What’s the Use in Universals?

I’ve been reading a book recently called Feminist Theory and Christian Theology  by Serene Jones. While some atheists might find it odd to read books on theology, I’ve always found it interesting and important to see what currents are moving in other people’s lives and in other groups of people, particularly when those groups of people have a great deal of power over politics and culture and are likely people I will interact with in my life. In addition, I find feminist theology absolutely fascinating, both to see how individuals interpret feminism within the context of their lives, and to see how people can perform some amazing mental gymnastics to make two contradictory ideas fit together.

However the first chapter or two of the book are simply about explaining some of the fundamentals of current feminist theory, and I have a bit of a bone to pick with some of the things that it had to say. It identified two main camps of feminism, essentialism and constructivism, and it identified pros and cons to each one. In order to find the middle ground and gain the pros of each, she introduces a variety of feminism called strategic essentialism, a position that allows for universals as long as we only use them for emancipatory purposes in women’s lives.

One of the ideas that undergirds this position is the idea that taking a radical constructivist position doesn’t leave any way for us to imagine a better future because it doesn’t have any normative force, and that it doesn’t provide a basis for community or agency.

This doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever to me. Now first of all I suspect that Jones is using the term “universal” differently from the way I do. She seems to accepted that there can be bounded or constrained universals, universals that are accept as true for a particular time and place, or accepted temporarily with the knowledge that they probably aren’t true. This seems exactly the opposite of what a universal actual is. Definitionally a universal should be…well universal. It is not constrained, it holds in every time and every place. It holds throughout the whole universe.

Now it seems to me that no rational personal would invoke universals, because let’s be honest, the odds are against you, but when you believe in a God, they seem far more plausible and can be very appealing. They’re a cheat sheet to bring people together, to simplify things, to create identity…but are they really useful or even truthful when talking about feminism, oppression, and women’s experiences?

Jones suggests that we can temporarily adopt universals to give us forward momentum, while also recognizing that these universals will likely change, grow, or be replaced. It seems a bit like lying to oneself though. If you know that the world doesn’t actually have the universal that you’re holding to, but you still act in accordance with it, won’t you act dishonestly or improperly at some point? Won’t your actions not fit the facts? While sometimes it can be useful to take up a tool that we discard later, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and universals are sure as heck the master’s tools. If we’re going to make any progress, we have to be intellectually honest and work from the facts instead of using a pre-ordained conclusion that women should be emancipated to mold the facts to our beliefs. Lying is not an appropriate tool to use towards women’s lib, particularly not lying to ourselves.

Beyond the practical fact that temporarily taking up a universal we will later discard is essentially lying, it’s an extremely limited view of the world that sees only universals as the ways to build community and agency. To look at a real world example, psychology manages to find similarities between human beings in useful ways by looking to patterns and tendencies. While it’s not always an ideal system, it does help people create communities and identities, and no symptom in any diagnosis is universal. Something does not have to hold in every case to provide a sense of community, and oftentimes when we assert a universal to build a community, we end up silencing and excluding a good number of people who don’t fit into our preordained universal.

One of the wonderful things about many feminist communities is that they recognize and celebrate differences (and those that don’t better get their asses on that train, because that’s where the future is sitting right now). There are TONS of ways to create communities and connections between the people with differences, and perhaps it requires more time and effort, but you get a stronger community for it. You can find similar values with people who are otherwise completely different from you, or you can encounter someone radically different and grow. That often creates the strongest bonds because you grow towards each other and learn from each other. In addition, we all have uncountable facets to our selves. While I may not have the same thing in common with every person that I feel a sense of community with, I have SOMETHING in common with nearly every person on this earth. We can have overlapping identities that allow us to relate to a variety of people in different ways, and when you bring a group of people together, nearly all of them have some way to relate to each other. Again, it requires more work to find these similarities when they aren’t laid out for you as a universal, but it’s far more honest and it doesn’t open the door for us to be constrained or excluded by a false universal.

As for the question of normative force, there is a huge difference between a universal ethic and a claim of universality (of a train or behavior). Jones needs to make sure she clarifies the difference. When we suggest an ethic, we’re suggesting the ideal way everyone should behave, not how they actually do behave, or even how they’re all capable of or naturally drawn to behave. And yet despite there being no universal claims about the world as it is in an ethical claim (usually), they still have normative force.

In addition, we have found ethical systems in the past that even in their suggestions for the future don’t really rely on universal claims because they are built to be context sensitive (utilitarianism is the quintessential version of this, and although it has a few vaguely universal claims about people wanting pleasure, they’re pretty mild). When we suggest that only universals have normative force, we’re demeaning the ability of our fellow human beings to think in nuanced ways. We can imagine a better world simply by imagining choice for all, not by imagining one thing that will be ideal for everyone else. We can be flexible with our normative claims and be sensitive to context and difference. There is no need for the language of universals.

While I could see arguing for the differences between constructivism and essentialism by pointing to facts, I’m not sure that it makes sense to point to the pragmatics of each position. They are claims about the world, not claims about strategy, and it’s generally just a bad idea to put truth second to strategy.

The Future of Feminism

I had a job interview today that was both exciting and terrifying, and one of the questions that I was asked was “How do you see the state of feminism today?” Well I was a bit overwhelmed in the moment of answering that question and got out something about being in flux, but the thought and the question have been hanging out in my brain ever since. I think it’s a very interesting question, but I’m almost more interested in where feminism should go. As it stands, there is a lot of splintering in feminism. We have everything from evangelical feminists to radical feminists, to intersectional feminists, and each of those groups has very different aims and beliefs.

Now overall I think most feminists are struggling with how to overcome some of the slanders that have been leveled at them from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and remind people that feminism isn’t a dirty word, as well as remind people why feminism is necessary. There’s a lot of education about the struggles that women still face, and particularly education about structural sexism as opposed to individual sexism. The focus has moved from overt beliefs that individuals might hold about women being inferior to men to the structural ways in which women are still oppressed. These are what hold feminism together today, as well as the desire to keep feminism relevant through new media forms.

 

There’s a lot of conflict in feminism though: how do women of color feature, how do women of non-Christian religions feature, what about intersectionality, are transwomen women (answer: yes). In addition, there’s a lot of conflict about what issues to focus on: abortion, healthcare access, equal pay, media representation, street harassment, rape culture…oof. There’s a lot going on, a lot of people doing different things, and a lot of styles of feminism. One of the things that I think characterizes feminism’s current state is its sheer diversity.

 

But if I were to characterize where I think feminism SHOULD go, it would be a very different matter. So without further ado, here is Olivia’s List Of What Feminist’s Should Do (If I Ran The World).

 

1.Recognize intersectionality. Holy shit have feminists been bad at this in the past. Particularly white feminists. Particularly upper class feminists. We CANNOT fight for women’s issues without recognizing the diversity of women’s issues and the way they intersect with and inform other issues. We need to draw on the diversity we have and embrace it, rather than trying to say “well my oppression is more important than your oppression, so stop talking about your issue”.

 

2.Take responsibility for past failures. This means listening to black women in particular.

 

3.Take a more global approach. Feminism as it exists in the U.S. does not recognize that its version of feminism may not be appropriate for all locations. It also doesn’t recognize cultural contexts, and that what it views as oppression may not be oppression for everyone involved. A good example of this is feminists who try to save Muslim women from the hijab. Islam has its own feminists. If you want to talk to them and work with them and discuss how feminism can become a more global movement, that’s great. If you want to walk in and tell everyone else how to be feminist, shut up.

 

4.Focus on choice. Many feminists are already doing this, but I think this message needs to get out there more. Any time you allow women more choices and more freedom, you are helping to reduce their oppression. While we all need to be aware of the context of our choices (for example stay at home moms need to be aware of the history of working in and outside of the home and understand the pressures that might have led them to their choice), we should never tell anyone that their desires and choices are wrong.

 

5.EDUCATE EDUCATE EDUCATE. Get out the information about why rape jokes are not ok, about why street harassment is harmful, about how attitudes in workplaces are discriminatory, about how we can make more opportunities available for women. Use evidence, research, and anecdotes. Give examples. Make it personal and make it universal. Many people don’t understand how harmful their actions are: she deserved it, it’s just a joke, it’s just a compliment, that’s just how things are, she could ignore it if she wanted to. Make it clear why these are BAD excuses.

 

6.Spend more time with the GLBT movement focusing on breaking down the gender binary. While we are still focused on “women’s rights” (and I realize I’ve used that language throughout this post because of convenience but it’s not the best language to use) we are promoting the idea of women and men, when perhaps the best way to allow freedom for all individuals is to allow for all gender presentations and identities. Not perhaps. Definitely. Read some Judith Butler.

 

So if I were queen of the world, that’s how things would go. Does anyone have suggestions for how they’d like to see feminism go? Leave em in the comments!

 

Written by Olivia James

Pinups and Pecs

“If you want to write something, or need a(nother) topic, I keep having discussions about if guys can do “sexy” and “pin up” photos like girls seem to be able to do. Proceed. I feel like you might enjoy that topic, somehow. I might be nuts. I probably am.”

 

So a friend of mine posted this on facebook as a suggestion of something to write about and it struck my fancy. I feel like there’s a lot to unpack in this discussion. So first of all, why do girls “get” to do pin up and sexy photos? Is that really ok? I’ve had discussions about this with others who are worried that even enlightened women trying to take back this trend may be contributing to objectification, or perpetuation a lot of old images of women. I think that that’s a danger, definitely. I think that if and when a woman chooses to do a pin up type photo, she should try to be subversive about it; in traditional pinups, women look submissive, domestic: they’re often shown doing cleaning, or in traditionally “female” settings. I feel a lot better about pinup calendars or pictures if the woman in it is being sexy in an assertive way, is actually looking the viewer in the face, is in a different type of environment than the traditional pinup.

 

And the thing is that I actually LOVE the idea of pinup type pictures. Because very rarely does the average woman get to do something that celebrates her body, her beauty, and her sexuality. I love that different body types can be celebrated in pinup pictures. I love the idea of something like suicide girls. I do wish that more types of women were celebrated in these pictures: I wish more women of color, trans/genderqueer women, overweight, older…all kinds of women got roped in when we choose to a pinup calendar or photo session.

 

But they aren’t. And I worry that’s because as hard as we try to do pinups for ourselves, to celebrate ourselves, and to be subversive, as woman showing off our bodies we cannot help but be subject to the male gaze. It’s just there. And no matter what we do about it, there will be men objectifying us. To me that’s just a really shitty thing that rains on my body positive parade, and it makes me really scared to promote or participate in pinup pictures because I don’t want to perpetuate objectification by using “the master’s tools” as it were.

 

So what about guys? I think that guys are in a really unique position when it comes to pinup pictures. Men really aren’t very traditionally in pinup pictures. There is the classic sexy firemen calendar, but those aren’t nearly as ubiquitous and don’t have the same vintage thing going where anyone can replicate the feel. You kind of have to be a fireman (or have a bunch of oversized hoses lying around) to do the sexy fireman calendar. So there is a blank slate when it comes to men doing pinup pictures. There’s no history of objectification (as far as I’m aware at least…anyone in comments feel free to disagree) that would put a historical lens on the pictures and make them problematic. And very, very rarely are male bodies put on display in a sexual way. Rarely are men told to celebrate being beautiful, being sexy, being hot. I think pinup calendars could be a GREAT opportunity for men to make body positivity part of the male conversation, and I think that particularly it could be incredibly beneficial to make it part of the straight male conversation, because generally flaunting your body is considered gay. Only effeminate men let people look at them and do any sort of objectifying apparently, because it’s a woman thing to be the object. But here’s the thing: BECAUSE men are not considered the object, because they are assumed to have autonomy and assumed to be an equal in any relationship (even the relationship between subject and viewer in a photograph), they can bend the traditional notion of pinup to be one that asks us to reconsider how we view women in pictures, how we view sexuality, and how much autonomy we grant those women we see in sexy pictures.

 

And just as I mentioned with women, this is a WONDERFUL time for different types of male bodies to be on display, to be celebrated, to be considered beautiful. Perhaps even more than women, men have a single body type that is ever shown as the pinup (mostly because all women’s bodies are more objectified), and so seeing more men as attractive and sexy and proud and embodied is a beautiful idea to me. Maybe I should go join a nudist’s colony. But it would also help young women to start to see a variety of body types and begin to understand the different bodies they might  encounter. More exposure to real bodies is the healthiest way to build attraction, sexuality, and honesty

 

I personally think that men in pinups is exactly the wonderful kind of subversive parody that Judith Butler would promote and love, but I think it’s even more active than a parody because it’s a challenge, and active question to the viewer about how they see the picture. If it was a genderbent pinup, then all the better (men in maids outfits anyone?). I don’t think that I want to see men be objectified the same way women have been, but I also don’t think that ever WILL happen. I think what IS important is to allow the power that a man’s body has to infiltrate the submissive space traditionally occupied by women, and to rebuild that space in such a way that says the space doesn’t have to be submissive or objectified. This is a place where I believe men can do far more for feminism and women than women can, because of the privilege that men already have.

 

So I personally think that male pinups are a great idea. I don’t think it’s an infringement on a female space, I think it’s a reimagining of a traditionally oppressive space, and I really don’t see how it would lead to the objectification of men since men are nearly always assumed to be the subject and have autonomy, complexity and thoughts. Very rarely are they reduced to a body alone.