Tag Archives: sisterhood

Flesh Memory on Verity La

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Don’t forget to check out my latest story, Flesh Memory, a very brief piece on VERITY LA about illness, running, sweat, friendship breakup, embodiment, healing, learning, and all for FREE! I rarely write such drastically personal things, but this came from a place of Truth and Reconstructing the Truth in pursuit of making something I could display in a lit journal.

 

The Daylight Gate

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The 1612 Pendle Hill witch trials, as real today, wilder than Salem, rich on paper. The August Assizes, Lancaster Castle, Daemonology, 1605 Gunpowder Plot, Hogton Hall, the Rough Lee, the North and its darkness, severed heads, poverty, women’s power crushed again and again, and still frightening. The foolishness of patriarchy, the banality of violence against women, children, the poor: all of this moves in a swampy sump, shifting point of view and allegiances. Spitting in the wind, galloping on horses, a woman with fire for hair, the inventor of magenta dye. She writes, rescues, and queers your dull grey Protestantism. Not only the gothic, but patriarchal and feudal oppression, fearfully resonant.

Feminism is for Everybody: A Choice to Love (Part 2)

feminismisforeverybodyYou are mistaken if you think feminism is about women. It is about rethinking gender in a way that unravels patriarchy, which instils ideologies of masculinity that are about domination and violence.

Necessarily, this means we must rethink relationships and family. This is what scares conservatives most, why they cry “political correctness” at any critique of gender stereotypes. Undermining gender necessarily undermines the family.

nuclearfamAs hooks shows, “A utopian vision of the patriarchal family remains intact despite all the evidence which proves that the well-being of children is no more secure in the dysfunctional male-headed household than in the dysfunctional female-headed household. Children need to be raised in loving environments. Whenever domination is present love is lacking.”nuclearfamily

Feminism has always been concerned with such relationships. As hooks traces the concerns of second wave feminism in relation to marriage and partnership, she mentions that many feminists “saw sexual monogamy with men as reinforcing the idea that the female body was property belonging to the individual male she was bonded with. We chose non-monogamous relationships and often refused to marry. We believed living with a male partner without state-sanctioned marriage within patriarchal society helped men maintain a healthy respect for female autonomy. Feminists advocated demanding an end to sexual slavery and called attention to the prevalence of marital rape while at the same time championing the rights of women to express sexual desire, initiate sexual interaction, and be sexually fulfilled.”

Ininstitution a society in which marriage, romance, partnership and intimacy have been structured and defined by patriarchal assumptions, how can we reenvision them as feminist? Is it impossible? Certainly we must always be critical of marriage, monogamy and family units. Then again we must also be critical of polyamory, the fight for marriage equality, and the so-called “non-traditional family.” The problems faced by second wave feminists in their own lives forces us to never let our guard down. For example, is it possible for marriage to be a viable feminist option given the huge, undeniable patriarchal legacy of the institution? It remains as such today.

The discussion sparked by second wave feminism about sexuality remains with us today, though it is still fraught. As hooks advises, “While men must let go of the sexist assumption that female sexuality exists to serve and satisfy their needs, many women must also let go a monogamyfixation on penetration.” This is why feminism is intertwined with ideas of sexuality as much as with race, class, religion, and age. Feminism cannot be heteronormative, it must be queer. Because patriarchy has rested on heteronormativty. But today we still assume that heterosexuality is natural, and that sexual “orientations” are genetic, inborn, fixed, and markers of our identity. Until we let go of this, we can’t reach a feminist sexual politic.

While hooks doesn’t yet articulate this, she does recognise the centrality of heteronormativity to patriarchy: “Masses of heterosexual women remain unable to let go the sexist assumption that their sexuality must always be sought after by men to have meaning and value. To do so they must believe that same-sex sexual encounters, self-pleasuring, and celibacy are as vital and life-enhancing as sexual intercourse with men within patriarchal culture.”cosmomagWe see the truth of the second wave’s realisation that “women would only be truly sexually liberated when we arrived at a place where we could see ourselves as having sexual value and agency irrespective of whether or not we were the objects of male desire.”malegazeWe still live in the world hooks describes here: “We will never know how many millions of women stay in relationships with dominating sexist males simply because they cannot imagine a life where they can be happy without men, whether they are satisfied sexually and emotionally with the men in their life or not. If any female feels she needs anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency. Lesbian women inspired me from childhood on to claim the space of my own self-definition.”

This is why queer women are vital in “representing” feminism to the mainstream. After all, “this is the special wisdom radical lesbian thinkers brought to the feminist movement. Even if there were exceptional straight women who theoretically understood that one could be utterly fulfilled without the approval of men, without male erotic affirmation, they did not bring to the movement the lived experience of this belief.”

Unfortunately, with the white-washed, straight-washed feminism in the mainstream eye, such truths are swept under the carpet. Today, given the length of time since the radicalism of the second wave that broman feeding womanught feminism to the mainstream, we have forgotten how these women dealt with sexuality and relationality in a patriarchal world. Hooks recalls that, “In the early stages of feminist movement we used the phrase ‘woman-identified woman’ or ‘man-identified woman’ to distinguish between those activists who did not choose lesbianism but who did choose to be woman-identified, meaning their ontological existence did not depend on male affirmation. Male-identified females were those who dropped feminist principles in a flash if they interfered with romantic heterosexual concerns. They were the females who also supported men more than woman, who could always see things from the male perspective.”

Internalised misogyny and girl hate abound today, to the extent that many think that jealousy is an inborn trait of women and friendships between women. How are we supposed to enact feminism in such a context? Unfortunately, hooks’ observation remains true: “The vast majority of straight women, whether they were actively feminist or not, were more concerned about their relationships with men.

Hooks showholding-handss us what a queer feminism looks like, and why it is for all: “In a world where positive expressions of sexual longing connect us we will all be free to choose those sexual practices which affirm and nurture our growth. Those practices may range from choosing promiscuity or celibacy, from embracing one specific sexual identity and preference or choosing a roaming unchartered desire that is kindled only by interaction and engagement with specific individuals with whom we feel the spark of erotic recognition no matter their sex, race, class, or even their sexual preference.”

Most people’s aversion to this shows how ingrained a patriarchal heteronormativty is within us. Because of this overwhelming power, we struggle to envision intersectionality. Feminism becomes one thing: equality with men. But such a notion is incomprehensible unless we first examine the terms of that “equality.” So, “Women who claim to be feminist while perpetuating homophobia are as misguided and hypocritical as those who want sisterhood while holding on to white supremacist thought.”

Embracing a watered down, palatable version of feminism is easy. Heteronormativity is embedded in everything we hold dear, especially romance, that foundation of so many films, songs, books, and life dreams. But, as the second wave articulated, “female freedom could only happen if women let go their attachment to romantic love.”

nuclearfamilyHard to swallow? Maybe, but ultimately liberating. After all:

Romantic love as most people understand it in patriarchal culture makes one unaware, renders one powerless and out of control. Feminist thinkers called attention to the way this notion of love served the interests of patriarchal men and women. It supported the notion that one could do anything in the name of love: beat people, restrict their movements, even kill them and call it a ‘crime of passion,’ plead, ‘I loved her so much I had to kill her.’ Love in patriarchal culture was linked to notions of possession, to paradigms of domination and submission wherein it was assumed one person would give love and another person receive it. Within the patriarchy heterosexist bonds were formed on the basis that women being the gender in touch with caring emotions would give men love, and in return men, being in touch with power and aggression, would provide and protect.”jealousy-love-vanessa-zac-Favim.com-572124This is so uncomfortable because patriarchal romantic love is what we think of as love, how we define love, it is something natural. It is difficult to think of it as socially constructed. And yet the work of feminism has shown us that it is constructed, and for a specific purpose, and that it is damaging.

jealousyloveHooks offers as alternative vision: “When we accept that true love is rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgement, care, responsibility, commitment, and possessionknowledge, we understand there can be no love without justice. With that awareness comes the understanding that love has the power to transform us, giving us the strength to oppose domination. To choose feminist politics, then, is a choice to love.”

Why then would most people prefer the anti-feminist heterosexist dominating versions of romantic love we are fed every day?

It stems from a misunderstanding of the visionary nature of feminism, how it has beamed a light on our most taken-for-granted ideas. As hooks argues, this is partly because “one of the difficulties we faced spreading the word about feminism is that anything having to do with the female gender is seen as covering feminist ground even if it does not contain a feminist perspective. We do have radio shows and a few television shows that highlight gender issues, but that is not the same as highlighting feminism.”bitchmedia

On a sidenote, I would recommend the bitch media podcast, which certainly does contain a feminist perspective.

Feminism isn’t just about women, just as everything about women isn’t feminist. Hooks recommends “a collective door-to-door effort to spread the message of feminism,…to start again with the basic premise that feminist politics is necessarily radical.” That includes all these self-declared feminists in the public eye. “Confusion about this inherent radicalism emerged as feminist activists moved away from challenging sexism in all its manifestations and focused solely on reforms.”

Until we end the neverending defences of “feminism doesn’t mean hating men!” we won’t understand the true meaning of the movement. For everybody who has ever been caught in a debate going nowhere with someone who has never educated themselves about feminism but has expected to gain all they need to know from a mainstream mass media which is necessarily patriarchal, here is the book you can hand over.

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A Fanatic Heart: Edna O’Brien’s screaming women

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This is my first experience with Edna O’Brien, whom I have been longing to read for years, and she did not disappoint. Her work itself and the reaction to it pose a giant problem for the patriarchal literary world and male-dominated society in general. Bolder than Alice Munro, and in the more restrictive context of Ireland, she is just as insistent on recording women’s voices in all their honesty, beauty, woundedness, sexuality, and strength. But why is her unapologetic insistence seldom celebrated by feminists?

O’Brien is well-known for writing about women’s experiences and is certainly a feminist writer. She has been called the “doyenne of Irish literature” and Philip Roth’s admiration has stuck equally fast: he referred to her as “the most gifted woman now writing in English.”

edna1Putting aside the accusations of misogyny levelled at Roth’s own writing, why these qualifications? Why is she “the most gifted woman?” Why the “doyenne,” which means “senior lady” or “grande dame” or something? Ah, the eternal problem of male writers as the default, or the “great writer” signifying a man unless otherwise specified. Why is it that the topics of great literature are simply “human experiences” when written about by a man but if a woman writes about what she knows she is writing about “women’s experiences”?

authorsWho are the great Irish writers?

Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Yeats, Wilde.

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Could it be more obvious that our society is patriarchal when men’s experiences are universal but women’s are specific to us, somehow niche? It is the way textbooks show the human body as male, and the female body may be shown to illustrate reproduction, or for the way it differs from the “standard” of the male body. It is a body marked by difference. O’Brien’s work is marked by its difference from the universal norm of male experience.

This at once shows us our patriarchal heritage (and current condition) and makes her work feminist. She knows she is writing in a patriarchal world. The world she depicts is patriarchal. And she is making a space for the voices regarded as different, marginal, and so often unheard – women’s voices.

Given her generous concern with women’s experiences, it is perhaps surprising that she has been largely ignored or dismissed by feminist critics. Apparently her characters are too defeated, wounded, victimised, dependent on men. This catches her work in an odd in-between place. On the one hand, her first book The Country Girls was banned and othecountrygirlsften burned in Ireland for its depiction of women’s sexuality and she chose self-imposed exile, echoing Joyce and Beckett, to write more freely in London. On the other hand, she hasn’t had much interest from those most critical of patriarchy’s forced silences: feminists.

This may have something to do with the fact that O’Brien doesn’t seem to write from a consciously “feminist” perspective – that is, applying academic feminist theory to real life – and as far as I can tell has never really embraced a feminist label. As a fiction writer also entranced by feminist theory I wonder: how can we creatively represent feminist ideas, undermine patriarchal “real life” society and at the same time patriarchal language and systems of representation that are our legacy as writers in English?

For one thing, we need to honestly give voice to women’s experiences as we know them. Making a decision to write about “strong female characters” may be politically appropriate, but it’s not always ethical. Much of the trouble comes from the fact that women characters are expected to stand in for women as a whole – every single woman everywhere right now. Fiction writers simply aren’t concerned with that. The short story, the novel, are intensely personal and subjective forms. They are not political tracts. They examine the individual: her life, her thoughts, her heart. Of course, this opens out onto the world. But in the same way that men in fiction aren’t expected to represent an entire gender, we need to write weak women, wounded women, women who find comfort in patriarchal certainty, women who try and fail, women who are unsure, women who have no other choice but to live in exile. Fiction writers have a very special relationship to the old feminist adage: “The personal is political.”

For many Western liberal feminists, religion isn’t a popular subject. Writing about Ireland, despite her exile, O’Brien cannot help but be tied up with Catholicism, and she is never apologetic about it. Many feminists have forgotten about the reality of women’s experiences to such an extent that they wish to deny the power and truth of religion in many women’s lives. This cultural imperialism seems to me, if anything, anti-feminist. Feminism is an opening out, a construction of space, in which women’s voices are loud and truthful and multiplicitous.

Failure to recognise the subtlety with which O’Brien writes about the Catholic Church is unfortunate, because it is a failure to deconstruct the kind of patriarchal power the Church circulated, and still circulates today, which can teach us a lot about the patriarchal power that circulates in society as a whole. When asked why she has been forgiving of her father’s “small oppressions” but not so the Church’s, O’Brien remarked:catholicchurch

“The mantle of the Church, the power of the Church, the jurisdiction, the authority, was so overwhelming and not about Christianity. It was very secular. It was about power… What was done to people in the name of God was wrong in every way. It was a murder: psychic, social, and heart murder. And that was because the Church, the bishops and priests, they were omnipotent.”

This is murder done to individual women, and relationships between women. In “A Scandalous Woman” young Eily Hogan is sacrificed following her passionate relationship with a bank clerk and her pregnancy. She is punished – beaten and forced into solitary confinement and finally into marriage. Her future, her sanity and her very Self are sacrificed to a morality that denies women choice and a full sexuality. So the narrator concludes, having visited Eily after some time when they are both married and mothers, “what with that and the holy water and the red rowan tree bright and instinct with life, I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.”

ITV ARCHIVEEdna O’Brien

It is not about religion, it is about power. A centuries-long power that has othered women, objectified them, made them into nothing but reproductive objects. O’Brien does not diminish the crime of this. It’s not simply “the way things are,” that women marry men and raise children, it is murder.

To recognise the wounds this causes is not to represent women as merely victims, but to give them a voice and the words with which to represent this recognition. Her narrators are intelligent. They experience desire and sexuality fully, in a way they are told is only natural for men. O’Brien also knows that to recognise the full force of patriarchal denial is to muddle your way through a mess of alternatives to compulsory heterosexuality, marriage and the nuclear family.

She writes the complexity of women’s relationships with women without resorting to the reductive patriarchal categories of “lesbian” and “heterosexual.” But she retains that sense of transgression that must be present in all relationships between women in a patriarchal hierarchy of intimacy, in which women’s first priority is supposed to be husband and children. Unfortunately this aspect of her work has been largely ignored, which merely echoes the tendency of a patriarchal society to ignore women’s friendships, desires and sexualities.

holdinghandsIn the story “Sister Imelda,” the narrator, a young girl in a Catholic convent, develops an intimacy with a nun that is often blocked given the strictures of their context. She says, “I could cry, or I could tremble to try to convey the emotion, but I could not tell her” and “I dared to touch her wrist to communicate my sadness.” O’Brien narrates the small resistances women find to express intimacy, which in a patriarchal context is not supposed to be bodily. We all know the Madonna/Whore dichotomy that has been a staple of patriarchy for centuries. A woman may only be “pure” (and respectable to patriarchal society) when she denies her sexuality, or in fact when she has none. O’Brien blurs these lines, just a year after Adrienne Rich’s seminal 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Intimacy and desire between women, which for O’Brien cannot be easily categorised as and reduced to sexual or non-sexual, is a way of resisting the overwhelming force of institutional heterosexuality that proscribes women’s futures. And it happens within a so-called patriarchal institution – a convent – which, let’s not forget, is made up of women.

Adrienne RichAdrienne Rich

Writers who are not interested in perpetuating patriarchal systems of thought and relationality must recognise such relationships between women. Just recognising them is difficult enough, because as Rich tells us “We begin to observe behaviour, both in history and in individual biography, that has hitherto been invisible or misnamed, behaviour which often constitutes, given the limits of the counterforce exerted in a given time and place, radical rebellion. And we can connect these rebellions and the necessity for them with the physical passion of woman for woman which is central to lesbian existence: the erotic sensuality which has been, precisely, the most violently erased fact of female experience.”

So in “The Mouth of the Cave” we read the deceptively simple narrative of a woman coming across a woman standing in the grass, dressing. She asks herself “Why am I running, why am I trembling, why am I afraid? Because she is a woman and so am I. Because, because? I did not know.”

That these intimacies and desires are written as transgressive, never fully enacted, confusing for the reader and narrators at once, is explained by Rich too. As she forces us to acknowledge: “What deserves further exploration is the doublethink many women engage in and from which no woman is permanently and utterly free: However woman-to-woman relationships, female support networks, a female and feminist value system are relied on and cherished, indoctrination in male credibility and status can still create synapses in thought, denials in feeling, wishful thinking, a profound sexual and intellectual confusion.”

Her stories focus very little on marriage and children. They confront the expectations of domesticity without depicting its day-to-day details. The beautiful and shocking story “Paradise” tells of a young woman on holiday with a wealthy older man who has been married three times and his friends. The impossibility of being herself in such an environment is painful: she cannot delude herself into the idea of a perfect love affair that only comes from the absence of outsiders. “She knew she ought to speak. She wanted to. Both for his sake and for her own. Her mind would give a little leap and be still and would leap again; words were struggling to be set free, to say something, a little amusing something to establish her among them. But her tongue was tied. They would know her predecessors. They would compare her minutely, her appearance, her accent, the way he behaved with her. They would know better than she how important she was to him, if it were serious or just a passing notion.”

The small unkindnesses in unequal relationships that usually remain buried become the unforgiveable murder that O’Brien documents elsewhere. In taking swimming lessons the narrator finds both an incapacity for something supposed to be easy and a fascination with something she doesn’t quite understand. Finally, alone, she submits to the water: “As she went down to the cold and thrilling region she thought, They will never know, they will never, ever know, for sure.” The moment is most meaningful for her because she is alone, finally allowed to confront what Simone de Beauvoir would call her “transcendence” or her subjectivity: not how others see her but how she sees herself. “At some point she began to fight and thresh about, and she cried, though she could not know the extent of those cries.”

drowningOf course, the impropriety of her suicide attempt leads to the guests leaving early and the man she is with expresses no empathy and she understands the relationship is over. The strength wrapped up in a moment of apparent defeat is clear in the reaction to her near-drowning: “the guests were polite and offhand and still specious, but along with that they were cautious now and deeply disapproving. Their manner told her that it had been a stupid and ghastly thing to do, and had she succeeded she would have involved all of them in her stupid and ghastly mess.

The desperate measures to which women must go to speak, to imprint themselves on a world that consigns them to being looked at, to immanence as Beauvoir would say – or to being objects – is nothing short of sacrificial. O’Brien’s women aren’t women at ease. How could they be? But they are “strong women.” Along with being wounded, defeated, victimised. I think this has something to do with how O’Brien correlates writing with mental distress.

Name me a writer who isn’t in psychological distress. They wouldn’t be writers unless they were in distress and complex and turbid and disturbed. Harmonious, happy, or for that matter businesspeople, are not creative people, they’re not.

This is because writers must be outsiders. We have no other choice. So too for the women of O’Brien’s fiction, and that is why their voices are painful. They force us, if we are willing to read, to hear them. We feel their disturbance because O’Brien has made a space in the restrictive patriarchal symbolic. As Julia Kristeva says, “Women have the luck and responsibility of being boundary-subjects.” Sometimes it’s only in murmurs or cries or fights that O’Brien’s women can speak. But in the inscription of their voices we are also forced to recognise the shame, murder and sacrifice enacted by the patriarchal silencing that is never without gaps.

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I Don’t Hate Men, I Just Want to be Equal: Feminism, Apologies and Salvaging Radicalism

“When those who have power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in to a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul – and not just individual strength, but collective understanding – to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.” – Adrienne Rich

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Apparently, feminism is all about equality. All we want is for men and women to be equal, that’s all! Look, that’s the definition of feminism, you’re a feminist too then! We’re all feminists! I’m a feminist, but I’m not a lesbian, I shave my legs, and I’m not ugly! Oh, and I don’t hate men. That’s the extremists you’re thinking of. I’m not like that.

thisisfeminismWhy do we need to placate the patriarchy? Why have some of us watered down feminism so much that it becomes about “equality between men and women,” a lovely phrase signifying nothing? This defeats the entire purpose. Feminism should be radical. It should be extreme.

anti feminist robertsonFeminism is ultimately about smashing the patriarchy. That goal encompasses a whole of lot of complicated, radical aims.drunkinlove

Of course, we need those sell-outs who pander to the system. So we have Beyoncé, constructing herself as a feminist icon while putting out music that glorifies domestic violence and sexual assault (“Drunk in Love”) and objectifies herself as a piece of marriageable property (“Single Ladies”). Then Katy Perry who claimed she was a feminist because “it just means that I love myself as a female and I also love men.” Um, what? Sometimes I need to hear statements like that, if only to remember what it was like before I ever stepped foot into a Gender Studies class. Even then though, I knew that performing desire purely for the male gaze (“I Kissed a Girl”) was pretty high up there on the list of anti-women activities.

katyperryFine, we need celebrities like that, if only to publicise the word “feminism” and perhaps encourage people to actually look into the word with a bit more care. And I am optimistic that a fourth wave of feminism is underway that is not spearheaded by celebrities but harnessing the radical potential of social media. It also appears that the masses are far more adept at using consumer culture to subvert patriarchy rather than prop it up, as Beyoncé enjoys. Perhaps we also need figures such as Sheryl Sandberg who empower women within the existing power regime, asking them to “lean in” to the white capitalist heterosexist patriarchy rather than question it. What is called “corporate feminism” has no ounce of radicalism to it, no recognition of the fact that their category of “woman” excludes women of colour, queer women, women with disabilities, poor women, and so on.

leaninThis is similar to the way first wave feminists fighting for the vote reassured the patriarchy that they were nurturing, gentle, and a civilising influence on the future citizens of the nation and should therefore be allowed a voice in reform. They used patriarchal constructions of women and femininity to gain rights and yes, most of them probably believed the arguments.

antisuffrage      antisuffragepropagandaBut why haven’t we moved on from the backlash against first wave feminists, who were apparently mannish man-hating monsters? That is still the popular conception of feminism.

antifeministAnd the popular way to dispel that conception is by saying “No, we love men, that’s only the extremists, that’s radical feminists, the rest of us just want equality.”

No.

It is the anti-feminists who have conjured up the image of man-hating feminists. This came from no truth except people who were invested in patriarchy feeling threatened by feminism. And so they should. Feminism should be petrifying if you are invested in patriarchy. This goes for men and women.

waronmenIt is easy to be considered a misandrist when men are socialised to feel entitled to women and our time. So, if you ignore them, you’re a misandrist. If you insist they leave you alone, you’re a misandrist. If you focus on building healthy female-centred relationships over relationships with men, you’re a misandrist. Misandry is basically prioritising your agency, autonomy and fellow women over men in a society that teaches you that being feminine relies on giving into men’s feelings of entitlement” – highly intelligent anonymous person.

Patriarchy should be scared of feminists because we want women to stop being dependent on men. Politically, economically, socially, culturally, and sexually. For a woman to feel that her self-worth and survival have nothing to do with her attachment to a man is the ultimate threat to the patriarchy. Apparently the most insulting image is a woman made monstrous because of her independence from men. And the best way anti-feminists can think of to threaten feminists is to tell us we are not attractive to men. Because that is supposed to be the ultimate blow to any woman.

cureafeministIn Catharine MacKinnon’s words: “Socially, femaleness means femininity, which means attractiveness to men, which means sexual attractiveness, which means sexual availability on male terms.”

That is why feminism must be anti-patriarchy. That is why feminism must question every lovingly held idea of gender, what is “feminine” and “masculine,” and break the delusion that such things are biologically determined. It cannot simply be about equality between two pre-determined sexes. Because there is no such thing. It is patriarchy that has constructed a binary view of gender – that male and female are opposites, and necessary to one another. For this reason feminism must be queer. It must also be intersectional – that is, alive to the ways that race, class, ability, age and many more “identity markers” intertwine with gender. Mainstream feminism – that is, feminism that attempts to make itself appealing to the patriarchal status quo – is utterly heterosexist and cissexist. Women who are traditionally appealing to men are less of a threat. Where are the queer and trans* feminists in popular culture? Why is there still a monopoly of heterosexual-identified, cisgender women promoting feminism? That seems to defeat the radical purpose feminism has of smashing heteronormativity and the patriarchal idea that women’s energy is directed towards relationships with men.

greerlifemagFor feminists to go on the defensive, to always have to start from a point of saying “No we don’t hate men” only gives the winning point to the anti-feminists. It is the same as always having to start from the point of “Is global warming caused by humans?” in the climate crisis debate. It is a distraction. It wastes time.

Hearing debates in mainstream media about whether we still need feminism is truly cringeworthy. We always go right back to definitional issues. While people who haven’t read Simone de Beauvoir or bell hooks are trying to grapple with the question of whether feminism excludes men, domestic violence is going on unhampered, thousands of objectifying ads are lining the streets and infecting the television, and male politicians are flooding parliament.

But when you have read these women, when you become alive to the fact that violence against women and the oppression of women isn’t some problem located in “third world countries,” it can be tough. It’s tough to see the overwhelming discursive and structural power that infiltrates your every move. It’s more comforting to ignore, to say, “That’s the way of the world.” I don’t want to go into “Women against feminism” because the trend is simply a whole lot of misguided foolishness and nothing else. But I mean those women who are not angry, who believe it’s easier to live with the patriarchy than go against the grain.

Many women, I think, resist feminism because it is an agony to be fully conscious of the brutal misogyny which permeates culture, society, and all personal relationships. It is as if our oppression were cast in lava eons ago and now it is granite, and each individual woman is buried inside the stone. Women try to survive inside the stone, buried in it. Women say, I like this stone, its weight is not too heavy for me. Women defend the stone by saying that it protects them from rain and wind and fire. Women say, all I have ever known is this stone, what is there without it?” – Andrea Dworkin

Here are some common attempts the average citizen employs to shut down feminist spaces:

Get a life. Stop being paranoid. You’re making too much of this.

Ah, the tried and true way of shutting a woman up. Belittle her. Tell her she has nothing to back up her claims. Talk over her. Interrupt her. Laugh at her. She is over-emotional, irrational, perhaps explained by her menstrual cycle, which is a thing too disgusting to even mention but something we can fall back on when a woman gets out of hand. It takes a damn strong person to refuse to believe this. To see that this response actually justifies her fury, because of the very reason that is dismissed.

Women hear it all the time from men. ‘You’re overreacting,’ we tell them. ‘Don’t worry about it so much, you’re over-thinking it.’ ‘Don’t be so sensitive.’ ‘Don’t be crazy.’ It’s a form of gaslighting – telling women that their feelings are just wrong, that they don’t have the right to feel the way that they do. Minimising somebody else’s feelings is a way of controlling them. If they no longer trust their own feelings and instincts, they come to rely on someone else to tell them how they’re supposed to feel” – Harris O’Malley.

FeminismMyths_FeatureI’m not really interested in it. There are more important things than feminism.

This implies a fundamental misunderstanding of the extent and all-pervasiveness of patriarchy. One of the most effective strategies of power structures is to make themselves invisible. If you can’t see them, if you internalise them as simply “normal” or “natural,” you can’t conceive of them as constructed, let alone figure out ways to challenge them. That’s why people laugh when you say the word “heteronormativity” or even “patriarchy” – to hear the names of these techniques of power is so out of the ordinary it becomes funny to people who have never got past their invisibility.

It’s also a misunderstanding of the way power works. People think that when you say “patriarchy” you are referring to some sort of group of white silk-suited men who write out power-foucaulttheir methods for the oppression of women. But as we should have learned from Foucault, power is not possessed by individuals, it is diffuse. Power is normalised, internalised and everywhere. It is not top-down, meted out by superiors, but exercised and re-created again and again, every day, by everyone we come across. It isn’t one thing with one definition, it’s always changing. Nor is it merely repressive, it is productive. Our every conception of gender is part of a discourse that is everywhere. Feminism attempts to make the construction of gender clear, thus to make the sources of discipline clear, so we may find new ways. It will always be a process, because techniques of power are so complex.

To say that there are more important issues is to ignore the interconnections of all of these techniques of power and knowledge. So the way we think about gender is intertwined with the military industrial complex and capitalism. This was the problem with Marxism and other left-wing movements. They failed to see that the relationship to the means of production that they took as the be-all-and-end-all intersects with patriarchy, and often such movements were as misogynistic as the regimes they struggled against.

Women have it worse in other countries.

What a terrible argument. “Hey, those women over there have it worse off than you, so shut up and stop complaining.” It is yet another way of attempting to delegitimise women’s experiences and voices. The true justice, the smashing of patriarchal gender ideology, that feminism aims for is not to be achieved “by comparison.” In other words, because Western women can drive, vote, and get educated doesn’t mean that patriarchy is not alive and well.

Men are victims of domestic violence too.

maleprivilegeAnd? Yes? Go on? I don’t recall denying that. Firstly, when feminism addresses violence against women it does so with an understanding that this violence is structural, not just individual. There is not a systemic problem of violence against men by women. The power imbalance simply does not allow that. Now hold on. That does not mean there are not individual instances of violence perpetrated by women against men. But it does not come from rape culture, objectification, and entrenched cultural standards about men’s and women’s behaviour and romantic relationships.

Secondly, just look at the stats. In Australia, less than 5% of men who experienced violence in a 12-month period were assaulted by a female partner or ex-partner. [Check out http://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/subscriber.nsf/0/056A404DAA576AE6CA2571D00080E985/$File/49060_2005%20%28reissue%29.pdf] Also, “men’s violence is six times more likely to inflict severe injury and is more humiliating, coercive and controlling. Women’s violence is more likely to be expressive in response to frustration and stress rather than purposeful with the intention to control and dominate.” [Check out   McKenzie, Sarah. Domestic violence reality check for the ‘manosphere’ [online]. Eureka Street, Vol. 23, No. 18, Sep 2013: 30-32: http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=672075196326892;res=IELLCC]. That’s what I mean by entrenched cultural standards.if-women-were-equal-does-that-mean-i-can-hit-them-without-feelin

Similarly, if you say men who experience violence from a partner are discouraged by cultural norms to admit it, thank you for providing more evidence of the need for feminism. Which wants to smash such gendered norms as men being unemotional, stoic and needing to “man up.” We also want to smash the idea that violence is inherently masculine.

 

Male privilege? But dead soldiers, workplace accidents, homelessness, custody.

This always amuses me. Thanks for giving me more evidence of the damage done by patriarchy. Why are men sent to war and not women? Because apparently they are biologically stronger, more violent, and less important for nurturing children. Why more workplace accidents? They are more likely to work dangerous jobs that need a yellow “Men working” sign out the front. Why? Because they are seen as physically stronger and more suited to technical, practical activities such as factory work, construction and electrical work. Why homelessness? Men are not encouraged to rely on others. Women are more likely to rely on male romantic partners even when they are worse off in such relationships. Women are told they need to be protected, men are told they should be able to cope on their own and not ask for support. The ways men are taught to express their problems – through violence, alcohol and drug abuse – are also more likely to get them into trouble, destroy their support networks and make people more fearful of helping them. Again, patriarchy has created this situation. Why are men less likely to get custody of children? Simple. Patriarchy wants us to believe women are inherently more nurturing and therefore better at raising children.

Male privilege does not mean that in each and every situation men get their way. I won’t go in to hegemonic masculinity theory here – the fact that in each context, certain types of masculinity are privileged over other types, meaning some men are subordinated in favour of other men – but in a patriarchal society, men as a group are privileged over women as a group. Gendered ideas – such as men being physically strong and independent, and women being nurturing – work to uphold patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean those ideas won’t backfire on you in certain situations. The entrenched belief that women are more nurturing and should be the primary caregiver for children has benefited men in countless situations. To pick out one situation, such as custody battles, where it does not benefit them is to miss the point entirely.

Imagine sexism is a gun. Sure, it’s going to recoil on you sometimes, but that’s nothing like getting hit with the bullet.

Not all men.

notallmenWhat you are doing here is putting your personal feelings above structural, entrenched misogyny. In the face of women expressing the myriad occasions they have experienced misogyny, you feel the need to point out that you are not personally at fault. Men who do this are derailing the conversation. In fact, they are reinstating the huge force of misogyny by flipping the conversation back to men.

This comeback also misunderstands the entire point of feminism. It is not anti-men, it is anti-patriarchy. When we discuss misogyny, we are not discussing men abusing women, we are talking about a power structure that enables and normalises instances of abuse by men against women.

Not all men sexually assault women, punish them for moving through a public space, or neglect to listen to women musicians, read women writers and watch women-led TV and movies. But all men profit from patriarchy. So all men need to actively assess how this privilege helps them at the expense of women. How about instead of putting in your two cents about “Not all men,” you listen to the voices of the women telling you about their experiences of misogyny? And then you make an effort to disrupt that system.

On a related note, yes, “patriarchy hurts men too.” But that is not the fact that legitimises feminism.

“My mistrust [of men] is not, as one might expect, primarily a result of the violent acts done on my body, nor the vicious humiliations done to my dignity. It is, instead, born of the multitude of mundane betrayals that mark by every relationship with a man – the casual rape joke, the use of a female slur, the carless demonization of the feminine in everyday conversation, the accusations of overreactions, the eye rolling and exasperated sighs in response to polite requests to please not use misogynist epithets in my presence or to please use non-gendered language (“humankind).” – Melissa McEwan

“We live in a society that’s sexist in ways it doesn’t understand. One of the consequences is that men are extremely sensitive to being criticised by women. I think it threatens them in a very primal way, and male privilege makes them feel free to lash out. This is why women are socialised to carefully dance around these issues, disagreeing with men in an extremely gentle manner. Not because women are nicer creatures than men. But because our very survival can depend on it.” – Brianna Wu

Don’t you just have to chill out sometimes? I mean, I agree with you and all, but you’ve got to live in the world, and this is just how it is!

“Knowledge makes me more aware, it makes me more conscious. ‘Knowing’ is painful because after ‘it’ happens I can’t stay in the same place and be comfortable. I am no longer the same person I was before.” – Gloria Anzaldua

Guess what? Patriarchy wants us to keep silent, it wants us to let everyday misogyny go by unscathed. That is power’s greatest weapon: keeping itself invisible. That’s why it’s so awkward to call people out on their apparently “harmless” sexist or heterosexist remarks. I hate awkwardness. I want to avoid it as much as the next person. But also, knowing is painful. It means that those remarks that would have slipped by you before, or at most elicited an eyeroll, really sting. Because you recognise that it is just one more technique of disciplining, controlling, enacting violence. One thing I like to say is, “Hold on, I’m sorry?” Just put a halt to the conversation. They will have to explain. All of a sudden, a remark that would just be part of everyday flow is under the spotlight. They will see that perhaps it was not harmless. To make someone stop and think twice is a very powerful thing, even if they are a lost cause.

feminist-disneyAs Desmond Tutu reminds us: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

I hate when people comfort the privileged. I want you to be uncomfortable. I want you to take notice of the people being killed, raped, beaten, alienated because of their identity. I want you to think about how the system favours you and what that means for others. I want you to reevaluate your actions to make sure you’re actively working against the systemic oppression of others. If you’re comfortable, then you’re in the wrong” – highly intelligent anonymous person.

validateyourexistenceAs for the pseudo-sympathetic plea, “You’ve got to live in this world, don’t ysisteroutsiderou?” which has been put to me by pro-feminist people, no, I don’t want to live in “this world” as you call it if it means accepting your patriarchy and heteronormativity. There are some people who would prefer to go against the grain and we don’t live on other planets. So I think I can survive pretty well with my dangerous consciousness, as well as my shelves of feminist literature. Yes it’s exhausting. But falling into step with patriarchy is out of the question. If you want to take up the mantle, Audre Lorde gives us a rallying cry: “Sister outsider.”

iwouldmuchratherbeLet’s not give up all the ground we’ve won. Feminism should not be palatable to the patriarchy, that’s the whole point. You think feminists are man haters? Okay, fine. I’m not going to stroke your ego by telling you about all the men I love. You think feminists are ugly? You think feminists don’t shave? I’m not going to point to all the women whom the male gaze has deemed appealing and who are also feminists. You think feminists are lesbians? I’m not going to make you feel that feminists really need men after all, with something about “companionate” marriages from the 1950s. You think feminists can’t “get” a man? I’m not going to spout something about how a man should want a “strong” woman after all, because then he’ll know she’s with him because she cares, not because she’s forced into it! In truth all feminists are man-hating lesbians who do not shave, are hideously ugly and actually long for a heterosexual relationship because we actually know that’s the only fulfilling path in life and lesbianism is simply bitterness. Because those are your standards. Feminism wants new ones.

All of us feminists know the truth of Lewis’ Law: “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” Backlash against feminism shouldn’t determine its priorities. After all, the goal of anti-feminism is to discredit it. The patriarchy has made it perfectly clear what scares it the most: a woman whose entire life, daydreams and self-worth don’t depend on a man, but on herself. And, God forbid, on her vast web of human relationships.             killjoy

Fight Like a Girl: Constructing an Active Femininity

riotmirrorriotgirl

Why is fashion mocked but not sport, where the goal is, for example, to put a ball on the grass behind a line?

Why are girls at a pop concert thought of as stupid but not men screaming, crying and fighting at a football match?

Why are romance novels scoffed at but not ghostwritten crime thrillers?

Why do romantic comedies elicit eye rolls but not formulaic Bond films?

Why is pink a frivolous colour but not blue?

Why are girls allowed to play with trucks but boys aren’t allowed to play with dolls?

Why is it okay for girls to enjoy soccer but not okay for boys to enjoy ballet?

Why so much attention on about girls playing with pink toys but not boys playing with guns, swords, all kinds of military apparatus?

Why is it shameful to enjoy Britney’s music but not AC/DC’s? (After all, the musical value is the same)

Why is knitting foolish but not playing pool at the pub?

Why is a love of handbags laughable but not a fixation on accessories for a car?

Why is celebrity gossip shallow but (male) sports gossip, which fills TV news, newspapers and programmes like “The Footy Show,” a worthy use of time?

Why does “man up” mean “stop being weak”?

Why do women read novels by men but very few men read novels by women?

These questions all have the same answer.

passivefemininityIt may seem that the easiest way to achieve gender equality is to do away with femininity, with the idea that women should reshape their bodies, decorate themselves, spend hours turning themselves into people that “look like women.”

But this privileges masculinity. This buys into the very idea that the patriarchy has propagated: masculinity means strength, rationality, aggression, and power. Femininity means passivity, emotion, artifice and frivolity.

artifice      ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

If we want to break down all patriarchal concepts of gender, that the category of man is synonymous with masculinity and the category of woman with femininity, and are mutually exclusive (that is, that you can’t be a “real man” and be feminine and vice versa), we have to rethink femininity all together. We have to construct it in a new way, make it powerful. I use the word construct deliberately. It needs to be conscious. We are still too deep in patriarchal concepts of femininity to use femininity without consequence. Everywhere objectification and sexualisation and women and girls bombards us. How can we reconstruct femininity in a way that isn’t patriarchal?

Red-Tape-Sexist-AdFirst of all I want to say that femininity should not be associated with women. But this is a complicated idea because of patriarchy’s centuries-old construction of femininity to assist its oppression of women. Those traits I mentioned earlier – passivity, emotion, artifice, frivolity (and you could name thousands more) – are negative. Masculine traits are positive. And here is the crux: they are only positive when men possess them. So we get the typical insults applied to women who are seen to transgress femininity (and how easy to overstep the mark): “shrill” for women who speak their mind and out of turn, “bitch” for the same thing, “bossy” for women who show leadership, “slut” for women who claim sexual agency rather than passivity, and how long could we go on for? Femininity is ultimately supposed to be about attracting men. That’s why feminists are called “man haters.” Because they fundamentally oppose the idea that their existence needs male validation. That’s the scariest idea patriarchy can hear.

antisuffragepropagandaBy the same token, insults applied to men police masculinity just as effectively. As Jessica Valenti writes:

“What’s the worst possible thing you can call a woman? Don’t hold back, now.
You’re probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank.
Okay, now, what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch, pussy. I’ve even heard the term “mangina.”
Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult. Now tell me that’s not royally fucked up.”

Policing masculinity works through denigrating femininity and therefore women. It works through misogyny.

““Femininity is depicted as weakness, the sapping of strength, yet masculinity is so fragile that apparently even the slightest brush with the feminine destroys it.” – Gwen Sharp

Our binary gender system means that men who express “feminine” traits, say by crying or enjoying “feminine” things such as arranging flowers, are not “real men.” You can’t be masculine and feminine at the same time. In fact, masculinity is defined by an avoidance of femininity. How about if we de-sexed and de-gendered femininity? This means that “feminine” wouldn’t be attached to genitals, chromosomes, even bodies – however we define gender. Basically the term “femininity” wouldn’t be suitable for the kind of body-performance I suggest but since I’m working in a patriarchal symbolic I will use the word. I also use the term because I recognise the denigration of femininity has been synonymous with the denigration of women, is the basis of misogyny, and reclaiming it is a way of freeing women from being the objects the patriarchy wants them to be, to become true subjects with human agency.

riotgrrrlMost essential to me is making femininity about subjectivity. Femininity under patriarchy is about making our bodies amenable to men. Is there a way to reclaim femininity for ourselves, as fluid and changeable, so that one day we can feel like curling our hair and wearing heels and the next wear trackpants and no bra, without feeling that we are abandoning our duty, without feeling that we aren’t “real women” today, without worrying we won’t be treated with respect, without feeling we are missing any advantages by not complying with patriarchy, without feeling guilty, without the world curling its lip or heaping slurs on us?

ilikeskirtsTraditionally femininity has been about objectification. Yes, turning ourselves into objects. Looking at ourselves as objects. Decorating our bodies by inhabiting the male gaze. The way women have internalised the male gaze is scary.

woman_in_the_mirror

As Simone de Beauvoir said back in 1949 “Woman…is even required by society to make herself an erotic object. The purpose of the fashions to which she is enslaved is not to reveal her as an independent individual, but rather to offer her as prey to male desires.” So skirts, heels, frills, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, decorative hats, unwieldy coloured fingernails are not designed for free bodily movement and in fact often hinder it. Men’s clothing needs to be practical: shirts without lace or frills, plain pants (it’s forbidden for men to wear skirts), flat shoes, and on special occasions suit and tie. It is not supposed to draw attention to men’s body but allow him to express himself, allow his personality and opinions to shine through. On the other hand, women in positions of power are constantly criticised or evaluated on their choice of clothing, hairstyles, bodily comportment. Women in movies and TV shows are shown fretting over what to wear – this would be unacceptable in a male character. Why? Because women’s bodies are viewed as objects, something to be adorned, and women in sexist pop culture view their own bodies as objects, to be adorned for the male gaze. To be shaped to be amenable to patriarchy.

nothingtowearTo reclaim femininity we have to understand these origins. Yes, it has been utilised for patriarchal purposes. Maybe we can say that femininity can be feminist, but it can be (and certainly has been for centuries) anti-feminist. To use Foucault’s analysis, femininity has been used to create docile bodies, though Foucault of course was bad with gender, so we have to apply his very good concept of (male) bodies being manipulated into soldiers, prisoners, students. If only he had picked up on the incredible differences in the ways female bodies are produced.

Sandra Lee Bartky’s analysis of the way female bodies are produced as objects is pretty much the best thing ever. She knows that “[t]he strategy of much beauty-related advertising is to suggest to women that their bodies are deficient” so that femininity is based on a “pervasive sense of bodily deficiency.” Shame is used to make us discipline our bodies in often crazy ways. You shouldn’t have hair there. You shouldn’t have fat there. You should have a gap there, and a curve there, and a visible bone there. This is because “[w]oman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other” as Bartky says. This is reinforced at every turn. On billboards. In “women’s” magazines (often working against women rather than for/with them). On the street when a man thinks he has a right to comment on her appearance. In her home when a relative calls her pretty.

eraseradThis is the message women get from everywhere: the most important thing is how you look. Then they are laughed at for accepting the message. Girls are told they should be pretty, they should like pop music, they should like pink, and then they are mocked for it. Girls are caught in a double-bind. Why can’t we stop telling them that being a girl is essentially weak, without giving them any alternatives?

girlsgetmockedThis is also why girls claim to be “not like other girls” or to take it as a compliment when someone (usually a boy) tells them they are “not like other girls.”

notlikeothergirlsWhen femininity is trivialised, women are trivialised. When masculinity goes unquestioned, patriarchy goes unquestioned.

So, do undo all this historical and cultural work we have to be aware of it. One way to do this is by acknowledging that all gender is artifice. Femininity has been intimately linked with artifice, superficiality, “faking it,” while masculinity has been linked with solidity, truth, natural, pragmatic, down-to-earth. “Feminine” gestures are unnecessary and foolish, such as the stereotypical hair flick, movement of the hips, limp wrist. Drag performances show up this “constructed” femininity clearly. We also get this idea through the common assumption that queer men who “act feminine” are “flamboyant” or somehow faking their speech patterns, body movements and gestures.

whitechicks_3Heterosexual masculinity is the only form of gender expression that is “stripped back” and “natural.” Surprise surprise.

But masculinity is just as much faked and performed. Do men really need to sit with their legs so far apart? Do they need to drape their arms over nearby pieces of furniture? Do they need to swig from a glass with their elbows at a ninety-degree angle? Do they need to clap each other on the back?

takinguptoomuchspaceNope. Artifice. Of course, we can’t avoid Judith Butler here: gender is “a stylised repetition of acts [so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.” Basically, gender is “real only to the extent that it is performed.”

If we recognise that gender is a performance, we can detach it from arbitrary markers of genitals and chromosomes. Why would we want to reclaim femininity? It has been used to objectify us, distract us, trivialise us. All that time we spend putting on makeup could be spent reading good books. All that time spent criticising a woman politician’s outfit could be spent examining her policies. But femininity isn’t inherently any worse than masculinity. And there are some things typified as “feminine” that we need a whole lot more of: emotion, affection, kindness, carefulness, even frivolous fun. I think we can reclaim femininity by dissociating it from objectification and shame.

Shame is really hard to get through. As women we feel obligated to shave our legs, our armpits, shape our eyebrows. We are obligated to make ourselves objects. If we can come to a different, more liberating understanding of our bodies we can spend hours looking for a nice dress or putting on makeup if we feel like it, but if we would rather sleep in or read a book we won’t think anything of it. Above all there should be no requirement for women to shape their bodies and faces as if they were deficient, just as there is no requirement for men. If a woman never shaves, plucks, dyes, whatever other regimes that get thrown at women as compulsory, why should we care? Her body isn’t there for us to look at. Rather than looking at our bodies we can experience them, how they move fast, sweat, beat, let us feel pleasure, let us feel pain, the thrill and exhaustion of running or scoring a goal or lifting weights, how they show what we’re feeling, tears or embarrassment or laughter. If we feel all this, if we know our bodies in this way, shame takes up less space. This is body positivity – knowing all the things our bodies can do rather than all the ways that they don’t look. Let’s not leave Riot Grrrl in the 90s. Femininity can be feminist – if we don’t view our bodies with the male gaze, but experience them as our own, as our connection with the world and all its sensations and joys and tragedies.

zooeydeschanel45 years ago Germaine Greer wrote: “Whenever we treat women’s bodies as aesthetic objects without function we deform them and their owners. Whether the curves imposed are the ebullient arabesques of the tit-queen or the attenuated coils of art-nouveau they are deformations of the dynamic, individual body, and limitations of the possibilities of being female.

The definition of strength that suits patriarchy is aggression, competition, denial of emotion and self-reliance. But when you have all this, who would suggest that tanks, guns, brawls on footy fields, hacking a path through jungle, speeding around in a loud and decorated car, swallowing back tears, looking at women’s bodies as if they had no heart, soul or mind and shuddering at the idea of drinking a “chick drink” are examples of strength? Until men stop viewing “feminine traits” as weak and seeking to avoid them at all costs, we won’t be rid of our stupid notions of gender and the damage patriarchy has wrought on women, men and the world.

riotgrrrlmanifestoWe need to detach “being a woman” from objectification. A femininity that is not about attracting men. We need a feminist patriarchy-smashing femininity.

ididitformyselfI am an I, not a she, not a her, not “my girlfriend” or “my daughter” or “my wife” or sweetheart, baby, darling. My lipstick is the colour of blood, the lifeforce. I know that flowers grow from nothing, everywhere. My hair is long and not ornamental, it catches the light and gives out its own light, it whips and warms me and drips with sweat. I cry when I feel beautiful music and I feel the beauty and spirit of the wide mountains like a kick in the guts. When I cry it is salt and water and heat and intensity. I eat pizza, read philosophy and keep my nails sharp enough to cut skin. I don’t smile in deference, I smile because I am strong enough to show kindness. I am not scared of my emotions. I don’t need to beat nature or prove my survival skills because I know I am part of it. I don’t leave a room that is filled with sadness. I touch without violence. I am not an empty space, I am filled with strength. My body moves fast, sweats, heats up. I am not pretty. I wear skirts and occupy my own space and don’t apologise for it. If you undermine me I can protect myself. I lift weights with my brothers and box with my sisters. I’m wear heels and I haven’t shaved my armpits. I wear a thousand bracelets and I am quick to anger. I cry when I see somebody crying and I shout at those who take me for decoration. I see no contradiction. My makeup is warpaint.

fightlikeagirl

girlgirlgirl

“All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We was girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.”

It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

sula

I wept over this page. It is a truth beyond so many others the way our world is structured and which is hardly ever spoken or written. I have known so many girls and women who have thrown aside their friendships, their deep love, with other girls and women, for a boy or a man. That romantic relationships with men are considered the pinnacle of affinity and intimacy for women is a mark of the insidiousness of and damage wreaked by patriarchal notions of relationality and womanhood. A monogamous, possessive, heterosexual relationship is a marker of success for a woman’s life, often, indeed, the reason for her being, the completion of her Self.

Simone de Beauvoir said in 1949 something that I see every day in 2014:

“She is waiting for Man.”

Yes.

“Whether wishing to realise herself as a woman or overcome the limits of her femininity, [she] has awaited the male for accomplishment and escape; he has the dazzling face of Perseus or St George; he is the liberator; he is also rich and powerful, he holds the keys to happiness, he is Prince Charming. She anticipates that in his caress she will feel carried away by the great current of life as when she rested in her mother’s bosom.”

Or Ryan Gosling, or whoever is the Prince Charming today, I don’t keep up. But note it is no longer her mother. She has lost the centrality of intimacy between women.

This is crucial for feminism because “In her eyes, man embodies the Other, as she does for man; but for her this Other appears in the essential mode and she grasps herself as the inessential opposite him.”

Beauvoir anticipates ideas of institutionalised heterosexuality, heteronormativity and the binary gender system. Woman is to Man as Body is to Mind. The opposite of the binary, and inferior. Dependent upon the other for meaning. Not a true Self without the other.

If women are to embrace the feminist ethic, if they want to move beyond a restrictive, self-negating, self-denying patriarchy and institutionalised heterosexuality they must shatter this hierarchy of relationality. They must scorn the recourse to jealousy which is rooted in misogyny and the patriarchy’s tactic of “divide and conquer.” I know women and girls who claim they “get along better with guys” as if it is something to be proud of. I have listened to girls and women worry and complain endlessly that another girl is talking to their boyfriend, whether the girl is a friend of theirs or someone they have never met.

thisisahoeThis jealousy is rooted in the idea that a woman’s aim in life is to “secure” a man, to maintain a “successful” heterosexual relationship, and therefore they must be on their guard at all times. It is rooted in the assumption that other women and girls are “out to get” a man at all costs, so hold tight to yours. Similarly, it assumes all men are hopelessly vulnerable to the wiles of femininity. Leaving that aside, though it feeds into the patriarchal strategy of ascribing men an “instinct” of polygamy and women an “instinct” for monogamy which is similarly damaging to relationships between women, it sets up women and girls against women and girls. The success patriarchy has had with this strategy has been accomplished through internalised misogyny. Women split themselves off from other women. Yes, it is a highly effective tactic of the patriarchy, but its internalisation means women and girls themselves effect it.

thatsmisogyn

A girl calling another girl a “slut” or a “bitch” is a hideous example of this yet it happens as if it is nothing. Every time you do this, you are showing your internalised misogyny. You are reiterating the age-old patriarchal strategy of divide and conquer, of trivialising and shaming women for not fitting into a standard of “woman” and “femininity” defined by the patriarchy. These are ways of policing women and are used by women as well as men. Be critical of these tactcs. Support, uplift – don’t knock down. We are all held to that sexist standard and we need women to help us break out of it, not constrict us further.

challenge girlhateI have heard women and girls talk for hours on the need to “make it work” with a man, expound on the efforts they will go to “rescue the relationship,” with no corresponding anxiety when a friendship with a woman is in dire straits. They have turned into wrecks at the slightest sign of conflict in their heterosexual romantic relationships while thinking nothing of abandoning a seriously ill woman friend. Until this stops, patriarchal strategies will continue to disempower women, and internalised misogyny will dictate the terms of every bond between women and girls.

Every time you think of your monogamous male partner as more significant than your women friends and family – indeed as your “significant other” – every time you cut off a woman friend in the throes of a new romantic relationship, every time you devote 90% of a hangout session with your woman friend to fretting about the state of your romantic relationship, to whether he really does look twice at that mutual friend, you are denigrating your Self, you are saying, “I only have space in my head and my life for a man,” you are rejecting the transcendent power of relationships between women.

When Nel comes to the realisation that “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude” it is stunning, it is an epiphany. Because it overturns the hierarchy enforced by the patriarchy – that relationships with men, which are always possessive: boyfriend, husband, significant other, are the ideal to which women should aspire. She realises that her friendship with Sula was not trivial. It was deeper than anything she had felt with Jude. This is the feminist power of Morrison’s work. She never falls into the trap of heteronormativity, where relationships are economic, possessive, one-way – as they are in, for example, Austen, Bronte, and many other writers who are considered feminist or proto-feminist.

sisterhood It was Adrienne Rich’s essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” which made me see the necessity and radical power of smashing the hierarchy of intimacy and valuing the huge range of relationships between women. This, to me, is the most important objective of feminism.

Rich points out the numerous forms of male power in patriarchal societies which combine to make women “convinced that marriage and sexual orientation toward men are inevitable – even if unsatisfying or oppressive – components of their lives.”

This has resulted in “an incalculable loss to the power of all women to change the social relations of the sexes, to liberate ourselves and each other.”

Yes, feminism means sisterhood. “Women who make life endurable for each other, give physical affection without causing pain, share, advise, and stick by each other.”

And so by accepting the all-importance of heterosexual monogamous relationships women are “internalising the values of the coloniser and actively participating in carrying out the colonisation of one’s self and one’s sex” – Kathleen Barry.

In other words, girl hate and isolation within a monogamous heterosexual romantic relationship.

stop the j wordIt was this which made me realise I needed to alter the direction and purpose of my own writing. To go beyond the minimal requirements of the Bechdel Test – to write the range, importance and richness of kinship between women in all its strength and conflict.

However, my vision of this objective is not structured around Rich’s essentialist notions of femininity and womanhood – that women are by nature more caring, for instance. This is possibly a minor point if we work from the understanding of the social construction of the binary gender system, and masculinity and femininity. In this way we can break down the ways in which women and femininity are explained in relation to men and masculinity – that is, as dependent on the “superior” term in the binary.

Instead, women are here for ourselves, transcendent, subjective, not aiming to “find a man” to complete us, supporting each other where we have put each other down, where men put us down, where patriarchal trivialisations of femininity and friendship between women put us down.

endgirlhate“Woman identification is a source of energy, a political springhead of female power, curtailed and contained under the institution of heterosexuality.”

Breaking the hierarchy of intimacy is crucial to my feminism because as Rich says without it “women will remain dependent upon the chance or luck of particular relationships and will have no collective power to determine the meaning and place of sexuality in their lives.”

It’s intersectional, global and radical.

girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.