Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This is just... wow

Not that you needed me to tell you this, but don't go looking at for intelligent reflections on the topic of feminism.

Case in point: a recent article that, in its single lucid moment, notes that the feminist label has been "corroded" and taken on a negative connotation that is difficult to shake, that its stereotype suggests "a woman who's basically unattractive both in looks and spirit". For most of us who call ourselves feminist - and who don't see ourselves as "unattractive both in looks and spirit", much less see that in our friends who identify as feminist - this is a problem. And feminists tend to respond in one of two ways: to try and recuperate the word or to continue being a feminist in practice without naming it as such.

Salmansohn, the author of the article, tries something else. And it's awful. The blurb under the headline sets the stage nicely: "Being a strong, powerful woman doesn't mean you have to be tough, overworked and unattractive. Karen Salmansohn explains how power and success come from being in touch with your feminine, sexy and loving side." Implicitly, then, we're meant to assume that feminists aren't unfairly maligned, but that they actually "have to be" unattractive. Salmansohn isn't just reporting the stereotype - she's validating it. Like I said, awful.

Writes Salmansohn: "We don't have to make a choice between feminine or powerful and successful. We can be all those things." Sure, sounds great. This attitude is, in fact, a premise that's central to pretty much every feminist movement - it is feminism. Except, according to Salmansohn, it isn't. Because this is what she wrote in the preceding sentences: "I find this negative connotation to be shameful and highly unhelpful. Women could truly benefit from finding a more inspiring word than 'feminism' to stand by, as well as stand for, when seeking to become our most powerful and successful selves." Apparently, it doesn't matter that feminism can already provide what she's looking for - she's been shamed into refusing it.

And where does this shame come from, anyway? Salmansohn opens the piece with a story told by a male friend who can't fathom that he was mugged by a woman and convinces himself that "he was a transvestite". And Salmansohn uses this anecdote to segue into her lament, opining that "there's still a disconnect between a woman being 'beautiful, leggy, sexy' and being powerful—even in a low-level career like mugger." Sadly, but appropriately, it's a man's failure to acknowledge female power that leads the author to declare feminism a lost cause - because, clearly, if some trans/homophobic guy has "a disconnect", what hope could women possibly have?

The problem here is not "feminism", the movement or the word, but the all too telling implication that feminism won't get anywhere unless it toes the line with the heteronormative men who still refuse to legitimize it. Except that looking for legitimation within the order that you ostensibly oppose isn't likely to change much of anything. "Empowering" women by encouraging them to play on men's terms, within a sexual economy that privileges being desirable to straight men, isn't something new - it's simply more of the same.

(I'll avoid taking many direct shots at the idea of "feminine-ism". It's a patently idiotic idea that, in its ignorance, steals from feminism as much as it claims to revise it, and reduces gender equality to calls to embrace your "male and female sides" - a bland pastiche of the second-wave and self-help rhetoric that needs only to add bits about 'actualization' or 'realizing your full potential'. And it reduces men's participation to that of an audience: "what's not for a man to love?" It's in this shameless reproduction of a heterosexual economy premised on men's desire for women, and women's requirement to be desired as objects, that it falls over that the line that separates the merely ludicrous from the ironically sad.)

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