Feminism is for Everybody: Come Closer (Part 1)

feminismisforeverybodycoffeeIt is scary that a book published almost 15 years ago can be still so relevant and yet so controversial, on a topic such as the status of feminism in today’s society.

When I posted this picture on Instagram, it collected a few defensive comments from ill-informed (coincidentally male) folks. The sight of a small, brightly-coloured book with a kind, deliberately inclusive and hardly hostile title was apparently too much to handle. The very word “feminism” had raised their hackles.

bellhooksNor did they realise the irony of their remarks. On the first page of her Introduction, hooks relates the reactions she receives when telling people who she is and what she does. When she mentions the words “feminist theorist,” she hears the same ill-informed opinions: “When I ask these same folks about the feminist books or magazines they read, when I ask them about the feminist talks they have heard, about the feminist activists they know, they respond by letting me know that everything they know about feminism has come into their lives thirdhand.”

The eternal problem we face. Everyone seems to have an opinion on feminism, its aims, its history, its mistakes, its faults and its evils, and yet so few have bothered to skim anything that will educate them properly. How do you expect to learn about feminism through a patriarchal mainstream media? The irony is bitter.

In writing Feminism is for Everybody, hooks has given us a primer, a starting point, a foundational text. It is straightforward, short and easy to read. It tells those who have only come to know the word “feminism” through a mainstream media that is essentially patriarchal, because it is not radical, what the word really means. Where feminism has come from and where it still needs to go.

She says, “I had to write it because I kept waiting for it to appear, and it did not. And without it there was no way to address the hordes of people in this nation who are daily bombarded with anti-feminist backlash, who are being told to hate and resist a movement that they know very little about. There should be so many little feminist primers, easy to read pamphlets and books, telling us all about feminism, that this book would be just another passionate voice speaking out on behalf of feminist politics.”

I think this book is also for those who have labelled themselves feminists in the wake of “successful” mainstream celebrities claiming the title. This book is straightforward and easy to read, but it is rigorous. It comes from a woman who has a background in feminist theory, history and activism. She knows it is not just about “equality,” whatever that means. She will have no watered-down feminism. Her feminism is radical and intersectional because she sees that we cannot have a feminist vision without the destruction of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Hardly something these celebrities, who have profited from such a system, will ascribe to. She reminds us that feminism should be unpalatable, because it wants to disrupt the status quo. But in this short book, she also reminds us that we need it.

Emma-Watson-HeForSheSo, fifteen years on, we still need this book. Anti-feminists and new feminists jumping on the bandwagon alike.

“As all advocates of feminist politics know, most people do not understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media. The feminism they hear about the most is portrayed by women who are primarily committed to gender equality – equal pay for equal work, and sometimes women and men sharing household chores and parenting. They see that these women are usually white and materially privileged.”

This is a kind of feminism that can fit into patriarchy. Economic power can become more “equal” so women can participate fully in capitalism without ever thinking deeply about gender, heteronormativity or race.

juliebishopRecently, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, when asked if she was a feminist, replied “I don’t find the need to self-describe in that way…It’s not a term that I find particularly useful these days.”

While there was an uproar, she’s right. She’s not a feminist. She is part of a government that, rather than ending sexist exploitation, is compounding it. She has benefited from a patriarchal system of domination and would rather uphold it than criticise. Why do we expect every woman in a position of power to identify as a feminist? Because the word has become virtually meaningless in mainstream culture. Hooks explains this:

Lifestyle feminism ushered in the notion that there could be as many versions of feminism as there were women. Suddenly the politics was being slowly removed from feminism.”

corporate feminismAnd Mary Barfoot, in The Coming of Black Genocide, puts it in a way that certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth: “There are white women, hurt and angry, who believed that the ‘70s women’s movement meant sisterhood, and who feel betrayed by escalatory women. By women who went back home to the patriarchy. But the women’s movement never left the father Dick’s side… There was no war. And there was no liberation. We got a share of genocide profits and we love it. We are Sisters of the Patriarchy, and true supporters of national and class oppression, Patriarchy in its highest form is Euro-imperialism on a world scale. If we’re Dick’s sister and want what he has gotten, then in the end we support that system that he got it all from.”

So, is feminism about women occupying more positions of power and privilege within a patriarchal capitalist system of oppression? Is this the idea of “equality” we want to embrace? Should we be happy with the small number of women CEOs and political representatives? Watering down feminism in this way has meant, as hooks says, that “in the ‘90s collusion with the existing social structure was the price of ‘women’s liberation.’”

Twenty years on this still seems to be the case. In making feminism palatable to the mainstream, dragging it against its will into an acceptance of feminism as “equality,” we are on the defensive. We start out by protesting, “No, it’s not anti-men!” In fact, that should be obvious to anyone who has bothered to look into the topic. But in an anti-feminist mass media, this must be the starting point.

Suddenly, these are the women who represent feminism. As hooks points out, “Radical white women tend not to be ‘represented,’ and, if represented at all, they are depicted as a fringe freak element. No wonder then that the ‘power feminism’ of the ‘90s offers wealthy white heterosexual women as the examples of feminist success.”Victoria Jackson, Kathy Freston And Dean Ornish Host Book Party For Arianna Huffington's "Thrive"Here we have feminism-lite. A feminism that slots nicely into the patriarchal status quo:

Mainstream mass media has always chosen a straight woman to represent what the feminist movement stands for – the straighter the better. The more glamourous she is, the more her image can be used to appeal to men. Woman-identified women, whether straight, bisexual, or lesbian rarely make garnering male approval a priority in our lives. This is why we threaten the patriarchy. Lesbian women who have a patriarchal mindset are far less threatening to men than feminist women, gay or straight, who have turned their gaze and their desire away from the patriarchy, away from sexist men.”

lauriepennyLaurie Penny puts it perfectly, echoing the same sentiments hooks had fifteen years ago: “The feminism that sells is the sort of feminism that can appeal to almost everybody while challenging nobody, feminism that soothes, that speaks for and to the middle class, aspirational feminism that speaks of shoes and shopping and sugar-free snacks and does not talk about poor women, queer women, ugly women, transsexual women, sex workers, single parents, or anybody else who fails to fit the mould.”

Feminism that actually challenges the status quo, that is intersectional, cannot, as hooks argues, “be appropriated by transnational capitalism as yet another luxury product from the West women in other cultures must fight to have the right to consume.”

This means feminism isn’t about having “the answers.” If it is global, intersectional, aware of class, race, religion, age, and so many more, it must be about listening. Hooks does a great job of explaining briefly and lucidly while feminism must be anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. Rather than being about some vague notion of “equality,” this is an awareness of the historical and invasive formation of patriarchy. It is a complex, overwhelming, all-consuming collection of forces that is impossible to get our heads around.

Zillah Eisenstein also says: “Feminism(s) as transnational – imagined as the rejection of false race/gender borders and falsely constructed ‘other’ – is a major challenge to masculinist nationalism, the distortions of statist communism and ‘free’-market globalism. It is a feminism that recognises individual diversity, and freedom, and equality, defined through and beyond north/west and south/east dialogues.”

So, if capitalism and patriarchy are so intertwined that we can’t talk about feminism without talking about capitalism, we can’t water it down to a fight for equal pay. Hooks explains: “The truth remains that consumer capitalism was the force leading more women into the workforce. Given the depressed economy white middle-class families would be unable to sustain their class status and their lifestyles if women who had once dreamed solely of working as housewives had not chosen to work outside the home.”

leanin2I have long thought that feminism must be inherently pacifist as well, but I wasn’t able to clarify my ideas until I read hooks’ chapter in this book: “Ending Violence.” She says, “I am among those rare feminist theorists who believe that it is crucial for feminist movement to have as an overriding agenda ending all forms of violence.” All patriarchal violence – that is, violence that is an effort to dominate, to make a person or a group of people feel inferior – must be targeted by feminism. That includes sexual assault, fightclubdomestic violence, child abuse, war, and bar fights. Patriarchy tells us violence is gendered masculine. It tells men that by being born male, they must imprint their superiority on the world. But patriarchy is complex. It positions men in a hierarchy even while telling them that by right of being male, they must assert their dominance. Hooks explains how violence, class and gender intersect in patriarchy: “Since masses of unemployed and working-class men do not feel powerful on their jobs within white supremacist patriarchy they are encouraged to feel that the one place where they will have absolute authority and respect is in the home.” NRL TITANS KNIGHTSIn patriarchy, violence is a way of asserting your dominance, and even your identity. Violence is used to regain power and control because in a patriarchal society it is associated with strength, even while it is often condemned.

So, even while the media reports on domestic violence, while politicians speak out against it and organisations aim to “educate” us, this won’t be effective. Because, as hooks sees, “even though representations of domestic violence abound in mass media and discussions take place on every front, rarely does the public link ending male violence to ending male domination, to eradicating patriarchy. Most citizens of this nation still do not understand the link between male domination and male violence in the home… In mass media everyone raises the question of why this violence is taking place without linking it to patriarchal thinking.”

realmendonthitIt is also true that “early on in feminist thinking activists often failed to liken male violence against women to imperialist militarism. This linkage was often not made because those who were against male violence were often accepting and even supportive of militarism. As long as sexist thinking socialises boys to be ‘killers,’ whether in imaginary good guy, bad guy fights or as soldiers in imperialism to maintain coercive power over nations, patriarchal violence against women and children will continue. In recent years as young males from diverse class backgrounds have committed horrendous acts of violence there has been national condemnation of these acts but few attempts to link this violence to sexist thinking.”larissa waters

I am reminded of a recent debate in Australia in which Greens senator Larissa Waters endorsed the campaign “No Gender December” which shows the harm of gendered toys. She stated that “outdated stereotypes…feed into very serious problems such as domestic violence and the gender pay gap.”

Predictably there was outrage over this “political correctness.” But if dolls are designated as “girls’ toys” what are you saying about the traits of caring and nurturing? If superheroes and toy guns are “boys’ toys” how can we deny no-gender-decemberthat physical strength and violence are gendered masculine in our culture? If boys cannot dress up in fairy outfits, what are you telling him about girls and femininity? That it’s “weak,” trivial, and that he best stay away from it at all costs or he will be “emasculated” (one of the most amusing words in the English language). Emotional intelligence, creativity, and interpersonal closeness are for girls, while physical strength, dominance and violence are for boys? Great.

dollsHooks provides an explanation that the general public, crying “political correctness,” may want to think about: “We do know that patriarchal masculinity encourages men to be pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent on the privileges (however relative) that they receive simply for having been male. Many men feel that their lives are being threatened if these privileges are taken away, as they have structured no meaningful core identity.”

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Come on. Do we want to keep sticking up for an outdated patriarchal masculinity when it makes men into people like this? What would we lose by slowly ungendering toys, so that children are seen as people rather than boys or girls?hug

Doesn’t hooks have a better solution? “Boys need healthy self-esteem. They need love. And a wise and loving feminist politics can provide the only foundation to save the lives of male children. Patriarchy will not heal them. If that were so they would all be well.”

I will delve into the second half of hooks’ book in the next couple of weeks.



11 thoughts on “Feminism is for Everybody: Come Closer (Part 1)

  1. superultrasmash

    Thanks for this. So often patriarchal defenders have an adversarial attitude toward even learning what they claim to disagree with.
    The opposition to feminism justifies its existence when the opposition’s stance is,
    “I’m not informed of what you stand for, but let me tell you why you’re wrong”.

    1. Elisabeth Murray Post author

      Very true. It seems to be an automatic reaction, where they have internalised so many misconceptions there’s no longer any space for critical thinking. So tiring! Thanks for reading the post.

  2. aneasyworld

    I just discovered your blog through Instagram and I feel like I want to inhale it. So interesting. I am particularly interested to know what practical steps more radical feminists suggest in order to dismantle the patriarchal structure. Is it tied to socialism? I guess mainstream feminism tends to focus on small, solvable issues such as equal pay, equal status in the home, whereas I dunno, the task of dismantling the ENTIRE PATRIACHY seems so enormous and overbearing. Is this book in particular more concerned with the theory, or does she suggest actual actionable steps that woman should be taking? This isn’t a criticism btw, I just feel a little overwhelmed by it all.

    1. Elisabeth Murray Post author

      Thanks for reading! I’d say feminism is more anti-capitalist than socialist per se, which gets at what’s so difficult – envisioning a kind of society we’ve never actually experienced! Hooks definitely suggests practical steps we can take to challenge patriarchy. Her project was to bring the average person closer to feminism, rather than embrace the abstract, theoretical face of feminism that has come out of academia. I agree, it’s overwhelming – but that’s because patriarchy is overwhelming. I see it as constantly being critical of gender, basically. Unlearning everything that patriarchy has taught me, even if I can never completely think my way out of it.

  3. Um Guido

    So feminism should be unpalatable. Question is: for whom? And what does “palatability” actually mean? Avoidance of (reasonable or unreasonable) alienation? Broad appeal? Reaching out to others by communicating to them? In any case, evangelical Christians have also bemoaned that some other Christians have tried to make their religion more palatable and that true Biblical Christianity should be unpalatable. On the other hand, many people think religion is one of the stupidest activities humankind has ever invented, particularly the monotheist faiths. So clearly, the fact that there is massive God delusion is a strong indicator that “unpalatability” in itself is not always a virtue. The God delusion may be “unpalatable” for certain people, but that unpalatability does not make it any less of a delusion.

    I see roughly three reasons why feminism remains such an apprehensive idea to many men.

    First, it is believed by many men that feminism explicitly demands the emasculation of men. Criticism of patriarchy is often interpreted as demonisation of the very foundation of masculinity itself. It is commonly believed that feminist indoctrination could make men milder, less assertive and wimpier versions of themselves. So many men are anti-feminist because they think feminism steers men in a seemingly detrimental direction.

    Second, it is believed that there’s no good reason for men at all to accept feminism. It is believed that men will not benefit from feminism or even that feminism furthers the cause of women at the expense of men. These kinds of people do want to know what’s in it for them or why should they acquiesce to the demands of feminism. The reason why men should accept feminism can’t be simply to avoid guilt or escape judgment.

    Third, feminists can and will behave so excessively that many men will think that feminists are a bunch of extreme wackos that seek to establish their own cultural hegemony. Modern call-out culture is toxic and bloodthirsty by nature. “Agree with us on everything or else” is a constant implication. Scientist Matt Taylor’s shirt received the kind of backlash that the word “overkill” simply does not do the excessive nature of it justice. Indie-rocker Ariel Pink gets panned as a misogynist for criticising pop icon Madonna. Clearly, feminism’s bad PR is as much of a fault of certain out of order radfems than it is the fault of any and all external enemies.

    I guess one could say that wanting feminism to be less toxic, less repressive and more communicating (than pontificating or shouting) to people, means to desire a vaguely more palatable version of feminism. But it could also be argued that it simply means to desire something that’s got less bullshit in it.

    Over and out.

    1. Elisabeth Murray Post author

      If you consider emotional awareness, nurturing, empathy and lack of a need to dominate others to be “emasculating,” then that’s unfortunate. Your arguments make it even more clear that a version of feminism “palatable” to you would simply reify hegemonic masculinity central to patriarchal violence.
      Please leave your comment here, it is very informative.

      1. Um Guido

        When I wrote that previous post a couple of months ago, I do have to admit I was at the time (and up until very recently) rather prejudiced against radical feminists. I’ve always been in good will for feminism in general, it’s just that I had the perception of radical feminists in particular that was rooted in fear and fantasy. To me it seemed that anyone that could be deemed a “social justice warrior” (read: anyone with a tumblr blog/twitter account and anger issues) would epitomise radical feminism. Or that any actual radical feminist writer could be dismissed as a crazy simply because their works have lent themselves to copious quote-mining by MRA’s.

        It’s only now that I’ve begun to question my prejudice, as well as taking a look at what’s been written in feminist literature itself. The bell hooks one seems rather promising. I like how her definition of feminism entails opposition against sexism, sexist stereotyping and oppression. Hardly gets any more definitive than that really.

        The very idea that men can’t be feminists or if they can they will only be inferior to women as feminists is a bit cringe-worthy. I’d like to think that what men can do does not have to be worse, it’s just different. Or unique. When women put on mini-skirts and organise a riot, they call it SlutWalk. When men put on mini-skirt and take it to the streets, it’s not just the solidarity with rape victims, it’s flipping the gender dress-code. Stronger taboo against men in dresses makes men in female attire seem more subversive in fact. So, keep it unique lads! The weaknesses or limitations of lads can be turned into their advantage.

        And yeah, transformative or healthy masculinity actually does have to be inclusive to traits such as emotional awareness, empathy, nurturing and the abstinence from dominating others. Like I said before, I had certain prejudices at the time of my previous post. So I do not really condone hegemonic masculinity or patriarchal violence. I was simply bitter and confused. But it’s getting better.

  4. Tejas Harad

    I found your blog through Instagram. I read this book just a couple of weeks ago, and I absolutely loved it. I really liked the fact that hooks reiterates the need for feminism to be intersectional. We won’t be able to realise an egalitarian world unless we end all forms of oppression, including capitalism, communalism or casteism (the issues that are particularly important to India). I loved your post for the way you make connections between what hooks says and the debates we are having in 2014. Superbly done!


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