped calling herself a feminist because many of the feminists she encountered disliked and disapproved of sex workers. She was faced with well-regarded, outspoken feminists espousing in their writing and work that sex workers cannot possibly be happy – because all prostitution is supposedly a form of female oppression and no self-respecting woman does it unless there’s something else seriously wrong in her life. These beliefs may be well meaning, but in practice they become virtually indistinguishable from the efforts of conservative evangelical organizations to conquer what they perceive to be the problems of sex work. Both forces fight for the betterment of women, albeit for some different reasons, but both fail women in that neither recognizes the need to protect not only a woman’s body but also her right to make an informed, non-coerced decision to have sex for money.
            Of course there are feminists who do recognize sex work as a valid means of female empowerment, but so long as there are people who do consider themselves to be feminists and do not agree on this issue, and others, we have a problem. This cartoon sums it up rather nicely:


            The comments denounce statements of this nature as ‘not real feminism’, but I feel like that strays into no true Scotsman territory. Certainly it’s true that some of the people claiming the label of feminism while still telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies or their lives have just failed to think it all the way through, but I think it’s at least as likely that many of the feminists who are against prostitution and other things have considered these problems and have just come to different conclusions about what the necessary solutions are. I would feel very arrogant telling anyone that they’re not a ‘real feminist’ because their position on some of these issues is different to mine.
            At the same time, I don’t really want feminism to be associated with the ideas in this cartoon. I feel that many of them fit more comfortably with the second wave feminism of the 60s through 80s, which was concerned primarily with work-place discrimination, general sexism and stereotypical gender roles, and sexual violence, and held a more universal stance against sex-work, pornography and other non-marital forms of sexual activity. I’m pretty firmly pro-people’s rights to have sex however and whenever they want to, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, and I know a lot (probably a majority) of feminists do agree with me there.
            So, how do we move forward while acknowledging that third-wave feminists don’t all agree on rather a lot of major issues? Brooke Magnanti made the decision to stop calling herself a feminist, and to devote considerable effort to criticizing some of the feminists whose anti-prostitution theorizing has been lauded as more valuable than her own lived experiences. Some of the women in the Jezebel article chose to align themselves with other ideologies, and some vocally agreed with the major tenets of the movement while still preferring to avoid the controversy that the term can stir up. That’s all fair enough – it does get tiresome to have to explain what you actually believe every time you declare yourself a feminist – but I feel there is more to be gained from sticking with the movement, valuing its victories and openly criticizing its flaws, than by abandoning hope altogether. Feminists who support equality and rights for all women - not only those who fit into a narrow, out-dated image of what a woman should be - need to be at least as loud as those who don't. It’s not easy, though.
            Part of the reason I haven’t posted anything in several weeks is that the process of writing this, which necessarily included exposing myself to the ugliest hypocrisies of feminism, has been a major downer. Slut-shaming and such have always depressed me, but lately I’ve noticed myself getting really angry and riled up in a way that doesn’t inspire eloquence or clever arguments but just, like, makes me want to squeeze things until they pop. That’s also why I’ve abstained from writing anything about the Roast Busters so far. I just can’t read any more about it, it’s making me too agitated.
            I do really enjoy writing this blog most of the time, and I definitely don’t want to stop, but I think I might want to shy away from anything really hideous or controversial for a while. I would like to spend a while writing about things that are just interesting instead of enraging. Topic suggestions are welcome. Thanks for reading, as always.

1 comment:

  1. "These beliefs may be well meaning, but in practice they become virtually indistinguishable from the efforts of conservative evangelical organizations to conquer what they perceive to be the problems of sex work."

    Very good point. Any ideology that claims to protect a minority or otherwise marginalized group, while simultaneously wanting to restrict their freedom, is a poorly constructed ideology.

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