Is This Feminist? And Other Relevant Questions
This post was originally published on J.A. Martino’s blog, What a Radical Notion!, and was reprinted with permission from the author.
Oh, FEMEN and your feminist boobs. Your uniformly thin, smooth-skinned, whole, mostly white, two-breasted naked torsos are just so subversive, and lard knows there’s no other way to get the media to pay any attention to you!
But this post is not about FEMEN, necessarily, because lots of people have been saying whatever I would say about them for years now. Read here! And here! And here’s what I wrote about Slutwalk, and here’s what I wrote about hookup culture, in which you could just replace the actual subject with “FEMEN” and voila! Reconstituted. In the immortal words of everyone’s favourite spinster aunt: If the liberal peen is keen, the result can only demean. There’s no need to add to the list of criticism – in fact I can’t believe that such interesting, thoughtful, and patient analyses have arisen out of this SAME. TIRED. SHIT. Update: Meghan Murphy totally beat me to it!
I do want to talk about some of the criticism of the criticism, though – specifically the hedging and refusal to get into a debate about who’s “doing feminism wrong”. Many of the posts I’ve read on the subject have included a disclaimer somewhere in the article - even the Al Jazeera English’s The Stream interview, which sparked this recent round of debate, had a number of prominent feminists making this point, notably the leader of FEMEN International Inna Schevchenko and Chloe Angyal of Feministing.com, who both said something along the lines of “Now, I know that it’s a tired and unproductive argument to be tearing each other down and arguing over who’s doing feminism properly, and I have no wish to rehash that debate.”
This is a silencing tactic. It is a way to make genuine criticism seem like a petty distraction from the overall goal. It’s a way to dismiss and undermine the validity of the conversation happening around the incident, whatever it may be. I can’t help but notice that the women who are most vocal about the unproductivity of the is-this-feminist debate are often the ones doing the things being criticized. It’s a derail, a distraction, a way to point the criticism they don’t know how to deal with – or that they simply disagree with – back in on itself, and therefore avoid having a real discussion. If we’re focusing on critiquing what other women are doing, their logic goes, we are detracting from critiquing what’s being done to women.
There are a couple things wrong with this:
First, women are steeped in the same patriarchal ideas as everyone else, and some of those ideas are going to be internalized, so that a lot of the time what other women are doing and what’s being done to women are one and the same thing. We cannot talk about one without talking about the other, and situations like this one with FEMEN, where the argument is about the use of a heavily fetishized part of a highly objectified body, are particularly rife with internalized ideas of womanhood and sexuality. We get those notions from the culture we grow up within, and so it’s hardly revelatory that some of those cultural ideas MIGHT HAVE made their way into other things, and it is certainly worth examination.
Second, there are totally right and wrong ways to do feminism, and it has happened in the past that feminists have themselves done things that are not necessarily furthering to the feminist cause. That’s because people are humans, and humans aren’t perfect. We must be allowed to make mistakes, yes, but also we must be able to talk about those mistakes without being accused of divisiveness, and we must be able to take criticism for our actions in the same way. No one likes to be told they’re wrong, of course, but we must have the courage not only to be wrong sometimes, but also the fortitude to take being told that we’re wrong with grace and to grow from it. As RadTransFem points out oh so eloquently, there are lots of thoughtful ways to talk about what may or may not further that feminist cause, and that we certainly must talk about that, at length and in depth. It is absolutely possible to establish some parameters, through a broad and intersectional analysis of what exactly is being said by whom, where we overlap, and where we diverge. And doing this, it must be said, in no way discounts the fact that feminism is not a monolith, that there are lots of different ways of doing feminism, but we cannot simply accept that something is feminist because “I’m a feminist and I did it.” What’s unproductive is to think that discussing the ways we perform our feminisms with one another is unproductive.