Feminism and being multiple
Wednesday, 28 March 2012
One of the oddest things I find about “being a feminist” is the amount of difficulty and debate such a label tends to conjure up. There are thousands of variations, but three key problems seem to always rear their spiky heads:
1. Many women are reluctant to identify as feminists, even though if you ask them their thoughts on specific issues they’ll respond with feminist ideas. There’s a certain ugliness associated with the label that a lot of us grow up learning to be wary of. Take this Maxim “cure a feminist” feature as exhibit A. This article from Mama Mia a few days ago also captures some of the frustrations of this situation.
2.Some feminists believe there should be a core set of bullet-points that a person must subscribe to in order to call themselves feminists. A lot of us do this even subconsciously, because it’s hard to understand how someone who agrees with us on one point could offend us so much on another. We question whether Cosmopolitan should be allowed to call itself feminist, whether Melinda Tankard Reist should be allowed to call herself a feminist.
3. The flipside of the point above is that many women feel like they’re not allowed to be part of the discussion, because they don’t meet the criteria they believe has been set out.
My thoughts keep going back to something Julia Kristeva wrote about in Women’s Time. Okay, I know it might be a bit naff or maybe just pretentious to reference Kristeva, but listen for a minute: in Women’s Time, she makes a case for a new generation of feminism (where ‘generation’ refers not necessarily to a period in linear time, but rather a signifying mental, emotional and intellectual space) that focuses on the multiplicity of individual experience. That means not only accepting that everyone will have different views and ideas, but that within each person exist myriad possible identifications, some of which might seem contradictory.
To take a personal example, I feel strongly about issues related to body image – but I also love looking at beautiful fashion imagery. I can see that there’s something a little bit messy about that, something that would confuse people. Sure, it even confuses me – there’s definitely a tension between these two passionate interests that I’m still struggling to reconcile, or maybe more accurately, to articulate. But if someone was to tell me that one negates the other, makes it less valid, or that it makes me “less of a feminist”, I couldn’t accept that to be true.
It always sounds like such a cop-out argument: “feminism is about choice.” But in the end, that’s something that I do think is integral to it. Beliefs and values are evolving things. I don’t know everything – in the whole scheme of things, I don’t really know much at all – and as I learn more and read more, my ideas and opinions are always being reshaped. The one thing I do know is that almost nothing is black and white – it’s usually far more complex. If you listen, there are always new ideas coming from new perspectives, and if you have an open mind it’s natural that your own beliefs are going to be malleable. I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a great thing.
I guess that’s part of the reason why, for me personally, I’m not sure about the usefulness of aligning myself with any specific stream of feminism. Mostly I think I just find the names quite reductive, though I can obviously see the value in rallying together behind close-enough-to-the-same ideas in order to make bigger changes. Feminism is about the larger structures, definitely – but it’s also about individual experience.
My feminist philosophy is not the same as yours, and it doesn’t have to be. There is no “feminist manifesto” outlining everything you should and shouldn’t believe. Possibly the only core belief shared amongst all feminists is that women are equal to men and should be treated as such. That’s what feminism is, and every feminist will have his or her own agenda.
So I’m the sort of feminist who will wear uncomfortable shoes because I like the way they make my legs look. I feel most alive and vibrant and myself when I’m wearing red lipstick. I love to feel pretty.
I’m also the kind of feminist who believes we shouldn’t be judged by how we look. I believe we should be able to walk down the street without idiots commenting on our bodies. I believe there are unfair expectations about our appearance and troubling ideals, and I believe it’s an incredibly a gendered problem.
I’m a feminist who believes in fighting for women in circumstances who are far worse off than I am. We’re lucky to have a voice, and I believe we have a responsibility to spread awareness and advocate on behalf of those who are silenced – where appropriate, when we know its what they want, without imposing our own values.
But that’s just me. You could disagree with any or all of those statements. But as Kristeva says, “from the intersection of these differences there might arise, more precisely, less commercially and more truthfully, the real fundamental difference between the sexes.” Then, she suggests, feminism will perhaps
“…be able to break free of its belief in Woman, Her power, Her writing, so as to channel this demand for difference into each and every element of the female whole, and, finally, to bring out the singularity of each woman, and beyond this, her multiplicity, her plural languages, beyond the horizon, beyond sight, beyond faith itself.”
And I think, just maybe, there’s some wisdom in that.