Is This Feminist? And Other Relevant Questions

This post was originally published on J.A. Martino’s blog, What a Radical Notion!, and was reprinted with permission from the author.

Oh, FEMEN and your feminist boobs. Your uniformly thin, smooth-skinned, whole, mostly white, two-breasted naked torsos are just so subversive, and lard knows there’s no other way to get the media to pay any attention to you!

Guh.

But this post is not about FEMEN, necessarily, because lots of people have been saying whatever I would say about them for years now. Read here! And here! And here’s what I wrote about Slutwalk, and here’s what I wrote about hookup culture, in which you could just replace the actual subject with “FEMEN” and voila! Reconstituted. In the immortal words of everyone’s favourite spinster aunt: If the liberal peen is keen, the result can only demean. There’s no need to add to the list of criticism – in fact I can’t believe that such interesting, thoughtful, and patient analyses have arisen out of this SAME. TIRED. SHIT.  Update: Meghan Murphy totally beat me to it!

I do want to talk about some of the criticism of the criticism, though – specifically the hedging and refusal to get into a debate about who’s “doing feminism wrong”. Many of the posts I’ve read on the subject have included a disclaimer somewhere in the article –  even the Al Jazeera English’s The Stream interview, which sparked this recent round of debate, had a number of prominent feminists making this point, notably the leader of FEMEN International Inna Schevchenko and Chloe Angyal of Feministing.com, who both said something along the lines of “Now, I know that it’s a tired and unproductive argument to be tearing each other down and arguing over who’s doing feminism properly, and I have no wish to rehash that debate.”

No. No!

This is a silencing tactic. It is a way to make genuine criticism seem like a petty distraction from the overall goal. It’s a way to dismiss and undermine the validity of the conversation happening around the incident, whatever it may be. I can’t help but notice that the women who are most vocal about the unproductivity of the is-this-feminist debate are often the ones doing the things being criticized. It’s a derail, a distraction, a way to point the criticism they don’t know how to deal with – or that they simply disagree with – back in on itself, and therefore avoid having a real discussion. If we’re focusing on critiquing what other women are doing, their logic goes, we are detracting from critiquing what’s being done to women.

There are a couple things wrong with this:

First, women are steeped in the same patriarchal ideas as everyone else, and some of those ideas are going to be internalized, so that a lot of the time what other women are doing and what’s being done to women are one and the same thing. We cannot talk about one without talking about the other, and situations like this one with FEMEN, where the argument is about the use of a heavily fetishized part of a highly objectified body, are particularly rife with internalized ideas of womanhood and sexuality. We get those notions from the culture we grow up within, and so it’s hardly revelatory that some of those cultural ideas MIGHT HAVE made their way into other things, and it is certainly worth examination.

Second, there are totally right and wrong ways to do feminism, and it has happened in the past that feminists have themselves done things that are not necessarily furthering to the feminist cause. That’s because people are humans, and humans aren’t perfect. We must be allowed to make mistakes, yes, but also we must be able to talk about those mistakes without being accused of divisiveness, and we must be able to take criticism for our actions in the same way. No one likes to be told they’re wrong, of course, but we must have the courage not only to be wrong sometimes, but also the fortitude to take being told that we’re wrong with grace and to grow from it. As RadTransFem points out oh so eloquently, there are lots of thoughtful ways to talk about what may or may not further that feminist cause, and that we certainly must talk about that, at length and in depth. It is absolutely possible to establish some parameters, through a broad and intersectional analysis of what exactly is being said by whom, where we overlap, and where we diverge. And doing this, it must be said, in no way discounts the fact that feminism is not a monolith, that there are lots of different ways of doing feminism, but we cannot simply accept that something is feminist because “I’m a feminist and I did it.” What’s unproductive is to think that discussing the ways we perform our feminisms with one another is unproductive.

Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy, founder and editor of Feminist Current, is a freelance writer and journalist. She completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog. Follow her @meghanemurphy

  • http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/ Francois Tremblay

    Women are not the gatekeepers of sex, but some women want to be the gatekeepers of feminism… they must be stopped at all costs! The future of feminist thought depends on it. Keep speaking up when people try to marginalize radfem!

  • dot dot dot

    Sometimes I imagine femen as suffragettes in 1904 saying “we will subvert patriarchy by refusing to vote”

  • i do not know a good name

    >Oh, FEMEN and your feminist boobs. Your uniformly thin, smooth-skinned, whole, mostly white,
    >complaining about people in europe being mostly white.

    Now do one on china/korea/japan.

    • http://whataradicalnotion.blogspot.com j.a. martino

      Hi, I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. If you’re implying that Europe is mostly white, so it’s fine that FEMEN’s membership is comprised almost entirely of white people, I can’t agree with any of that. Firstly because there are lots and lots of non-white populations in Europe, and secondly because only thinking about white people is also known as racism. But maybe that’s not what you’re suggesting – do you want to elaborate?

      • i do not know a good name

        Well its just that social justice people always use the “your white! that makes you racist!” all the time, like trans people do it to radfems and they do it back to them and other tumblr like groups etc…

        But i guess it doesn’t matter much anyway.
        I just for a long time always thought europe as a place that was originally white.But found out this year that it was actually albinos from asia that invaded europe/africa and killed all the indigenous blacks and strives to be a “white race” was pretty much like asian countries are now until a few hundred years ago when almost all of the europeans stopped being brown and became more pink.

        I got off track.

        Hope femen stops anyway.

        • http://whataradicalnotion.blogspot.com j.a. martino

          Ok, that’s what I thought you were getting at. A couple things there:

          first, “social justice people” do not say “You’re white! That makes you racist!” We say “your skin colour affords you a privilege in the world that exists at the expense of people who don’t have your skin colour, and you can either acknowledge that and work from there or you can ignore or deny it, and THAT’S racist.” I’m not going to get into the trans-radfem debate because it’s too huge to address in a comment, and also transphobia is where I jump off the radfem bus.

          second, the original occupants of a country have very little to do with their current ethnic demographics, and whether it was albinos from asia (what?) or anyone else doesn’t mean we continue to speak of Europe as though it were exclusively white. The racial and ethnic demographics in Europe are as diverse as North America, and Femen is particularly targeting Muslim women and the burqa, so yes, their near-uniform whiteness is relevant.

          Something to take away for future discussions in which you may feel someone has called someone else racist just for being white (or sexist just for being male, or classist just for being rich, or cissexist just for being cis, or whatever):

          The unthinking weilding of white privilege IS racism. The unthinking weilding of male privilege IS sexism. Remember that privilege exists ONLY at the expense of other groups, and not benefiting from privilege is experienced as oppression.

  • http://exiledstardust.wordpress.com M.K. Hajdin

    The post I would have written, had I enough patience. And enough brains. And had I managed to think of anything as brilliant as “It is a way to make genuine criticism seem like a petty distraction from the overall goal. It’s a way to dismiss and undermine the validity of the conversation happening around the incident, whatever it may be. I can’t help but notice that the women who are most vocal about the unproductivity of the is-this-feminist debate are often the ones doing the things being criticized. It’s a derail, a distraction, a way to point the criticism they don’t know how to deal with – or that they simply disagree with – back in on itself, and therefore avoid having a real discussion.”

    This, to the infinite power.