Having picked a fight last week with an overly easy target, this week’s feminist Thought For The Week comes courtesy of a facebook group of which I am a member, and overall fan; and which I consider generally as a small islet of sane feminist thought amongst the eel-laden bog of misogyny and prejudice that is popular culture. So watch me now, as, taking the gun to my foot, I make the case for it as a feminist offender. The group is called ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’, and, at the time of writing, had a little shy of 24,000 members, male and female, many of whom are active on boards and forums (to put this in perspective, a group called ‘If 500,000 Join This Group I Will Change My Middle Name To Facebook’ has 170,378 members. But that’s a rant for another day).
My problem with this group lies in the wording of its opening apologia:
It’s not about not shaving your legs, staging protests, man-hating, becoming a lesbian, or boycotting anything & everything “feminine.” Being a feminist is about believing that all genders deserve equal opportunity. Period.
I can to some degree comprehend why they feel the need to dispel the stereotype which has risen up around feminism and which has had for its aim trivialising or marginalisation. The aim of the apology is presumably to attract people with little or no previous experience of feminism and persuade them that feminism has something to offer them too; the implications of which being that women and men of all sexualities, appearances, behaviours, etc. are under the same blanket of patriarchy. Feminism thus opened out, the pernicious attempts by the dominant class to restrict feminism to a relatively marginal few are thwarted, and people of all classes, appearances, sexualities, and races are united in the fight for equal rights, multiplying the army by manifold, and getting people involved in and thinking about their own societal rights and interests, and raising the cries of newly-conscious oppressed women until they can no longer be ignored.
All noble intentions, but I can’t help feeling ultimately that statements like the one above, in mixing fallacies and truths about feminism, are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A closer analysis of the ideas that the group tries instantly to dispel reveals quite a cross-section of activities, ranging from the patently undesirable to the perfectly legitimate. There are few if any feminists who would argue that feminism is about man-hating, for example; we spend a disproportionate amount of our time explaining over and over to people who present this fallacy that what feminists hate is a patriarchal social structure which privileges men at the expense of women, and that we object to the rule of patriarchy, not to each and every single man on this earth (though of course, there are some men who are patriarchy on legs). The man-hating myth is a perfectly untrue stereotype of feminists, which, while far too much time is spent reassuring men that they (dear lord the irony) are not being victimised, does misrepresent feminism and is indeed incompatible with the goals of the ideology.
But examine the remaining items on the list of these feminist stereotypes and you will find that the image which this group seems so keen on exorcising from its very soul is actually the image of a perfectly legitimate feminist. Heaven forfend, for example, that we should ever stage a protest. Mark Thomas makes the indubitable point that no privilege that benefits an oppressed class was ever handed to them willingly; every ounce of progress that minorities have made has been fought for (and yes, women somehow count as a minority, despite being at least half of the world’s population). The perceived need to apologise for the vocality of women and for their willingness to take action can only be a symptom of compliance with a system which expects that women tolerate their lot as an oppressed class. However one may choose to package it, feminism as an ideology is ultimately – and should rightly be seen as – a protest, and a person who chooses to subscribe to it and call themselves a feminist is engaging in a protest of ideology against the patriarchy-addled status quo.
The same idea of apology for non-compliance applies to the question of leg-shaving and retention of ‘feminine’ traits. The fact that they have ‘feminine’ in quotation marks apparently pays ample recognition to the arenas of appearance and behaviour as sexually codified constructions, whilst at the same time reassuring non-feminists that they can retain their socially-programmed beauty codes and fully embrace the anti-patriarchal ideology of feminism. I speak as someone who wears makeup when she goes out, and shaves her legs and other piliferous regions on the blue-moon years she thinks someone will see them. I’m hardly therefore in a position to advocate the rejection of all socially-expected beauty regimes as a sine qua non of true feminism. That doesn’t stop me, though, from holding this up as an ideal, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I have to distance myself from feminists who refuse to concede to societal expectations of them, or even refuse simply to be hypocrites. I rationalise my own double standards by protesting that I want to see more men in makeup, not fewer women – but the idea that purists are the people who have it wrong or are somehow distorting the message of feminism is in itself a prime example of distorted thinking.
As for the denial of compulsory lesbianism, I can again sympathise to an extent with the exasperation of a heterosexual female who wishes to be considered feminist without compromising her own sexual identity; indeed, feminism ought to embrace and acknowledge all sexual preferences, since a woman’s absolute right to bodily autonomy extends to her choice of sexual partner. But by this very same logic, lesbianism ought to be given the same respect and validity as heterosexuality, instead of being held up as an abhorrently grotesque misunderstanding of what it is to be feminist. I attended a debate on feminism at the Oxford Union a few months ago, at which a representative of the Fawcett Society unashamedly railed against the very notion of feminists being lesbians, with the readiness of Judas.
My point has not been to discredit the entire ideology of ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’; for the most part, I find it a refreshingly active and engaging feminist space. My problem is with the wider assumption in certain feminist circles which it exemplifies; namely that lesbians, people who don’t shave their body hair or wear makeup, and those scary active vocal protester-types all somehow need apologising for, or distancing from. These apparently undesired behaviours are all perfectly valid within the logic of feminism; their rejection or reprobation is toxic according to feminist principles (not to mention common sense).* The time has come to stop apologising and to fearlessly defend the stereotype of The Feminist, reclaiming those needlessly-perjorative tropes; as well as accepting and welcoming those who choose to conform more explicitly with what we see as patriarchally-influenced social expectations. This is the challenge for inter-feminist relations. If you agree, I suggest you take your comments to the facebook group, and make your voices heard.
* here is how I would reword their introduction:
It doesn’t have to be about not shaving your legs, though if you do shave your legs you should question why men don’t feel the need to do the same; it fundamentally is a protest, though not always done with shouting and signs; it isn’t about hating men; it’s not about compulsory lesbianism but nor is it about the heterosexist idea that lesbianism shouldn’t be given the same attention as a culturally dominant sexuality; it is about encouraging the deconstruction of the ‘masculine-feminine’ binary. It is about believing that nobody should be socially, culturally, or physically oppressed on the basis of their sex.
Catchy, no? No. But truer, maybe.