Saturday, July 18, 2015

Feminist, All Too Feminist

On a recent Best of the Left podcast episode, “What are women complaining about?,” I found out about action being taken to address Hollywood's gender bias, which has received a lot of media attention in the past year. What really caught my ear was the stat that the percentage of speaking roles for women in Hollywood movies has only increased by 5% since the 1940s and 50s. And what interested me about that stat was that, as a fan of classical Hollywood movies, I was under the impression that there were now far fewer major roles for women – not a few more. Fans of classical Hollywood movies just think that there were more and better roles for women then because so many of the movies from that era that film buffs still care about have terrific roles for women: canons are not necessarily representative of the norm.

So far, so awesome for women that the ACLU has taken political action to have the industry investigated for gender inequity. In fact I think that every industry where there's perceived discrimination should be subjected to thorough governmental investigation, especially if that industry is as powerful as Hollywood (or Silicon Valley). How else is the public going to know, and how is discrimination by the powerful going to combated except by transparency, public pressure, and public accountability?

However, the segment lost me when an indie director who was asked why it matters that there are so few women in the industry gave a standard leftist response: that we won't see more “authentic portrayals of women" in movies in television until we have more female directors. In the first place, surely what matters about women not being able to make careers in an industry is... women not being able to make careers in an industry.

Second, as a writer and English major I'm disturbed by the implication that only female creators can produce good female characters. Because there are so many more canonical male authors than female ones, almost all of the female characters who mean the most to me were authored by men. The exceptions are the heroines of Jane Austen and George Eliot, but they don't mean more to me than the heroines of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Ibsen, or Tennessee Williams. Nor are they noticeably more “authentic”: they are all distinctly literary characters, and as such resemble (and are, no doubt, influenced by) each other more than actual people.

The question of authorship is more complicated in the case of film directors, but assuming the fiction that the director is the “auteur,” all of my favourite female film characters were authored by men. I don't tend to think of it that way, though, because many classical Hollywood actresses have more-or-less-unofficially attained the status of auteurs in their own right, so that I think of a Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck or Jennifer Jones character as being authored by her; or, if she's paired with a remarkable director (or, occasionally, producer) in a remarkable film, co-authored. Sometimes directors and actresses develop ongoing creative relationships in which the collaborative aspect is emphasized: Sternberg and Dietrich, Fellini and Masina, Godard and Karina, Cassavetes and Rowlands, Lynch and Dern. The other part of this is that I've hardly seen any movies by female directors, a fault I hope to remedy some year soon (I have a lot of faults, though, so I can't promise when it will happen), and it so happens that my favourite movie by a female director, Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, contains a couple of my favourite male characters.

Which leads to my objection as a writer to this use of “authenticity”: of course both male and female authors have to be free to create characters of both genders. I don't want to be told what I can write about, and I don't want any other writer to be told that, either – although if they create a representation that's offensive in some way, they should be criticized. If you want to hear me criticize sexist representations, please enjoy my podcast about time travel movies, co-hosted by David Fiore. (Criticizing sexism isn't the purpose of the podcast, but we do spend a lot of time doing it in each episode, especially me, really loudly, with swearing.)

Moreover, if you tell men that they can't write female protagonists, you reinforce the notion that women are utterly alien, which isn't exactly conducive to the feminist project. At its best, imaginative literature and filmmaking about women by men has been about the fluid movement between desire and cross-gender identification; about the affirmation of heteronormativity through desire and its undermining through identification; about sympathy and sadism. To remove cross-gender identification from literature and film would be to remove at least 50% of what interests me about them.

So, based on my responses to this segment, what do you think: am I a feminist, or not a feminist? Please answer in 3-5 paragraphs, giving the reasoning for your position.

I think the answer is that I'm all too feminist, but it will take more than five paragraphs to flesh it out.

Penultimate Post

Although I first promised this post on feminism a long time ago, I've gone back and forth about whether to write it. As I finally sit down to compose it as the penultimate post of this blog, I wonder if I can finally do it without getting too angry or sarcastic – the reason I've abandoned my many previous attempts.

A couple of things have happened to make me less angry. First, my political perspective has vastly broadened this year, which has had the effect of taking my focus off of feminism. When I'm not focused on it, I'm less upset about it. I also realized, quite a long time ago, that a tone of anger is never going to persuade anyone to listen to your criticisms. It didn't work when Camille Paglia did it in the 90s, and it doesn't work when Cathy Young does it now.

In fact, my first criticism of feminism is its resistance to criticism. And that's the final reason my anger about feminism has subsided a little. When I was listening to the Best of the Left episode yesterday, hoping to get myself riled up to write this post, because now the problem was that I was too calm about feminism to write it, I noticed that one of the clips, a collage of reasons to be a feminist, featured a couple of MRA talking points, I realized that feminism has, in fact, been absorbing criticisms from all corners, and not just from other communities that feminists recognize as oppressed, such as Women of Color and the trans community. Does that make me any more hopeful about feminism? We'll see.


First, let's get the context out of the way. What is feminism, and am I a feminist? If feminism is the belief in the equality of women and men, then why yes, I am. I think the majority of people in most countries nowadays would define themselves that way, in fact. (If you want stats, don't look to this post, because I'm not going to provide them for every point. Many critics of feminism have written many stats-laden articles that can be easily found on the internet. I decided it's not worth my time to produce one of those articles, because I'm not getting paid for this and because mountains of stats alone won't persuade anyone of anything. If you find yourself concerned or intrigued by anything in this post, I'd suggest that you do your own internet research, like I did, and, like I did, draw your own conclusions.)

The very fact that this is a popular sentiment – few would define themselves as racist, either – means I have to further define what I mean by “feminist.” So let me be clear that not only do I think men and women are equal, but I also reject traditional gender roles. I have never wanted children and my life is centred around my artistic and intellectual pursuits.

On the other hand, if being a feminist means adopting certain political stances (e.g., on reproductive rights) and/or adhering to at least a few of the theories propagated by the feminist movement (e.g. those theories evoked by terms like “patriarchy,” “objectification,” “rape culture,” and “consent”), you're starting to lose me. If it means feeling righteous anger about street harassment or male “spreading” on public transit, among other popular talking points and memes, you've lost me. If it means believing that women as a global group today are oppressed, I'm not going to agree without heavy qualifications. I'm not even sure that “oppression” is the best lens through which to look at the traditional position of women (it's a lens, and an informative one), and increasingly I think that each instance of oppression, or disenfranchisement, needs to be looked at in its own particular cultural, historical, and political context.

Finally, if being a feminist means thinking that there's a place for a women's movement even in supposedly modern, democratic countries today – then again, yes, I do. But I have given up thinking that feminism will ever be “reformed”: that is, that it will ever purge the elements that I find objectionable and become a collection of ideas and set of priorities that I largely agree with and find positive. Nevertheless, there are of course many people, from lawyers working to improve the legal process for rape victims and ensure access to safe abortions for economically deprived women, to members of civil rights watchdog groups committed to social justice, who do good feminist work with real, important consequences every day.

In summary, then, as soon as you move outside of a definition of “feminist” that means “person who believes in the equality of women and men and rejects traditional gender roles,” feminism, for me, is just another set of ideas to be considered independently and objectively. Some of them are interesting and useful, many of them (even the same ones) are misguided and infuriating; all of them have been carefully considered by me, and none of them are accepted by me without many qualifications. Sometimes, as in the case of reproductive rights, I agree with the feminist position, but not for the reasons most often given by feminists: I don't think that being able to control one's reproductive capacity is in itself essential to equality, because I don't think that opposition to abortion is solely a conspiracy by the patriarchy to keep “control of women's bodies” in their hands. That, like so much feminist poststructuralism, is a melodramatic cartoon that obfuscates more than it illuminates. I do, however, think (in keeping with older trends in feminism) that control of one's reproductive capacity is necessary for economic independence, which is necessary for equality.

I'm not here today to talk about the hard (in the sense of both “difficult” and “concrete”) issues, though. I'm here to talk about the stuff that a person of my demographic (highly educated, raised middle class) is going to most often encounter on the internet: the theory, on the one hand, and the memes, on the other. In fact, it's unavoidable. Along with geeks, feminists may be the highest-profile colonizers of the internet – no doubt because they're pouring out of college and university campuses.

Keeping this in mind, here are my Top 5 Criticisms of Feminism:

Imperviousness to Criticism

If you start to criticize a trend in feminism to or in front of a feminist – say, for example, the way that feminism treats the topic of rape – the first thing you will hear is some variant of “feminism is not a monolith.” The response neatly serves to shut down the conversation because it's irrefutable but fails to address the point. It doesn't matter to me, or my criticism, if some feminist in a cave somewhere agrees with me. What matters is the general tenor of the conversation, and that is the source of my frustration.

Many critics of feminism have pondered why such criticism engenders such defensiveness. Believe it or not, I can also be the feminist responding defensively to attacks on it – all it takes to trigger that response is for the attacks to be made to me. The best explanation I can give is that, whether or not the mainstream media is “liberal” (that's an argument for another day), people of leftist sympathies have picked up the liberal message from the media that “feminism=equality for women=good for women=good” and identified with it to such a degree that any criticism of feminism is equated with being anti-woman and, as such, next door to evil. So that when, as a teenager, I heard about Camille Paglia the “anti-feminist,” I genuinely believed that she must be some kind of Antichrist. Until I saw her on a talk show, risked listening to her, and found what she had to say fascinating and challenging, even when I disagreed with her.

To me it seems like a no-brainer that no political movement can be at its strongest unless it's open to having its most fundamental philosophical positions questioned. I don't mean negated: if we take as the basis of feminism the assumption that women and men are equal, feminism doesn't have to entertain the idea that they are not equal. But any positions formed on the basis of the assumption of equality should be open to criticism, with the idea that proponents and critics have the same goal of advancing the idea and reality of equality. So if your ideas suck, or if they may in fact be harmful to the cause of equality, you ought to know about that, think hard about it, and abandon or refine them.

Since, however, the left is no better than the right at having open, objective, rational discussion about its pet ideas, but instead wants to find reasons to cast out traitors, the bullshit of feminism goes unchecked, and reform is impossible. Because if “feminism is not a monolith” or its variants doesn't succeed in shutting down the conversation, the next move is to discredit your critic by branding her an “anti-feminist.”

Now, there are people who are actually anti-feminists, and not always from a conservative perspective. There are many reasons for a person to be an anti-feminist: you can actually think that women and men are not equal, or you can think that men and women are equal but different and traditional gender roles honour that difference, or you can think that feminism is opposed to “family values,” or you can think that feminism promotes political divisiveness and does not actually serve the cause of gender egalitarianism. In my experience, people who are anti-feminists are quite happy to identify themselves as such. For my part, I think I still identify as a feminist despite a hugely fraught relationship with feminism from my teen years on because I don't want to be confused with traditionalists. As much explaining as I have to do in order to identify as a feminist, I feel like I'd have to do even more explaining in order to not identify as a feminist, and my time is limited.

One day maybe we'll get to the point where we can all call ourselves “humanists” or “egalitarians” and it won't seem like a complacent move, but we're not there yet. In the meantime, what I've learned to do is to continue to identify as a feminist but to broaden my egalitarian focus. What you are actually thinking, saying, and doing is probably more important than how you label yourself.

Failure to Model Enfranchisement

My second criticism of feminism is its failure to provide a model of what an enfranchised woman would look like. There were two roads feminism could have gone down: the road of emphasizing victimization, and the road of emphasizing enfranchisement. Guess which one it took. I was never happier as a feminist than when, as a teenager and in my early 20s, I was reading Molly Haskell on the types of independent womanhood represented by the great stars of classical Hollywood (Garbo and Dietrich, Davis and Crawford, Hepburn and Stanwyck), or Camille Paglia celebrating feminist role models (mostly those same women plus heroines of Spenser and Shakespeare); or marveling at forceful famous women of arts and letters from Colette to Courtney Love – or for that matter, Paglia herself.

Part of the reason for feminism's emphasis on victimization is, presumably, that the idea of “personal responsibility” was so tainted by conservative rhetoric that the left surrendered it to the other side long ago. (Which is exactly why Paglia's use of it was so electric.) The left seems to consider the rhetoric of liberation and independence to be in conflict with the recognition of systemic victimization. The result is that feminism can look awfully fucking depressing, and attracts on the basis of feelings of anger and victimization rather than feelings of possibility and aspiration. 

Not that the idea of agency has been entirely banished from feminism. Here, feminism is definitely not a monolith, but rather a mishmash. Recently, for example, Charlize Theron's action hero character in Mad Max: Fury Road was widely celebrated as a victory for pop culture representations of female agency. This is something that seems to happen periodically in the era of the action blockbuster – I can remember the excitement and controversy over Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgement Day when I was a kid. Women are, obviously, never going to get equal representation in the action genre, so that every time, at long intervals, a movie of this kind with a good, ass-kicking role for a woman does come out, it will feel like something revolutionary and “feminist” all over again.

Personally, I'm not that inspired by depictions of women kicking ass. (Linda Hamilton in T2 is more interesting to me because she's a complex character who's a bit of a psycho, not an idealized mother, and not at all a sex object – while still being very badass.) But a feminism that envisions its end goal as a woman who is free from male oppression and victimization is going to look very different from a feminism that envisions its end goal as a woman who is intellectually, emotionally, and economically independent – which is not, notice, necessarily the same thing as a woman who is unequivocally triumphing in a late capitalist society. The first has its emphasis on (a negative view of) men, and what they do; the second on (a positive vision of) women, and what they can be.

Linda Hamilton in T2: a bit of a psycho, but check out those buff arms
And lest you think that the personal responsibility “piece” (to use late capitalist businesspeak out of a business context, like a real asshole) is just about celebrating female capability and strength, the other side of it is the recognition, which some iterations of feminism consider essential to considering women as full human beings, that women can be just as deeply shitty as men can. That is, I think, what Lionel Trilling meant when he said that Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse is one of the few female characters in literature who have “a moral life” just like a man. People who are just victims, who have no agency, can be pitied, but they can't make true decisions and choices, and therefore can't be held responsible for their actions.

Perpetuation of Gender War

It's bizarre how some feminist arguments seem to be stuck in a time warp: they keep appearing, decade after decade, as though no progress, or attempt at progress, has been made. For example: the catcalling issue, which emerged again when that woman posted that video on YouTube. What did the video add to the discussion, other than bringing the argument to a new medium? Have we made any progress toward stopping catcalling? Or have we made any progress toward understanding and addressing the cultural and economic reasons why it happens? Or are we still chanting the mantras “patriarchy” and “misogyny”?

A whole lot of feminism, especially the kind that occurs on the internet, is just the perpetuation of gender war. One of the feminist memes I've heard endlessly repeated is that people who say that feminism is about male-bashing “just don't understand” what feminism is. Obviously, the ideological basis of feminism is not hating men, nor does it logically entail hating men, but not everyone who thinks that feminism has a man problem is simply confusing the idea of being equal with men with the idea of hating men.

Men and women have been accusing each other of terrible things throughout history. That is, apparently, what human beings who are necessarily (for the propagation of the race and transmission of property) intimate with each other, and who are on more-or-less of an equal social footing (compared to, say, property-owning men and slaves) with each other, do. Since men, for most of this time, by and large wrote the books, this argument has survived as anti-feminist literature and its refutation, the latter of which could be put in the mouths of female characters (Chaucer's Wife of Bath, for example, or Cervantes's Marcela), and which could involve criticisms of men as well as defenses of women. Now that women not only write more books but also have access to Twitter, they can write their own attacks on men, which can go viral, because there's nothing that either men or women like better than a bitter stereotype characterizing the “opposite sex.” Since feminism is predicated on the idea that “men oppress women through patriarchy,” a notion that's broad enough to include every complaint any woman might think to make about men, feminism legitimates this demonization of men, which in fact often proudly announces itself as feminism.

If you try to point this out, you will be told that “reverse sexism” isn't a thing because “reverse racism” isn't a thing. Feminists don't, can't, hate men; they can only react against misogyny. The fact that the racism analogy is always brought out to avoid addressing criticisms only goes to show that, unconsciously, feminists know that people consider race a more serious problem than gender, and in fact share that bias. It's true that men don't suffer from systemic sexism, which is not to say that the traditional male gender role doesn't involve plenty of hardships and disadvantages. (Feminism has got this covered under “patriarchy is bad for everyone,” although that phrase, too, is often used to deflect rather than to engage with criticism.) However, the fact that demonizing men doesn't contribute to systemic sexism doesn't make it more pleasant. All it does is add fuel to the neverending gender war.

Sexual Parochialism

I could write a book about the sexual parochialism of (most) feminism. Camille Paglia did write one, and it's called Sexual Personae. Credit where it's due, a lot of feminists did come around after the 90s debates: BDSM feminists emerged; it seems to be largely acceptable among feminists for women to direct pornographic films as an expression of their sexuality; and feminists seem to be recognizing sex worker's rights as a legitimate women's issue.

But alongside sex-positive feminism there arose rape culture feminism, which as far as I can tell is an excuse for the left to police any language or behavior that it doesn't like by associating it with rape; and campus rape hysteria, which appears to be a volatile mixture of sheltered middle-class women at their hormonal peak who are being fed a steady diet of victimization feminism, men at their hormonal peak who are being fed a steady diet of misogynous sports culture, controlling parents paying exorbitant tuition fees and expecting that their children will be protected from dangerous reality in return, and a culture of binge-drinking. Sounds like the makings of an American tragedy to me.

Meanwhile, feminist hostility toward the concept of personal responsibility has become a self-caricature wherein, by tortuous logic, no one – women included – is allowed to discuss strategies for rape prevention other than “telling men to stop raping,” or they risk being accused of “victim blaming” or even being a “rape apologist.”

Rape is to the left as terrorism is the right. Rape is, no doubt, a bigger actual threat to American women than terrorism is to Americans, though the numbers that float around and have even reached the White House are bizarrely inflated: more soberly, in a 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey about 6 per 1000 female college students age 18-24 reported being raped or sexually assaulted. Both left and right trade in fear-mongering, as the dwindling middle class invents bogeymen in its entitled pursuit of a vacuum-sealed reality of perfect safety.

Back in the 90s, when I first became aware of problems with feminism, I was willing to entertain the possibility that feminist studies were inflating rape statistics. But I could not buy Paglia's claim that date rape “hysteria” consisted of sheltered young women, unprepared for the fact that adult life and sexual freedom can sometimes be physically and emotionally unpleasant, having “bad sex” and then retroactively – perhaps due to the intervention of feminists – interpreting it as rape. Until, two decades later, I read Lena Dunham's account in her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, of what she labelled on the book tour, though not in the book, as her “sexual assault,” which is an absolute textbook case of the process I've just described. There are sometimes good reasons to expand the legal definition of rape, as feminism has been doing and attempting to do for some time now, and there are also good reasons to be concerned about its expansion. All we've got to go on are our intuitions, which are themselves culturally determined, but all I know is that there's not an intuition in my body that can account for why Dunham (who I think is a fine comedic writer and performer) thinks that she was sexually assaulted, unless she thinks that a traumatic sexual experience is, ipso facto, a sexual assault. There's one occurrence early on that one could make a case for as a sexual assault, but Dunham specifically doesn't describe it in a way that would make it unambiguous.

If Dunham had refrained from labeling the incident in life as on the page, the account could have stood as an example of some of the shit young women experience in their sex lives, although even as such it casts a sort of Gothic shadow over female sexuality, as if, here as elsewhere in the book Dunham is conveying the message that the sexual freedom for women that one version of feminism fought for is a cul-de-sac that ends in male violence and callousness. If I say that my own experience, although sometimes weird and awkward, hasn't been that bad at all, I know I'll get the response that offering a different example is insensitive to people who aren't as fortunate. But the very fact that these dark experiences are apparently widespread makes me think that Paglia called it when she said that middle-class feminism was producing generations of depressive young women who were not equipped to philosophically or emotionally handle the turbulent reality of their sexual imaginations and experiences.

Hence – the ongoing problem of the sexual parochialism of feminism.

Failure of Cultural Perspective

Feminism's difficulty with philosophically dealing with sex is part of its broader failure to look at the issues it raises in a wider cultural perspective. To use the example of rape culture: the tortuous logic of rape culture theory is that our culture, rather than condemning sexual violence against women, actually condones it. Of course, there's a certain striking, paradoxical truth to this. You can make the same argument about violence in general: on the one hand, we strongly condemn it; on the other hand, we glamourize it; make it the constant focus of movies, TV, the news, even popular music; celebrate it in sports; institutionalize it in the police, military, prisons; make it the cornerstone of masculinity.

Given this similarity, I don't see why we're not making the leap that the problem we should be doing something about is not violence against women, but violence. MRAs, whatever their problems, have made the points that although women are at far greater risk of being murdered by an intimate partner than men are, men are at far greater risk of being murdered in general, and also at far greater risk of death by suicide. Why should we so focused on rape? Because we're invested in female virtue? Not as feminists we're not. Because feminists are only interested in problems that affect women? Because that would be a problem. It was one thing when we thought that violence disproportionately affected women; as we apply the arguments of feminism to men, we become increasingly aware that that is not the case.

Likewise, one of the more interesting feminist articles I've stumbled upon on the internet have to do with looking at the problem of the wage gap from the perspective of worker's rights and women's unpaid labour as mothers. In other words, for me, as soon as you look at the problems that affect women alongside problems affecting other groups, they become a lot more interesting, but maybe that's because we're no longer simply repeating the words “patriarchy” and “misogyny,” or, more recently, “privilege” and “entitlement,” and thinking we're done.

Trust me, I've been an angry young woman in my lifetime, and at the age of 40 (as of the end of next month), I still get pissed off at sexism as often as I get pissed off at feminism. Female anger, as a symbolic, lightning-in-a-bottle substitute for female agency in a world that stifles the latter, is a glorious thing (as long as you're not dealing with it in person), and it's still a delight to see it disrupt expectations of soothing, submissive feminine niceness. But I've never been especially interested in being angry at men. Insofar as men do terrible things to women and other men, is it because they're inherently evil, or because that's how masculinity is constructed? If it's the latter, why are we wasting our energy ranting about “toxic male entitlement,” as happened in the wake of the Isla Vista Killings? Couldn't we, instead, be talking about toxic gender roles and their relation to violence?

It seems to me that the majority of feminism happening on university campuses and the internet is a lot more invested in staying angry at men than in doing something about the issues it has raised. That's a shame for many reasons, and not least because once upon a time some people thought that one of the great boons of feminism would be the transformation of heterosexual love into a relationship based on equality; that changing the meaning and improving the nature of love would be feminism's contribution to a new and better world. 

Failing that, nevertheless, at this point in history, I don't think there's any point to trying to adjust the current social and economic system to make it better accommodate women, with their same old biological disadvantages (slightly curtailed by birth control) – not that the white men at the top of the global power structure are interested in sharing their power anyway. We should all be focused, women and men, on creating a better, more egalitarian, social and economic system. All of the ideas of feminism are valuable to think about; the best ones, by their own logic, ought to be extended beyond feminism and take feminism beyond identity politics; the worst ones should be unequivocally rejected.