Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Thinking like a feminist

A couple of weeks ago, I got rather angry. This is not in itself a gripping news event, both because I am a relatively uninteresting young woman of no particular importance to the rest of the world and because I spend a significant amount of my life getting rather angry about things. I was an easily enraged person long before I identified as a feminist, and I hope to be one long after the patriarchy comes crashing down around our heads and feminist identification is no longer necessary (which is going to happen any day now, right?) However, this was the first time that getting angry led to my getting to speak at a conference right after the UN Deputy Secretary General, so in the context of my life it was a relatively important event.

What happened was, my school, who are not known for giving significant notice of important events at the best of times, decided to e-mail my class during the week when we were all busy working to a thesis deadline, asking for proposals for a two minute slot talking about China’s development in Colombia’s State of the Planet conference (there are various school related reasons about why this was a Thing which are very dull and irrelevant). The evening before the deadline- which just so happened to be a Saturday evening, just to add insult to injury- S. told me that he was preparing a proposal of majestic proportions. After reminding myself of what he was actually talking about (thesis deadlines are pretty all-consuming sometimes!), some remarks on bad timing and the importance of not being lame on a Saturday night ensued; then I jokingly suggested that, As A Feminist, I should write one about “teh Wimminz” to defeat his manly well thought out “triple bottom line” approach.

To which he told me that, if I wanted women’s concerns to be included in the Sustainable Development Goals, I could always write a paragraph that he could put in “in one form or another”, but he didn’t really see how I’d be able to write a whole proposal from my own perspective.* Development is about people, after all, not women. Needless to say (it is what I started the post with after all), this did not go down well in the Land of Adrienne. What followed was an incredibly lame Saturday evening of coffee, feminist inspired socially based sustainable development goals and a monologue of “I’ll show that twatbag, girly paragraph in his manly proposal is it, why don’t we see which other manly places I can stick this feminist paragraph, bloody wanking tosspot” &c. &c. By the end, I was too caffeinated and rage-addled to sleep and ended up sinking into a vague stupor of feminist developmental rage until the morning.

Upon rousing, I had another look and it turned out that my anger-induced views on sustainable development goals were actually not too bad, although to be fair they were nothing particularly groundbreaking either. I submitted and through various- largely luck-based- mechanisms, ended up landing the slot. Then, ironically, I ended up having to cut the thing down so heavily to fit into the time slot that I almost ended up losing the explicit references to gender-related targets entirely. As it is, to the casual observer, my feminism kind of does look like a paragraph in the middle of someone else’s socialist idealism. A fitting end to a misinterpreted joke, perhaps.

Except that’s not the right distinction. The ten seconds of my two minute speech where I explicitly make reference to breaking down stereotypes about female leadership in China through international goals about female representation do not represent my feminism hanging out in the middle of a bunch of totally objective other stuff about social development in general. The reason all of that other stuff is in there, is also because I’m a feminist. I could have just as easily written an hour long speech about the same subject, still from a feminist perspective, and it would have contained the same proportion of specifically gendered stuff. That’s why it’s so infuriating for people to mistake “being a feminist” for “having a narrow focus”- even beyond the fact that women are 50% of the human race, and therefore talking about women ought to cover half the relevant things about humankind, which is also about as much as you can cover by using “people” as a proxy for “men”.

No, it’s more than that. The day I signed up for my feminist license (totally a thing), I didn’t stand there and swear an oath that the only thing I would ever talk, write or think about from that day forth would directly involve uteruses, boobs, bras, Judy Blume, bell hooks, yoga, skimmed milk or a combination of the above. I just looked one final time at how the majority of the world likes to generalise from “men” to “people”, and to use the word “girly” like it’s some sort of degrading insult… and I decided to stop framing things that way. All of the things. Given a bit of knowledge on the subject, I could literally talk about everything from breakfast cereal to cartography to East Timorese politics using this lens- some of it would come out looking the same as if I’d framed it using the patriarchy, of course, but I would still be applying feminism to it and I wouldn’t have to just refer to women in order to do it. To bring out a ridiculously outdated and overused move reference, the day I started being a feminist was the day I took the red pill**. Now I am outside the Man-Matrix, looking in, and let me tell you it’s an interesting view.

Of course, putting this way makes the whole thing sound a bit edgier and more awesome than it is. Once one has taken the step- conscious or otherwise- to not look at things from a patriarchal perspective, there’s a sense of incredible freedom, but it comes at the price of nobody back in the Man-Matrix really understanding where you’re coming from any more. It’s particularly prevalent when talking about actual “women’s issues” like birth control and abortion, where discussions are too often characterised as feminists vs. other people (they’re not). Most of my information about this comes through the lens of listening to other people talk about US politics, which I have no more than a general interest in, but when blustering Tory moron Jeremy Hunt decided to weigh in on UK abortion law a few days ago, I had my feminist fury activated with the stupidity of the debate. How can they be talking about survival ages when the entire point is about not forcing human beings to use their bodies to support the lives of other organisms! And yet perhaps, without being outside the Man-Matrix, it really is just accepted that some humans will have to do this and some will not and the way we draw that distinction is of no interest to society. It’s what my old Philosophy tutor used to refer to as the War of Incredulous Glances- how can we get anywhere near a political debate when it’s not being held anywhere near our own terms?

So, are feminists really doomed to be the human equivalent of the 52 Hz whale, wandering the earth singing our high pitched lady songs whilst the rest of the whales hang out in different registers? Women and feminine people have been banging on about our own value and rights as more than just ornamentation for centuries, in one way or another and there’s been significant scholarship on the issue for a rather long time too; yet here we still are, being asked to be paragraphs in the books of men. I guess the only way forward is to keep demonstrating that we are talking about it. I’ve no great love for Australia’s Julia Gillard (because, did you know, it’s possible for different people to see things through a feminist lens and come to different political conclusions, another thing the rest of the world seems to struggle with at times- although maybe it’s just because it’s more entertaining to view disagreements between feminists as bitchy irrelevant catfights!), but like many women I was incredibly excited by her sustained attack on the misogyny of Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, simply because it forced a patriarchal institution to at least listen to a feminist criticism of a man’s*** behaviour in a realm which isn’t traditionally “female”. Because maybe then we teach people that feminism is relevant to that realm, and we can actually move on to talking about the real issues as a society, rather than whether or not women should just shut up and move back to the kitchen.

(Transcript here)

 It’s imperfect, of course. For every person who goes “wow that was an inspiring instance of behaviour”, there’s another one going “haha, stupid woman” and yet another going “but she opposes gay marriage and literally cut benefits to single parent families on the same day as this happened, which negates all value of this speech”. If you’re reading this at the time of writing and really want to appreciate how enormously diverse (and largely stupid) reactions to feminism are, try looking at the #sorryfeminists hashtag on Twitter- something which started as an in-joke mocking stereotypes about feminism which has now been co-opted to perpetuate stereotypes about feminism, mock feminists from an MRA perspective, give non-feminist women a space to vent vague confusion about feminism and give the occasional wit the space to make a blowjob joke to an unreceptive audience. To be fair, it was a vague joke to start with, but the speed and aplomb with which the majority of people have completely missed the point is pretty depressing from this standpoint. Especially talking over the internet, where people can express quickly and rudely about their point-missing, knowing that the only way forward is to talk to those who literally don’t have the mindset to interpret what you’re saying in the way you mean it is an extremely depressing thought.

Still, we keep going, largely because we all kind of have to. The point of the Matrix is that you don’t get to plug back in- that bad guy who tried to ended up getting horribly electrocuted, remember?- and, in the same way, once you start thinking about things from a feminist perspective, I don’t think it’s possible to ever go back to not caring (unless it really is about breakfast cereal in which case yeah I’m pretty sure I think about that in the same way as everybody else.) Tomorrow, I’ll give a feminist speech about sustainable development that nobody will really know is feminist, because it’s really not possible for me to write any other kind of speech without regarding it as an exercise in fiction. I’m sure plenty of people in the audience will automatically disagree with my being too idealistic, too socially focused, too uninterested in easily measured goals. That’s OK, they don’t understand why it’s important to me. Maybe one day they will.

(Want to watch me take Columbia University by storm? Go to on October 11 and watch the live webcast at about 9.40am New York Time. That’s 9.40pm Beijing time, 2.40pm British Summer time. If you live somewhere else, you do the maths!

*I’m being a bit disingenuous, to be fair- the implication was that it would be impossible to write a comprehensive two-minute speech about the topic from a feminist perspective, rather than that I would be incapable of doing it. It’s still wrong, of course, but not actually a personal insult.

**It’s red because menstruation. Really.

*** Though if Australia’s parliamentary behaviour is anything like the UK’s, it should more strictly be “institution’s”.