Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Making feminism not racist isn't classist.

Caitlin Moran is a journalist and TV critic who writes in an entertaining way and has remarkable hair. She wrote a feminist memoir called How To Be a Woman.  Because she has such a public voice, she has come under criticism from other feminists on a number of occasions for, for example, using the words retard and tranny for humourous purposes in her book. She acknowledged the problem and pulled the word retard from further editions. A few weeks back, when asked why she hadn't raised the issue of all-white casting in Lena Dunham's New York-based sitcom Girls when interviewing the writer, she said on Twitter, "I literally couldn't give a shit about it."

This isn't about Caitlin Moran. People who had high expectations of her were disappointed and upset. But then prominent white feminists tried to defend her and a row ensued. This accumulated in a New Statesman article which has made me very cross, and demonstrates the big hairy problem at the heart of feminism.

The article is called In defence of Caitlin Moran and populist feminism by the Vagenda team. Lisa Millback summarises the piece very nicely in her comment on an F-Word blog as
"Making feminism not racist is classist"
The article lays the problems of feminism at the doors of unnamed "academic feminists" who use long words like "intersectionality" (they quote, but don't actually credit Flavia Dzordan's My Feminism Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit, a weighty and largely inaccessible piece with an average word length of 4.3 characters which concludes with the impenetrable sentence, "My cats would be delighted to pee on you.").

The team that educated us on sexism as experienced by Porsche-drivers explain about working class women who can't cope with these big ideas and even bigger words;
You’ll still be left with hungry mouths to feed, or a violent partner, or a shit school. Winning places for women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies is not a priority when your benefits have just been cut and your ex-partner keeps moving house to avoid the CSA.  Going into certain state comps and discussing the nuances of intersectionality isn’t going to have much dice if some of the teenage girls in the audience are pregnant, or hungry, or at risk of abuse.
I subscribed to Vagenda Magazine for the first few months. It's mostly about women's magazines and body image issues, exclusively effecting young thin non-disabled straight cis women. It's often very funny, but the privilege issue and unrelenting cis sexism (it's 2012; possession of a vagina does not a woman make) began to grate. But I never read anything about chronic poverty, education, benefits, pregnancy issues, childcare provision or abuse. Genuinely and sincerely, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that; this is fun, populist feminism. We do need a lot of voices and these lasses write well. Women's magazines are awful! Underarm hair is lovely! Vagina is a funny word!

However, this is not the kind of feminism that speaks for Vicky Pollard typical working class women with their teenage pregnancies, violent partners and difficulty understanding long words. Nor is Caitlin Moran's - she's a TV critic, above all else; my limited impression is that she's like Charlie Brooker with more interesting hair. So this is a pretty weird defense of Moran, especially when she is being accused of dismissing race in the context of popular culture (her area of expertise) - she's not been criticised for her failure to use academic language or to speak for women in big business.

But it's also an unfair caricature, all by itself.
"This woman does not represent me", they will think of their well-meaning lecturer, because how can she, with her private education and her alienating terminology and her privilege, how can she know how poverty gnaws away at your insides and suppresses your voice? How would she know how that feels?
The kind of feminists concerned with poverty and class are almost always those who know a lot about it. A few may be highly educated (working class does not equal low intelligence or no education) and work in academia, but most work in the communities from which they came. They do front line work (there are all kinds of campaigning, but campaigning isn't the only kind of feminist work). And they often don't look like Moran; they're very often women of colour, disabled women, fat women, queer women, Muslim women, trans women - often women with entirely unremarkable hair.

These are the people who know that, for example, being black and a woman means you can count non-stereotypical representations of people who look a bit like you in popular culture on the fingers of one hand, but giving a shit about that is unlikely to make any difference - you need to rely on pretty thin white media-palatable feminists to ask those questions for you.  But they're also likely to know that being black and woman means that you're more vulnerable to poverty than other black people and other women, and less likely to be able to raise yourself from poverty.

There's a word for that.  That word is intersectionality.  It's not important that everyone knows or understands the word, because the concept is easy enough to grasp.  Belonging to more than one oppressed group means that those oppressions work differently. Black women's experience of racism is sexualised and their experience of sexism is racialised. Belonging to one oppressed group also means that one's privilege works differently; being a white Muslim or a disabled man, for example, can mean you're not counted by a prejudiced society as wholly white or wholly masculine.

Poor and working class people get this because they are more likely to belong to minority groups and have multiple oppressions (given that being poor is one of them). They are also much more likely to have close friends, partners and family members who have multiple oppressions than wealthier and middle class people. Working class people are society's big mixers.

Earlier this year, Nat The Fantastic ran a feminist conference called Intersect all about intersectionality. Check out the videos, note the cut glass accents, the complex language, glimpse the Posche Boxsters parked in the disabled spaces outside. These are some of the British feminists who are talking about intersectionality.

There's a reason why they're not mainstream or have national platforms like women who look and sound like Caitlin Moran and the Vagenda team*. It's that reason is the big problem with feminism, the reason why so many women feel that feminism has nothing to do with them and their problems. It's that privileged feminists, along with the mainstream media, refuse to acknowledge that all our gendered problems and their interactions are worth time and attention.

See also The F-Word: Is intersectionality an elitist concept?,
Ain't I a girl? and A problem that  stubbornly refuses to budge.
Black Feminists: Dear Vagenda Editors...
Bim Adewunmi: What the Girls spat on Twitter tells us about Feminism
Another angry woman: How to be better on insectionality, privilege and silencing

For a much better article about socio-economic class and feminism, I'll remind you of Louise McCudden's Three Faces of Feminism: Louise Mensch, Laurie Penny and Jodie Marsh.

* I really don't want to suggest for a moment that these women are where they are because of how they look and sound. They are all talented intelligent writers and, as funny women writing about feminism, aren't exactly establishment. However, it's not a coincidence that the only women we seen given a platform to speak about feminism by the mainstream media look and sound an awful lot like them.


Stuffed Olive said...

Vagina IS a funny word, and this is a really great piece. I'm always happy whenever anyone is speaking out for any kind of equality, even when they might ignore a whole lot of people and related problems. However, I still can't help but find the lack of intersectionality in popular feminism deeply upsetting. My own feminism is concerned as much with race and disability as it is with sex, gender and sexuality, and I find it confusing when others don't see how these things all relate, if in different ways. I've been told that concern for racial equality, for example, has nothing to do with feminism, usually by people who use this as a reason to question my own feminist label. I've also been told (usually be the same people, you know, the typical straight, white, able types who are so enraged by anyone who gives a damn) that because I'm white I couldn't possibly understand the experiences of racial minorities. And maybe that's true, but the problem is that they seem to believe this means I shouldn't speak out about racial inequality, which is just.... *inarticulate rage noise* well, no wonder change doesn't happen faster if only those experiencing any particular oppression are allowed to stand up for that particular idea of equality.

Perhaps Caitlin Moran would give a shit about the absence of non-white Girls, if she thought she were allowed to. ... Then again, maybe not.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Holly,

I think this issue of experience stumps many people, but to me, it seems quite simple. Perhaps because with disability especially, people move in and out of certain identities, and there are lots of degrees of experience and different experiences according to the impairments people have. Yet if we each only spoke about our own experience, nobody would hear us.

Meanwhile, even for privileged white non-disabled straight wealthy well-educated cis women, sexism can be experienced very differently.

For example, I read an article about how Julia Gillard gets it in the neck as for not having children, as if that stops her being a proper woman. But we know that if she had children, she'd be criticised for being a bad mother, given the time and energy required for her job.

So if white women should stay silent on race, surely privileged feminists should split in two, with the mothers speaking for other mothers and non-mothers speaking for other non-mothers...

There are always issues about "How To Be A Good Ally", but negotiating that stuff, treating other people's experience and expertise with the appropriate respect and deference and so forth just strikes me as part of the work involved in being a good person, a good friend to our friends, a good citizen.

I think the danger of slipping up is easily outweighed by the danger of ignoring a great injustice - especially one that means we get treated better than other people.

Stuffed Olive said...

YES YES YES! Everything you said: YES!

I totally agree. I often think people massively over read into the issue of experience. Obviously, my identity is informed by my experience, but those two things are constantly moving and changing. Perhaps I see this differently to some people because, as you say, experiencing a disability and standing up for related rights gives you a quite pointed need to understand the experiences of others with disabilities who are very likely to have had completely different experiences. It is rare for people with disabilities to have experienced the same difficulties, but they often receive similar negative attitudes and discrimination. To a certain extent I think this is the same with racism and misogyny. They are not the same, but they are both based in an attitude of hate and disrespect of fellow humans. With that being the case, it seems that we should all hold hands together, as a united force and say, "Hey, we ALL deserve respect and equal rights, no matter our sex, gender or race, etc." I find it so weird that this is not a simple and acceptable concept - Yo, peeps, love each other!

You are totally right about Gillard, of course. That is a really good point. Though, I have noticed that to some extent certain feminists do feel like if they are mothers they can't talk about those who aren't mothers and vice versa. Even I sometimes feel like I need to say "I'm not a mother but..." when I'm saying something to support motherhood rights.

And yes, the "How to be a good ally" thing. Every article I read like this, I think, I'm glad someone is writing this since it must be necessary to some people, but everything seems so obvious too. Though I realise probably the biggest thing about these pieces that is important, and is often apparently difficult for 'allies' to grasp, is the don't pry or patronise issue. Still, I really always wonder why this doesn't go without saying... I mean, here's an idea, just treat your fellow humans like you want to be treated, with a bit of love and respect. End of story.

"I think the danger of slipping up is easily outweighed by the danger of ignoring a great injustice - especially one that means we get treated better than other people." THIS!

I love your blog so much, btw. I don't stop and comment often, but I'm usually floating around, basking in your awesomeness.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you, you're extremely sweet. :-)

I think the fascinating and tragic thing about all prejudice is that when you look at the broad picture, it criss-crosses all over the place.

For example, the discrimination experienced by trans people (who experience some of the most malicious and violent treatment) borrows some from sexism, homophobia and disablism. Failure to live up to gender roles is a big part of disablism, the stigma of mental health is absolutely riddled with assumptions about gender and sexuality. There are issues like IQ, and the diagnosis of psychological and intellectual impairments which are so firmly based in a particular culture (and often class) that even today racists will claim superiority on the grounds that other groups aren't as smart or mentally stable as they are.

So although it is sometimes important to separate this stuff out very clearly and say, this is about X prejudice, zoom out and it is all a great big ugly muddle which, as you say, comes from basically the same place - fear, hatred or a profound lack of respect.

Thanks again for your kind words. Am still blushing. :-)