It’s been pretty quiet out there in the feminist blogosphere lately, at least where I’m standing, but that may be because I am so busy doing other things I haven’t had much time for comments sections lately. I like comments sections (including our own) because, well, I like arguing. I think arguing about things often clarifies my positions for me, and strengthens my resources. That said, comment fights in the feminist blogopshere, in my experience? Are dirty. Bloody even. Right down there in the dust. That’s okay – I kind of like to use them as a rhetorical argument when someone makes some sweeping generalization about Women – you think we’re all the same? Come play in our sandbox for awhile.
What internet feminist arguments also are, though, is repetitive. There are certain strains of argument you will hear all the time. While I claim no particular superior position for myself, sometimes I think the well-worn tracks of certain arguments are, well, too rigid. They obscure some (albeit limited) common ground.
One of the worst tropes is this one, and you see it a lot in the comments sections to BeckySharper’s porn posts at Bitch:
Phenomenon X is introduced as a topic in the original post. Phenomenon X is critiqued as (a) bearing patriarchal implications or (b) being a tool of subjugation. Phenomenon X has often been rejected by the author of the post herself, though not always.
Comment #1: Right on! I would never do that!
Comment #2: From your other posts you enjoy Phenomenon Y, which is also patriarchal, so how are you not a hypocrite in refusing to enjoy Phenomenon X?
Comment #3: Why are you shaming those who enjoy Phenomenon X? Shaming is not feminist.
(A common variation on Comment #3 is: “This is why I’m not a feminist!”)
So what’s fundamentally wrong with all of these responses – I mean, aside from overly personalizing the discussion at hand? The problem is that these comments are talking about a different order of problem than what the original post is.
Pretty much everyone, it seems to me, reads feminist writing as though it were inherently prescriptive. (This is what got Dworkin in trouble, though how anyone derived rules from the inferno of Intercourse I shall never be able to understand.) Sometimes the writing is guilty of encouraging this, but just as often, it is not. Just as often, because the writer cannot help but live in the world, she knows full well that, patriarchal or not, some things we do to cope. When you are doing feminist critique you are, of course, doing it from a utopian perspective (since we don’t live post-patriarchy), you are always asking yourself, would the world look this way if the patriarchy did not exist? Most of the time, I think, the answer is no.
But that is a very different thing, critiquing and examining and talking about what it would be like to live in a post-feminist revolution world, than it is to live in this one. I, for example, wear lip gloss, mascara, long hair. I sometimes try to lose weight. I even wear heels and bras though I’m not too enamoured of either. I do all these things because by doing them certain burdens in my life are lessened. In that lessening, one could say, is a kind of enjoyment, a kind of negotiated truce because I can’t, every day, fight everything. I don’t have the time or the energy.
When I do these things, of course, it may appear to some who know my opinions that I ameither capitulating or I am an utter hypocrite. What I am doing, I say, is coping. And I actually never, ever disapprove of anyone’s individual coping strategy. Get plastic surgery? Fine with me. Wear pantyhose because the office policy requires it? Right on.
But I think we can’t kid ourselves. I think we can’t claim that coping is the same thing as being free. And that’s why I’ll keep talking about this foot on my neck even if I’m painting its nails at the same time. There’s no shame in giving in for the sake of a little peace. But there’s also no sense in denying the need for change on the grounds that someone, somewhere might misunderstand you to say they are bad people for giving in, a little, too.
Furthermore, this idea that all observations about the patriarchal import of certain practices – and practices exist socially, in the world, and not just in your personal head – are “shaming” has got to go in favour of actual reading comprehension. If someone hasn’t said that someone else ought to be ashamed of themselves for liking Phenomenon X, then there is very little grounds in the text to claim to be ashamed.
I get that we all need to be sensitive to each other’s experiences and I don’t mind extending certain general courtesies like admitting counterarguments and other perspectives to the table. What I don’t get is why the “don’t shame!” response has become a go-to one above and beyond any personal sense of defensiveness. This fear of critique is creeping into feminist discourse as a result, and I think that will be overwhelmingly bad for us – us meaning all women. It’s one thing to say that someone’s critique is flawed on its own terms, but it’s another to argue that critique ought not to be engaged in for fear that it will shame someone.
At any rate it seems to me that in all cases here we need to be clear, in these conversations, what we’re talking about. Are we talking prescriptive, in the world feminism? Because people do need that too, and I certainly agree that when we are talking in this way it is pointless to focus on trivialities like lipstick. But when we’re talking revolutionary utopianism – and any kind of social change needs a utopia, or as MLK Jr. put it, a dream – it’s perfectly fair to be upfront and honest about the ways in which certain practices reinforce and replicate social hierarchies.
That said, I apologize if this post has shamed any commenters in our number.