Tag Archives: gender

On multiple feminisms and the insistent guarding of the boundaries between different types of feminism


English: One of the symbols of German Women's ...

I’ve been thinking a bit about -isms.

There are constant discussions about whether we should reject the term feminism, and this post isn’t about that, because I think a ‘rebranding’ (thanks for that nonsense, Cosmo) would only be a capitulation to patriarchal oppression. The term feminism makes people uncomfortable because it sounds ‘militant’ or has been historically and purposefully denigrated by male-dominated media? Well, then, the uncomfortable will have to live with that, as we feminists live, daily, with a society built on oppressive gender stereotypes and arbitrary segregation along the lines of sex. We will honour the history of our movement by not insulting it with these kinds of discussion.

However, what has been bothering me recently, on an individual level, is the different splintering feminisms. We hear a lot of talk about intersectionality – that is, recognising that individuals are oppressed along multiple axes at the same (gender, race, class, sexuality, disability etc) – and yet, each sect of feminism setting itself against past waves of feminism or current, alternate forms of feminism, is that not achieving the exact opposite of the spirit of intersectionality? Intersectionality is supposed to bring different types of women together to share an appreciation of their different oppressions. It is not supposed to create a hierarchy of those oppressions, but to take account of how each group may need different legal approaches (Crenshaw, who coined intersectionality, is a law professor) – and subsequently, people have applied this to political approaches. But surely all these different sects of feminism divide us further and achieve the opposite of intersectionality? Not only are we at loggerheads with mainstream patriarchal, capitalist, racist society, but with each other. Despite the shared experience of oppression.

Now, I’m not naive – we’re not going to fix this anytime soon. But, to veer off into my personal experience for a moment, all my recent feminist experiences are hugely coloured by a divide, not a solidarity. The media talks a lot about misogynisitic attacks on women daring to air their views online. Most of my attacks come not from men, or non-feminist women, but feminist women. And why? Because I’m not ‘doing feminism right’ according to their particular sect’s definition of it. I’ve been told (and I’m sure plenty of people reading will have had this experience) that I’m not a feminist because I hold xyz view. It doesn’t even matter so much what that view is, because I could hold the opposite view and someone may tell me it’s ‘not feminist.’ I have just done a degree in Gender Studies, I spent most of my free time campaigning or attending events about gender / feminism, I self-define as a feminist, and, you know, I really care. But apparently none of that matters if I disagree strongly with another feminist on how best to alter a certain law to help a certain group of marginalised women. I have been to events recently where feminists have purposefully disrupted events other feminists have worked tirelessly to arrange for the purpose of feminist discussion and, to be honest, all the shouting and attempts to talk over other women just came off as a perfect emulation of how patriarchal spaces treat women who try to speak. Blimey.

This isn’t actually about me, I’m just giving examples to paint a picture for those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of feminist politics. To back away from individuals and their behaviour for a moment, and to think about these different collective feminisms, what I see is individuals being forced to choose one feminism or another, when they might not fully fit into one, because, let’s face it – one approach to a political problem is probably never going to hold all the answers. And again, we’re splintering, instead of pooling resources, energy, and methodologies. What people don’t understand is that this is the very paradox of intersectionality: the more we split people into different groups – those racially oppressed, those oppressed by sex, those oppressed by disablism and then those oppressed by more than one, we have split ourselves into groups that have different, often incompatible needs. It’s not simple. It’s not just, ‘feminism is too white, invite some black feminists along to our next event, done!’ This is why it has its origins in legal theory, and not political theory: it was a contextual, specific response to the US legal system, not necessarily applicable – or certainly not without immense struggle and forethought – to every situation worldwide in feminist politics. But suddenly, people think they can tick a few boxes and achieve it. And they seem to think claiming one feminist label as a riposte to another, ‘evil’ type is achieving something positive too. By my god, talk about simplified!

I’ll give you an example. Radical feminism, for instance, has a brilliant approach to being really hands-on in tackling violence against women, in stepping back from looking solely at individuals and their choices and whether those are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and looking at the bigger picture. Where do those ‘choices’ come from in the first place? How do they come to be seen as ‘choices’? For instance, women do not ‘choose’ freely, with no outside influences, to shave. It is socially conditioned. And ultimately, it is, in most instances, likely to be about the male gaze. However, because radical feminism names gender – here, femininity – as an oppressive means / norm by which that impulse to shave is imposed upon women rather than men, it struggles to agree with trans* / queer politics, which sees gender as an identity to be claimed, not an oppressive force. And yet, you can find radical feminists, of course, who are not opposed to trans* rights (even to women-only space). And they are definitely on board with all the other problems queer feminism claims to fight:

  • Racism, imperialism, genocide, and violence
  • Strict rules about gender and sexuality that hurt everyone whether male, female, both, or neither
  • Blaming and shaming of […] anyone who does not fit a narrow and arbitrary body standard
  • Rape culture
  • A tendency to claim that democracy and liberal politics fixes all ills, rather than addressing society’s problems

(Definition from queer feminism.com)

So, in fact, we see there is no ‘radical feminism’either, but radical feminisms, which is why people use the term ‘TERF’ (trans-exclusive radical feminism) when they argue against women-only spaces that define ‘woman’ as ‘biological woman’. Essentially, all of it comes down to a disagreement over what gender is. And yes, that is about subjectivity and theory. There isn’t a straightforward answer to what gender is, people have been fighting over that question for decades. So let’s not simplify and pretend our version, and therefore, our feminism, is ‘correct’.

I have no solutions, I’m just one person struggling with being pulled into one part of feminism by certain interests and finding I disagree with other parts of that feminism. Yet having been ‘claimed’ by one section, just the very act of associating with them, leaves me rejected by other parts. I’d quite like to dip between types and expand my views, actually, but that is being withheld from me to a certain degree (I can go to certain events but will have to keep quiet on some of my views so as not to be attacked / potentially thrown out). And I think that says a lot about our politics. Not only is it diluted by not trying to work together, even if we then still feel the need to define ourselves differently, but the politics is defining us, not the other way round.

I went to an event recently and a woman read a poem about rejecting all -isms: socialism, feminism etc. I listened with interest because she was saying that we must go our own way and not feel coerced into joining into pre-defined political spaces. And yet, that is exactly what happens – we try to create our own politics, but the -isms suck us in and define what is and isn’t possible before we know it. Next thing you know it, I am a ‘sex-critical’ feminist and therefore cannot be a ‘queer’ feminist. Really? But I hate body-shaming too, I hate racism, I hate imperialism, ‘free speech’ to defend hate speech, rape culture and violence and pre-determined gender roles and so on. These are not exclusive to queer politics – in fact, it has a renowned history of racism and whiteness. And yet, it is absolutely the case that the divide between these types of feminism feels insurmountable. But, despite its imperfections and arguments, I cannot let go of this movement and stop trying to improve it. It has given me – and us all – too much.

So, yes, I am a proud feminist; feminism should never rebrand. But I want to be free to bridge types of feminism. I will not claim any single label without caveat.


It’s all in a look: vagenda, body hair and the rage against the beauty machine

Unshaven armpits

Julia Roberts dared to bare all in 1999

I recently read the article in Vagenda mag about female body hair, specifically about not removing it. I feel for the author. In the face of hegemonic gender norms, it’s hard to be the voice of dissent, crying foul play. We don’t like body hair in mainstream western society and I wouldn’t have the guts to fly in the face of that heavy, if ridiculous, disapproval. I am weak.

It’s because I don’t agree with gender norms that sometimes I lack the conviction to say what I really want to, for fear of opposition. That opposition is so entrenched and so ignorantly accepted, without deference to gender ideology. So sometimes, when I catch a dirty look from another woman – and all women get those, no matter what – sometimes, it affects my ‘fuck gender stereotypes’ conviction. ‘The Look’ can bring you down from the giddy heights of happiness, or it can throw you over the edge just when you’re keeping it together. On a really good day, I can shake it off completely, but The Look is powerful, because it speaks to so much more than a nose-wrinkling distaste for your outfit choice.

For the author of the Vagenda article, it is probably down to her hair in places that are unacceptable for woman to show hair in public. (Which is pretty much anywhere but our heads.) I put the looks down to my dishevelled appearance in comparison to the onlooker’s attempt at airbrushed perfection, or my ‘quirky’ attire. At those moments, I crave a stamp on my forehead that says ‘Fuck you, I’m a feminist! I don’t subscribe to your value system!’ My value lies in more than the clothes I wear or the way I look. It’s hard to be defiant all the time though.

Defiance is hardest when those you’re defying are the majority and misunderstand your defiance. Beauty is so omnipresent and omnipotent in our society. But most people don’t analyse their beliefs for long enough to realise they may be indoctrinated by a dominant cultural mindset, reminiscent of the here and now, the particular zeitgeist of the moment. They don’t think about their treatment of beauty as political, cultural or historical.  To be curvaceous used to be considered beautiful. Now we favour the emaciated look. Most models have a BMI of 15-16, which counts as ‘starving’ by the World Health Organisation’s standards. To be hairy in places where you’re naturally hairy used to be ‘normal’. Now it’s not. And to go against this norm apparently warrants a torrid reaction nowadays. Just ask Vagenda.

For the moment, a mindset dominates. Female body hair is gross. Women must be beautiful to be worthwhile. That mindset sees women from the male gaze. It has made women see themselves from the male gaze. If our bodies were functional and not aesthetic, why would we remove hair? It’s costly, annoying and time-consuming. It’s also there for a reason and bites back hard when you try and remove it. Persistent bastard, it is. But my conviction that there is more to life than beauty is automatically trumped by prevailing messages running through all parts of society.

Advertising. Pornography. Fashion. Diets. Lapdancing. Music videos. Shop windows. Cosmetic counters. Magazines. Page 3. Girl talk.

Why do they win? Because I am an individual. I am fragile. The above are (almost) all connected to huge corporations. Mostly the same few corporations at that.

And all of this analysis I can get, yes, just from a casual caustic look. A throwaway bit of malice from a passerby. I am empathetic. I want to understand other perspectives. But it seems Aryan to me, the superiority complex of The Look. It’s screams ‘my idea of beauty is right because I say so, because I think so, because I feel so.’ I think, therefore it must be. This is alien to me, the unquestioning, unconscious decision-making process based on personal convictions. Because I am constantly questioning feminism as a whole, my feminism and feminism’s various forms. Because not all of it is right. Not all of it I agree with. This can make me feel like I lack conviction, but really it’s because I want my conviction to be genuine. I can’t assert something without thought it through properly, without research and bouncing off other people, without question.

The Look, however, is self-justifying. And The Look makes me wonder how we will look back at this time, right here, right now, in decades to come. You know when you look back at a photo of yourself from years ago and you look so different to how you perceived you looked at the time? The whole world around you looks a bit old-fashioned and like something you’d rather forget happened. It’s like the feeling we get when we look back at the treatment of women in the 1950s, where women were encouraged to find fulfilment only in domesticity and marriage. ‘How quaint’, we think. Or when we watch Mad Men and think how hilariously funny it is that men routinely went unchallenged when they treated women as inferior. How men felt they could talk to women as lesser beings and use them as objects for their sexual gratification, without any sense of wrongdoing.**

**I don’t think this is funny ha ha or funny strange, but I hear a whole lot of people do because we’re supposedly so far from the Mad Men model of gender now. If only.

It’s hard being a feminist in the current  climate, where women compete in a beauty war and feel pitted against each other in some sort of imaginary femininity stakes, even when ‘beautiful’ and loved. I put beautiful in inverted commas because beauty is subjective and cannot be stated as a fact. (Naomi Wolf captures this more astutely than I ever will in the excellent book The Beauty Myth.) Women are so often comparing their outward selves to other women, but only in relation to the discourse of mainstream society. Not in relation to their own version of ‘beauty’ or success’. But that’s the problem with continually checking yourself against the male gaze.

If I go against what is now the accepted norm of femininity and go to a party with hairy pits on show à la Julia Roberts and no attempt to cover up my various human imperfections, no attempt to airbrush myself into an idealised version of a woman, then I am made to feel I am less worthy, less ‘beautiful’, less valuable. Because I’m more me and less Barbie. And that’s hard to accept and hard to go brazenly go against. Especially when the company around you largely fails to understand just what it is you’re going against and brands you as ‘ugly’ or ‘lazy’ instead. How often do we hear things like she ‘could have made more of an effort’ or she’s ‘letting herself go? Too often.

Because opting out of beauty isn’t a choice. Just ask these guys:

It’s a slippery slope, this beauty war. But I am gradually finding strength in my ‘weakness’.