People keep talking about feminism as though it’s a singular thing. For me, it is; to paraphrase an Andrea Cornwall essay, inherently pluralist- there are feminisms not ‘feminism’. As valuable and integral as this is for a vibrant, diverse, challenging, inclusive, growing body of analyses, stances, approaches, practices… it also complicates spaces, it also (as I’ve been accused/branded of doing) ‘problematises’ things. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, it’s just how we handle it and how we are able to work with it, how we’re able to take things on board or reject things and the ways and whys in which we do them.
So much of our feminisms and ideologies and constructs are contextual, and without devolving into cultural relativity; how do we even begin talking about ‘sisterhood’, about ‘movements’, about ‘solidarity’?
They’re all big words and have a valuable, important, necessary herstory behind them. They’re not words to use lightly or they will end up mired in resentment, in scepticism, in eye-rolling and eyebrow-raising, in pandering, in ‘saying the right words’, in co-optation.
I struggle with my feminist identity a lot: when do I call something out, how do I call out my fellow ‘feminists’, is my analysis still privileged, is my analysis a load of crock, am I being called out and held accountable, how do I respond to that?
A lot of that has to do with these binary constructions of ‘good feminist’ and ‘bad feminist’, and while I struggle with these ideas themselves I know I’ve been party to it too. But, does my questioning of someone’s stances and the incongruity between their support for certain things and their professed alignment with feminist principles (whatever they may be) mean I’m branding them a ‘bad feminist’ or am I holding them accountable? Am I discounting that we all fail to live up to our ideals- that I too have failed, spectacularly, on many an occasion at staying true to these things I say I believe in? Does questioning a stance equate with branding rather than opening up an avenue for discussion? Does holding ourselves- and each other- accountable always mean that we’ve forgotten our imperfections and our humanity and the fact that we’re all pretty much hardwired to fuck up?
Does my questioning Beyonce for her skin-lightening, or trying to unpack the VMA performance mean that I’m disregarding her self-identification as a feminist? That I’m overlooking her successes in a space where the odds are often stacked against black women? Or does that mean I’m trying to feel my way through a more complicated world of feminism- where it is a means to market goods, where it is means to sell an idea of equality, where it is currency? Does the question itself imply a questioning of everything or only the particularities of where we all bump up (!) against one another?
Roxane Gay (apparently) talks about this a bit in Bad Feminist (I haven’t read it yet- but all her essays and the interviews seem to touch on a lot of what I’ve been thinking and feeling) and I think so much of this discussion has to also do with taking care of ourselves and of each other, of our movements, and of our struggles. These struggles are nowhere near the end, we’re nowhere near equity or equality or fairness or justice, and we must ensure that we’re sustaining ourselves, that we’re nurturing each other, our spaces, our voices; if we are to begin to build, transform, create more equitable spaces.
That isn’t to say that I don’t chafe at ‘feminism’ or ‘feminist’ being applied to everything willy nilly. I do. That isn’t to say that my feminisms don’t have certain principles that underlie it, that define it, that give it shape. I do.
I question if it is really feminist for Nike to run the Girl Effect campaign, for example. It’s been effective and has a lot of support and has definitely raised some issues to think about, but it’s also Nike. It’s a video that makes you feel things, it ‘raises awareness’, I’m told.
What about the women in Nike’s sweat shops? What about their pay, the conditions they work in, the healthcare they (don’t) have access to, the lack of job security? How about the analysis of ‘girl effect’ itself and its messaging- is women and girls’ education or ‘empowerment’ only important if it contributes to the economy and to an increase in material wealth of a village/town/dwelling? Is ‘selling one’s body’ (sex work?) not being conflated or viewed through a moral lens? What about the other ways in which women and girls are at risk for HIV- from their partners (husbands, usually) or through vertical transmission? What about access to contraceptives or comprehensive sexuality education? Or the fact that healthcare systems in a lot of countries are overburdened, are weak, are inaccessible? Or the impact of religious fundamentalisms or militarised societies, or living in a conflict situation (hey, ho Gaza!)? Yes, it’s a simplistic and generalised understanding of an issue- but how does that affect interventions, approaches, ideas?
Does the end justify the means? Girls having access to education is a good thing (what kind of education, quality education? What happens next, have other social strictures fallen away, do the necessary structures exist?)- you’d be hard pressed to find people disagreeing with that. But, what else does this rely on; what else does this impact? Our oppressions are inter-linked, are inter-connected. Is it really ‘progress’ if we do so at the expense of others?
I also struggle with this equation of ‘girl power!’ with feminism. Yes, but also.. no.
I don’t like binaries. Feminism isn’t about women vs. men and I am so tired of dealing with this that I refuse to engage with that line of ‘argument’ anymore.
Feminism is, for me, about equity. Equity understands power. It understands contexts. My feminism is also about justice. Justice understands contexts. It understands oppression. It understands our handed down, meted out power structures. And equity and justice understand that this affects all of us.
I can get behind ‘girl power!’ as a cutesy, charming attempt at getting more girls interested in STEM fields, for example. I can get behind the idea of ‘girl power!’ in encouraging girls to try their hands at sports. What I struggle with is this idea of ‘girl power!’ as something to compete with men at, to beat men at. But, the competition itself is rigged, the playing field is uneven, the standards themselves are questionable- and that needs deconstruction, that needs questioning and challenging and breaking down.
A while ago, I did a vlog for Belle Renne’s Powerful Woman Monologues series talking about how I’m tired of women tearing down women and how it’s also a cultural (across contexts that I’ve known and experienced) myth that we need to break down, how we’re also set up to compete in a power dynamic that is often set against us. (side note: this Roxane Gay list for female friendships is a must read- I would extend it to other relationships in my life too)
I come back to this a lot, because it isn’t just women tearing down women; but within our many different social justice causes as well- we tend to turn on each other or throw each other under the bus. It is not acceptable for me to read an essay questioning visa practices (and linking it to post-colonial struggles and constructs of ‘deserving’) where someone’s (I think, justified) anger finds purchase- yet again- by instrumentalising women’s bodies. It is not OK for you to rage against institutionalised racism but then threaten to impregnate women of another race as a ‘lesson’. As a woman of colour, I cannot stand by that. Yes, racism is real and it’s problematic, and it’s fucked up- but women’s bodies are not receptacles for other peoples’ anger and hatred, no matter how justified. Our herstories are testament to our bodies being used as instruments for other peoples’ bullshit. Learn from it, don’t repeat it.
Similarly, how do we even begin to talk about the ‘pay gap’ without talking about race, and class- and in my context, caste? How do we begin to talk about military interventions without also talking about how this affects women and girls? How do we talk about supporting the military without talking about power? How do we talk about ‘all women’ without ensuring that we’ve created space for our genderqueer and trans* comrades? Do we even talk about disability? How do we talk about intimate and domestic partner violence without also interrogating it within same-sex spaces? How do we do the work of solidarity?
They’re difficult conversations. They’re complicated. But they’re so, so necessary. We need to understand that we need multiple lenses, that we need to have our intersections, and that we need to understand these things; what the past has taught us, and we bloody well need to stop throwing each other under the bus so we can move ahead in some transient, temporary (& ultimately useless) idea of ‘victory’, or ‘progress’.
Claiming an identity is more than just a badge, we have to understand where it comes from and try to work towards that too. It doesn’t mean you can’t criticise- oh, please do! It’s a living, breathing thing- we have to navigate it and play with it and laugh and cry and try to shape it as other people do the same… and it’s absolutely OK to say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I didn’t think about it’ or even ‘I disagree’. We have to interrogate ourselves too. We have to hold ourselves accountable too.
So. Let’s problematise.