TIME MISSES THE POINT: FEMINISM ISN’T ABOUT BEING PALATABLE TO MEN by @sianfergs

(Cross-posted from Sian Fergs)

I’ve been reading many articles that deal with the idea of rebranding feminism as of late, but one which especially amused me was this article in TIME, entitled ‘Ironic Misandry: Why Feminists Pretending to Hate Men Isn’t Funny’.

For a second, let’s put aside the fact that the author assumes that misandry is a real thing (hating men occurs, but the institutional oppression of men does not), and that it’s at all equitable with the oppression of women.

This particular article interested me because it asserted that feminists pretending to be misandrists hurts feminism’s PR. Sara Begley writes, “What feminists really hate is the patriarchy—the web of institutions that systemically oppress women. And to tear it down, we need as many allies as we can get.” She later adds, “To get folks on your side, you need an appealing message.”

Discussions about ‘rebranding’ feminism aren’t new. Last year, Elle UK decided to launch a project in which ad companies were tasked with rebranding feminism, resulting in heated discussion about whether feminism needs rebranding or not.

Often, rebranding feminism is directed at convincing people to identify as feminists. Flowcharts and quizzes are created to convince everyone who supports equality is a feminist.  Feminism is so much more than that – it is decades of academic theory, decades longer of praxis, and a diverse and dynamic movement. These flowcharts might inspire some people to educate themselves, but focussing on making feminism appealing rather than inclusive or informative doesn’t result in any real change. How does a person simply identifying as a feminist improve my movement, or my lived experience? Rebranding, I’ve come to realise, is oversimplification.

The capitalistic language (‘rebranding’, ‘PR’) reflects the increasing popularity of neoliberal feminism: feminism that focuses on the empowerment of women and not the destruction of systemic oppression. Contrast this feminism – as exemplified by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – to intersectional feminism, which demands the acknowledgement and abolition of the kyriarchy.

The increasing interest in rebranding feminism prompts me to ask: why are we marketing our movement to the oppressor? Last time I checked, feminism wasn’t a company and men were not our target market.

There are a number of useful, valid critiques of feminism. Feminism has traditionally excluded both trans women and women of colour; it has generally focussed on the needs of white, middle-class, educated, cisgender, heterosexual women and not people with fewer privileges. While many feminists – like the ones at Guerrilla Feminism – actively work to counter this, feminism still is exclusionary.

It interests me that TIME chose not to focus on the real, exclusionary, problematic aspects of feminism, but rather on a perception propagated by the patriarchal mass-media. It interests me that Sara Begley is concerned about feminism alienating men, and not actual oppressed groups. It interests me that many feminists are more intent on recruiting ‘allies’ than being ‘allies’ ourselves.

Feminism shouldn’t have to involve choosing between our supporters and the people we support. But the conundrum arises often: in the feminist spaces I’ve occupied, I have witnessed many people afraid of calling others out on their racism, transantagonism, ableism and heterosexism for fear of alienating a potential ‘ally’. We tone-police others in an attempt to gain more faux support. We value the quantity of our supporters over the quality of our support. This attitude implies that a privileged person’s support is more important than an oppressed person’s safety.

We seem more interested in appealing to men than supporting other women. By paying more attention to gaining the support of privileged people, we are perpetuating oppressive systems ourselves. Could it be more evident that we live in a kyriarchal world?

In the spaces I navigate, I have an obligation to ensure that they are as safe as possible for trans women, women of colour and disabled folk. As someone who has privilege over these – and other – groups of people, I have a responsibility to change feminism for the sake of the oppressed, not rebrand it for the sake of the privileged.

 

Just a South African Woman: An intersectional feminist blog tackling issues from a unique South African perspective. The posts attempt to explain and discuss some academic feminist theories in a simple manner, so as to make feminism accessible to more people. Follow me on Twitter at @sianfergs.

Neoliberalism and the commodification of experience by @alisonphipps

(cross-posted from genders, bodies, politics)

The personal is political, that revolutionary phrase which illuminated the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and after, was originally coined in response to claims that consciousness-raising was navel-gazing with no coherent programme for social change. It posed a direct challenge to the idea that ‘personal problems’ and especially so-called ‘body issues’ should not be brought into the public arena, an assumption which feminism has done an excellent job of destabilising. Politicising the personal through the production of research on gendered bodies has fed the development of epistemologies based on the validity of experiential knowledge, and this, in turn, has brought to light the impossibility of objective analysis.

However, more than 30 years on, it is time to ask questions about what has befallen the personal in a neoliberal political context. Neoliberalism individualises, interiorises and neutralises – within this framework the political uses of the personal have shrunk as difference has transformed into ‘diversity’, and experience and emotion have become part of a broader ‘tabloidisation’ and ‘testimonialism’ in which popular culture and politics have been saturated with feeling. As Ahmed (citing hooks) reminds us, this narcissistic and therapeutic moment and movement can easily co-opt and depoliticise our personal pain (although she cautions that this does not mean it should be ignored). In the current political climate, affect and emotion often serve to detract from structural critique: as Pedwellargues, inequality is frequently seen as a failure of understanding rather than a product of neoliberal and neo-colonial governmentality. Furthermore, the pain which has always been (justifiably) central to feminist politics can accumulate and stagnate in what Wendy Brown calls ‘wounded identities’ which both legitimate and depend upon state power.

We are currently doing feminism in amongst a commodification of distress. Moreover, this transforms experience into currency with which to buy into broader ideologies or ‘gazump’potential political opponents. This is revealed by the frequency with experience is ventriloquised by politicians and privileged ‘experts’, who use empathy as a technology of access to marginalised lives, often upstaging grassroots communities who may be able to claim ownership of their stories but lack a political platform. Neo-imperialist agendas strategically centre ‘native informants’, often women, whose narratives of oppression are used to constitute Other cultures, usually those of Muslim-majority societies or communities, as uniquely and inherently misogynist and homophobic. Domestic and international politicking around the sex industry is characterised by a fight for experiential authenticity, which in the mainstream media is often transmuted into a ‘debate’ between the extremes of the ‘victimised survivor’ central to abolitionist agendas and the ’happy hooker’ who often materialises as a rebuttal to that type of feminist politics. As part of its resurgence, anti-choice politics has recently undergone a shift away from its sanctification of the foetus, towards advocating the idea of abortion as a deep personal trauma which is contrary to women’s best interests.

Within a lexicon in which experience is frequently and increasingly used (often second-hand) in the service of particular political agendas, personal stories begin to lose their humanity. Complex and varied narratives are simplified and homogenised for ideological ends and can then be dismissed by those in opposition as apocryphal or even corrupt. As debates become more heated, we tend to fixate on the first-person and discredit the experience when we ought to be questioning the surrounding politics. The relationships between particular experiences and powerful and often repressive political agendas have begun to define the narratives themselves and to rob them of legitimacy. Muslim women who speak out against gender inequality become unreliable because they must be stooges of the imperial West. Sex workers who acknowledge pain have been procured and perhaps coached by moralistic, prudish abolitionists who wish to strengthen the police state. In response, those with privilege and political power tend to defend themselves with attributions of false consciousness: Muslim women who choose to cover their bodies, hair and/or faces, and sex workers who declare choice and discuss self-expression, can both emerge as patriarchy’s dupes. In this politics of positionality, experiences are always already marked by ideology and the first question we ask (consciously or not) when someone shares their experience is, ‘whose side are you on?’

The ideologisation of experience has produced a flattening out of lived realities for fear they will be converted into foreign currency. In much the same way as the complexities of ending a pregnancy may be underplayed by pro-choice individuals and groups for fear of reinforcing pro-life agendas, sex workers may de-emphasise, hide or even deny difficult experiences within a politics of respectability which operates in opposition to the radical feminist rescue industry and in a dynamic in which ‘excited’ and ‘exited’ are the only positions available. As neoliberalism turns debates into bidding wars, experience is valuable only in the right currency, which polarises and renders invisible the possibilities in between. Those with differing experiences of the same phenomenon are unable to co-exist, as one person’s experience may outbid and ultimately annihilate another’s. This also creates little space within the individual for mixed or ambivalent feelings to endure: multiplex subjectivities must become less so in order to be intelligible within the dominant phraseology of concepts such as ‘objectification’, ‘victimisation’ and ‘empowerment’.

Such compelling but essentially meaningless universalisms hide the operation of structural and historical dynamics. These include the impact of successive waves of colonisation on religious institutions and their relationships with both state and mass forms of political action in many Muslim-majority countries and communities, the links between migration flows and identities, the ways in which repressive immigration policies and criminal justice systems encourage individuals to narrate themselves in particular ways, and the situating of commercial sexualities within a post-Fordist capitalist system with a service-based consumer culture, high unemployment and shrinking social welfare. Furthermore, attempts at structural analysis often themselves inevitably collapse into appeals to experience: for instance, the radical feminist idea of patriarchy is frequently reduced to a homogenous experience of ‘male violence’, with little attention paid to the ways in which intersecting structures of oppression might produce varied encounters with this phenomenon and/or give rise to disparate analyses and forms of activism.

The contemporary politics of the personal prevents us from co-situating and productively analysing different experiences within such intersecting analytical frameworks, instead creating an anecdotal flow which is transmuted into a competitive deployment of one-dimensional stories and serves to create and widen gulfs between us. The fetishisation of experience also serves to restrict or conceal discussions based on other evidence, such as the compelling case against the criminalisation of sex workers and/or their clients, in which the figure of the victimised prostitute who must be rescued has made way for data pertaining to police and community harassment and repression, susceptibility to infectious diseases, risk of violence and access to health and social services.

This does not mean, of course, that we should not theorise from experience – indeed, the ‘view from nowhere’ with its attendant ‘voice of reason’ can also be that of the oppressor and reeks of entitlement and privilege (I say this with an awareness that in writing this piece, I may reasonably be read that way myself). Neither does it mean that all experiences, while valid, can be regarded as in themselves equally reliable sources of knowledge – what Haraway would term knowledge as an ‘act of faith’. Rather, we need to be able to translate experiences between situated, heterogeneous and power-differentiated communities, and use these as data to create knowledge informed by many types of evidence and frameworks of intersecting structures. We must also walk the fine line between respecting varied experiences, while critically appraising the uses to which particular experiences or technologies of empathy are put. Adding to our existing questions about ‘whose personal’ is political, we must be mindful of what it means to use the personal in the contemporary political context, ask whose experience counts within both dominant and marginalised thought and activism, and understand how neoliberalism depoliticises the personal and suppresses resistance by alienating us from each other.

 

Alison Phipps: This blog presents some examples of my academic and non-academic writing, on issues around gendered bodies, politics, and contemporary sexual cultures. I’m currently Director of Gender Studies at Sussex University and my work encompasses sexual violence, sex work, childbirth, breastfeeding, and abortion. I also have a specific interest in ‘lad cultures’ amongst students and how they are shaped by both neoliberal themes and postfeminist sexual tropes. You can find me on Twitter at @alisonphipps and you can download some of my academic papers at http://sussex.academia.edu/AlisonPhipps.

Minding our language by @strifejournal

(Cross-posted from Trouble & Strife)

Once we had ‘isms’, now we have ‘phobias': Debbie Cameron considers what’s in a name

Remember Betty Friedan’s ‘problem that has no name’? Or Gloria Steinem’s observation that in the 1960s no one talked about sexual harassment–not because it didn’t happen, but because ‘it was just called life’?  For feminists, naming women’s oppression has always been both a necessary task and a powerful political act. Of course you do not solve a problem just by giving it a name, but naming it brings it more clearly into focus, making it easier to recognize, to analyse and to share.

What names we choose to call things by is also important. We argue about words—about the difference between victim and survivorpaedophile and child abuser, prostitute and sex worker—because we know that words are not just empty labels. They are tools for making sense of the world, and they affect our understanding of what we use them to represent.

Since the 1990s there has been a change in the words we use to name oppression. Whereas the radical social movements of the 1960s and 70s talked about ‘isms’ (racism, anti-semitism, sexism, heterosexism, ableismageismspeciesism), their 21st century counterparts talk about ‘phobias’ (homophobiatransphobia, whorephobiafemmephobia). The language of ‘phobias’ has gradually displaced the older language of ‘isms'; you can usually tell when some form of oppression began to be seriously discussed by whether it is labelled an ‘ism’ or a ‘phobia’.

Unlike some issues of terminology, this one has not provoked much heated debate. But that doesn’t mean it is inconsequential. It matters for the reason language always matters: because renaming reality is also reframing it.

From ‘isms’ to ‘phobias’

‘Ism’ words and ‘phobia’ words name essentially the same phenomenon: the unjust treatment of one social group by others. But they frame that phenomenon in very different waysas we can see if we consider what ism and phobia mean in the language more generally.

Words ending in –ism most commonly denote systems of ideas or beliefs–political, religious, intellectual or artistic (e.g. feminism, communism, nationalismBuddhism, surrealism). Terms like sexism and racism were also intended by the radicals who coined them to refer to systems—organized social systems of dominance and subordination. Though they are often used now to mean just ‘prejudice or discrimination based on sex/race’, that is a liberal watering-down of their original meaning. In the radical framework, prejudice is not the cause of systemic oppression but a consequence or by-product of it. If you are going to oppress your fellow humans—exploit them, abuse them, disregard their needs and rights—then you have every reason to buy into the belief that they are Other, inferior and deserving of unequal treatment.

Words ending in -phobia, by contrast, most commonly denote clinical conditions. The first ‘phobia’ word to appear in an English-language text was hydrophobia (Greek for ‘morbid fear of water’), meaning rabies; in the 19th century the term became associated with mental rather than physical illness, and in current medical usage it means a class of anxiety disorders in which something that is not objectively a serious threat triggers a pathological response—intense fear, panic, disgust, an overwhelming desire to avoid or escape the danger–in certain phobic individuals. In everyday parlance the term is used more loosely: it retains the sense of ‘a pathological (over)reaction’, but there is less emphasis on uncontrollable anxiety, the main symptom of clinical phobia, and more emphasis on the idea of aversion or hatred. Terms like homophobia and transphobia thus carry a strong implication that the root cause of the oppression they name is the pathological fear and loathing felt by some individuals towards a certain minority group.

Hate versus power

I do not want to deny the existence of pathological hatred, nor dispute that some oppressive acts are most readily understood as expressions of it. That is how I would understand, for instance, not only many assaults targeting gay men and lesbians, trans people and members of ethnic and religious minorities, but also some crimes against women, such as the actions of self-identified misogynists like Marc Lépine (who shot 14 women dead in the ‘Montreal massacre’ of 1989) and Elliot Rodger (the perpetrator of the California shootings which inspired the hashtag #YesAllWomen in 2014). But I do not think it is helpful to make these extreme acts of violence committed by seriously disturbed individuals into prototypes for our understanding of oppression. Deranged misogynists like Rodger are the toxic, out-of-control products of a society that normalizes and condones sexism, a system in which all men benefit from their power over women. Treating the pathological cases as prototypical is mistaking the proverbial tip of the iceberg for the less visible but much larger structure that supports it.

Yet just as ‘ism’ words have yielded to ‘phobia’ words, this understanding of the structural and systemic nature of oppression seems increasingly to have yielded to an analysis which is more and more focused on hatred as the driving force behind it. In the criminal justice system, for instance, there is now a category of ‘hate crimes’—offences  motivated by hatred of the group the victim belongs to—which are treated as more serious and punished more severely than the same offences committed for other reasons. As Liz Kelly has pointed out, this approach does not help to deliver justice for women and children, because the ways in which they are most often victimized do not fit the definition of a ‘hate crime’. Domestic violence, child sex abuse and rape are not rooted in fear and loathing of women or children as a group, but have more to do with men’s feelings of superiority and entitlement, their assumption that women and children exist for their benefit and may be controlled, exploited and abused with impunity. These are not crimes of hate, they are crimes of power and domination; but that in no way diminishes their impact on the lives of those who are or may become their victims.

From a radical feminist perspective it is crucial to hold onto the understanding that oppression is only sometimes about hate, but it is always about power—about the structures and systems that serve collective political interests. The language of ‘phobia’ obscures this: it personalizes the political by concentrating on the feelings an action expresses rather than the interests it serves, and it pathologizes prejudice, representing it by implication as the irrational response of (some) individuals rather than the product of a system that benefits some groups at the expense of others. And once you stop asking who benefits from oppression or whose interests it serves, you can easily slip into a discourse reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society’. There are no material structures of power and inequality, only personal feelings and individual identities.

Renaming/reframing sexism

Recently this kind of discourse was satirized by a contributor to the anonymous blog Feminists Unknown. Adopting the persona of someone who ‘identifies as’ poor, the writer draws attention to a form of oppression that she feels has too often been overlooked:

The queer poverty theorist J’amie Olivier came up with it in his brilliant work Whipping Chav. If you’ve not read it, please do. It explains so much about how poor people are not oppressed due to having no money but due to ‘poorphobia’: a widespread antipathy towards dog racing, Lambrini and the Waitrose Essentials range.

Though ‘poorphobia’ is (so far as I know) an entirely imaginary concept invented for the purposes of satire, this parody does have an identifiable target. The fictional work Whipping Chav is clearly an allusion to the real book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, whose author Julia Serano is generally credited with inventing the term femmephobia.What that term refers to is the cultural devaluation of anything considered feminine relative to anything considered masculine. Serano points out that feminine qualities, interests and occupations are disparaged as weak, foolish, undesirable and worthless, and that feminine labels are often derogatory: the term ‘sissy’ applied to a boy is a grave insult, for instance, whereas ‘tomboy’ applied to a girl is far less disapproving.

‘But hang on a minute’, I hear you say, ‘don’t we already have a word for that?’ Indeed we do: feminists in the early 1970s drew attention to exactly this phenomenon, and the word they used to describe it was ‘sexism’. The devaluing of feminine terms and qualities follows the general sexist logic in which women, as the subordinate sex, are inferior to men, the dominant sex. Serano’s logic, on the other hand, is not a million miles from the ‘poorphobia’ parody: ‘women are not oppressed due to sexism/male dominance, but due to “femmephobia”, a widespread antipathy towards shoe-shopping, frilly underwear and the colour pink’.

From a feminist perspective it is pure obfuscation to talk about ‘the scapegoating of femininity’, as if it had nothing to do with the larger social system in which women are subordinated to men. ‘Femininity’ is not the target of oppression: apart from the fact that it is an abstraction (whereas women are concretely existing human beings), feminists since Simone de Beauvoir have pointed out that as a cultural construct—a collection of beliefs and norms which define what is acceptable and desirable in women—femininity is part of the apparatus that keeps women in their subordinate place. That analysis is further strengthened by the observation that in women, feminine qualities and behaviours are not devalued, they are idealized and rewarded. Said of a woman, ‘feminine’ is a compliment; it’s the opposite, ‘unfeminine’, which is an insult. If there’s one thing your average sexist can’t be doing with, it’s an unfeminine woman. A feminist, for instance, with her hairy legs and clomping boots and her refusal to just shut up and smile.

Serano does recognize the existence of prejudice against women who are viewed as ‘unfeminine’, but she does not attribute it to the workings of a system in which women are subordinated to men; for her it reflects the workings of a system which oppresses everyone (for what purpose and in whose interests is unclear) by imposing a strict binary gender division and requiring every individual to stay on their allotted side of the line. (For more on these contrasting understandings of gender oppression see here). What goes unrecognized in this reframing of sexism is that women are most often judged ‘unfeminine’ when they fail, or refuse, to behave like sexual subordinates. That is why feminists can be represented by sexists as simultaneously ‘unfeminine’ (i.e., too much like men) and as ‘man-haters’, without this being seen as a contradiction.

The scapegoating of feminism

Once the ‘scapegoating of femininity’ has been detached from the larger system of male dominance and female subordination, the blame for it no longer has to be laid at the door of men, or male dominated institutions, or patriarchal social arrangements. Sometimes ‘femmephobia’ is discussed as if it simply existed like a force of nature. But in any context where some identifiable agent is being held responsible for it, there is a pretty good chance that the agent in question will be a feminist, or a group of feminists, or feminism as an institution.

Suspecting this was the case, but wanting to check my intuitions against some actual evidence, I used Google to compile a sample of recent texts in which the words femmephobia, femmephobic and femmephobe appear. I can’t claim this method produced a fully representative picture of current usage (the tools a researcher would use to do that are not available in this case, because the word is still too new), but it did suggest that my intuitions were basically accurate. Not one of the items in my sample attributed ‘femmephobia’ to sexist men or patriarchal institutions. A couple of them used the word in reference to prejudice in the gay, lesbian or trans communities. But the overwhelming majority used it specifically to criticize feminism and feminists. For instance, this:

Long nails. Lace. Pink. Make-up. Dresses. Long hair. High heels.
I’ve noticed a trend in feminism that seeks to place these things as ‘lower’. As ‘less than’.
What we need to remember is that feminism is about autonomy and choice. By policing the choices of women, by telling them what to wear, what not to wear, what makes us any different than the patriarchy?

Or this:

Many feminists still have a blind spot when it comes to femmephobia. A lot of feminists are not very feminine, and were drawn to feminism because of the discomfort they felt due to enforced femininity.

These examples are good illustrations of the point that renaming and reframing go together. Neither of these writers understands feminism as a movement of resistance to male dominance. The first writer’s assumptions are basically liberal: feminism is about ‘autonomy and choice’. The second writer’s assumptions are more difficult to find an adequate political label for: they seem, in fact, completely apolitical, identity politics without the politics. The most obvious reason for becoming involved in radical politics—a commitment to social justice—seems to be entirely outside her frame of reference. Nor can she apparently imagine anyone rejecting femininity on political principle, as opposed to being ‘drawn to feminism’ because they were ‘not very feminine’ to begin with. Feminism is presented as a sort of refuge for women whose lack of femininity causes them ‘discomfort’ in the wider world, and the resulting concentration of unfeminine women becomes the explanation for the movement’s ‘femmephobia’.

Meanwhile, the small matter of power, and specifically women’s oppression within a system of male dominance and female subordination, has entirely disappeared from view. As the ‘scapegoating of femininity’ shifts from being one manifestation of sexism to being a form of oppression in its own right, the identity of the oppressor also shifts: it’s no longer men as a class or patriarchy as a system we have to blame for it, it’s a bunch of feminists oppressing other women by disapproving of their hair or their shoes. No one seems to ask what feminists might have to gain from this oppressive behaviour. In the ‘phobia’ framework that question does not need to be asked, because oppression is not seen as structural, part of a political system where actual interests are at stake, it is simply the acting out of personal hostility to other people’s choices.

Similarly, any feminist who offers a structural analysis of the sex industry’s role in oppressing women can expect to be accused of ‘whorephobia’, irrational hatred of prostitutes. This particular accusation always makes me wonder if those who make it have any concept of structure at all. I don’t know how else to explain the fact that they interpret criticism of an oppressive institution as an attack on the very people the institution’s critics believe to be most oppressed by it. It is possible to disagree about whether and in what ways the sex industry is oppressive, but ‘if you criticize the sex industry that means you hate prostitutes’ is a leap of logic akin to saying that if you criticize a large supermarket chain for paying low wages, that means you hate shelf-stackers and checkout operators.

The liberal politics of moral disgust

But the whole political discourse of ‘phobia’ often resembles the clinical condition in being more about visceral responses than logical arguments. The feminist blogger Marina S. recounts a striking example. At a conference session about woman-only space, a woman who had found some panellists’ contributions trans-exclusionary articulated her objection by describing the physical effects that listening to those contributions had produced: she reported experiencing panic symptoms like shaking and palpitations. Marina S. relates this reaction to the theoretical concept of ‘moral disgust’, a strong, instinctive feeling of revulsion which cannot be fully explained in rational terms. She explains:

Liberals pride themselves on their low levels of moral disgust, in particular in relation to the sexual practices of others. This is why we tend to conceptualise the objections of the right to certain things like homosexuality as ‘phobias’ – irrational fears stemming from an underlying moral disgust. It’s also why the ‘phobia’ frame has so successfully…migrated to be applied inside the social justice left, in terms like transphobia, whorephobia, fatphobia, femmephobia and so on.

And she goes on to point out that the woman’s reaction repeated the same gesture liberals label ‘phobic’ when it comes from a conservative position:

…here was a person literally, in every physical sense of the word, exhibiting a phobic reaction. … And much like conservative activists seeking to criminalise or marginalise homosexual relationships, she was using the very viscerality of her own reaction as a strong progressive/liberal moral argument: you have upset me, therefore I am right.

The progressive/liberal position is like a mirror image of the conservative one: whereas the conservative is revolted by queer/trans people, the progressive/liberal is revolted by the conservative’s homophobia/ transphobia: she is morally disgusted by the moral disgust she attributes to others, and the strength of her disgust becomes a claim to the moral high ground. (‘You have upset me, therefore I am right’.) As Marina S. says, it is impossible to argue with this: moral disgust is instinctive and visceral, beyond any challenge based on rational argument.

Although it is has taken root on the ‘social justice left’, the ‘phobia frame’ is actually more liberal than radical. Though radical feminists agree with liberals on some issues—for instance, both groups support lesbian and gay rights against the objections of conservatives—that is not because we share the liberal view that all sexual practices are morally indistinguishable and equally deserving of respect. If your aim is to end the oppression of women as a class then it makes sense to defend the rights of non-heterosexuals, but equally it makes sense to oppose some of the other practices liberals defend, such as the buying of sexual services. The difference between the radical feminist and the liberal is not that one judges other people’s choices and the other does not. They both make judgments, but on the basis of different values. Suggesting that any judgment you disagree with must stem from ‘phobia’—that it is not a question of your opponent having different principles or values, but is simply an expression of their irrational fear and loathing—is a way of making their position appear illegitimate without actually having the political argument. It is using language to silence views that you do not want to hear or engage with.

False analogies and misleading memes

What makes the ‘poorphobia’ parody funny is the absurdity of the idea that ‘poor people are not oppressed due to having no money’. While a full analysis of the problems facing poor people would doubtless include more than just material deprivation, it is obvious that economic inequality is the fundamental issue. Among other things, the parody reminds us that there are different systems of oppression which do not all work in exactly the same way and cannot all sensibly be talked about in exactly the same terms.

The language in which we talk about oppression has always had a tendency to depend on analogies between one group’s situation and another’s. In both the first (suffragist) and the second (liberationist) waves of feminism in the US, many women who became active in feminist politics drew inspiration from their prior experiences in movements for racial justice (the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th) and from the parallels they saw between their own situation as women and the situation of Black people under slavery and then segregation. Reflecting this history, the term sexism was created as a sex/gender analogue of racism. Although many commentators have criticized the feminists of the second wave for over-emphasizing the parallel between racism and sexism and being insufficiently attentive to the differences, the linguistic tendency to make analogies remains strong: if anything, in fact, it has become stronger than ever in the age of the internet ‘meme’.

The word meme was originally coined by Richard Dawkins, who intended it to denote the cultural analogue of a gene. Memes, like genes, are units which replicate, but whereas gene replication is a biological process, the replication of memes is a social process—they spread by imitation, and get adapted to new situations as they go. I won’t pursue the meme/gene analogy, to which there are many objections, but meme has passed into common usage as a term for cultural innovations that spread rapidly (nowadays often via digital media) and inspire many variations on the same basic theme. The ever-expanding lexicon of ‘phobia’ terms is a case in point: a word that originally described one experience became the template for a whole series of words describing experiences which were felt to resemble the original in some way.

One problem with this process, however, is that the analogies have a tendency to become progressively weaker and less illuminating. Homophobia is a reasonable term for some forms of prejudice against lesbians and gay men—it is easy enough to point to examples of the extreme, irrational loathing the word conjures up—but it is much more difficult to see femmephobia as a similarly apt description of the cultural devaluing of ‘feminine’ things. Who really feels fear, loathing or panic when confronted with an item from the list I quoted earlier (long nails, lace, make-up, pink, dresses, long hair, high heels)?

Another example which illustrates the point is the recent proliferation of words constructed on the model of mansplaining. That word was coined to describe a particular form of sexist condescension, where men who assume themselves to be knowledgeable, and women to be ignorant or stupid, explain something to a woman that the woman already knows, and possibly knows more about than the mansplainer himself. The term caught on because the experience it names is one that many women recognize; but it was swiftly followed by analogous terms like whitesplaining and cissplaining,and while writing this piece I’ve also spotted straightsplaining and abilitysplaining. ‘Splaining’ has clearly become a political meme; but the further it travels from the original example, the less it seems to serve any useful political purpose.

For a start, it is not clear that all the new ‘splaining’ terms describe a real and recognizable experience. ‘Straightsplaining’, for example, rings no bells with me: since being stupid/incompetent is not something gay men are stereotyped for (nor lesbians except insofar as they are also women) I would be surprised if this behaviour were particularly common. Stupidity and incompetence do figure in negative stereotypes of other subordinated groups: not only women but also people of colour, working class people, the elderly and people with disabilities are likely to have had the experience of being patronized and treated as stupid. But we might still question whether this is exactly the same experience in every case—whether it has the same motives, takes the same form or produces the same consequences. There is, for instance, a very particular way in which able-bodied people patronize people with disabilities, and this has been analysed for decades as one manifestation of ‘ableism’. Does the term ‘abilitysplaining’ add anything to the analysis? It could be argued that on the contrary, it confuses the issue by emphasizing the parallel with women’s experience rather than the connection to other oppressive practices which are part of everyday life for people with disabilities.

I suspect that’s what’s behind the endless extension of formulas like ‘x-phobia’ and ‘x-splaining’ is  a rather muddled interpretation of intersectionality. People reason that if all oppressions matter equally then (a) they all have to be covered in any discussion of anything—there has to be such a thing as ‘straightsplaining’, because to deny that it exists would be to treat queer oppression as less important than other kinds; and (b) they all have to be discussed in the same terms, as if treating oppressions equally required us to use the same analytic framework for all of them. As I understand it, what intersectionality really means is more or less the opposite of this: it means being attentive to the particularities of different systems of power in order to understand the differing experiences of oppression which are produced by their intersections (e.g. why sexism is not experienced in exactly the same way by women of different ethnicities or social classes). And if there is a need to be specific about the workings of oppression, there is also a need for language that can capture that specificity. Using variations on the same terms for everything/everyone flattens out the differences and stops us seeing how things really work.

We need a political language that can make distinctions between things that are related but not the same, and that does not reduce every form of oppression to a single cause or mechanism. We need a political language that does not mystify the workings of power and inequality, or pathologize prejudice, or obscure whose interests a given form of oppression serves. A language which does not meet these criteria is not really political at all. And—to adapt another recently popular meme—‘my feminism will be political or it will be bullshit’.

 

Trouble & Strife is a British-based radical feminist magazine. It appeared in print between 1983 and 2002, and is now a blog hosted by WordPress. We publish topical short posts, long-form articles and reviews, some of them illustrated by the feminist cartoonists whose work was a popular feature of the printed magazine. The website also gives visitors free access to a complete archive of our 43 print issues. T&S is edited by an all-women collective. We welcome enquiries from women who want to contribute posts, articles or reviews on topics of interest to a radical feminist readership (please note that we don’t publish fiction, poetry or artwork except if it illustrates an article). Our Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/troubleandstrifemagazine Our Twitter account is @strifejournal.

Dear Feminists: I’m One of You! Please Don’t “Save” Me

On October 31, 2014 by feimineach

As feminism becomes more mainstream, there’s been a great deal of discourse online regarding different cultural perspectives for various feminist issues. The more I read through these discussions, the more I become aware of a trend among feminists, which is the idea that a Western society is the ideal that other cultures should strive to duplicate. “Why does your culture do that?” “Your culture is so backwards.” “Your culture is oppressive.” These statements, along with others that share similar sentiments, not only alienate a huge portion of the feminist population, but also create divides among feminists that really shouldn’t exist in the first place.

You may not realize it, but the idea that Western women are somehow “more feminist” or “more liberated” than women from other cultures has existed for a very, very long time. This phenomenon stems from the concept that can most basically be summed up by cultural imperialism: the idea that Western society is ahead of other societies, and these “other” cultures need to catch up. Not only is this claim false, it also enforces marginalization of all cultures that don’t follow a Western framework.

This sort of cultural imperialistic mentality is dangerous for a multitude of reasons, the first of which is quite simple: it encourages prejudice and racial stereotyping. A Pakistani woman dressed in traditional garb should not be written off immediately as “oppressed by her culture.” She is only celebrating the country she identifies with by honoring it in the simplest way possible: by dressing in the clothes that reflect her nationality. By assuming that anyone dressed in accordance to their ethnicity is somehow not as “liberated” as the Western woman, we set up a system where the West has to try and “rescue” these “culturally oppressed” women. Notice, for example, that the West is referred to as “Western” or “Western society,” while most other forms of society are “cultural,” “ethnic,” or “exotic.” All of this helps propagate the believe that Western society is the default, and all other groups are anomalistic variations.

 

On FEMINSPIRE.

“Western” feminists have got to get better at this. (A) not imposing their western cultural standards on others and (B) not quickly assuming that non-Western women must be in some way oppressed.
(Image: © Michael Morales/The Foothill Dragon Press.)

 

Feimineach quick-hitting the hell out of everything. occasional thinky blogging. [@grainnemcmahon]

Banana Envy – Notes on a Global Obsession at Americas Studies

(Cross-posted from Americas Studies)

The banana is one of the most popular and ubiquitous fruits in the world. Walmart sells more of them than any other product. The word “bananas” has entered our language not just to refer to the fruit, but also as a slang word for something crazy or bizarre. In terms of imagery it’s slippery skin has become a comedy staple. Moreover, its phallic shape has given rise to a myriad of sexual connotations. However, the banana is the eunuch of the fruit world being sterile after thousands of years of human interference. Despite being an ongoing hotbed of mirth and eroticism their lack of genetic diversity leaves them highly susceptible to disease, and therefore constantly on the brink of extinction.

Furthermore, the phallic banana is most often placed in the company of women of colour. A dangerous triad of primitivism, imperialism and racism have brought about a long history of associating people of colour and other colonial subjects with primates (think of monkeys often depicted with a banana in hand), and women of colour as highly sexed and deviant. Let us not forget the disturbing recent history of human zoos that haunt the world over in which Africans and Native Americans were held in captivity and placed on public display, often alongside other animals. Consider these racist stereotypes and you unearth a long history of discrimination that has seeped into pop culture.

Of course it must be noted that not all iterations of the banana are racist or even erotic. Some, like Gwen Stefani’s idiomatic use of bananas in “Hollaback Girl” is simply surreal and evades definition. However, the pairing of women of colour and the popular yellow fruit is rarely innocent and usually for the purpose of entertaining and, in some cases, “educating” armchair geographers whose knowledge of other races and cultures is rendered and shaped through biased publications.

In light of this I have compiled a Storify of just a few of the cultural expressions of the banana. These range from the innocent and comedic to the erotic and racist:

https://storify.com/americasstudies/banana-envy-notes-on-a-global-obsession

 

Americas Studies: This blog, Américas Studies is the product of an Irish feminist researcher in transatlantic dialogue with the Américas. It is grounded in my current experience as a doctoral candidate with posts about literature, film, feminism, and issues related to academia.