What Is “Feminist” Media?

The Hunger Games is everywhere right now, especially since the newest movie came out. Because it’s a movie with a female lead, there is of course a great deal of commentary about whether or not it’s a feminist movie. There are the shallow critiques that say she shoots stuff so she’s strong, the ones that say there’s too many men, and then there’s one that suggested that she is not a feminist icon because all of her choices are deeply constrained and influenced by men. It says that her only real choice is to volunteer for her sister and how much of a choice was that anyway? Sure she threatened suicide and forced the Capitol’s hand, but they stole even that from her by keeping her alive. Not enough autonomy, not feminist.

But this leads me to question: what makes something feminist? Is it when women have power to enact change around them? Is it when women are complex human beings? Is it when women are physically strong? Is it when women when women are able to choose what they want to do without interference?

Of course there are elements of all of these, but I would assert that the most important thing for a piece of media to be feminist is for it to be realistic in its portrayal of women. And let’s be straight: The Hunger Games creates a very believable and realistic character in Katniss. While she does have talents none of us could dream of, she is loyal and responsible, conflicted about her romantic feelings, and making the best choices possible under constrained circumstances. All women live in a society where their choices are heavily constrained by the influence of men. Katniss is intensely realistic in that she attempts to make the best choices possible while living in a world that limits her choices and does not allow her to always follow through on the choices she would make.

But through all of this, Katniss manages to make choices that affect things. Her choice to honor Rue deeply affected the people of Panem, and reflected a very human sentiment: usually we only see men burying fallen comrades. We see that she has a relationship with someone, cares for others in a way that is realistic.

When I look for strong female characters, I’m not looking for someone whose life works out in all the ways they want it to, who has unlimited power to fight back against the baddies. I’m looking for someone who has complex motivations, who makes real relationships with others, who acts like people act, and who does her best to make autonomous choices through difficult situations. I look for someone who’s real, not a hero.

This is why we can have feminist characters across genres and styles, with all sorts of backgrounds, doing all sorts of things: because that is a realistic representation of women. These red herrings about strength, power, and creating change are unhelpful: media that portrays women that women can relate to is important and should be recognized as such.

Immortality and the Female Body

Feminists spend a lot of time thinking about female bodies, the ideal female body, and how society constructs and approaches that body. However there is one element of the ideal female body that seems to be somewhat neglected, and that is the fact that it is often treated as a body that should be immortal. It’s common to hear that the female body should be without blemishes, but this goes beyond things that people simply find unattractive, and moves into the realm of a body that does not show that it could be injured or die. As a clear example, on a man, a scar is considered sexy, whereas women are expected to cover scars. We can see this in a variety of media, for example Bend it Like Beckham, in which Jess feels deeply ashamed of the scars on her legs, or many episodes of Say Yes to the Dress in which women with scars find the process of finding a wedding dress difficult and upsetting.

 

How else do we see the ideal female body constructed as something that should be immortal and outside the realm of the animal? A phenomenon that has been largely documented is the fear and disgust aimed towards women’s bodies as they age. The plethora of products and procedures aimed at keeping women looking young is overwhelming, and illustrates that something is driving us to prioritize female youth. The older we get, the closer we appear to be to death and the more fear we elicit. Another illustration of this is that women with cuts, bruises, or other injuries are often viewed as disgusting or embarrassing. As an individual with prominent cuts, I have become highly aware of the judgmental looks I get for having a body which is not smooth and unblemished. When a boy shows up with a broken leg he gets “boys will be boys”. Girls get looks of pity. Finally, female bodies are expected not to show any signs of being truly animal: women are supposed to hide that they pee, poo, fart, belch, sneeze, vomit, or do anything else that’s a sign they might do basic animal things like have a digestive tract or get sick. If you think that women aren’t policed on these fronts, watch a women the next time she belches in public and you’ll see what I mean.

 

But why is it that women are policed in all of these ways that signal mortality? What is it about women’s bodies in particular that make us anxious about our own death? While men are subject to some of these same stigmas, they are much more active when applied to women: why? All I can provide is a few theories as to why this might be.

 

In much feminist theory, people posit that women’s bodies are considered closer to nature. Male/female is often mapped onto other dichotomies such as culture/nature, rational/emotional, and good/bad. Some people posit that the fact that women give birth reminds others of the fact that we are born and thus we will die, and because of that it elicits anxiety over our animal nature. In previous posts, I’ve discussed how we often feel disgust towards things that remind us that we are animal and mortal. Taken together these two theories could give some insight into the idea that women’s bodies are viewed as disgusting unless they are heavily policed. If women’s bodies are a constant reminder that we are animals, whereas men’s are viewed as inherently more cultured, it makes sense that culture would try to “fix” women’s bodies by pulling them further and further from signs of mortality.

 

In addition, men are often viewed more as autonomous beings than females are. Women are viewed in relation to men: as wives or mothers, as daughters, or simply as vessels or objects. Because women are often viewed as a man’s other half or as a man’s property, the knowledge that a woman is fallible may reflect back to a man that he also is fallible.

 

The framework of mortality may be a useful way to bring together a number of the ways that women are policed, particularly women’s bodies, and it may be a useful front on which to challenge some of the inappropriate expectations of women. If anyone has further research on this topic or wants to flesh out some of these ideas, I would love more insight.

Coming Home and Going Out

One of the things that was really nice about my VISTA PSO training is that I’m among like-minded people. I have “found my people” if you will. These are people who use words like intersectionality and privilege in everyday conversations, people who are committing a year to service, people who are social justice minded and educated. And oh boy does it feel good to be around them. These kinds of experiences can be great, but they can also be a bit dangerous for social justice advocates, or those who want to make a difference in the world. What do I mean? Well, you can become complacent.

 

Let’s break it down. When you find your people, you can feel a lot of relief. Particularly if you’re a social justicey person you might be used to doing Racism or Feminism 101 every day. Every interaction might feel a bit hostile. People call you uptight, and they don’t understand your passions. So when you finally find people who are like you, it feels like coming home. Barriers fall, conversations are easier, there are common cultural touchstones. Here are the people you don’t have to argue with! It’s so relaxing! You feel loved and safe, you feel like the world’s finally ok.

 

But here’s the problem: the world hasn’t changed, only your situation has. These kinds of communities can become a siren song that lures you away from the rest of the world and the projects you used to be so passionate about. It can easily turn into the classic social justice circle: everyone hangs out and talks, but no one does anything. It can lead to complacency, and I’ve found can even result in discomfort around anyone whose priorities and thoughts don’t match your own. You become too comfortable. You rest on your laurels. You forget why these people made you so happy in the first place: because you want the whole world to be like this. You may start to resent the rest of the world for not being like this. This is a problem if you want to be an effective advocate for change. When you find home you don’t always want to leave.

 

And so as per usual, I find myself advocating a carefully chosen balance. If you are lucky enough to find a community that makes you feel safe and secure, that is GREAT. It is essential to have a place to relax and recharge if you want to be an effective advocate or even just an effective human being. But when you find yourself beginning to slip away from the things that were important to you in the past, it is important to plan out how you want to continue to engage. Forcing yourself into situations that might make you uncomfortable for a time can be a good thing. Adding activities like volunteering, writing, or going to rallies onto your calendar and asking your friends to help you stick to them is crucial. Sometimes you may have to leave your happy comfort bubble, but it’s worth it. With some careful effort you can be revitalized through a safe and comforting community while still staying in touch with the reality you want to change.

Lady Anger: A Radical Act?

I rarely get angry. Let me rephrase: I rarely get angry with people who aren’t myself. I get frustrated, I get annoyed, I get upset, I get hurt…but rarely do I get that special hot sensation that tells you someone has gone too far. Rarely do I feel like screaming or hitting something or storming off. And yet there have absolutely been times when it was appropriate and perhaps even necessary for me to feel anger. There are people who have treated me poorly, people who have insulted me, people who have seriously hurt me and breached my boundaries. And yet I cannot bring myself to feel anger.

 

When I do get the first glimmers of anger, I feel intense amounts of guilt. My first instinct is to then turn the anger in on myself: I should be angry at myself for being so horrible as to be angry with another person. Why is it that I feel anger is an inappropriate, dangerous, and harmful emotion?

 

Feeling anger while female, particularly while white and female, is a difficult task in America. While we are not necessarily trained in gender roles as actively as we might have been in the past, women who express anger are quickly branded as harpies, bitches, shrews, or just crazy. When we see our mothers get angry, the reactions from those around them illustrate that female anger is dangerous, out of control, unacceptable. When I see a woman who is angry, my first instinct is that she is hurting someone. I know that this is inappropriate and patently false, but I cannot help myself from feeling that first flash of hurt.

 

Anger is often viewed as the domain of men. Anger is associated with strength and with power. We view anger as something that acts upon the world, rather than a passive emotion that reacts (like sadness or fear). We still associate masculine things with action. Because of this association, women are rarely viewed as angry, and when women clearly try to act angrily they are seen as acting inappropriately in some fashion because they are acting contrary to the gender role we expect to see them in. Interestingly, all emotions are actually reactions to our interpretations of situations, and all emotions can lead to actions, however anger is associated with activity far more than most other emotions. Keeping women on the passive side of the gender dichotomy not only leaves them oppressed by society, but it leaves them oppressed by their own emotions.

 

In many cases, women change their anger into another emotion: fear, shame, guilt, or self-hatred. These emotions are incredibly difficult to then deal with because they are not truly linked to any event in the external world: they’re simply reactions to an internal emotion. When an emotion is logically linked to an external situation or event, there are ways to change, leave, or accept that situation. When an emotion is a tenuous secondary reaction to any situation that might make you feel angry, it’s much harder to resolve.

 

Cutting off an entire realm of emotions is never particularly good for any human mind. Our emotions are incredibly helpful: each one of them is designed to tell us something about a situation. Anger in a healthy and appropriate form will tell you that someone has crossed a boundary, that you or someone you care about is being hurt, or that a goal is being blocked. This is important and useful information for you to have. Anger also motivates us to action. If we refuse to get angry when things we care about truly are being taken from us, we’re telling ourselves that we don’t deserve those things, or that we don’t actually care about those things. It may even illustrate a lack of self-respect to not feel any anger in an appropriate situation. When we don’t have anger, we aren’t highly motivated to rectify the problem: if someone punches us and we simply don’t care, we aren’t likely to pursue legal action, tell them to stop, or get the hell out of there. Our very emotions aid in our oppression.

 

Lately, I’ve been practicing letting myself feel angry. When something happens that I don’t like, I let myself entertain feelings of anger, of wanting to explode. I even go so far as to tell people that I don’t accept the kind of behavior they just acted out. My anger helps me to recognize that I deserve things. Ladies…let’s feel angry?

Thoughtfulness, Tragedy, and Autonomy

A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the rhetoric that we use around women’s rights and their autonomy in terms of their own bodies. In particular, I focused on women’s health, and how the dialogue around women’s health tended to have two modes: “this is serious, debilitating, and tragic” or “A WOMAN DID SOMETHING WITH HER OWN BODY WOOHOO!” I believe that this type of dichotomy exists in all sorts of places in women’s lives, and that it doesn’t do women any good. When we are talking about women’s lives, almost nothing exists in the black and white places of life. More often than not, there is a dialectic. Something can be empowering and good while also being thoughtful or difficult. To look at a particular example from my own life: my attempts at recovering from an eating disorder are clearly a form of taking my own empowerment in hand and standing up to many of the expectations of women in my life. However at the same time it is something that comes with a great deal of pain, a great deal of stress and anguish and difficulty, and a great deal of thought and reflection. Most of the empowering things in our lives come only after deliberation and reflection.

 

Because of the role of oppression in women’s lives, we need to be extremely careful about understanding how the personal and the communal interplay in any individual decision that a woman makes. For example, I am all for applauding when a woman exercises her rights over her body, but having some empathy for the fact that it might have been a hard or confusing or thought-filled decision is probably a good idea. Societally, when a woman takes control of her own body and does something like have an abortion or have a mastectomy, she is helping to break down patriarchal values and oppression for everyone around her, including herself. However personally, these may be decisions that required some thought, that were painful or uncomfortable, or that just were not fun. We are allowed to both praise something and show sympathy for whatever toll it might have taken on the individual who enacted it.

 

Having empathy about the experiences that women go through while they are exercising their rights allows us to hear the individual experiences, something that has always been hugely important to the women’s movement. We cannot try to improve women’s experiences unless we actually take the time to hear what those experiences are.

 

Particularly in the realm of women’s health, we can both applaud someone for the fact that they have done something bold in their personal choices, while also recognizing that most health decisions and procedures come with some price and that we should be aware of that. We should recognize and celebrate that women go through complex thought processes surrounding their mental health. We should make it HARD for conservatives to view us as stupid little womens who don’t know anything about their own health and who just frivolously run around cutting pieces of ourselves off. We should respect each other enough to make thoughtfulness (without tragedy) part of the dialogue about women’s health. It’s something that is often missing. More often we hear about morality, or about rights, or about access, or about money. Rarely do we stop and listen to deliberations that women have to go through in order to make their healthcare decisions, particularly when they are in oppressive situations that limit their access. When thoughtfulness does come into the dialogue, it’s often as a way of casting women’s healthcare and health choices as something tragic, difficult, or heartbreaking in a way that men’s health is not (few people talk about how thought-filled the decision to get a vasectomy is, despite the fact that people probably put a great deal of thought into it).

 

Indeed the idea that “thoughtful” necessarily means difficult is simply wrong and unhelpful. We are thoughtful about many things. Sometimes they’re difficult and also positive (deciding where to go to college), sometimes they’re difficult and heartbreaking (whether to pull the plug on a dying relative) sometimes they’re not difficult at all and they’re just great (like trying to decide which flavor of cupcake to buy…that takes a lot of thought let me tell you) and sometimes they’re not difficult but they kind of suck anyway (like choosing to get a pap smear, which I always think about and always know what I’m going to answer and always hate the answer to anyway). We think about all kinds of things and we make decisions based on thought processes all the time. Saying that something requires thought or reflection doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t know what we’re going to answer or that it will hurt us or that it will have a negative consequence. It just means we wanted to make sure it was the right decision.

 

We need to create space for the ways that women actively navigate their lives, and the balance that they must constantly keep between their personal needs, their personal decision making, and the societal pressures around them. We need to keep in mind that while a woman might have really loved getting that abortion because it was exactly the right thing in her life, there are social repercussions and we should be empathetic to that. We need to keep in mind all the sacrifices that women make nearly every time they make a choice about how to exercise their autonomy. And the more we do this, the less we will have black and white thinking and dichotomies, and the more we will have a conscientious dialogue with other women about how frustrating it is to navigate the world we live in, in which there are almost no “right” choices, only better choices. I think that definitionally, as women, nearly every decision we make has to be thoughtful (obviously there are some exceptions, but when you’re part of an oppressed group you’re forced to be more conscious of your decisions). And because of this, we are always aware of the costs and the benefits of our decisions. Now we need to start recognizing that process in others.

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.