Do you call yourself a feminist?

Do you call yourself a feminist?

Of course.

…uh, tell me more.

Well, to be honest, I’ve never really understood that question. There’s a bit of — I don’t know — breathlessness about it, as if calling yourself a feminist is somehow a radical act. But what’s radical about being critical of unfairness, oppression and marginalization in society? We’ve had that kind of orientation towards problems in society for years and years. Sure, the details change — and I think we’ve gotten better at it — but fundamentally the urge to be critical of these things (and to work towards their elimination) has been around for a while.

It just seems completely uncontroversial to me. Calling myself a feminist isn’t any more radical than calling myself a clothes-wearer. It’s a common, every-day feature of my social interactions and my ongoing understanding of society, politics, art, and so on.

Then you don’t believe in radical feminism?

Is belief really the right word to use, here? I know that there are people who self-identify as “radical feminists” (they’re a fairly diverse group, as I’m aware), and I’ve witnessed the term “radical” being applied to feminists of myriad stripes whose views and opinions weren’t appreciated by defensive, unreceptive men.

But is that what you mean — do I think people use the term “radical feminism”?

No. I was asking if you think “feminism” as a broad collection of theories and approaches has some radical elements.

Much clearer — and yes, I do. But I think that those “elements” are usually implicated in other theory that’s radical in-itself, and that those approaches (as well as the often-brilliant work of feminists in those fields and with those tools) are then applied to something that is (to me) uncontroversial and self-evident, like the idea that we might work to end oppression and marginalization in our societies.

What do you mean by “other theory?”

Let’s take Judith Butler as an example. Her work with gender and sexuality is radical in the sense that it asks us to think very differently about the way gender and sexuality are produced.

For her, gender and sexuality are performative — they are produced through their performance in social contexts. This means that they aren’t transcendent or unchanging, but are a product of the complex relationship between a person’s actions, a society that shapes those actions through social interactions, expectations, norms, rules and regulations, and a relationship between the two that is constantly changing and yet also being reaffirmed.

We don’t just play “a role” when it comes to our gender and sexuality, we contribute to the creation and reification of those roles in their very performance.

Sounds pretty original, to me.

It is. And it’s brilliant. But it’s also indebted, and I imagine Butler would be the first to acknowledge that.

These insights are developed through Butler’s engagement with other theories — Foucaultian power-and-discourse, Kristeva and Lacan and related psychoanalysts, Derrida and deconstruction, de Beauvoir and existentialism, and so on. Butler’s own work in these fields greatly influences her understanding of oppression and marginalization in society.

Note that I’m not saying Butler hasn’t added anything herself, or that she’s just standing on the shoulders of (predominantly male) giants. It takes a theoretical master to create the approach to gender and sexuality that she’s created, and Butler has contributed to theory in enormous ways on par with any approach I’ve named above.

But the fundamental feminist kernel of Butler’s work is uncontroversial and simple — she says it best when she asks a question in her wonderful Examined Life interview: “Do we, or do we not, live in a world where people take care of each other?” This is not a radical question — but it is a good question.

Feminist approaches can be radical, but the core of feminism is not?

That’s basically what I mean. Asking about — and thinking about — our care for others isn’t “out there” in the theoretical wilderness. It’s a question that comes up daily, one that we bring up in even the most trite and uncritical parts of our media and public discussions. It’s so uncontroversial that it’s nearly a truism.

Does this mean that we need to accept “radical” articulations of feminism?

I don’t see why what I’ve said would mean that. But no, it doesn’t.

At the same time, I think the idea that we must either “accept” or “deny” articulations of feminism is a false dilemma. Why can’t they just be interesting and affecting in the way that they are? Why can’t we just engage with them and see where they take us, and then decide if it was worth it when we’re done?

I see this line of thinking in a lot of explicitly anti-feminist thought — that those who’ve engaged with various different articulations of feminism have been “seduced” or “tricked” into taking these articulations seriously. As if the very act of reading these materials forces us to think a certain way.

That sort of fear-mongering is laughable, and besides, they’re actually right — good theory doesn’t give you a choice to “accept or deny.” It reconfigures the world in a way that makes its thesis and observations self-evident — not only is the world actually this way, but it has always been this way and you just didn’t notice it.

So theoretical articulations of feminism actually do “trick” us?

No; they convince us, in a fundamental way, that they are making interesting observations and saying interesting things about the world.

And to be sure, there are a lot of feminist articulations out there. Not every feminist is going to write about the same things, and you might end up being convinced by more than one perspective. Those different perspectives that you take seriously might conflict with each other in some ways — and that’s when the real fun begins.

Does that mean feminist theories aren’t the final answer to oppression and marginalization in our societies?

Of course not! Why are people so interested in totalizing answers, anyway?

We talked about that fundamental kernel of feminism in Judith Butler’s words, and what was it? A question. It’s a question that invites consideration and exploration.

All of the feminist theory that I’ve read has been most exciting to me because it gets me asking new questions about myself, my relationships with others, my society, and how people live in that society. Some of that theory goes into some wild and wacky speculation — post-humanist feminism, for example, much of which is awesome and fun and also really important — and some of it tries to focus on specific problems in specific parts of society. Some does both, and some does completely different things.

But when you engage with feminist theory you don’t get a set of edicts — “do this and don’t do this, work on this and feel bad about that.” You get a dizzyingly large set of questions, and answers that betray more questions. It starts to orient your daily life not because you feel responsible for something (maybe you do, too), but because these questions and engagements are genuinely interesting and have taught you good and helpful and enlightening ways of thinking about, and engaging with, the world.

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