Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Who Needs Feminism: A Conundrum in Story Sharing

I first came across the Who Needs Feminism? movement about a month ago. I was enamored with a space which was sharing personal connections to feminism from many, diverse young people at Duke University--a school that hasn't always had the best track record with gender sensitivity. Here's what they're all about from their Facebook page:
We, the 16 women of Professor Rachel Seidman’s Women in the Public Sphere course at Duke University, have decided to fight back against these popular misconceptions surrounding the feminist movement. Our class was disturbed by what we perceive to be an overwhelmingly widespread belief that today’s society no longer needs feminism. In order to change this perception, we have launched a PR campaign for feminism. We aim to challenge existing stereotypes surrounding feminists and assert the importance of feminism today. We feel that until the denigration surrounding feminism and women's issues is alleviated, it will be hard to achieve total gender equality, both statistically and socially. 
Of course, the movement isn't just about the experiences of the Duke campus so as it got attention and picked up a lot more participation, the voice of the site expanded as well. I follow Who Needs Feminism? on Tumblr. Because they get a ton of submissions, it's constantly updated. Recently I saw a note from the mods that they publish whatever submissions they get as to represent all voices.  Overall, that is a great thing: different experiences and forms of feminism, how wonderful! But, I started to see a bit of a negative trend as well with the publication of voices which unfairly portray feminism in a narrow manner--often as straight, white, cis, etc.

It raises an interesting conundrum for me: Which is more important, promoting all experiences or promoting an inclusive form of feminism?

Let me elaborate with some specific examples taken from the Who Needs Feminism? Tumblr.

-I need feminism because our heteronormative society’s idea of “perfect” sex is not the most pleasurable.
I totally see where this one is coming from. My understanding of it is that society is telling women that only PIV sex is REAL sex. Being frustrated with this is legit and I take no qualm with that. I also take no qualm with the simple fact that many women do not experience a ton of pleasure from this sexual act. However, I don't think it's really fair to extend the frustration with that message to stating that this type of sex is "not the most pleasurable" as a fact for everyone. I think women have enough policing and shaming of their sexuality. Truth is that some women do find this act very pleasurable and I don't see why we should be setting up a situation where we tell women that their sex is wrong from all angles. How about we all just live and let live? And the TL;DR version of this is to simply change this to: I need feminism because our heteronormative society’s idea of “perfect” sex is not the most pleasurable for everyone.

 -“you can’t be a feminist, you wear makeup/dresses/dye your hair” “You don’t look like a feminist” “Are you a lesbian then?” 
-I’m tired of having people tell me I’ll look like “such a lesbian” for having short hair, double piercing only in my right ear, and taking Women’s Studies seriously.
The "people are calling me a lesbian!!!!" thing is alllll over Who Needs Feminism? and this narrative is extremely problematic. It is an issue when people use homosexuality as an insult, but it's also a problem when we take offense to this label. The solution isn't just for people to stop using lesbian as an insult but also for everyone to view this descriptor as neutral. If we truly embrace homosexuality as an acceptable place on the sexuality spectrum, then why would we even be insulted if people assume we are gay?

-I need feminism because when I say I do pole dancing I don’t want people to think I’m a stripper, but instead admire how pole is a physically challenging & tough sport.
This goes hand in hand with the above topic. Is a stripper the worst thing we could be mistaken for? For too many people the answer would be yes, sadly--but do we as the feminist community want to play a role in perpetuating the lack of respect extended to people involved with the sex industry?

It all reminds me of the post on Tiger Beatdown by Flavia Dzodan where she proclaimed, "MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!" As she said:
My anger was inaugurated with a simple photograph . Just a yellow sign, written with what pretty much looks like a sharpie. And this sign states that “woman is the N* of the world”. Held by a White Slut Walk participant in New York. I am sure by now you know the story. And I became a bit angry. Angry that someone would not realize what a hurtful, shitty thing that was. Angry that someone would not even know the history behind that word. That a woman, a fellow self identified young feminist would not have done some pretty basic homework. I was sad and angry. And then sad again and angry. Basic homework does not entail having read academic works dissecting the history of slavery, it’s legacy, colonialism and the idea that for centuries (and pretty much to this day) Black women have been considered unrapeable, that those N* bodies were (and sometimes, painfully very often still are) considered non-human. No, I did not expect a nuanced knowledge of all this. Just basic human compassion skills. A minimum understanding of the meaning behind a word. Wikipedia levels of knowledge, which is, like the ABC of feminist activism. And when I saw that sign, I screamed “MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT.”
I agree that if feminism is not intersectional, it is worthless. Seriously. If feminism can't be the place where people of all types come to share their frustrations with kyriarchy and feel safe, then what is?

But of course, there is the flip side, which the Duke students in charge of Who Needs Feminsim? seem concerned about. And that is if they start censoring some submissions, when will it stop? Will the censorship hit a point where the voices of a marginalized group are suppressed? That certainly wouldn't be a desirable outcome.

But this is a false dichotomy, right? There are solutions that allow people to submit, but not perpetuate other oppressions. One way I have seen this happening already is that other participants in the movement tend to respond to postings like the ones I listed above and ask the relevant questions like: Why do you think being called a lesbian is an insult? I feel like all of this fits well with my recent post on entering feminist discussions at the 101 level. Specifically, points 2 and 6 (checking your privilege and having grace if you mess up.)

So as we always tell kids: Think before you post. It's a lesson we can all stand to remember. It's totally possible to share the sexism you have experienced without putting down someone else. And that won't happen until you really consider the implications of what you're saying.

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