Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Are we all feminists now? When subversion becomes the norm

Toril Moi, the James B. Duke Professor of Literature, Romance Studies and Theatre Studies at Duke University, used to offer an undergraduate seminar called “Feminist Classics”. She would always start by asking students whether they considered themselves to be feminists. The answer was usually “no”. When she asked them if they were in favour of freedom, equality and justice for women, the answer was always “yes”. “Doesn't this mean that you are feminists after all?, Moi would ask. The students' reply was: “Oh well, if that's what you mean by feminism, then we are all feminists. But we would never call ourselves a feminist” (Moi 2006: 1735).

Toril Moi's students share something with my students, most of whom are women. They would never call themselves a feminist. Never mind that their presence in the university is entirely due to the feminist struggle. Often, the politically convenient explanation for rejecting the label is that the fight has already been won and that even if some things aren't equal yet, change will just come over time. Moreover, despite the fact that women continue to fare less well than men everywhere, my students would suggest that inequality is elsewhere, and that feminism is needeed only in faraway places like Saudi Arabia and African countries – a belief that may have been reinforced, perhaps unwittingly, by the Norwegian Nobel Prize committee's recent decision to award the Peace Nobel Prize to three “Third World” women. The Peace Nobel Prize was jointly to the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, peace activist Leymah Gbowee (Liberia) and human rights activist Tawakkul Karman (Yemen) for their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

Upon closer inspection, the reasons invoked for rejecting the label change ever so slightly. It turns out that feminists are supposed to be very uncool: they wear ugly clothes, hate sexy high heels, don't shave their armpits or legs, are angry all the time, hate porn, hate men, particularly those who insist on opening doors, carrying their shopping and helping them choose computers, are secretly lesbians, are responsible for the rise of obesity of children, of child bullying and divorce rate, and get easily offended when someone calls God a “he”. And they definitely don't give enough importance to a good pedicure. The bitter, men-hater, flannel wearing, militant, hairy, lesbian feminist stigma offers a more viable explanation as to why there is a clear rejection of the label, even if people express attitudes that could be called feminist.

And yet, after 40 years of equal pay legislation in Britain, my female students will still be paid 70% of male rates once they graduate (according to a report from the Eurobarometer). They will also be more likely to be made redundant (4.5% women compared with 3% men) and to end up with a part-time job. The UK is a world-leader in the field of part-time work for women, being 5 times as common among women as among men (Central Statistical Office, Social Focus on Women, pp. 25). While women may be going to universities more than men, the courses of study that they “choose” remain very different. Also, convergence is being achieved much faster in education than in, say, political participation, and where female labour force participation has increased, the representation of women in senior management and the board rooms has risen more slowly (World Bank report 2012: 35). Less than 20% of seats in parliament around the world are held by women.

In this situation, the old socialist quote comes to mind, but with a difference: a young woman who isn't a feminist hasn't got a heart, an old woman who is a feminist hasn't got a head (or a bra).

Toril Moi's classroom experiment exemplifies the situation in which we find ourselves in relation to feminism. In white, privileged parts of the world, like North America and Western Europe, it seems that feminism has been very successful at spreading a rhetoric of freedom, equality, empowerment, and justice for all. In public hardly anyone wold openly defend inequality between men and women. But this does not mean that the creation of a genuine and throroughly institutionalised justice has been achieved. Thus we live in an era of what could be called normalised feminism: one that advocates the female subject as an equal – but mainly as an equal consumer. By virtue of having succeeded at this rhetorical level, or by virtue of having failed really well, feminist rhetoric has become independent of the movement. It's like democracy (Fraser): we're all in favour of it. And like democracy, it is out there, to be used by anyone, for any purpose whatsoever.

So, we have Bush and Blair announcing that they are going to liberate Afghan women from the Taliban. As pointed out by Sebastião Martins here, there has been a certain complicity from women's groups, most notably from peace advocate Hibaaq Osman, who gave a speech at the United Nations in 2001, claiming that the only just cause for invading Afghanistan was the ousting of the women-repressive Taliban regime.

We have Sarah Palin who, in a speech (May 14 2010) given to an anti-abortion rights group, invoked the words “feminism” and “feminist” a dozen times, calling for a “pro-woman” sisterhood and systematically addressing her “sisters” in the audience

We have the British higher education minister David Willetts who has promoted the idea that working women are responsible for unemployment in Britain, while arguing that “it is not a bad thing that women had these opportunities”.

We have self-proclaimed “feminist” books such as Caitlin Moran's recent How to be a Woman, offering readers “who don't have time to work out if they are a woman's libber” (79) a quick and rather innovative way of finding it out:

Put your hands in your pants.
a) Do you have a vagina? And
b) do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said yes to both, then congratulations! You're a feminist.” (79)


This situation presents new challenges. What do you do in this context, where white, privileged opinion either rhetorically endorses feminism, provided we don't call it that way, or claims the F-word triumphantly, provided we abandon any serious examination of the political/economic life conditions of women across the world? Our society is one which despises feminists but loves the feminist buzzwords. Equality, freedom, choice, difference, self-expression are becoming players in the master narratives of right-wing politics and capitalism. What do you do when your discourse of emancipation is put at the service of society's often sexist and consummerist logic?

In an age when even Sarah Palin wants to be known as a feminist, I am afraid of being known as one. This is not because I'm concerned that the tag will put men off, but because I don't want to be associated with the invocation of war, anti-gay rights or pro-life propaganda in the name of choice and freedom for women. In this context, I suggest we apply Sturgeon's Law to everything that reads as “feminist”. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Sturgeon's Law is “a humorous aphorism which maintains that most of any body of published material, knowledge, etc., or (more generally) of everything is worthless”. The expression was apparently first formulated in 1951 or 1952 at a lecture at New York University and it is based on a statement by science fiction Theodore Sturgeon (well known among readers of classic science fiction works, achieved the height of popularity in the 50s) and usually cited as “90 percent of everything is crap.” The remaining 10 percent is what we call good, and ten percent of that – one story in a hundred – is really good. To Sturgeon, science fiction was the only genre evaluated by its worst examples rather than its best. Something similar happens with feminism, which needs to be evaluated by its best examples, rather than its worst.

Consider the recent publication, Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, by Catherine Hakim, a senior research fellow in sociology at the LSE. Honey Money received a lot of media coverage before and when it came out, no doubt because of its polemic treatment of how women should behave, act and desire. In the book, Hakim coins the term “erotic capital” in order to argue that, for women to overcome unequal pay and succeed in life, they should invest in good looks and a substantial degree of charm in the workplace. This is because of what she terms the “male sex deficit”: in short, men want much more sex than women, and therefore, women should exploit this by transforming physical atractiveness and sexuality into power assets. She asks in her introduction: “Why does no-one encourage women to exploit men whenever they can?” (Hakim 2011: 3).

I think that this book made the headlines also because of the highly marketable account of feminism it provides. Distancing herself from feminism, Hakim systematically conflates feminist perspectives, lesbianism, man-hating practices, and a distate for beauty practices, as if these always came in one bundle. To her mind, “Feminism, in all its colours and variations rejects sex and sexuality” (90), while “radical feminists are fundamentally anti-sex and anti-eroticism as well as anti-men” (98). Without providing examples, Hakim argues that “the feminist messages offered, explicitly and implicity, stimulate impotent rage against men and society with no realistic alternative to heterosexuality and marriage except for celibacy and lesbianism”, two options which, according to her, “both represent a flight response to male domination and are defeatist” (93). Also, all feminists prefer “the equality of complete symmetry in family roles, employment and earnings” (pp. 43), although in real life “women don't really want equality: gender studies courses leave women diminished instead of empowered, angry instead of confident” (93), says Hakim. The discourse on feminism that makes the headlines is often of this sort, picking stereotypical perceptions of feminists, exaggerated feminist polemics and extreme statements so as to show how they accurately reflect the general drift of the feminist perspective, as if there were only one.

But feminism does not defend that all household tasks should be equally shared. Nor does it defend that all women should pursue a career instead of marrying a rich man, staying at home, and being mothers. And it is not a defining feature of feminism that feminists should hate men. Instead, feminists often problematise a pervasive patriarchal system which affects both men and women.

In fact, feminism isn't about telling people what to do. Instead, it is an outlook on life that aims at changing existing power relations, in order to create the conditions necessary for people to craft their own sexual/gendered/social identities as they please. When we read a book like Honey Money which constantly argues that men almost invariably want more sex than women, we are in effect being told how to desire. When we read that Holly, the main character of Breakfast at Tiffany's is “adorable – extrovert, playful, stylish, flirtatious, very pretty and very sexual, but streetwise enough to ignore poor men” (Hakim 2011: 163-4), we are being told how to act. 

Often, however, the feminist replies to the kind of provocations books like Honey Money make aren't very helpful either, for they tend to offer moralistic responses. As pointed out by Nina Power in One Dimensional Woman, they are usually characterised by middle-class moralistic horror and disapproval, and they offer little more than descriptions of how our society wants women to behave like dolls (cf. Natasha Walter's Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism).

Effective feminist discourse does not fall in the moralising trap, but contributes to upsetting sexual assumptions by producing structured explanatory analyses of how men and women behave, for example, under capitalism. It is not enough to occupy an emancipationist position or a sexual difference position, or even to write/talk about and for women in order to speak as a feminist. On the other hand, there is little that distinguishes a feminist from a person who rejects the F-word but acknowledges the idea of women's subordination, and tries to change exploitative power relations which continue to structure all areas of life, the family, education and welfare, work, culture and leisure, between men and women.

The best examples of feminism do not tell us what to do. They emphasise the idea that there is no pure or single feminist or female space from which we can speak. Although feminism contains the marker of ideology, it has a pluralistic nature. However, books that make this pluralism visible, by decentring points of view and playing out the tensions between different feminist positions in the broader contexts of economics and history tend to be problematically received or even discarded and forgotten (cf. Novas Cartas). I think one of the main challenges that feminists face today is to provide a real alternative on how to go mainstream.

Of course, an important corollary to Sturgeon's Law is that 90% of everybody thinks they are part of the 10% that isn't crap. And so, everything I have to say about feminism is going to be really good, by my own standards. You might rightly ask, who am I to define what feminism is or should be? Who am I to spot when feminism is being misused? And more importantly, is there a “real” feminism out there that specially-designated people (like academics) can distinguish from “fake” feminism?

In an ideal society, no-one should tell anyone how to live their lives. An ideal society offers the conditions necessary for people to make up their minds about the kind of life they would like to pursue. This is the outlook on life defended by feminism as I understand it: feminism offers people the freedom to do whatever they want to do with their lives, bodies and identities. But – and there is a big but here – these are exactly the conditions that allow the Bushes and Blairs and Palins of this world to get away with it. So, again, what do you do? Can we – not “we” as experts or leaders, but “we” as citizens – continue to avoid making choices about the kind of society we want? Can we afford not to apply Sturgeon's Law to everything that reads as “feminist”, or “emancipatory”, or “empowering”? Being a feminist is like being an ecologist. You have to take care of the environment if you want to survive. You have to tackle inequality, exploitation and injustice if you want to survive. As academics, our task is not to sell this or that political/philosophical label, but to set the terms of an open, inclusive debate where everyone can contribute their views, but also make choices together that will allow us to survive in the long run. As academics, this is the best we can do. As Italo Calvino once wrote, “the best we can do is to avoid the worst” (Calvino 1979).

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