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Why Saying “I’m Not a Feminist” is NEVER an Okay Thing To Do

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism in the world.

There are many different reasons for this, of course.  Feminism is a complicated topic.  It’s hard to look at approximately 50% of the world’s population — women of all races, all nationalities, all ages, all sexual orientations, all income brackets, all political affiliations, all education levels, etc — and define a simple, clear message that everyone can agree upon.  Especially since the advent of 3rd wave feminism, there are countless splinter and “niche” groups working under the greater feminist umbrella, and often working directly at cross-purposes to one another, or talking about completely different topics.  In an age where information is readily accessed with the click of a mouse, we’re faced with an overwhelming glut of information regarding feminism, and very little of it is concise or clear or speaks with a single voice representing all of us.

But when it’s stripped back to the bare essentials, feminism *does* have one simple, easily expressed goal:  gender equality, and the elimination of sexism.  We disagree (sometimes vehemently) on how best to *achieve* that goal, of course, but the goal remains the same for all.  And when you strip it back to that — when you say, “gender equality” instead of “feminism” — there are very few people who’ll argue against it.

And this is why the way we express ourselves about feminism, and the way we self-identify, needs to see some serious change.

If you believe that sexism is a bad thing, and that a person’s gender does not determine their worth, then you’re a feminist.  You may not agree with *every* feminist group (no one does — there are simply too many of them out there) — but you’re a feminist, of some description.  That’s all there is to it.  Saying “I’m not a feminist”, then, is a lie — and worse, it’s hurting feminists (and people) everywhere.

When most people say “I’m not a feminist”, it’s because they’re misguided about what feminism means.  They’ve bought in to a harmful stereotype — the man-hating, (often) lesbian, radical feminist who burns bras, thinks men should be slaves, and considers all penetrative sex to be rape.  This is a stereotype that was created by (and has been largely perpetuated by) the oppressing class, as a way of discrediting the perfectly logical claim that women are people and should be treated as such.  It’s a caricature, designed to make feminists look laughable and ridiculous and unfeminine, and unsexy, and unlovable, and criminal.  So when you characterize all feminists this way, it’s no different than characterizing all Scots as “cheap”, or all Irishmen as “drunks”.  You’re buying in to a bigoted stereotype, rather than learning about the individual people.

And when you buy in to that bigoted stereotype, and say “I’m not a feminist”, you’re also lumping yourself in with the people who actually ARE bigots.  You’re aligning yourself with the people who believe that women’s rights should be taken away so we can go back to the “good old days”.  You’re aligning yourself with sexual predators and rapists who don’t want their victims to have rights or be treated as people.  You’re aligning yourself with the Taliban who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head for wanting an education.

Do you really want to be on the same side as those people?

I’m not saying that you should blindly help any cause that identifies itself as “feminist”.  There’s no “supreme guiding council of feminist elders”, and no peer-review process, to determine the validity of any particular group’s claim to feminism.  There are plenty of self-identified “feminist” groups out there who have views that may not, in fact, be particularly helpful ones.  There are radfem groups who call themselves feminist but believe in the subjugation of men (I happen to strongly dispute their use of the term “feminist”, since by definition any group that advocates sexism is not, in fact, feminist — but that’s an issue that’s still considered up for debate in the broader feminist community).  There are feminist groups who are anti-choice, or who align themselves with religious organizations, or who are sex-worker exclusionary, or trans-exclusionary, or classist/racist/etc in their aims, and I disagree vehemently with all of those things.  And there are many feminist groups advocating for very specific, niche causes that may or may not be relevant to a particular person’s life — for example, a group dedicated to eliminating sexism in the medical profession might have a very good point, but not be relevant to me personally, as I’m an arts worker, not a doctor (dammit, Jim!).  So just calling yourself “feminist” doesn’t make you right, and it’s still important to research the motivations and background of any group you’re looking to join up with or support.

One of the biggest groups who commonly say “I’m not a feminist” are, unfortunately, men.  They’ll say, “I believe in women’s rights and equality, but I can’t be a feminist ’cause I’m a guy”.  And that’s just ridiculously misguided.  Not only is it perfectly possible for a guy to believe in gender equality (thus making him a feminist), it’s supremely important for people who are NOT women, who are NOT a part of the oppressed class, to take up the banner of feminism and make a conscious choice to support feminist aims.  Because it’s the oppressing class (in this case, males) who has the majority of the power — and thus, it’s males who have the most power to change things.  It’s been proven time and again that it’s easier for men (and especially white men) to get top positions at most jobs — they’re the bosses, the ones in charge of salaries, the ones in charge of hiring, and the ones in charge of policy.  They’re the majority of the politicians.  They’re the educators at universities.  They’re the police and the lawyers and the judges who enforce and influence the laws.  So if they’re working with feminist aims in mind (ie, a CEO who implements fair hiring policies, or a politician who fights for women’s reproductive rights), they’re in a position to do much more to help the cause than almost anyone else would be capable of.  They’re the ones who, by and large, have the ability to tip the scales and start the workings of a fair society.

Another group that commonly denies feminism is people of colour.  This is a more problematic issue — people of colour are already a part of an oppressed class, whether they are female or male or anything in-between.  They’re already fighting for fair wages, fair representation, and fair application of the law.  And many feminist groups are, unfortunately, very whitewashed.  Because it’s white people who have traditionally had more education & wealth, it’s white women who largely spearheaded the early feminist movements, and it’s white women who have remained at the forefront.  Many feminist groups are blatantly racist (or at least racially insensitive), and when you bring religion into the equation (people of colour are traditionally more attached to their faith, for a variety of reasons not worth going into here), it gets even more difficult — many feminist groups actively attack religious organizations, without regard to the people who worship that particular god, and this can be a massive turn-off for otherwise pro-gender-equality types.  And because feminism has historically been white, it’s difficult for people of colour to break that barrier — too many, already exhausted from spending a lifetime being oppressed for the colour of their skin, walk into a feminist meeting only to see a sea of white faces and no one who looks remotely like themselves, and they feel automatically excluded.  It’s hard to blame people for feeling that way.  In the end, though, we’ll never be able to make feminism more POC-friendly without having some people of colour standing in those rooms.  Some are going to have to break down those barriers, and walk into those rooms full of white faces, and decide they’re going to stay.  And those of us who *are* white need to recognize this difficulty, and welcome such people with open arms, so that more of them will feel comfortable saying “I’m a feminist”.

What I find, personally, the most painful, are those women who believe that identifying as feminist will make them seem unattractive.  They’re victims of fear — fear of being hated, fear of being spurned, fear of being alone.  These are the people who media depictions of feminists are directly attacking, and directly oppressing.  I just want to take those women and say, “It’s okay! What they said on TV was a lie — you can be a feminist and still be beautiful, and feminine, and a stay-at-home-mom, and people will still love you”.  And they tell me that they’re “not as strong” as I am, or that they “don’t belong”.  And that’s so wrong, because you don’t have to be an exception — or an exceptional person — to be a feminist.  You just have to believe in equality.

In most media depictions, it’s the loudest and most strident voices who get the most airtime.  These are the people who are easy to pick out of a crowd, and they give entertainment and good sound bites.  They’re also the people who are easiest to ridicule and discredit.  So we need more of the “normal” people, the ones with perfectly rational and moderate views (the ones that the majority of us espouse) to stand up and say clearly, “I’m a feminist”.  We need to drown out those radical voices, and get voices of reason to be standing at the forefront.  Because until we can “normalize” feminism, it’s never going to be fully successful.

And it really should be perfectly “normal” to believe that all people should have equal rights, right?

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Further to the “Avatar” Post: the “It’s Just a Movie” Argument

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , on January 27, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

So I brought up my reasons for not liking Avatar on the Etsy forums the other day (check out the thread HERE if you’ve got some time on your hands).  I’ve gotten some interesting opinions and arguments.  But one particularly distasteful point keeps coming up: the “it’s just a movie” argument.  Here’s a few samples:

pinque says: “it is just a movie. I try not to dig too deep or I will give my self[sic] a damn headache and not enjoy anything in life”

ManicManx says: “Sometimes a movie is just a movie.
I like to go to a movie for enjoyment.
I really enjoyed this movie.
If it was[sic] realistic I might as well stay home and do my taxes.
That would be more than enough drama for me.”

bluecitrusart says: “Too much analyzing, seriously. It’s a movies[sic],
it’s entertainment,[sic] it’s not a political agenda.
I didn’t see any racism there,[sic] it was beautifully done,[sic]
I escaped reality for a while,[sic] it was GREAT.”

This really saddens me.  Some of the people making this argument are people who I have a lot of respect for as artists, and yet it seems that they just don’t see the power that art has.  Shakespeare says that “art … holds the mirror up to nature”, but even that is shy of the mark:  art both reflects and affects the world.  The ability of mass media to reach millions of people at a time only multiplies this property: when everyone is experiencing the same thing (be it a movie, TV show, piece of music, whatever), that piece of art has the ability to shape how all of those millions of people see the world.

So when we are presented with something like Avatar, which holds up racist stereotypes, we can’t in good conscience just sit back and enjoy.  We can acknowledge what is good about the film — it really is very pretty — but then we need to get down to the serious business of analyzing what we have been given.  And that analysis really doesn’t have to be an in-depth one.  I apply critical theory techniques to give a serious reading of what I see — but that’s just my university training coming out.  Just acknowledging that there is an issue, even if we don’t go too far into dissecting it, is enough.  Saying, “yeah, I saw that there were some racist implications there” confronts those implications.  It stops you from accepting and absorbing them.  But if we simply suspend our disbelief and let the movie wash over our numbed brains, we are accepting this message at face value.  We are accepting racism, in the name of mindless entertainment.  I can’t think how that could be more selfish.

This argument especially bothers me when it is applied to kids.

jenNco2 says: “Here’s why I liked it. It was pretty and entertaining and my 12 year old kids could follow it. They enjoyed themselves there and it was visually beautiful. Sometimes, for me, a “pretty” movie with an easy plot is good once in a while.”

Holy.  Crap.

You took your kids to this movie, and DIDN’T take the opportunity to teach them that racism is wrong?  I don’t think I even need to comment on that.  Just saying it is enough.

Another argument that has been made is the “stop looking at it and it will just go away” argument.

KarmaRox says: “if people quite thinking ‘racism’ at every turn of the corner, racism is[sic] this world will die out.”

Now, that argument may work for monsters under the bed, but for a more tangible threat it’s a bit of a silly thing to say.  If we stop thinking about climate change, will it stop happening?  If women stop thinking about the “glass ceiling” in the workplace, will they suddenly (with no further effort) start being appointed to high-level positions in business?  It’s the same with racism.  Yes, if absolutely everybody on the planet stopped thinking about race as a dividing factor, it would go away.  But not pointing out racism as it appears only empowers those who create such messages, allowing them to continue spewing hateful garbage.  Saying “hey, that’s racist,” doesn’t take a lot of effort — but it’s standing up for what’s right.

“Avatar”, the Noble Savage, and Why White Boys Piss Me Off

Posted in Rants, Reviews with tags , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

So people keep asking me what I thought about the movie Avatar.  And I  try to be tactful about it, and not start spouting off a bunch of jargon about semiotics and systems of signs and how much I wish that Sam Worthington’s character had just died very early on in the film.  So my usual answer has become simply, “it’s pretty.”  Because despite everything that’s horribly wrong with the story, the film does have a lot of pretty pictures.

But this is a blog, and I don’t have to be tactful.

Let’s start with one of the more obvious problems with the film: the idea that an uncouth, uneducated, colonialist American military-grunt white boy could learn enough about a culture in just a few short weeks to not only become sympathetic to their cause, but to actually become a full-fledged tribe member, and even a leader of the people.  Sorry, but no.  Especially when it becomes clear that the Na’vi have refused to accept Grace as one of their own, when she’s a trained anthropologist and astrobiologist who’s been among them for years.  This quick induction into the native culture goes completely against the portrait of the Na’vi as a cautious, secretive people which is otherwise maintained throughout the film.

Realistically, Jake should have died a dozen times over before ever becoming a full-fledged warrior of the Na’vi.  He should have been killed for blundering stupidly into their forests; he should have fallen from a tree and broken his neck; he should have been trampled to death by any number of forest creatures.  And he definitely should have been tossed off the floating mountain by the Banshees.  Taking and copulating with a betrothed woman (especially when that woman is the chief’s daughter) should have gotten him slaughtered by Tsu’tey, and let’s not even get into the whole Toruk thing (can I just say, predictable as all hell?).  Jake Sully should be thanking his lucky stars for all the hero-friendly Deus Ex that seems to have fallen in his way (Cameron uses that trick a lot, it seems).

I guess the movie just wouldn’t have been as interesting if Jake had gotten himself killed by his own stupidity within the first half hour, but it sure would have been more realistic.

But it’s not just Jake’s inexplicable survival that makes his character so problematic.  Like FernGully: The Last Rainforest and Disney’s Pocahontas, this movie is yet another example of “idiot white boy charges in and saves the poor little native peoples”.  Because of course, they couldn’t possibly save themselves.  It takes a strong, white male presence to pull them all together and lead them into victory.  Ah, racism.

Now, defenders of the film will undoubtedly argue at this point that we needed a human character to be the hero, because we couldn’t have empathized in the same way with a Na’vi character like Tus’tey, or even the beautiful Neytiri.  But this seems to me to be a pretty weak excuse.  Despite the cat ears and the tails and the blue skin, the Na’vi are very human-like.  They’re meant to be that way, so it doesn’t seem disgusting when Jake and Neytiri have sex.  The Na’vi have basically human features, and are built like slim and athletic human beings — right down to the belly buttons and breasts (despite the fact that they’re not placental mammals, nor do they nurse their young).  They even speak English through most of the film, for goodness sakes!  I’m pretty sure we could have made the small cognitive leap (more like a “step” than a “leap”, really) and felt some pathos for them.  Would audiences have felt less joy when the bulldozer was shut down if it had been Neytiri who’d done it?  Would it have been less impressive had Tsu’tey tamed the vicious Toruk (a feat only accomplished five times in the past) and led the battle in the sky?  Would a Na’vi have been capable of giving rousing speeches and bringing the people together to fight the oppressors?  Would Eywa have responded to help her people without the intervention of an outsider?

Yeah, the film could definitely have been done without Jake.  And it probably would have been better for it.  But just eliminating his character wouldn’t have fixed all of the problems, as I will illustrate below.

Problem number two: the Na’vi.  I hope I don’t need to explain to anyone that the Na’vi have some very obvious similarities to certain “primitive” human cultures, such as Native Americans and the Aboriginal Australians.  While the Native connection to Mother Earth is somewhat more of an abstract concept, the Na’vi have a very literal connection to their Mother Goddess, Eywa, and to the world around them, as expressed by their ability to “plug in” to each other with their ponytails.  They live in perfect harmony with nature and all of Pandora’s creatures, and feel deep sorrow at any sort of death or destruction.  Of course, this doesn’t stop them from killing and dominating the creatures around them, but we’re talking about concepts and ideals here.

All this brings up a rather nasty concept tied closely to European colonialism: the ideal of the “noble savage”.  This is a term that is mostly associated with the 18th and early 19th centuries, when white Europeans were storming all across the globe, wiping out cultures and people left and right.  While some people worked to disempower, destroy, and convert the “savages” that they encountered, others saw native peoples as somehow more “pure” than civilized Europeans, and sought to find that purity in their own lives.  “Romantic primitivism” during this period often involved white people traveling to colonized countries and “living among the savages” — a misleading phrase, as they didn’t live “among” them so much as “on top of” them, building large vacation houses with all the European comforts, where they could sit and observe the activities of their native slaves.  And it wasn’t just limited to observation — many of those native women wound up in the beds of their white oppressors, who found them exotic and exciting (not too much unlike Jake and Neytiri, really).  The white men would then write long journals or accounts of their travels, which would be published back home to much acclaim, and when the romantic traveler returned home he would inevitably have many examples of native art and artifacts to display in his living room, or to sell for a profit.  Less adventurous Europeans would try to capture this experience by spending time at country houses, copying native art (and creating their own versions of it), without ever understanding the history or meaning behind the original creations.

Obviously, the “noble savage” was a lovely ideal, but his way of life was still completely incompatible with civilized society.  He still needed to be taught English (and have his old language beaten out of him), to learn European history, and of course they had to be converted to Christianity and stop this silly earth-worshipping of theirs.  They were wonderful, but still infinitely inferior to white Europeans.

The Na’vi are pretty much the personification of the “noble savage”.  They’re just different enough from us to be exotic, yet enough the same that we can see they are beautiful and desirable.  They live in harmony with nature (an ideal that many of us find sympathy with in our modern quest for “green living”), and they do not have wars or strife.  Yet they lack any force in their personalities — they mindlessly obey orders (only Jake will disobey), can’t be innovative to solve problems (Jake has to come up with all the grand plans), and when trouble threatens they just throw up their hands in defeat (instead of planning their defense, they just decide to stay in their tree and die … until Jake convinces them otherwise, of course).  Their connection to Eywa is admirable, and yet their Goddess won’t step in to save them in a direct way (well, at least not until a white man asks her to).  And even though in the end they do win the fight, their home has been destroyed and they have lost much of what they had before (not unlike many post-colonial societies, which now have sovereignty, but have already lost everything they had before the white man came).

And now for the third problem I had with Avatar: Eywa.  Eywa is basically the Pandoran version of Mother Earth, a Goddess who is really just a personification of nature.  But unlike our Mother Earth, Eywa is active and able to fight back against what is done to her.  A nice idea for modern people (especially modern Americans) who don’t want to make the effort to save our planet: look, Eywa can just save herself; maybe Earth can do it, too.  It’s comforting, it’s idealistic, it’s infantile.  Let’s face it: if Earth ever does make a move to protect itself, humans probably aren’t going to survive the shift — nor will much else that’s alive on the planet today.  Mass extinctions have happened before, and will happen again, and they’re not pretty and controlled like what we saw in Avatar.  Eywa is really just an excuse for the modern urban human to feel better about what we’ve done (and are doing) to the planet — because if we were fighting against an armed opponent, it would make the whole thing much more morally acceptable.

I find it funny that people have accused Cameron of being “anti-American” after seeing this film.  If anything, Avatar is just a huge justification for the American way of life.  Idiot military grunt white boys can save the world and get some hot, blue poon while they’re at it, and the earth will save itself so why stop drilling for oil?  Sure sounds like an endorsement of American stupidity to me.