Friday, July 31, 2009

Lady Rantalot : This is what a feminist looks like and therefore her only definition

Ellie Levenson’s article in today’s Gaurdian heralded another blocking and defense of her recently published book the Noughtie’s Girl Guide to Feminism, which the feminist blogosphere has pretty much rejected and Guardian columnist Libby Brooks gave the shakedown in the same publication.

My belief is that women, and pro-feminist men, come to feminism because they feel something isn’t quite right with the world. They might not know what’s wrong, they might not have had that crystal moment when they suddenly think “I’m being treated differently because I’m a woman” but they commit to finding out what that thing is and feminism is a mighty handy tool.

When Ellie Levenson says in her article today that “feminism should not be scary” she’s right, but feminism is kind of scary. That long sticky process of looking at your life, and the lives of those around you and systematically picking apart the tiny intertwined fibres of modern times is hard, and it can be upsetting, especially when you realise that the inequalities you begin see are dismissed off hand by your nearest and dearest. This process of looking at those things in life considered ‘the done thing’ or, dare I say it, ‘normal’ - including shaving, make up wearing etc - is an important part of coming to understand the construction of social interactions and expectations and how they impact on both genders by oppressing and limiting their experience of life without equality.

However, in her book and recent journalistic exploits, Levenson’s constant reliance on looking at feminism from the outside in, bodies, clothes, make up and the like, rather than on intent, action and change is thin and listless. It fails to take in the entire scope of feminism as a political movement and stops at pick n’ mixing almost harmless points, creating a route where those who do choose to conform to gender norms (prescribed levels of make up, shaving etc) can give themselves a hearty pat on the back and call it feminist.

This obsession with the appearance of feminists - that is so endlessly touted by the mainstream media in their re-imagining of a feminist now deviating from their original construct of the hairy pitted, man-hater, to their fresh “noughties” construct of girls gone wild, fragrant and fashion friendly - is a distraction from the movement, and a distraction from the real point of being a feminist.

It disables feminist activists by reducing them once again to eye candy, to hot or not, for their worth to be counted on their looks in relation to their willingness to conform to social norms of beauty. After all, if anyone can call themselves a feminist, without challenging societal norms and hierarchical structures which mean that a persons gender, race and sexual preference will lead to specific pre-determined outcomes, then there is nothing to fear from those who are happy with their status quo (say, in our patriarchal, white society)

I do agree with Ellie that two great tenants of feminism are ‘equality and choice’ however that does not make a every choice, enacted and accessed freely, a feminist choice - it is just a choice feminism has helped you access. I personally think to tout feminism as the freedom to do whatever the fuck you want is a symptom of (often white) middle class privilege, because those choices are unlikely to be as easy to reach for someone of a different class, or race. It also blindsides the fact that people do not exist in individual bubbles, every action we take reflects and refracts through society and as a feminist you have to be prepared to realise some of these choices lead to the oppression and exploitation of women you can’t see of hear. Or they uphold stringent gender binaries in society that blocks men and women from experiencing their lives outside a concrete set of gender requirements.

Whether or not it is her belief, through her book and her ensuing articles defending and advertising it, she has painted herself as a cheerleader for the patriarchy dressed up in a fluffy form of feminism. I do think it was a feminism I would have adhered to as a 18 year old girl, uncomfortable with distancing myself from the positive reinforcement of conforming to societies needs for me, but as I’ve grown and realised you can’t have your cake and eat it, I can only recognise it as a divisive and confused message to women.



Ann-Sophie said...

Thanks for this post, Charlotte.

I haven't read Levenson's book and I don't intend to, mostly because I think it will just enrage me.

I so appreciate your point that YES, feminism can be 'scary'! What many feminists spend their work and personal lives (and for many of us the distinction is blurry) doing:

'That long sticky process of looking at your life, and the lives of those around you and systematically picking apart the tiny intertwined fibres of modern times is hard, and it can be upsetting, especially when you realise that the inequalities you begin see are dismissed off hand by your nearest and dearest.'

And it is equally upsetting as you start to look at your own experience and recognise that the inequalities you experience are minuscule compared to other women across the globe - that indeed the 'choices' you enjoy are *not* available to all.

If we can thank Levenson for anything, perhaps, it is for helping us clarify why we are feminists, what feminism means to us, and how far we have yet to go.

Webwitch said...

Thanks for this. Am totally scunnered with the obsession with what feminists look like and can't be arsed with debating what is or is not a 'real' feminist. This is a wee breath of fresh air. Much appeciated.

Hannah said...

Good post - I'm not going to waste my money on the book so haven't read it but I've seen enough excerpts and discussions on it to know that it would probably enrage me anyway. Feminism may be about choice but to me there are much more pressing choices than whether I can be a feminist and wear high heels or lipstick. I can't stand the fact that yet again, feminism is being reduced to the sort of choices that are only major decisions for a privileged few - 'can I believe in women's rights and yet still be sexy?!'.

As one commenter on the Guardian piece said:

My problem is that The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism is unapologetically aimed towards the middle-class, white, able-bodied, and heterosexual woman, and therefore by definition is a very exclusive view of feminism...."What's that you say? Women in Northern Ireland can't get abortions? Well I don't care honey, all I want is the right to buy Chanel suits and still call myself a feminist!".

As I posted on Twitter yesterday, Twisty's post says it best.