Feminist High Horses

Here it goes, some self-reflection and brutal honesty:

Being a Women and Gender Studies major, working in the Women’s Resource Center, and being a loud advocate for social justice sometimes leaves me without a sense of reality. To me, it is not enough to be progressive, I better be deconstructing, problematizing, criticizing (the non-liberals, less–than-liberals, and latte liberals) questioning my own privilege, and of course articulating all of my perfect and unproblematic feminist opinions with brilliance. It’s no wonder that I’m exhausted all the time, because obviously, this is not possible. And obviously it’s alienating.  I am always trying to be a better feminist, a better advocate, a better organizer. But in doing so, in always trying to be inclusive, intersectional, and sensitive,  I run the risk of becoming too politically correct and too intense—please, fellow feminists, forgive me for saying that .

I learn all sorts of theory, and that theory becomes a stepping ladder for my feminist high horse. Yes, I have a feminist high horse. Her name is Gloria Butler-hooks-Halberstam and she is badass, but I have to be really careful when riding. I wish she came with a disclaimer: “Ride and appear to be a pretentious, self-righteous man hater at your own risk.” I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to explain Judith Butler’s theory of gender performance and the discursive recreating of the closet to an unsuspecting dinner party, but I have, and I wasn’t ever invited back. I understand, I wouldn’t want to have dinner with me either.

This education of mine, this amazing education in critical thinking, offers a lens that the majority of the world doesn’t get. Most of the time, I love that education, but someday, I wish I could turn it off. I wish I could watch Sex and the City and laugh, or go to a chick flick with friends and not be the buzz-kill that I normally am. I wish I could watch television, read a magazine, or even attend a party without finding something to get mad about, but now that I’ve been exposed to feminism, I can’t go back. But it’s exhausting some days to always have my critical lens on.  It’s a hard balance to strike: when do I deconstruct and criticize and when do I let it go?

To be honest, my feminist side is ashamed by the number of times I let one of my friends call a woman a bitch without correcting them. I tell myself it’s silly to get mad every time, but really I’m just afraid that one day my friends will find me intolerable to spend time with. It’s a fine line. I recognize that most people don’t think the way that I do, or to the level that I do. I also recognize that people do not like to be criticized or ridiculed, especially for socially acceptable things, like calling women bitches. So the entire world needs to become feminists, or I need to resign to having only feminist friends. I don’t like either option—the first is unrealistic, and there are actually some cool people who do not choose to identify as feminists or are not feminists (yes, it’s true).

So I’m stuck, constantly in this place of wanting to be the perfect feminist, not wanting to be alienating, and not knowing when I say something and when I don’t. It’s a really hard balance. I am a staunch feminist, but I am living in a world that is not feminist at all, so I’m not sure where I find my voice when most disagree with me.

I have no answers, I think it’s part of my larger attempt to find my feminist voice—in appropriate frequency and volume. That is an on going process for all of us feminists, and I’m sure the answer to what is the most appropriate will change, often. I will try to accept my lack of balance and listen to my gut.

Despite all of my questions, riding my feminist high horse is fun. So, I will ride Gloria Butler-hooks-Halberstam, just with caution, and not at dinner parties.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted October 18, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I can definitely relate to what you’re talking about. I’m also getting a B.A. in Gender Studies.

    Yes, I know there are really cool people that don’t identify as feminists. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not feminists. Actually saying the words, “I’m a feminist” is a pretty loaded thing to say. When it comes right down to it, I think the coolest people to hang out with are the ones that don’t want to live in a society where calling a woman a bitch is okay. Regardless of wether or not they identify as a feminist

  2. Posted October 18, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Rachel, Thanks for your feedback.

    I agree that many people who wont call them feminists are actually feminists without knowing it or choosing to identify that way. I was just trying to provide one example in which my feminist identity is challenged, I actually do not spend the majority of my with people who use derogatory language or say sexist things, but being a social person, I run into them, a lot. My only point was that there is no way to avoid people who use the word “bitch” because we live in a culture that considers it acceptable. If they don’t understand the implications or why it’s problematic or are not using it to be harmful, that is a reflection of a wider problem of cultural acceptance of sexist language. I would love to live in a world where everyone understood my thinking and everyone challenged sexist language, but I don’t. So I struggle with where all the lines are, and how to appropriately challenge someone without isolating them or turning them away from feminism in general.

  3. Posted October 18, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I struggled with this balance, myself. I was finding that a lot of the media I used to love and use to decompress after long days studying were challenging my newly-found feminist values. (I was always feminist, I just was discovering more and more how problematic gender is represented in so much of our media.)

    Personally, I have found that I can still enjoy something that is not a perfect example of feminist media. In fact, I can still watch media that is very sexist. However, I don’t ignore the sexism. I see that it’s there. I acknowledge it and I am able to realize how much better the media would be had it NOT been so sexist. But if it’s good enough, I’m still able to partake and enjoy the parts that I do like or find interesting.

    Of course, there are times when I can’t. When the sexism (or racism, or just plain skewed view of the world) is bad enough that I can’t find a way to enjoy it. It sucks and I can be a bit of a downer in groups, but I feel I compromise enough.

    As for taking your friends and acquaintances to task, there is a way to do it. For me, it’s as simple as saying, “Please don’t use the term ‘bitch’ (or ‘whore,’ or ‘pussy,’ etc.) as a negative around me any more. I don’t like it.” Most friends who are worth staying friends with just shrug, say, “Okay, no prob,” and move on.

  4. Posted October 19, 2011 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    I may have been born in Hell’s Kitchen but my mouth seems to have come from Hell’s Gutter! :) So the feminist flaw I grapple most with is referring to people who piss me off by the “genital based insults”, we’ll call them? In my defense I’ll say I’ve been known to call women dicks and men–other things, but then I wonder, how did we even get to think of our body parts as insults anyway? Anyhow, nobody’s perfect, and nobody’s a perfect feminist. Especially when you consider that although things have changed over the decades, by and large we’re still all born, raised in, and to some degree are products of a patriarchal and sexist culture.

    And maybe rom-coms or Sex & The City just aren’t your thing, at least not for now, or not anymore. Maybe just see other types of movies both you and your friends enjoy. Personally I never was into them, and find SATC light-chuckle funny, but not knee slapping laugh out loud funny.

  5. Posted October 29, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you came to the conclusion you did because I think the thing about all this, and I’ve definitely experienced it as well, is that it’s a function of how completely fucked up our society is that you’re a drag or a party-pooper or a PC weirdo if you bring up valid criticisms and mention oppression. Most of the people you’re talking to probably haven’t been exposed to these ideas. Of course, it is hard to bust out the gender theory at a dinner party, and so I would suggest a mix of styles in order to actually get through to people:

    1) Little reminders when someone says something fucked up, like ellestar suggests. “Hey, that’s kind of [racist/sexist/ableist/transphobic], and it bothers me.” It also helps to establish agreements with good friends, letting them know that you call stuff out that bothers you, but that you want to be called out as well. That’s much harder in your teens/early twenties and gets much easier as people grow up, though some never do.

    2) Think about how you can make theory accessible. Obviously, academic language is a barrier to many people. Use the “mom” test. If you explained something this way to your mom, dad, or whoever raised you and presumably isn’t immersed in the theory, would that person get it? Sometimes it can be helpful to write or blog about the topic to practice explaining to a general audience. Avoid terminology that leads to laughing at your pretentiousness.

    3) Make friends with other folks who get it. It sounds like you’re probably already pretty immersed, given your program and organizing/volunteer efforts, but if you’re not already, it’s good to just have a beer with some of the other people who get it. You don’t have to talk theory all the time, but these are people who are less likely to insert casual -isms into the conversation, and more likely to take a call-out gracefully. You can also plan stuff to do that gets away from oppression as much as possible–go check out a feminist art exhibit, watch an indie movie that you’ve heard passes the Bechdel test, start a feminist book club.

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