Popular (Feminist) Culture

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve always been a secret pop culture junkie. I maintain a totally useless mental inventory of celebrity names, posses knowledge about their past and present relationships, and occasionally find myself referring to a celebrity as I might a friend. I spent high school watching embarrassing reality television shows (not exclusively, mind you. But embarrassing nonetheless), and secretly keeping up-to-date with the deeply inconsequential goings-on of my favorite stars. This certainly didn’t mean I wasn’t politically active or digging the beginning of my feminist roots simultaneously, but my love of pop culture wasn’t, to say the least, a totally minor part of my life growing up.

While I did maintain an unabashed love for all things pop culture throughout all of high-school (and, honestly, a lot of college) there was one moment when I realized that there was something wrong with how women, race and class were being presented. I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me, but knew that I was fighting for one thing in my everyday life and then going home to watch shows which were created to facilitate the same anti-feminist actions I had just condemned. When I began to explore my identity as a feminist and explore the ways I could live what I was learning, reality television and pop culture was the first thing that came under fire. I knew that I was supporting an industry which perpetrated the racism, sexism, classism and homophobia that I tried to fight (or at least address) in all other aspects of my everyday life.

I annoyed my friends by complaining (loudly, I’m ashamed to say) about America’s Next Top Model, explaining how plastic surgery shows perpetrated violence against women during the shows, and spouting jargon from gender studies 101 as I read US Weekly over their shoulders. And then, after all of that angst-causing behavior, I would secretly relish Huffington Post Entertainment and Laguna Beach re-runs. Could I be a feminist and support these programs and industries? Was I a total hypocrite? Should I just pick my battles and embrace my illicit relationships to reality television, or sacrifice the pop culture in my life for the good of the cause?

Lost in what felt like an unsolvable haze of young feminism, I turned to the internet. I discovered, to my total and utter delight, that there were feminists talking about pop culture with humor and respect. There were people talking about the very questions I wasn’t able to articulate! I had some idea that I should know what to find problematic within pop culture instinctively and instantly, and felt angry at myself when I read some article about how this kind of show promoted this kind of exclusivity, or how this language objectified these types of women and it was something I hadn’t thought of on my own. While pop culture is an inherent part of everyday lives, it also felt totally menial and meaningless. Yet there are multitudes of incredibly smart women talking about what it meant to be a feminist and participate and interact with pop culture. Since pop culture and reality television is so new, there’s just an acceptance that the analysis won’t be right the first time around. With increased input from varying types of women, the meanings and analyses are constantly being re-shaped and re-established. Pop culture feminism is based on an acceptance that no one has things right just yet, but with community involvement and participation, pop culture feminism can come to be relevant and meaningful.

I first came across Jennifer Ponzer’s book Reality Bites Back on Twitter, when I found myself totally taken with the idea that feminist analysis of pop culture could be a thing–and a worthwhile thing at that. (For more information on Reality Bites Back, see http://www.realitybitesbackbook.com/ .) Through Jennifer Ponzer and the magic of Twitter, I discovered a whole range of feminist pop culture analysis–which was funny, smart, constantly evolving, and totally relatable. Pop culture feminism disproves the idea that feminism is this one thing which is opaque, academic and inapplicable to real life. Discovering pop culture feminism was one of the first times I realized how I could apply the ideals of feminism to every and all aspects of my life, and what a privilege it was to be able to interact with pop culture through feminist analysis. It meant I didn’t have to remove myself or annoy my friends or frustrate myself, but I could work with pop-culture to reflect and analyze and hopefully improve upon what work it does for women.

Expanding Borders

March 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

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When I started writing my thesis, I thought I would learn about women in the developing world. When I finished my thesis, I realized that I had learned just the opposite. The prospect of grouping billions of women together and learning about their lives is so deeply ridiculous; I can sit in a classroom at my small liberal-arts college and acknowledge that I can’t speak for anyone more than myself, yet I couldn’t see the problem with grouping together women across countless borders and boundaries.

The idea of the “third-world woman” is often made into a brand of an exotic caged animal that needs liberation, and incredibly often western feminists maintain and perpetuate that discourse. There’s a strong feeling among certain types and waves of feminists that they’ve changed the conversation from patriarchal ethnocentrism to one that respects the lives of women in the developing world. Yet these conversations about who “third-world women” are, how western feminists can help them, and how people should understand third-world woman’s life is still presented in oppressive frameworks.

I’ve spent the past four years examining my feminisms and how they relate to women in America and Western norms. I like to think that I’ve garnered some sort of understanding about the complexities and subtleties regarding my feminisms and Western feminist theory. It took me until this year, however, to realize how I haven’t translated the complexity of that thinking to my understanding of global women. Post-colonial feminisms have created space for women outside of the Global North to explain how Western feminists have denied the “third-world woman” the space to speak their voice and define their identities on their own terms (or even in their own language). If Western feminists have the privilege to struggle, question and mold their identities and then re-question those identities all over again, non-Western women should be afforded the same right. Jaded16, a blogger who writes about Post-Colonial feminism, explains in ‘Skin Deep’ in Whose Skin? (http://jaded16.wordpress.com/2010/10/07/skin-deep-in-whose-skin/):

While there are quite a few theorists, bloggers, activists and people (who may or may not be acquainted with technical jargon of écriture féminin) who understand the problems with privilege and consciously work at divorcing it from their lives, there is an acute lack of Colonial critique or even acknowledgment that actions of mainstream feminism are, in fact, Colonial in more instances than countable.

Western feminists to ignore and deny the voices of Post-Colonial Feminists by using limited guidelines to understand feminisms, assuming one idea of what women want, and have a narrow idea of who’s worth listening to maintains Colonialism within feminisms. I couldn’t believe how powerful Jaded16’s blog was, and how clearly it stated what feminists were doing wrong and what she, as a Post-Colonial Feminist, needed. For her blog, see http://jaded16.wordpress.com/.

When United’s Divided

March 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Between this blog and my experiences in my final semester in college, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be in a feminist coalition. I’ve spent many classes considering the problems with creating the essentialist woman, and how ignoring differences isn’t equalizing but empowers the already privileged. I’ve also spent many other class periods considering the dangers of “othering” and the speed with which that creates an “us versus them” ideology.

If neither of these situations work, then what is feminism? Has it ceased to be a realistic or meaningful idea? Where to with theory if so much of it never seems to get it right? I keep hanging on to this idea of feminism as something worth fixing, as a powerful idea, as a community to which I belong. But what if it’s ridiculous? And maybe it is; maybe my questions about the idea of feminism mark my privilege and make clear my lack of understanding.

But if feminism is really a sinking ship not worth saving, then what next?

As I begin to think about my future career, I keep assuming that the feminist theory is going to be the first thing I’ll have to compromise. But when I imagine an alternate vision, all I can think of is how privilege comes from being able to just sit and theorize. I feel, as a women and gender studies major and a young feminist, that my feminism has perfected going 98% of the way. There’s no conclusions. There’s no how-to. There’s no pat on the back for getting it right, because there never seems to be a right.

Is there a coalition to be built over the 98%? Can we unite over the fault lines between and within the feminisms? Being a true feminist ally–not even the voice or the activist–is as complicated as can be. I think that I had some romantic idea that starting this blog would help me figure out the holes in my feminisms, would make me a true intersectional feminist, or would give me some guiding principal with which to live my life as a true feminist. At moments, I have felt like this blog has facilitated things coming full circle. But in all honesty, I feel that the more I learn the more lost I feel. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about allowing room for other realities and learning from others’ experiences. How can we listen without being silent?

And what now?

Dismissing Disability

February 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

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As a sister to a person with disabilities, the framework of disability has always played a major role in my life. I’ve had a lifelong sensitivity to the complicated nature of the issue and an awareness of the oppression faced by many disabled people. However, it wasn’t until incredibly recently that I began to think about disability as a feminist issue. I think I assumed disability was a category in its own realm, completely extricable from my own non-disabled self. I understood the fact that I interacted with other categories of stratification–race, gender, class etc–but never thought of “ability” as a category of analysis. Disability was or it wasn’t, and while I was (and will always be) dedicated to the rights of disabled people, it was because of my status as a sibling and NOT because of my identification as a feminist.

I had one of my most major feminist “a-ha!” moments when I realized how deeply incorrect I was to consider disability to be so black and white. The boundaries between abled and disabled are much more porous than most people assume. The meanings of disability and lines between disabled and non-disabled are constantly changing, reforming, and crossing over multiple categories of analysis. Despite the flexibility of the definition of disabled and its associated meanings, the consequences of falling on one side of the boundary lines are significant and life-altering. The label of “disabled” controls a person’s access to resources, and oftentimes denies agency–and makes it acceptable for others to do so.

In many ways, the acceptability of denying disabled people subjectivity is evident in the way I went about researching this blog post. While I knew I wanted to do an entry on disability feminism, my first instinct was to find background on disability theory and on the history of the field. For my other posts, I actively tried to focus on getting posts from the groups of feminists themselves, as they were obviously the authority on their lives. It took me until I started writing to figure out that I hadn’t even thought about finding writing from disabled feminists themselves. Feminists writing about disability, maybe, or disability researchers who examined the gendered nature of ability. Why has it become okay to ignore the voices of the people themselves?

That disability “a-ha” moment culminated in talking to my mother about raising a disabled child. I felt astounded when I realized that disability was a social construction and started using the phrase (dis)ability. I felt proud of my cynicism of the meaning of disability. As I began to read from the disabled feminists themselves for this post, it’s clear that while they talk about the importance of understanding the structures of disability and breaking down stigma, that it’s not enough to use cutesy word plays to challenge disability. While it may be a social construction, disability is a real and powerful structure that affects all aspects of a person’s life. Wheelchair Dancer puts it beautifully in Differently Abled — Disability Language On My Mind:

Outside our pride, culture, arts and rights movements, disability is less an immovable condition than a legally defined state and moving target.  There are no absolutes: you can be disabled enough to qualify for a parking tag, accommodations in the workplace, but not, say, certain types of state assistance.  What counts as disabled seems to be defined by the agency or organization from which you are seeking services.

Disabled people are rarely allowed to take an active role in creating their identity and are marginalized when they become a part of a movement other than for disability rights. Despite the fact that people with disabilities are clearly discussing their experiences, creating communities and vocalizing injustice, no one–including feminists–have allowed the realities of the disabled room to be valued. While the flexibility in the meaning of the phrase “disability” is complicated and controversial, it can’t be ignored. It’s demanded of true intersectional feminists, as s.e. smith explains in Disability is a Feminist Issue:

But every single feminist in the entire world does have an obligation to make sure that deliberate harm is not inflicted by ignoring intersectionality. That means that if the focus of your feminism is, say, sex positivity, you need to think about sex positivity beyond pretty white straight cis people without disabilities. Because, if you don’t, there’s a chance that you, yes, you, are hurting people with your feminism. And not just people in general, but other women!

We, or I, can no longer allow for it to be acceptable to assume disabled means worthy of disregard. As feminisms have grown and been strengthened by listening to alternative realities and acknowledging experiences outside of our own, so must we figure out the ways in which disability feminists can strengthen all feminists and inspire feminisms across all borders.

Cis-sexism From the Inside

February 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Parekidetasunaren ikurra. Symbol of parity.

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In my first women and gender studies class, the first assignment was to write a two or three page paper on the question, “what is a woman?” As a first semester freshman, I had no real experience in being challenged to re-think my core beliefs, let alone formally articulate them in an academic paper. The answer seemed at once so obvious and thoroughly impossible. After I spent hours struggling with the exceptions I found to every solution I could come up with, I wrote some overly schmaltzy description that I hoped would include everyone and offend no one. I now look back on that piece with total horror, and cringe when I think about what my professor must have thought when she read my answer to “What is a Woman?”.

As challenging as that paper may have been, and however unsuccessful I may have been at articulating any sort of significant answer, the experience was a powerful schooling in how gray issues of sex and gender are. I walked away from that paper and that class with a much fuller understanding of how complicated issues of gender are, and can thoroughly explain the separation between gender and biological sex and the meaning of “social construction of gender.” As a women and gender studies major, I think in many ways I take for granted the complexities of the issues by being able to brush the grey areas off as somehow being due to the big and blurry ideas or buzzwords without really analyzing the issues.

I am able to ignore the complexities of the questions around sex and gender or ignore the ways they interact with other forms of oppression because of my status as cis-gendered. My identification as cis-gendered (non-transexual) allows me, in many ways, to ignore the realities of the lives of people who don’t associate or maintain a different relationship with the dominant views of sexuality and gender (For more on cis-sexism, visit http://www.alternet.org/reproductivejustice/93826/rethinking_sexism%3A_how_trans_women_challenge_feminism/). I’ve read queer theory, lesbian feminism, been introduced to cis-sexism, and still have a hard time acknowledging the ways I may ignore the voices and realities of transexual peoples. Transgender feminism, in many ways, sits at a unique point in between theory and practice. Gender specific images are everywhere, people interact with their own gendered-self constantly, and we make both implicit and explicit decisions about ourselves and others based on understandings of gender identities. Societal structures in which we make these decisions and create our identities are based on heteronormative cis-gendered assumptions about people.

It’s easy to assume that the societal structures are part of patriarchal norms that I, as a feminist, don’t interact with and can’t do anything about because they’re too big. It becomes easy to ignore the ways in which transphobia or cis-sexism interacts with other forms of oppression. Yet cis-sexism is rampant within the feminist movement. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is a feminist music festival that has been going on for over 35 years and was established to create an all-women gathering and community. The festival has a womyn-born-womyn policy, which means that they only allow cis-gendered women to attend. Maintaining such a transphobic policy in a supposedly feminist gathering illustrates the ways in which both transphobia is ignored or allowed, and makes clear the ways in which feminists have as much potential to be oppressors and use hegemonic discourse as any group of people.

Participating in a movement that willingly adopts oppressive policies inherently negates anything “feminist” about the event. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival ignores the realities of marginalized peoples over a false idea that a shared identity of “womanhood by birth” is above all others and a singular identity is singularly uniting. Thea Lim’s blog post “I believe that I can support you, but also support people who hate you—On the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival” for Bitch Magazine’s website illustrates the problems with associating with people based solely on identity:

Sure, it can be natural to believe, when you feel cornered and alienated by ye olde Dominant Culture on the basis of your identity, that everyone else with your identity, will have reached the same conclusions about the Dominant Culture as you have. But that’s a fantasy – and it’s also essentialising. It does to others what the Dominant Culture does to us: it assumes that you can predict what someone thinks and feels simply on how they look.

Limiting people to a particular identity of “womyn-born-womyn” has allowed feminist movements to ignore or demean people based on an assumed understanding of their reality. Assuming that “woman” has one meaning and means one shared identity allows for policies like the womyn-born-womyn policy and accepts exclusionary hierarchies. I think the next step to make sure I’m not just walking the walk of intersectionality is to find ways to be more aware of the ways I support damaging relationships, like ones among womyn-born-womyn, and acknowledge the ways gender and sexuality interacts with all aspects of my life.

The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and the surrounding backlash is a perfect example of how feminisms should exist on a horizontal platform, where people can learn, better themselves and become more effective advocates for change based on understanding different and separate realities.

Classed Realities

February 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

In my few short years involved with academic feminism, I’ve found myself feeling the most overwhelmed when I’ve learned about how distinct the divide is between women of different classes. In one of my women and gender studies seminars this past semester, we talked about the upstream and downstream effects of technologies. One section of the class focused on cosmetics, and we examined everything from the plight of the factory workers working with chemicals day in and day out to the poor communities that deal with runoff from chemical disposal facilities. The stories of women’s lives and the statistics of the health risks women face because of their class status seems an unbearable injustice–yet it also seems impossibly big and deeply intertwined with structures that feel impossible to change.

During that class unit, we learned about communities that live in proximity to factories that make and dispose of chemicals for cosmetic and hygiene products. At first listen, it seemed a story I’d heard before: in an article in the New York Times, Erin Brockovich, or articles in other classes. But for whatever reason, this class unit made me feel how utterly violating it is that entire towns, the majority of which are poor and minority, live near factories that pollute their environment, water, and air with poisons. Living in a contaminated environment bears a particular risk and burden for women. For me, as a college-aged woman, so much of the conversation that surrounds me revolves around not getting pregnant. Within the vast majority of the communities around me, the news that I read, and my own ideas about the future, it’s taken for granted that when we choose to, we will be able to have and raise children in a safe (or at least non-toxic) environment.

After being abroad in East Africa, I realized immediately how many women all over the world don’t have the luxury of being able to raise their children in a safe environment. I didn’t, however, consider  the obvious–that women in this country, everyday, face the same insecurity about having and raising healthy babies.  Thinking about these human rights violations in my own country, or even my own state, it becomes way easier to realize the ways in which I participate in a system which puts poor women at risk. The companies I don’t research, the products I continue to buy, and the articles I am too lazy to read, all make me complicit in systems which violate entire classes of women.

While the right to have healthy children is violated throughout this country and all over the world, many feminist movements continue to focus on access to birth control and contraceptives and work with a very classed assumption of what it means to have control over one’s own body. And yet labor feminists have long been working for the rights of poor and working-class women, often out from under the umbrella of women’s rights movements that only focused on middle-class realities. Tula Connell writes in “Working Class Women on the Front Lines of Feminism” on FireDogLake:

And at a time when Betty Friedan was just shedding her privileged notions of womanhood and her self-described potential for wanting ‘to be asked to join the country club and thus be truly free to disdain it,’ these midcentury union feminists had long been on the frontlines, fighting to improve the workplace conditions of their sisters in the factories, plants and mills and educating a new generation of women.

Though in many ways poor and working class women didn’t reap the benefits of middle and upper-class feminism, the labor feminists have advanced the rights of all women and greatly altered my own understanding of feminist action.

White Anti-Racism

January 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

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Many of the feminisms that have impacted my life and given me the scores of opportunities that my mother didn’t have were based upon racist ideas of which women mattered. Despite the fact that racism was a major facet of many first and second-wave feminist movements, race is ignored as an important category to evaluate within many feminisms. While the significant impacts of race as a category have continuously been neglected, questions of race also have a tendency to seem as if they’re over analyzed and given too much importance. Multi-cultural clubs, African American Studies departments, President Barack Obama make it feel as if we’re living in a post-racial era and are therefore exempt from considering the ways in which race affects all of our lives on a daily basis.
However, Evelyn Higginbotham explains in the eye-opening African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race, race has a particular power to be both a tool for liberation and oppression, and often obscures its relationship with other categories of analysis. Questions of race are often ignored by white feminists, creating exclusive feminisms and perpetuates division and oppressive circumstances. Examining my own beliefs and feminisms, I struggle with the ways in which I can analyze the importance of race in my everyday life. In many ways, the once overt racism within first and second wave feminisms has remained a part of present day feminists’ thinking.
While the subversive nature of racism within feminist movements has made it easier for white feminists to ignore different racial realities, figuring out the ways in which racism still exists and runs throughout feminists’ lives is vital to changing feminisms to allow it to live up to their ultimate goals. At first though, acknowledging racism and aligning oneself with anti-racist feminist movements feels like it should be enough to be qualified as anti-racist. While Higginbotham’s article is brilliant and enlightening, it feels daunting. My career as an academic feminist has opened my eyes to other larger structures that are shaped by race and continue to define it in one way or another: technology, ideas of personhood, illness, etc etc. But if these structures are so deeply imbedded in our everyday lives and existences, then what is there to do?
Striking a balance between unity and awareness of separations, or acknowledging different realities while not creating unnecessary divisions is a difficult balance that seems fraught with complications at every step. Understanding the larger structures and historical contexts in which divisions were created is crucial to developing systems for combatting racist beliefs. For example, Rosalind Petchesky’s article The Body as Property: A Feminist Revision, explains the ways in which modern Western ideas of property and self-ownership are derived from white, male, middle-class, capitalist interests. While Petchesky manages to explain a thoroughly complicated idea, it left me wondering about what alternatives to this understanding might look like and unable to figure out how we might get there. The Body as Property is one of my favorite articles from any of my classes, and taught me the importance of questioning structures that seem so imbedded within our society and based in something “natural.” It didn’t, however, give me any ideas of what I could do to break down these structures.
In order to translate such complex ideas into everyday feminism, a balance has to be struck between understanding the theory and addressing everyday practices. On her blog Left Queries, Sheila Wilmot addresses the ways that people within the white anti-racist movement continue to ineffectively combat racism. Sheila explains that the theory and the practice are considered separate, and as a result, white “allies” consider themselves to be individually picking away at unjust social systems that they deem totally separate from their own lives. The reality of the case is that we exist in relationship to the systems in which we participate; our lives are shaped by the cultures in which we live, and we in return continue to shape them. Analyzing the structures and systems is pivotal, but ultimately individual agency and the environment which shapes our agency are inextricable. Acting to combat racism within feminism, and to take successful feminist action to rid wider structures of racism, we have to understand how related and intertwined our actions, beliefs, and systems of oppression really are.
Among young women (and men) I’ve talked to over the years, I often find that there’s a sense that feminism has already reached some goal, but that injustices exist that are part of the natural order and feminists create their own oppression and need to stop complaining. A large part of  this distaste among young feminists, I believe, is caused by the false belief that Sheila describes as individuals feeling as if they need to separate themselves from societal structures and single-handedly ship away at the injustices. Seeing ourselves as part of a community of people fighting, questioning, and breaking down damaging systems and evaluating the ways in which those structures affect us all, in one way or another, can allow young people to feel a part of the feminist movement in a way that relates to them and doesn’t feel daunting.

Works Cited:
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race.” Signs 17, no. 2 (Winter, 1992): 251-274.

Petchesky, Rosalind. “The Body as Property: A Feminist Re-vision,” in Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction, ed. Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995): 394.

Wilmont’s blog can be found here: http://leftqueries.blogspot.com/2007/05/white-anti-racism-here-we-go-again.html

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