Grasping at Straws: Comparing Slutwalk and Occupy Wall Street
Recently, there have been a slew of articles written about women and Occupy Wall Street. Particularly, the need for a feminist presence in the movement and the recognition that women are often the ones who suffer the most under an inequitable economic system.
In an unfortunate, but hardly surprising, male-centric lapse of judgement, some dudes decided that the best way to get folks out to protest was to turn women into sacrificial lambs, with a site and video called “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street.” I mean, why bother paying any attention to women if they aren’t turning you on? In fact, why bother doing anything at all if you can’t reinforce your male power by objectifying women?
Though this kind of attitude towards women in progressive movements is nothing new, this particular brand of douchebaggery doesn’t seem to at all be representative of the Occupy movement as a whole. This is, in fact, a movement that is very much relevant to women and very much needs a feminist perspective within it. As pointed out by Angi Becker Stevens, in a piece posted at the Ms. Magazine Blog:
Because we are already starting from a disadvantaged position, women are often among the hardest hit in economically troubled times, and this is especially true for women of color. Women are also disproportionately impacted when states slash public services, as so many have done in recent months. Because they are far more likely than men to be single parents struggling to provide for a family on a single income, many women are devastated by cuts to family assistance programs. And as we have seen repeatedly with the threatened federal cuts to Planned Parenthood funding, as well as several individual states’ recent cuts to family planning programs, women’s health services are considered by many politicians to be expendable.
This is a movement that is very much about us, the 51%. Not only is corporate capitalism a system that is tied to and thrives via a deep connection to patriarchy and a hierarchical system of power that is racist and sexist at its core, but it thrives on the backs of women, literally.
A flier created by New York feminists, Rebecca Sloan, Cathy Barbarits, and Kathy Miriam that is being handed out at Occupy Wall Street, points out that the unpaid (and underpaid) labour done by women are the legs of the capitalist system:
Global capitalism is made possible by women’s unpaid work in the household…In Canada unpaid work is estimated to be worth up to 41% of the GDP. The shifting the burden of domestic labor from elite women to the domestic laborers (maids) culled from subordinate groups of women (immigrants; women of color; poor women) is another part of this same process of exploitation.
Women of colour, in particular, are most often the ones who are left behind and stepped on in a system that functions on economic inequality. They are the ones who end up doing the work that white women of privilege don’t want to do and they are the ones who are least likely to be able to climb past the glass ceiling and into positions of power.
It is also imperative that we recognize the way in which these exploitative systems lead to and encourage sex work and trafficking, another industry that impacts marginalized women and women of colour particularly. As pointed out in the same flier:
Trafficking occurs in a context of global economic inequalities and a failure to respect the human rights of a majority of the world’s population. Enormous amounts of people find themselves unable to provide for their families and are forced into situations of extreme desperation.
Women who are poor and women who are vulnerable are often the ones who have no choice but to resort to sex work, who are prostituted, and who are trafficked.
Indeed, the Occupy movement, is about us, the 51%.
So, how does this all relate to Slutwalk, as the title of this article implies? Well, it doesn’t, really, although in what is perhaps an act of desperation on the parts of Slutwalk organizers and participants who are watching their briefly novel movement drift into the background in the face of a movement that is truly radical and potentially revolutionary, a couple of people have tried very hard to link the two movements.
An article by Bryce Covert, at Alternet, imagines that Slutwalk and Occupy Wall Street are linked via ‘raw emotion’, and because both movements are ‘calling out the culture at large.’
In another piece written by Hanqing Chen, entitled: NYC SlutWalk Gets OWS Fever, the author writes that SlutWalk’s activists “said the Wall Street protests have paved the way forward in building attention for their own movement,” imagining that they will “partner with Occupy Wall Street to spread their own message.” So first Slutwalk tries to co-opt feminism, and now they want to co-opt the Occupy movement? Well, good luck.
The differences between the two movements are numerous. But perhaps most important is that which was recently pointed out by Eve Ensler:
The genius of Occupy Wall Street is that so far it is not brandable and that’s what makes its potential so daunting, so far reaching, so inclusive, and so dangerous. It cannot be defined and so it cannot be sold, as a sound bite or a political party or even a thing. It can’t be summed up and dismissed.
The key to Slutwalk’s popularity was that it was brandable right from the get go. It was salable. Slutwalk was loved by the media and by many because it provided exactly what mainstream culture wants and needs in order to sell a product: women’s bodies. It replicated images and messages that are easily consumed by the dominant culture, that is: women are consumable and they are to be looked at. It told us that which we already know: don’t bother looking at or listening to women unless they are up on a stage, dancing around in their underwear for an audience.
Whereas the Occupy movement is a direct response to a neoliberal capitalist system, Slutwalk was a ‘movement’ (if you want to call it that) that sprang from and embraced neoliberal capitalism. It sold women and it sold sex work as empowerment. Slutwalk bought right into to everything that we are being sold, turned it around and told the world that this was the route to liberation. Most of all, it sold a message of individualism – the key to the success of the capitalist system. Capitalism is all about the message of indivualism vs collectivism, man is an island under a capitalist system, and we are all to believe that if we work hard enough, as individuals, we can be successful. Health care, social safety nets, affordable housing? Those things are all a pain in the ass if you’re already wealthy and privileged. Those things don’t affect you if you aren’t poor or marginalized, so why bother? Other people aren’t your responsibility if you are a capitalist and if something makes you feel good then gosh darn it, you should do it!
Sound familiar? Slutwalk argued, right off the bat, that this was a movement all about individuals and that, if what they were doing, as individuals, was impacting other women negatively, well, too freakin bad. If you think sex work is great, then it’s great, regardless of how it impacts and hurts and exploits other women; women with less privilege than yourself. If you want to call yourself a slut and encourage men to call you a slut (because now that’s empowering!), then do it! Even if it throws other women under the bus in the process.
Slutwalk followed the rules. They bought into a patriarchal, neoliberal, capitalist message and tried to sell it back to us as revolutionary. But it wasn’t.
The Occupy movement never followed the rules. They did not partner with the cops and they didn’t ask for permits.The Occupy movement, rather, is challenging and confronting ‘the rules’ and is taking on the ideologies of capitalism and individualism. They are not asking for permission.
Occupy Wall Street did not build a movement that would be salable to the mainstream media. They did not build a movement with the specific intention to attract the attention of the media. They did not need a shocking and controversial name to sell themselves and they certainly did not need pole-dancing women to build momentum.
This does not mean that the Occupy movement is free of, or should escape criticism.
Peter Gelderloos notes, in an article for counterpunch.org that this movement must be careful to build on what has been learned from past progressive movements:
All of these [past radical] movements constitute lessons learned that can be passed down to aid future struggles. So often, the mistakes that defeat a revolutionary movement are repeated.
Gelderloos goes on to say:
In general, people in the United States face severe disadvantages in fighting power. The popular struggles of past generations were brutally crushed and critical lessons were not passed on. People have to start from scratch in a society constructed to meet the needs of money. In part because of this, people in the US have a unique opportunity to influence struggles worldwide, should they overcome the obstacles and turn these protests into something powerful.
And we, as feminists, must ensure that this movement includes an analysis of the way in which women are particularly disenfranchised under a capitalist system and ensure that women are not relegated to a position that requires they are ‘seen and not heard’ as the ‘Hot Chicks of Wall Street’ video does.
Yes, there are flaws in the Occupy movement, but it hasn’t begun from a position that is complicit in the very systems it claims to confront. It has not sent a message of individualism and it hasn’t told those who dare to critique it that if they don’t like it they can sit down and shut up.
Any comparisons between Slutwalk and the Occupy movement are desperate, if anything, as the focus moves away (finally) from half-naked women with the word ‘slut’ plastered across their faces and bodies, to a movement that demands the system change, and doesn’t simply aim to re-frame oppression and encourage women to make the most of what we’ve got. What we need is something new, something drastically different – and that is going to take more than media coverage and personal catharsis.