Archives for posts with tag: feminism

So, I’ve been talking about Reclaim the Night with strangers on the internet. Not a great idea, really, I’ve gotta say. The problem is that men aren’t invited to march with the women’s group. One calls the event ‘pathetic’, another says we all need to be less emotional. Why are we alienating these poor men like this? We’re missing a wonderful opportunity to ‘foster understanding’ about equality.

No. We ARE taking that opportunity, and I’ve spent as long as I intend to talking to these outraged men but I wanted to take a while to lay the facts out for other people who might be more interested in listening. We’re educating men by marching, if they’ll shut the fuck up and pay attention; we’re educating any men who’re willing to use just the tiniest rudiment of compassion.

Our reasons are all there, stories and statistics both. How many men stop to worry about what they’re wearing as they walk home at three AM? How many men dance a balancing act between ‘dressed up enough’ and ‘looks slutty’ as they get ready to go out clubbing? How many are more worried about whether they’re dressed too suggestively than whether they’ll be warm enough? When they’ve been drinking, are they more worried about whether they’ve got enough basic motor control left not to walk into the road than whether they’ll look drunk enough to be an easy target? How many men check in with an ETA for their housemates as they set off home? How many men have stories about men they know coming home distressed and worried? How many have ever had an interview with the police about what a stranger said or did to them when they just wanted to get home?

Speaking up about that, speaking out about it, marching and shouting and painting banners, that’s the opposite of alienating: it’s an explicit invitation. Please listen. Please change.

And any man who listens should know not to ask to walk with us, because men walking with us is not how to change our situation. Men: if you want equality for women, make space for us. Learn that you cannot stand at our side in everything we need to do and that you cannot listen honestly to us while you seek to make choices for us. While you cast as long a shadow over our lives as you do now, you will not be able to see the colours and contours of our lives that lie hidden behind your own assumptions. It is men who teach us what is sexy and what is safe, what makes us desirable and valuable and what makes us sluts and whores. It is men who make us trapped enough that we only dare claim one night a year for ourselves.

Step into our protest and claim that little corner of that one night a year for yourselves too, and you will hide the realities we’re trying to demonstrate about in your shadow again, the shadow where feminism is ‘equality for everyone’ and inequality is men not being allowed into every single space women build for themselves and their own needs. It’s easy for you to miss the logic that governs our lives, men: it’s nearly invisible to you while you stand between us and safety. If you keep stepping closer, all you’ll notice is that we’re looking away and trying to hide from you. If you keep grabbing us and shaking us and asking why our conversations aren’t all about you, of course you’re going to see us angry.

You didn’t build this distance between us: it’s older than any of us, and I’m not asking you to go away thinking that you need to shoulder all the blame for the way the world works. But I want make it clear that if you’re here to help, it’s your responsibility to move aside at times like this. Until men and women stand at the same distance and you see us as clearly as we see you, you will help us most by listening to us.

Stand back and listen and watch. Stop asking why we haven’t laid a place of you at the feminist table: if you get an answer it’ll be because we’re trained to answer to you and to stay quiet while you sit yourself down at the table’s head.

I’m not an expert on poststructuralism, but from what I understand it’s a term for a really interesting set of ideas that get applied in inaccessibly academic ways almost all the time.

In brief, what poststructural theory states is that words and the things we describe with them don’t actually match up. The objects in question can be measured and weighed and empirically examined, but that precision doesn’t get carried across into everyday language. A British chip is an American’s fry; a poker chip is a different thing again. Physicists can build specificity into the terms mass and weight, but only within the confines of their field: we learn words as they are relevant to our lives and interests, and so each individual’s understanding of them is born from their individual experience. Dictionary definitions and scientific clarity can try to impose exact meanings on words, but meanings are things words gain naturally from a web of concepts and connotations in each speaker’s mind.

Poststucturalist theory reminds us that those nets of meanings words have for us exist, and that they hold us back at one remove from the things we use them on.

That’s the heart of the matter, at least as far as I understand it: there’s a distance between what we each understand by any given bit of language and the thing itself – and, for that matter, there’s no guarantee that any other person’s understanding will match up to either meaning. What’s the use of this observation?

There are a lot of ways to use this claim, a lot of rarefied arguments about whether any true communication can take place between people and do things like ask whether rhetorical questions cover a bleak despair of ever being truly understood. For me, though, most language seems pretty functional. I don’t feel like I need to examine it in polysyllabic detail for hidden flaws. I feel like there are much more immediate things to look at with poststructuralist eyes: for one, the places where different groups already know they don’t share ideas about what words mean.

What people think of first when they hear a word can make a difference to very concrete things: to a person’s safety, to their ability to express their identity and be understood and not be condemned. Here’s where I see a use for the set of ideas we call poststructuralism: the model I just set out gives me a way to to look at arguments and language politics and ideological struggles. Feminist and slut and queer are each embattled words: they’ve been loaded with shaming and activist energy by turns, and changes in their use give and take away power from the group they describe.

Words don’t always convey the same ideas: someone using the word ‘slut’ might be inviting their listeners to share the misogynistic cultural baggage they carry with them, sometimes they can be challenging those assumptions. There aren’t two entirely different definitions there: there are two different understandings of the same collection of ideas. By seeing how that network of social and ideological assumptions, we can see how one use relies on it and the other challenges its influence; for me, that’s a useful tool.

Out of the feminist writing I’ve read this year, this was the most individual book I came across – readable, anecdotal, and wry even when the subject matter was upsetting, Ingrid Bengis tells the story of her relationship with men, women, love and feminism. It’s incisive and surprising and very self-aware.

It’s fascinating to read about a woman’s experience of oppression written from outside a feminist framework: she doesn’t call herself a feminist, isn’t straightforwardly straight but doesn’t call herself bi or lesbian, and by away from these familiar concepts she takes a number of easy assumptions away from readers. She defines as ‘man-hating’. She hates and fears and fights this identity, and she watches men closely and slowly finds that this man-hating of hers is born from their behaviour: from abuse she’s faced and the unthinking oppressions she notices when she looks.

It’s not a comfortable book: she talks about being raped, she talks about her own internalised homophobia, she talks about being sexually assaulted as a child. I didn’t find it added many big ideas or concepts to my understanding of feminism, either: what I felt like it taught me was how different women could relate to feminism – Bengis is a glamorous white cis woman from a conservative background who grew up presenting as heterosexual, and I only tick three of those boxes – and how lucky I am to have come to feminism without nearly as many internal struggles as Bengis needed to get where she did.

(I’m not keen on linking to shops, but while found this in a library it looks long-since out of print and probably hard to source. So in case it’s handy for anyone, when I was putting it on my list of books to buy if I ever got to make myself a feminist bookshelf, it looked like the cheapest place to find it in the UK was on AbeBooks: here)

Continuing my review-writing kick and switching themes and genres pretty dramatically, here’s some thoughts on the dead tree image-free version of Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games and worries about the glamorous film version that I haven’t yet witnessed! This post brought to you by the plethora of interesting writing about the film that’s going around the internet at the moment but not saying quite the things that I thought about the franchise.

 

I’ve just made plans to go and see the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, record-breaking teen blockbuster movie of the year and widely feted rival to the Twilight saga. I’m interested but also pretty apprehensive. It’s already chosen to only solicit auditions from white women for a character a bunch of other people and I read as explicitly biracial , so my hopes aren’t exactly sky-high, but it sounds likely that it’s going to be ambivalent about at least a few of things that normally get taken for granted and presented uncritically in mainstream media.

The book really surprised. I’d borrowed the first two books from a library last summer, having heard the name around for long enough to get curious. It was with a fair bit of trepidation: I remembered visiting a bookshop, reading the blurb and going “no, I don’t think your love triangle’s any more interesting for being set in an improbable dystopia”. It felt to me like dystopian themes were fashionable at the moment and that murderous reality TV shows weren’t novel enough ideas to be anything other than gimmicky plot devices to make a setting artificially bleak; in short, that the books’ premise was the genre fiction equivalent of filtering grainy sepia over the top of your mediocre photography to make it instantly evocative.

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The blogger Clarisse Thorn published a book a week or so ago; she called it Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, and I wasn’t quite sure how much she meant the ‘chaser’ part of the title. The term implies that you’re fetishising a group, often in problematic ways. I haven’t seen anyone claim it in much seriousness.

Besides, the subtitle was ‘Long Interviews with Hideous Men’. That contrast there stays throughout the book: a title that casts her as an eager admirer set against a subtitle that warns a reader off the misogyny of the men she’s after. Kink and fetishisation set against the (feminist) revulsion against the pickup community. I found this pretty fascinating: I wouldn’t want to read about pickup artists except through a feminist filter, and most feminists I know wouldn’t want to research and write about them except to issue sweeping dismissals. Clarisse Thorn has written a lot of things about women’s sexuality that I find incisive and rarely see discussed overtly: a lot about BDSM, about her sex life without orgasm, and about her later deconstruction of that progression, and how she doesn’t see orgasm as the be-all and end-all of sex, and more.

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…Aeschylus, Ovid, Cicero, the Pearl-Poet, Dante, Thomas More, Shakespeare, John Donne.

There, the reference points that I’ve got a good two thousand years of European literature and rhetori: Aeschylus died in 456 BC, John Donne in 1631 AD. They and the big names that crop up between them are the groundrock of the degree I did, a degree just called ‘English’ but about a very specific definition of that term.

Each wrote things that I find beautiful and valuable. All these reference points on that mental timeline I have are dudes, though, and that’s not something I can take lightly. I’m a feminist and I’ve spent years and committed to reading and writing; I can’t ignore the massive sex inequality in this tradition I care deeply for.

I’m aware of Sappho, but I haven’t been taught her works and I haven’t yet fancied hunting down a good translation on my own to read them myself. I can’t think of many other women I seen as literary landmarks in those time periods. What I know of women across those years makes them objects, not subjects. Female characters are shown to us as anything from deeply subtle to utterly idealised to misogynistic stereotypes, but they’re all characters: the writing I know from those times was something men did that was sometimes about women.

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Feminists and anti-racists and trans activists say thousands of perceptive and articulate things about the representation of their own in media. Even more thousands of people tell them ask what the point is. It’s just an advert, just a film, just a book, just a story. It has hurt anyone, has it? It’s not like this or that atrocity in real life. It’s taken me years to figure out exactly what to say back, but here’s my first attempt at a rebuttal to that.

Sure, those are stories. And what about the news. We talk about it coming in stories for a reason. Reports on the TV put together video reconstructions of dramatic events because they’re exactly that, dramatic, because news does exactly that, tells a story. Narratives are a much easier way to hold an audience’s attention than putting facts and figures across with nothing to link them together. There’s a reason school taught me about the English Reformation through the tale of Henry VIII’s woes in marriage, about the Cuban Missile Crisis as a dramatic showdown between Kruschev and Kennedy, and that I remember those events in terms of the people involved and what their reasons were, not from the dates of events or the terms of the Acts of Parliament or SALT treaties.

That’s how history works in my head: there are facts and fixed points there, sure, but I learnt it in stories – narratives, dramatisations, filtered versions of reality. And as long as the culture I live in is one that teaches us like that, stories never just stories, whether they’re calling themselves fact or fiction. Those are different kinds of story, certainly, but the way stories work full stop matters. They gives us frames of reference, sets of rules, they come bundled with all kinds of assumptions, and to some extent or other almost all of us use them to decode the world we live in. I want to understand anything that shapes me as much as stories have.

I want to break their rules. As long as the world stays in the habit of telling me about how the world I live in is shaped by a male protagonist, I’m going to keep asking for all the stuff that’s missing. I’m going to say say no, that’s a fraction of the whole picture, tinted and distorted; this isn’t a true reflection of our society.

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