In Part 1 I talked about my experience teaching feminism to my 2nd year creative writing theory class. As often happens, in preparing for the lecture I came across Clem Ford’s article ‘Why Women’s Still Can’t Enjoy Sex’ and immediately wanted to walk into the lecture room, read the article aloud to the class, and then walk straight back out. Although technically that wouldn’t cover the material on the weekly reading list, I felt and still feel that Ford said everything I wanted to say, better, more clearly, and publicly, without a hint of apology or shame.
I posted a link to Ford’s article on the online site for this class, and the class tutor used it during discussions in both of the tutorials. I’ll use it again when I teach literary feminism to a different class later this semester. I linked it on Tumblr. I linked it on FaceBook. So did a lot of other Australian women. Now, a week later, I’m still angry. I’m also angry that a transgender Canadian woman has been disqualified from the Miss Canada pageant. I’m angry that there are people out there who object to the casting of African-American actors to play Rue and Thresh in the Hunger Games movie. I have a lot of anger to direct towards the many and varied examples of contemporary Western society perpetuating the same mistakes about gender and race that we’ve been fighting for so long, towards the ignorance of large numbers of people within this society, and particularly towards the carelessness of people who actually claim to give a damn about these issues.
But I’m mostly angry that my female co-workers, writers like Clem Ford, cartoonists like Kate Leth, female friends from all walks of life are fighting patriarchy yet again. I’m angry that I had to convince my students that our culture is still deeply misogynistic and that these arguments are still relevant, that I had to fight against some people’s belief that the status quo for gender relations in this country is acceptable. I’m angry that I am avoiding logging on to that class’s online forum to join the discussion about this issue, because I’m afraid of a) knowing too much and getting angry at my students when I should be trying to educate them, and b) knowing too little and misrepresenting issues that I care so much about.
I’m angry that women are still represented as sex objects, that their reproductive freedoms are under constant threat, that this is specifically a woman’s problem that ranges from advertising to film and TV to books, that permeates all our cultural output. Of course I’m angry that this is just in middle-class white Western society and the treatment of women in other cultures is something that I know so little about. I’m angry at dailylife.com.au for pairing Clem Ford’s article with what I’m sure was meant to be a harmlessly humorous stock photo, but which served to belittle Ford’s article and suggest that her argument is a dated and daggy one. I’m angry at Clem Ford, a little, because she simplified everything down to the gender binary, and presented her views as cissexist and heteronormative. I’m angry that in a media-saturated culture we feel the need to turn feminism into something that can be easily digested in sound-bites and pull-quotes. And I’m angry that I’m not a perfect feminist and I’m stuck in the same cognitive traps as so many intelligent, articulate people, that I’m cissexist too, I’m heteronormative too, I think in binaries as much as the next person (and, as my experience with literary theory has proven to me, possibly more so). I want to apologise and make concessions and account for everything and everyone because that is the only legitimate way to be equitable.
And I know that my anger is covering over a whole lot of fear. Like lots of people I am afraid to be a feminist, afraid to take things too seriously (which, especially in Australia, is social suicide) and also afraid to not take them seriously enough.
All I can do, however, is speak from my experience.
That’s an immediate cop out, an admission of laziness, and a veiled version of the typical feminist apology:
“Sorry for being a feminist, but…”
“Sorry for arguing with you, but…”
“Sorry that I can’t get this right, but…”
If you’re in the subordinate social position, you find yourself apologising for your opinions all the time. This isn’t just a woman’s problem, but a problem for all oppressed groups. We want to use the tools of the master, we want to steal them from him, but we’ll apologise for doing it to make sure that he’ll still listen.
As feminists, we get caught up in making men listen to our arguments. Men do this too, when they want feminists to listen. For example, I would like to state that I like both genders, just as so many men who try to be feminist start off by emphasising that they like women, they think women should have more power, should be equal. They don’t hate women, that’s other men, not men like them. Likewise, I don’t hate men, though some feminists come across as man-haters and some do put a lot of importance on treating all men as the enemy or at least as part of the problem. This is a veiled apology as well: don’t hate me for being a feminist, I don’t mean to hurt you. It’s not your fault. My generalisations are unfair, because I know you’re not like that.
All generalisations are unfair—male, female, even the generalisation that there can only be male and female generalisations. My feminist arguments, like so many others, end up eating their own tail, apologising for their apologies. Writing this, I want to apologise for every point I make, to someone, for some oversight or weakness. It’s to avoid being thought of as ‘a shrill frigid harpy feminist’, as a friend of mine eloquently put it, but also to avoid not being a good enough feminist to account for the myriad of issues that affect diverse, un-universalisable groups of people—male, female, cis-gendered, genderqueer, poor, privileged, white, non-white, slightly white, unwilling-to-be-white.
These apologies will not help anyone but the dominant group to whom we are apologising. Feminism has been labelled shrill, frigid, joyless, zealous, waspish, shrewish, angry, loud; it has been characterised as unnecessary and undesirable, to the extent that even rational discussions of feminist ideals are difficult to have, because the women involved are afraid of what other people might think of them.
So I am unapologetic, for once.