Recently, I’ve taken to firing sporadic, angry twitter messages in the direction of @SarahPalinUSA. This, in itself, is perhaps not a very odd thing to do. Sarah Palin seems to possess an uncanny ability to draw out vitriol from nearly all corners, turning liberals who pride themselves on their openness and reason into sputtering, red-faced, and at times misogynist goons. And yet, it was only last week that I finally reached the point at which I could no longer contain my internet silence—when Palin penned a pointed facebook note (unrelated: how much does she love those?) to NOW, accusing the organization of being anti-feminist because of its pro-choice stance.
I’ve since realized that what really sent me over the edge with this particular Palin-trocity was its blatant appropriation of the rhetoric of the feminist movement, in the service of a purportedly internal critique of feminism (she is, after all, a member of the group Feminists for Life). My indignation grew not only from my general horror of anti-choice policies, but from a sense of ownership—this is our movement; how dare she claim to tell us how to run it?
And just when I thought my feminist hackles couldn’t be more puffed up, I came across a rather heated argument between Jessica Valenti and Nina Power, which escalated throughout the feminist blogosphere (including this post by Smellen and a subsequent retort from Sady at Tiger Beatdown): Power’s new book suggests that much of the American feminist movement—typified, she claims, by Valenti—is lacking a serious critique of systemic (especially capitalist) oppression; Valenti counters that Power’s characterization is fundamentally a case of academic elitism; Smellen gleefully chimes in that the sort of individual empowerment Valenti advocates is narcissistic crap deserving of a punch in the face; Power amends her comments to suggest that Valenti is setting her up as a strawfeminist; and Sady points out that if we’re to the point of suggesting that face-punching is appropriate, something has gone terribly wrong.
Meanwhile, as a young academic feminist still smarting from the wounds of being semi-publicly taken to task for failing to adequately address substantive strategies of resistance by an Senior Feminist at a conference, I was beginning to be overcome with the sense that it all might be for nothing, that my efforts might not only be useless but patriarchy-complicit and bourgeois and racist and homophobic and ableist and terrorist-enabling by not solving the riddle of what real feminism – or legitimate feminist activism – looks like.
So, when I approach the topic of what it means to engage in feminist resistance or do feminist work, that’s where I’m coming from.
But I don’t think that’s all that needs to be said, and I don’t intend for my own situated neuroses around this topic stand in for actual reflection on them. I think that when feminists disagree with one another, this is a good thing—it often makes us stronger and more effective by making visible the ways in which we are unwittingly racist and homophobic and imperialist and ableist, for example—and so I do get a bit concerned about tendencies in the feminist blogosphere to decry such criticisms as egotistical attempts at setting oneself up as the One True Feminist. However, I am discouraged when such critiques take the form of talking past one another, shit-talking-without-actually-reading, and so on.
Of course, no one died and made me moderator of the feminist internet. The reason I want to spend a little time talking about the Valenti/Power debate is that it highlights something really crucial to me about the whole debate around feminist resistance. Power’s main criticism of Valenti and most of popular feminism is not that it’s insufficiently academic or elite or inaccessible; rather, her claim is that most of what gets passed off as feminism is a kind of consumerist, Sex and the City-inflected you-go-girlism, in which all that matters is being empowered to buy the best shoes, vibrators and chocolate. Power is a Marxist, so her suggestion is that this way of looking at things—that high-powered jobs and the purchasing power that come with them are what we really need for liberation—“depends on blocking out class and age constantly.” (21) Which is to say, the freedom to make serious money and be a Carrie Bradshaw- or Beyonce-style independent woman is only available to certain kinds of people, since all the hard work in the world won’t result in liberation for women in sweatshops.
Instead, Power suggests that what we really need to be fighting against is the exploitative capitalism that would reduce us all to our status as producers and consumers, and which at the same time brainwashes us into believing that only the bourgeois, heteronormative, nuclear family is our only viable option. In challenging her readers to think about radical reformulations of the family, for example, Power quotes a provocative interview with Toni Morrison, in which the writer says of the so-called teen pregnancy epidemic:
[Teen mothers] can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That’s my job. I want to take them all in my arms and say, ‘Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me – I will take care of your baby.’ That’s the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don’t want to pay for it…The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about. We don’t care whether they have babies or not. (qtd in Power, 67)
We need to rethink our assumptions about how we arrange our families, our sex lives, and our politics, Power says. And, in general, I think this is a worthwhile point to make. If all we’re after is equal pay for equal work, for example, this won’t help very much when it turns out that most work done by women—especially women of color, women in the Third World, and working-class women in the US—is deemed to be necessarily “unequal” or less valuable under the principles of American capitalism. But what worries me about Power’s book is that its most important point – that the problem of oppression is bigger than just me and my ability to do whatever I want – also becomes its undoing. So concerned is she to remind us that feminism isn’t just a self-help book that she frequently verges on claiming that feminism isn’t about you, you selfish vapid bitch, and becomes downright dismissive of efforts to help individual women recognize their own value:
Valenti does her best to sell us her feminist manifesto, in all its faux-radicality: ‘liking your body can be a revolutionary act’ she concludes, regarding her navel with a curious joy as centuries of political movements that dared to regard the holy body as secondary to egalitarian and impersonal projects crumble to bits around her…Slipping down as easily as a friendly-bacteria yoghurt drink, Valenti’s version of feminism, with its total lack of structural analysis, genuine outrage or collective demand, believes it has to compliment capitalism in order to effectively sell its product. When she claims that ‘ladies, we have to take individual action,’ what she really means is that it’s every woman for herself, and if it is the Feminist™ woman who gets the nicest shoes and the chocolatiest sex, then that’s just too bad for you, sister. (30)
While Valenti’s main response to this—that Power’s call for “structural analysis” (which means, for her, anti-capitalist analysis) is “elitist”—is unfair and seems to miss the point, her take on the question of the supposed navel-gazing quality of individual feminist awakenings is worth taking seriously:
By ignoring how important and transformational it can be for women to see the world through a feminist lens and recognize everyday personal inequities, Power disregards how this kind of individual realization often leads to collective action and activism.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that it will. And for every feminist blog-reader-turned-activist, there are probably dozens of us who…well, just read feminist blogs and feel a little bit better about ourselves. But here’s the thing: even when we don’t become activists or revolutionaries, we do something. When we allow ourselves to understand other women as valuable allies, rather than competitors for men or jobs, we do something. When we resist the notion that rape prevention is the responsibility of women, we do something. When we support survivors of abuse and incest in online forums, we do something. When we refuse to let homophobic or ableist or racist “jokes” pass without comment, we do something. And when we get taken to task by other blog commenters for our own unexamined privilege, we do something. All of these things are on some level individual actions, and indeed, it is true that they take less sacrifice than other forms of resistance to oppression. But the mere fact of their individual basis does not mean that they have no broader effect.
I don’t write this with the intent of absolving myself—or the rest of us—from (what I think is a real) responsibility for political action beyond our corner of the internet. As Valenti herself wrote in her WaPo op-ed this weekend, the material realities for far too many women, both within the U.S. and around the world, are too bleak to simply congratulate ourselves for consciousness-raising. Moreover, I would argue that to the extent that feminism becomes about branding, selling Cosmos and vibrators as independence, the “something” that it does is increasingly ineffective. I would suggest, however, that this is a deeply inaccurate characterization of most of the popular feminist movement (including, for the most part, Valenti) and blogosphere—and it’s telling that Power’s book is short on quotes and long on generalization in this regard.
But despite my own belief that we feminists ought to be engaged in collective political action against capitalist, imperialist exploitation and rampant SATC-style consumerism, I simply cannot ignore the fact that individuals not only make up the world; they alter it. Power writes in her book, “So conditioned are we to think that our behaviors are individual (a degree is an ‘investment,’ starting a family is a ‘personal choice’), that we miss the collective and historical dimensions of our current situation.” (34) Her point is that individuals aren’t isolated, autonomous things, but beings whose desires and actions are shaped by the political world around us. I believe that she’s right about this. But what I want to ask is this: why wouldn’t it go both ways? Why wouldn’t changes in our attitudes and shared discourses do something to shape the political world? Why shouldn’t we believe it’s the case that an individual revolution—in which we dare to affirm our own value, examine and combat our own privilege, rail against the injustice of our abuse, valorize our denigrated sexuality, race, ability or class identity—does something? Why this either/or choice between coalition-building and political revolt, on the one hand, and a personal revolt—one that says, I will no longer stand for being treated this way—on the other? We can do both. We ought to do both. And my hope is that we can recognize, and act on, the ways in which each sort of feminist enterprise might strengthen the other.