An Island Never Cries: The Enlightenment, Feminism and Loneliness

I’ve been mulling over this idea for a while now, ever since a coworker posted an article about being a “feminist killjoy” (guilty!) and my general sense of consternation and disappointment in feminist communities. In the past I’ve jokingly said I can focus on more than one thing wrong with sexism at once, but lately I’ve been feeling stretched out in too many directions, wondering where all the disconnects came from and what happened to genuine community.

There are many good reasons for a lack of solidarity and community within feminism.  Trans women are understandably leery of the movement since TERFs poisoned the well with their dangerous rhetoric.  Women of colour have often been excluded from, if not experienced downright hostility by, white feminism.  (See the #solidarityisforwhitewomen tweets that @karnythia got rolling late this summer.)  To many women, feminism has always been synonymous with white, middle class cis women.

I can’t remember a time where I didn’t personally identify as feminist.  It’s possible part of it stemmed from the fact that I was (and still am) a contrary asshole, and I was surrounded by sexism, so rebelling against that became important to me.  A lot of my fledgling feelings about women’s rights were crystallized through stuff like volunteering with Scarleteen in my young adult life.

But then in college, I remember picking up a feminist theology book, either edited or written by Mary Daly, and reading it in the tub one night after class.  Before the water had even stopped steaming, I had to put it down, confused.  Not only did it seem intellectually dishonest – reading aspects of modern feminism back into first century Palestine to the point of speculating the magi visiting baby Jesus might have actually been witches – but it was patently wrong in its examinations of gender and sexuality.  (Mary Daly was quite well known for her vicious transphobia, as I later learned.)  I didn’t like the idea of that being what people thought of when I said I was a feminist, and a theologian.  Was Jesus a feminist? No! Would he be a feminist, if he lived today? Probably (or something similar.)  For me, believing and studying the gospel made me feel that social justice is the only acceptable solution; not that social justice should be read backwards in order to rearrange the gospel to suit us.

I began to read more widely and found some really excellent stuff (Jess (Yee) Danforth’s Feminism for Real, for example, and Lauren Chief Elk, who’s currently getting well-deserved accolades for her letter to Eve Ensler). I also found a lot of feminist stuff that made me deeply uncomfortable – male feminist “allies” getting far more air time than the women who said it better before them; a trend towards making feminism fun, sexy and palatable; feminist narratives around choice that implied that… well, Lisa Simpson says it pretty good:

No, no, I was talking about “As a feminist, virtually anything a woman does is empowering.”

Now, I’m pretty sure that the line in the Simpsons is meant to be a rib at exactly that kind of thinking.  Lisa Simpson, while totally amazing, is also only eight years old and she’s a great avatar therefore for subtly jabbing at misguided ideals.  My biggest and most growing uncertainty about my role within feminism as a community lately has been centred mostly around issues of choice and individualism.

It’s important to remember that, historically speaking, concepts of individuality are relatively young.  The Enlightenment was only a few hundred years ago, after all.  It hasn’t been all bad; concepts of individual human rights isn’t something I’m ready to chuck out.  For certain issues – like reproductive choice – the individual is the only person that matters. That’s the kind of thing, in my mind, “your freedom to do whatever you want ends where my body begins” as an ideal was meant for.

Now, forgive me, because this part is ticklish.  But I’m finding myself more and more concerned with certain aspects of feminism where the individual choice is held paramount and therefore, because the individual is a feminist, the choices are therefore also feminist.

Last year, I had the honour of attending the Faculty of Celebrity Studies hosted by Elaine Lui. You can read the whole experience on my post about it, but a lot of the discourse from the audience was about how they had chosen to become stay at home moms, and how mean feminists were for criticizing their choices, and blah blah blah until I got all Mount St Helen and caused a scene.

Look, it should be obvious: can you be a stay at home mom, and a feminist? YES.  Is being a stay at home mom a feminist choice? Well, for one – how do you define what a feminist choice is?  But more importantly, is it even a choice, when it’s typically more practical for a two-income family that a woman stay at home because she earns less? Or that even today, we’re still primarily bombarded with messages of motherhood being the ultimate fulfilment of being a woman?  (Having done some Christmas shopping for my niece recently, with massive difficulties in even finding gifts that weren’t kitchen or baby-doll related, I’d argue it’s even worse than when I was young!)

Or take a recent post at popular blog Shakesville, there’s a post against this article on high heels (which is admittedly, terrible in equating high heels to self-injury, and issues of consent, which redlightpolitics addresses in her storify on white feminists and consent.) This comes on the, pardon the expression, heels of the selfie conflict sparked by Jezebel, which created interesting dialogue about combating male gaze and controlling the photographic narrative.

But the argument that heels are an important feminist decision because they allow women to feel sexy and/or professional, particularly fat women, doesn’t sit right with me either.  Can feminists wear heels? Yeah, for sure.  Is it a way of spitting in the eye of the patriarchy? I don’t know.  I don’t think so.

There shouldn’t be an argument that long-term use of heels, particularly high ones, or heels with narrow toes, do damage to your feet.  There’s no question I’ve seen some seriously hyperbolic rhetoric out there comparing high heels to … idk, burkas and FGM.  That’s bullshit.  Spinning “to wear heels or not to wear heels” as an issue of feminist choice feels bad to me, on a few levels.  One, it feels like we’re gilding the cage.  Heels are necessary, it can be argued, to be seen as professional in the office. Yes. Similar to office dress code rules about cleavage, shaved legs, etc., if you don’t want to be the centre of a shitstorm, you suck it up and follow the code. I don’t feel comfortable spinning that damned if you do, damned if you don’t choice as a feminist act.  We should openly acknowledge it as one of the series of concessions we make in our day to day lives in order to not be in combat 24/7.

I also want to acknowledge that for trans woman, this issue is wrapped up in much more troubling and dangerous narratives about femininity, passing and safety, and I want to be clear that I would never question any woman’s choice about clothing.  Criticizing the practice, and the social history surrounding it is necessary to breaking down the restrictions, though.

There’s been a backlash lately against ironic racism, or ironic sexism, particularly in the comedy world.  If you’re a member of the privileged class, making jokes that sound exactly like racism or sexism, and copping out of it by saying “But I’m not ACTUALLY a racist” is rightly mocked or called out.  Whatever someone’s personal intent is, the audience at large can’t judge it’s truthfulness; only the surface.  Similarly, when a woman wears heels or chooses to stay at home with her kids, there’s no way of knowing at first whether this is a conspicuous choice, or just going with the flow because that’s how life is, or a combination of both.

This does not look like aspic. Some 50s housewife!

This does not look like aspic. Some 50s housewife!

And so on, with sex positivity (sorry, I don’t find vagina-centred feminism very positive, or inclusive, Vagina Monologues)(Eve Ensler’s on everyone’s shit list today!), shaving/waxing/plucking, etc. etc.

Remember the Enlightenment, and me cursing it’s name? (Oh, I haven’t yet? Fuck you, Enlightenment. Eat a butt John Stuart Mill) Here’s where it’s getting me into deep shit. Criticizing the practices has become criticizing the individuals who have made that choice.  Because you’re implying they’re too stupid to not know the societal constraints (They’re not, and I’m not).  Or that you think someone can’t genuinely derive enjoyment from painting their nails or cleaning their house (patently untrue, though I will bemusedly welcome house-cleaning lovers to enjoy my poor cluttered basement if they’re bored).

It’s almost as if the meaning of “the personal is political” has been turned on its head to indicate that personal choices – no matter what they might be – are important political statements.  This is only true if the important political people are recognizing that those personal choices are subversive (and again, in some cases, like abortion, they are!). But when your subversive choices look identical to patriarchal buy-in, then what? The argument then becomes “Well, why aren’t you fighting the patriarchy instead of other feminists?”

The move towards fun sexy feminism has alarmed me in a number of ways. One, we end up with a lot of gross male allies who realize that saying they’re feminist gets them laid. For another, we end up with vitally important concepts like consent being boiled down to “because it gets you laid (and also not charged with rape)”.  Tied into that last link, we also get a bunch of corporate buy-in from Pantene and Dove marketing their beauty care products to women with mildly feminist messages or ideas, which feels alarmingly like point one, only with companies.  Capitalism is anti-thesis to feminism. Shouldn’t we be skeptical?

The problem with skepticism is its lonely.  The moment where you realize you’re a feminist killjoy and you lose all your friends is lonely.  The moment where you realize you’re a feminism killjoy and you don’t even really fit into with a lot of feminist spaces is lonely.  How do we build bridges?  How do people participate in feminism when there are many avenues in which its gone that they don’t agree with, when critiques have become personal jabs rather than a plea to think critically? Is this navel-gazing tome of a blog entry just more of the same? Where do you fit?

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Meli Maenomenon – Honey Sweet, with a Hint of Dear Leader

[Content Note: Critical examination of the flaws of safe spaces]

My feminism has evolved a lot since the days I was able to first name it, and most of it came from others around me.  I picked up one book on feminist theology once, got an essay in and put it down before I dropped it into the tub from laughing too hard.  The lessons, while as varied as the women who taught them to me, were simple: talk less and listen more, the value of the lived experience, how to struggle against a world that hates you, the importance of connection to one another.  Feminism is not a solo struggle.  This last one, more than anything.

I did my stint on the big internet forums of the world with Scarleteen, first as a dumb scared teenager and later, I was lucky enough to serve on their volunteer moderator squad for four years.  I learned a lot from the website, both in the fields of sex ed, and also the kind of delicate abrasiveness that you get when dealing with teens.  The rules at ST were pretty simple: as long as you weren’t using slurs, or abusing the users or mod team, we were willing to tackle – and be challenged by – almost any topic in the realm of relationships and sex.

When I ended up on Livejournal, I spent maybe one day in the community vaginapagina, hoping to learn some things and give useful information if I could.  This, the rules proclaimed, is a safe(r) space. The problem: in cultivating this safe space, the moderators of VP were often cracking down on nearly all criticisms of dangerous activity or incorrect information.  Commenters were able to support posters but not critique them. I didn’t last long there, but leaving the community doesn’t fix the general problem, hey?

I struggle a lot with the idea of trying to make feminism accessible and fun. Pat Robertson did a pretty good job when he pitched us as single lesbian women determined to break down the nuclear family unit and practice witchcraft, but that doesn’t pull in the numbers you’d think it would anymore.  But the message that fun feminism sends is that feminism is a big sleepover party, where you do each other’s nails, try out different makeup and wax your legs – because EVERY choice is feminist, didn’t you know?  When it comes to organizing or protesting or donating, you start seeing the same faces over and over again on the ground, with new recruits nowhere to be seen.  And yeah, those old guard are hard working and do great things – but we need fresh blood and new experiences, not an echo chamber.  It’s a very weird to walk out of a talk on feminism with the unsettling feeling you’re too radical for university feminists.

Another recent victim of the safe space ideology is Shakesville (nee Shakespeare’s Sister), with whom I’ve had a few run-ins over the past weeks, beginning with a post entreating the community for advice on a user having problems with a child racking up serious dollars on their phone streaming porn.  I was banned from that post for a series of four comments, most of which was suggesting that other commenters were out of line in telling the mother watch a porn video with her child and explain why it is pornography is harmful. Not only was I banned, but the assumption was that I couldn’t possible be someone new who was disconcerted by the suggestions a mother sexually abuse her son but a sockpuppet of a former Shakesville troll.

So: issue #1 with this safe space: It’s only for people who advocate absolutely terrible, scarring and illegal actions in childrearing.  For what it’s worth, I know mothers can’t win with most shit – every kind of parenting they do is wrong.  But there’s paternalistic sexism couched in the guise of wanting what’s best for the child, and there’s straight up WRONG.  Guess which one this fell under? And yet, guess which comments were not deleted?

If you’re still not convinced, how about yesterday’s post re: Bill Clinton’s speech at the DNC.  There is a lot of what the kids today are calling squeeing, until someone brings up that as a survivor they’re uncomfortable with the glorification of a man who was under pretty heavy fire in the 90s for being a serial sexual harasser.

Okay, look, there are a lot of problems with feminism. Buckets. Truckloads.  You would need the Curiosity and ten years to scan all the issues within feminism.  One thing that should be a given is sensitivity to the needs of women survivors.  it’s something we share with 1/3rd of the world’s population of women, and at the very least, we can get that right, and have frank and honest discussions about the glorification of the sexual abuses by men in power, right?  It’s not like this presidential election race hasn’t been under heavy scrutiny for the “legitimate rape” debacle, the “life begins two weeks before conception” thing, pretty much every law passed in Arizona about women in the past four years.  It’s not like Kristen Stewart isn’t getting the coal-raking of her life for entering a consensual (if adulterous) relationship in the media right now, a double standard that positively saturates the messages women absorb.

If you guessed Have a Frank and Earnest Discussion about Clinton’s Sexual Misconduct, sorry!  The right answer is “tell the survivor she’s deliberately ruining the carefully cultivated safe space of Shakesville.”  How dare you call them sycophants! That word should be reserved for people who constantly jump to defend the indefensible. Wait a second…

Look, this sounds a lot like the Grudge 2: the Grudgening and in a way it is.  Because this continued broken ideal of safe spaces continues the old saying “so open-minded their brain fell out”.  It’s not working! It’s driving away the very people feminism should be seeking to reach? Is it any wonder that many WoC feel uncomfortable with feminism when its advocates do ridiculous things like write about Scottish persecution in a Pixar film?  Or that survivors don’t want to be part of a community where rigid rules don’t allow for their experiences to be heard?  This is not a small problem; this is a symptom of a huge problem, and it’s front and centre because this site is often one of the first recommended to young feminists interested in reading and participating more. Not only does it do a disservice in teaching young women about feminism, there is often the sense of the same kind of gently done guilt-tripping associated with the best of manipulators.

Revolution isn’t safe.  The only safety women, POC, people with disabilities, LGBT people have had is in the strength of numbers, solidarity and speaking truth loudly.  Driving people away with a false ideal of safety only serves to hollow us out until the privileged smash us to pieces.  Come on. Let’s make a real safe space out of the world.