The Appearance of Feminism

20 / 03 / 2015

This month, treat the illustrious, irrepressible, and by her own admission, oftentimes irritable Helen Razer joins the Sheilas stable. We’re beyond thrilled. Ms Razer, proudly rabble-rousing since the early 1990s, needs no introduction, and her fabulous first piece for Sheilas is probably best just read as well. Food for thought and then some, Razer wonders if getting to drink deep from the cup of Western capitalism was really what feminism was all about; why we’re still convinced our enemy’s enemy is our friend (despite all evidence to the contrary); and suggests that the Abbotts of this world perhaps be given license to let us know what they really think.

Feminism, as you hardly need reminding, has many adversaries. Some of these wear the robes of clerics. Some of these wear juridical wigs. Some of these wear t-shirts that say “No Fat Chicks”. All of these are in dress that make them obvious adversaries to most of us and so we challenge them as we ought to and make our feminist objections plain.

We oppose our obvious enemies and we endorse our obvious supporters. It has lately become quite common to say things like “feminism is a broad church” and “feminism is what any woman wants it to be” and to claim that all women, regardless of the mechanisms that they choose in the struggle for equality or liberation, deserve our solidarity. Even Miley Cyrus. So, what we presently have, in what would/could be creditably identified as our era’s most openly feminist moment, is broad disagreement with anyone who says they are not a feminist and broad agreement with anyone who says that they are a feminist. You are, in short, either with us or against us. And while many women find this a glorious state of powerful accord, I, a terrible grump, am not among them.

Us and Them once worked well to win simple military battle. For centuries, statecraft had it that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and wars were waged and won on the premise that you were either a goodie or a baddie. But these realist principles of combat, which worked to vanquish one nation state and reward another, are brutal. Or, rather, they are brutally simple. They do not, in my view, address conflicts as complex as gender.

Let me be clear and tell you that I am not, by any means, endorsing peace. I am not suggesting that ladies should be Ladies and find ladylike ways to win the lady-war. Rather, I am suggesting that the terms of warfare change and that we must change with them and move beyond the simple identification of those who are on our side and those who are not. In an age which produces complex battle of a sort that defies description by the best minds in foreign policy—try getting a clear picture of Vietnam and when you’ve done that, have a go at understanding the post-Cold War conflicts of Eastern Europe and then send me your comprehensive views on how to fix the Middle East—Us and Them is not a useful paradigm.

“Enemies” can exist even on the good side of the battle zone. By this, I do not mean that we should be on the lookout for Gender Traitors who run home to their men after abortion rallies to make pies in their lingerie and give up all our strategic secrets. While it’s often plain who our enemies are—conservative priests and misogynist judges and men in distasteful t-shirts—it is less evident how we are antagonising ourselves.  And we are doing this by means of our own brutal simplicity.

Feminists may not have yet won much but what we have achieved is the broad social recognition of its enemies. Which is to say, just about anyone who can be convinced is already convinced that the men in robes and wigs and t-shirts are arseholes. Any shroud to their simple brutality has long since been torn by the good work of feminism and now, when the Prime Minister reveals another curio from his nineteenth-century hope chest of gender bias, much of the nation laughs at him, he slumps in the polls and he is taken aside by advisers and warned to “appear” more feminist.

Personally, I enjoy T Abbott’s anti-feminist outbursts very much. I think that they are healthy. I do not, of course, enjoy the knowledge that I still live in a culture and a society that can produce quaint and damaging ideology such as his but I would rather it remain obvious if it is to exist at all. Yes, what the old-fashioned strategy of feminist warfare more lately promotes is the insistence that Abbott, or men in t-shirts or wigs or whomever, is exactly what the more astute Faceless Men of the Liberal Party suggest. And that is, he should “appear” more feminist.

One does not vanquish sexism by quashing its expression. And, one does not advance feminism by rewarding the appearance of its advocacy. Yet, we have arrived at a strange interval where much of our feminist labour seems to be focused on both of these tasks. We urge for the silence of sexists and for the declaration of feminism. So what we have is a mode of battle which requires Tony Abbott not make his unexamined prejudice plain and for, say, Beyoncé or Miley, to make their unexamined feminism very plain.

We want the world to look feminist in the hope that the world will become feminist. We seem to believe that if we represent the reality we want, that reality will necessarily follow. We urge for more “representation” on soap operas and panel shows.  We campaign for the representation of “real” women on catwalks as though representation and the catwalk, were the real itself.  We ask politicians to represent themselves using non-sexist language. This, for mine, goes against the most basic principles of language and of representation.  I believe that there is a “real” that precedes its representation. I believe that awareness ribbons worn without engagement with the real that they represent are a form of bondage.

I know that it is very unfashionable to dismiss the popular feminism of a Beyoncé or a Miley or an Emma Watson. I know that it is considered “elitist” to dismiss the good intentions of any woman and that now we must say that “feminism is for everyone”. Of course, feminism is for everyone in the sense that everyone could benefit from its realisation and participation. But if that feminism is, as in the case of Beyoncé and many popular protagonists, an endorsement of an idea like “all women should have the chance to compete in the marketplace”—and this is the central message of her celebrated song Flawless for which the famous neon FEMINIST sign was built—then I wonder if this message, so close to the competitive market message of Mr Abbott’s political party, is something worth advocating.

I cannot uncritically align myself with everyone who says they are a FEMINIST; most especially if they are advocating for a competitive market that fundamentally relies on inequality. I cannot uncritically oppose myself to everyone who says they hate FEMINISTS. There is simply not the time nor is there value in maintaining an Us and Them struggle for goals on which contemporary feminism, to be frank, has not really set.

What I can align myself with is critical thought which is, of course, unpleasant and boring and perhaps not “for everyone”, but necessary to shift us beyond the simple identification of enemies in wigs and allies in spangly leotards.

Feminism must be about so much more than the brutally simple public expression of itself if it is to prosper. It must be about more than acceptable appearances and the simple brutality of Right and Wrong. It must be a force that dares to look at the interplay of the real and its representation. It must be a force that dares to see beyond goodies and baddies and deal with the intellectual pain of forming its own knowledge. Its own knowledge of the real. Not its representation.