I Am Not A Feminist
At the risk of stating the nakedly obvious, the world is in a state of advanced shit.
By Helen Razer
Illustrations by Stellar Leuna
“I am not a feminist.” Even if this declaration were true, which it is possibly not, it is also entirely meaningless. Or, rather, has become meaningless, for reasons I will belt you with shortly. But, for the moment, let’s stick with a review of how “I am not a feminist” or, indeed, “I am a feminist” have lately emerged as the two most apparently meaningful statements a woman can publicly utter.
“I am a feminist” has lately become a good, if not compulsory, career move for trade within a particular market. It sells t-shirts, music and politicians to younger women.
The pop star Beyoncé performed the triple-time devotional to herself, Flawless, at an awards ceremony before an enormous sign that read “FEMINIST” to approval that dwarfed even that sign.
Although she did not explicitly profess feminism in her famous “misogyny” speech of 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard enjoyed a lady-led poll spike in the days that followed an overtly feminist chiding of then Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. Actor Emma Watson, singer Taylor Swift and auteur Lena Dunham are among the dozens of public figures who have recently avowed their commitment to the enormous sign of feminism. And, while it’s true that pointing to this sign comes with the risk of censure from the Viagra commentariat of Andrew Bolt et al, it is certainly true that this increasingly meaningless gesture comes with commercial or political reward.
“I am not a feminist” is a mildly more dangerous sign to stand in front of and perhaps a mildly more meaningful one, too. When Katy Perry or Susan Sarandon or Demi Moore or any woman of popular note concedes, often under questioning, that she is not a feminist, she can expect to be told rather widely that she is wrong. And, she can hardly expect remedial support from the Bolts and Fox News anchors of the electronic well. That is, not unless she declares war on all Muslims, an enthusiastic return to capital punishment and Viagra subsidy as well. “I am not a feminist” is a lonely position for a popular entertainer. I’d say it’s a frank position for a passionate fan of late capitalism.
CEO of Yahoo Marissa Mayer released a torrent of wretched tears when she said she was “not feminist” in 2012. When the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs answered a journalist who asked in 2014 if she considered herself a feminist, her rather unsurprising “no” made headlines. A raft of mainstream comment was buoyed by these refusals and carried along by the emotional assumption that any “successful” woman owes a debt to feminism.
No. They don’t. Julie Bishop and Marissa Mayer have capitalism to largely thank for their success.
Let’s be clear about the personal success stories of Bishop and Mayer. They each owe little to the magic of feminism. It was the liberal economic motion of the mid-twentieth century that allowed select members of particular social classes, including women, to amass more power and wealth and required that all members of most social classes, including women, go get a shitty job. The neoliberal politics of Bishop and the neoliberal success of Mayer have everything to do with a decades-long path to wealth inequality and very little to do with gender equality.
Meet the new boss. She’s the same as the old boss who, in the case of Mayer, cut the company option for new parents of working at home and, in the case of Bishop, oversaw major cuts to the national foreign aid budget. Privileged leaders like these women who happen to hold the winning ticket in the free market lottery delude themselves that I Made It Because I Tried even as they actively prevent others from even trying. Of course they’re not feminists. They are rampant individualists who believe that material wealth is the necessary product of hard work and that the market is a natural outcrop of human “aspiration”. They believe in inequality and, frankly, the feminist that remains in me is very grateful that they do not claim membership in my tribe.
And even as I despise their implausible ideology of upward mobility in a system that depends on the economic stasis of the poor, I begrudgingly admire them for daring to say, “I am not a feminist”.
At least you can say that it is honest.
Which is more that we can say, I think, for Gillard’s celebrated feminist speech.
This moment, glorious as it was in its unfolding, struck me eventually as nothing. It was in the uncritical weeks of feminist approval that followed Gillard’s speech — which was not about policy but about herself — that I began to suspect that feminism had become an empty sign detached from meaning.
Gillard’s was not an unrehearsed moment of feminist rage. It was a pitch that worked, temporarily, to elevate her approval. As members of the press gallery reported, this speech was undertaken on the advice of her strategist John McTernan. “Feminism” had likely become an official wedge issue upturned in focus groups whose declaration was enough to move the polls but whose passage into law was irrelevant. Gillard’s talk was cheap and meaningless. But, it was costly and very meaningful to single parents. In the same afternoon Gillard cried for sexual equality, almost 100,000 sole parents were impacted by passing of the Social Security Legislation Amendment. Gillard had successfully proposed to reduce payments by up to $160 per week to a vulnerable, overwhelmingly female class.
You know. I’m very sorry that the most powerful person in the nation felt less-than-respected by a right-wing douchelord who routinely shows no respect for anything but George Pell and the unchecked growth of unsustainable industry, but I don’t think Gillard’s One Woman Show has anything to do with “feminism”. Feminism is an empty neon sign that lights up the market. And leaves our most benighted women in the dark.
In front of her bright “FEMINIST” sign, Queen Bey sang the hit that samples a TED Talk. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lent gravitas to a song that is otherwise largely about being super-hot. Now, I have no problem with Beyoncé marvellously extreme hotness or of her long-term declaration of it that began with Bootylicious and continues to the present. But I do have a freaking problem with mistaking Adichie’s unambitious thought for the thing we used to call “feminism”.
“I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important,” says Adichie and of course, her critique of this state of affairs is reasonable. That anyone should seek endorsement by the state for a matter like intimacy is plainly crazy. But what is also crazy, just as Mayer is crazy, is to encourage women to compete for jobs. “Which I think can be a good thing,” says Adichie by way of Beyoncé. And in front of the big sign that says “FEMINIST”, the crowd goes wild.
At the risk of stating the nakedly obvious, the world is in a state of advanced shit. By many reliable economic measures, material inequality is on the rise. And by affirming the idea of “natural” competition, all that “feminism” can achieve is the tasteful rearrangement of turds in a latrine of hopelessness.
Let’s suppose, as many people do, that a primary goal of feminism is equality. Then let’s look at the most popular iteration of feminism, as represented in the signs of Beyoncé and Julia and assess it against this fundamental aim. We find that what is sought is not actual equality of the sort that would, say, redeem poor women, or men, from poverty and powerlessness but a very conditional equality. Our era’s widely practised feminism sees wealth and power inequality as a necessary condition. The only problem feminism has with unequally distributed wealth and power is that women don’t have their unequal share of it.
I am not sure why “more women in power” has become a solution to anything when power itself is certainly a central problem of human organisation. I would guess, however, that our critical faculty has been broken by the strength of our belief in signs; particularly of the “FEMINIST” kind.
What can signs do? What does it mean if we change them?
Say the latter-day Girl Power of Gillard and Beyoncé and Taylor Swift was enacted. Say we meaningfully put an end to snide sexist comments by colleagues, and “objectifying” images of women, and those cultural assumptions and habits that hold women back from high achievement in the labour force. Look. I’m all for the joyless eradication of arseholes who can’t see my prickling genius for my tits. However, as I have the ability to read a simple graph, I’ll say that a world that allows more women to be economically active avaricious competitive monsters is not a better world. And it is certainly not one that is going to deliver better material conditions to the women, or men, who desperately need them.
I am aware that there are many people who believe in the importance of signs and symbols. I am also aware that, for those of us in the West who do not labour with our hands but with a small portion of our minds, signs and symbols are the things we work with every day. When you are a telemarketer or a salesperson using a company script or a graphic designer using imagery or a writer using a series of deplorable pronouncements about the meaninglessness of feminism, you are working in an economy of symbols. It is only natural, therefore, that you may begin to accrue importance to a big “misogyny” speech or a big “FEMINIST” sign. Signs, after all, are the familiar tools of your production and the things, increasingly, you use in your social media leisure to represent yourself.
So, you may begin to think signs are important. Which is peculiar if you think about it, because, as every good capitalist knows, something in oversupply always has a drop in value.
Now, please don’t infer that I am saying that feminism, or any social movement, only works if it is in short supply. Patently, the opposite is true. But signs themselves, including those signs that represent feminism, have had their value drained out of them through overuse. We now accept that a Powerful Feminist Speech has real value, even as it is spoken by a prime minister who has gainsaid its very substance that afternoon. We now accept that a big shiny sign saying “FEMINIST” is meaningful, even as it represents a way of thinking that encourages us — as though we needed encouraging — into a game of economic competition.
It is not because feminism is popular that it has become meaningless. It is because it has become foundationally idiotic to the point where it is not feminism but a cheer-leading squad for a slightly modified capitalism. To seek equality within a system that is intrinsically unequal — one based on the myth that humans are naturally competitive — is total pants. And to accept all representations of feminism as good, even when they emerge as demonstrably stupid on the barest examination, is worth even less than payments to sole parents.
You don’t even have to be a dribbling socialist loony like your authoress to agree with two of my basic propositions. The first is that we have developed an uncritical knee-jerk response for simple signs, like “FEMINIST”, when we see them and debate beyond the importance of the sign becomes impossible, thereby producing a world of feminist fools who say in fifty different ways why Beyoncé is important or Madonna’s tits are important or Julia Gillard being butt-hurt in the lower house when she should be making policy is important. The second is that sound management of resources and revenues is an actual thing we can actually demand and expect actual results.
Now, you can do your thing demanding that men withhold their sexist jibes or that more women appear at the Video Music Awards singing powerful songs. But what you can’t really do is predict the result of the removal of these bad signs and appearance of good signs. And, you know, you can’t meaningfully legislate for a more “acceptable” culture because that’s, you know, a bit fascist.
But what you can do is get those 100,000 poor bitches back on sole parent benefits; ask Gina Rinehart to forego her fuel rebates for the good of the nation and stimulate the economy by not punishing its poorest inhabitants; and, heck, Julie Bishop, could maybe look to positive trade relations in the future by not being a total miser with our foreign aid.
We know what happens when people have good services and reasonable, considered support. They live better lives. We do not know what happens when we take “unacceptable” signs of women from the culture and replace them with “acceptable” signs.
What if nothing happens? What if revulsion for my gender is embedded so deeply in us that a few changes to the culture industry — an empowering pop song here, a fiery politician there — do nothing? I mean, I quite like Bey, and not to be a party pooper, but all this talk of a culture of mass produced signs that oppresses women sort of ignores the fact that women had a pretty bad deal long before the first pop singer showed her powerful thighs to an audience of people falsely convinced of the power of “symbols”.
Symbols point to the real. The real is not made by symbols.
Pop culture is only powerful insofar as it gives us what we want. It cannot change our social organisation. It merely works to reinforce our idea that our social organisation is good. Bey tells us, by means of a TED talk, that competition is good. Gillard tells us that a Hansard cleansed of sexism is good while overtly sexist changes to social security are also good. These symbolic iterations of “feminism” are not powerful. They’re little reminders that the way we currently do things is fine.
Of course, you can argue the case for your cultural engineering. You can demand “real women” on catwalks in the hope that this broader representation of women will somehow trickle into material reality because, I don’t know, self-esteem or something.
While you’re doing that, I’ll just be here trying to work my way through some boring ideas about the equal distribution of wealth. And I’ll basically be plotting a way to cut your catwalk down. Because it doesn’t matter how many plus-size women are on it proclaiming their “right” to be thought of as beautiful symbols (like that was something akin to the right to free assembly), they’re still all poncing about on an unethical structure fabricated in equal part from symbol and competition.
Look. This cat-walk thing is a metaphor. I loved Gaultier at Paris Fashion Week. The things he’s doing to mock the empty symbolism of beauty are great. Which is more than I can say for “FEMINISM”, who needs to get her self-involved, crypto-competitive nose out of the feed-bag of symbolic “self-esteem” and into the kind of tedious equality it can’t sing along with.
The real that comes before the symbol is something that has been eclipsed by contemporary feminism.
What is the real? What should be the attainable real?
Clean water. A living wage. Dignity in labour. Societies where no one is surplus and everyone has a nice bed.
When we have these things, we will have time for celebrating the symbol. We will commemorate the long-ago day that Julie Bishop said she was “not a feminist”. We will know those who believe the myth of natural inequality can never be feminist. And that symbols, even those lit up by someone as beautiful as Beyoncé, run a very distant second to the material real.
Helen Razer is a Crikey columnist and gardening critic with The Saturday Paper. Her latest book on the origins of Western idiocy, A Short History of Stupid, is co-authored with the press gallery’s Bernard Keane. Follow her on twitter or at Bad Hostess.