Feminism-ism, or something

Be what you are

It seems to me that as feminism enjoys a necessary resurgence it is becoming slightly easier to formulate the critique we need to get beyond it. What do I mean by beyond feminism? Possibly not what I thought I used to mean.

For a long time now I have been sitting uneasily on the feminist sidelines, refusing to refuse the label of being a feminist. Not only am I genuinely disturbed by the thought of feminist friends or any other women I know thinking of me as a non-feminist, a woman who doesn’t think women’s problems (such as structural inequality), are real or serious or worth campaigning or complaining about, I also feel by turns passionate about discrimination against women in its many forms, vile, violent and mundane, and that’s a central feminist sentiment right there.

What’s the but? I often come back round to the term pro-feminism, especially with all the waves overlapping and with post-feminism being such a hopelessly compromised term. What does it mean to be pro-feminist? What could it mean? I wonder whether identifying as a pro-feminist marks me out as not-a-woman somehow.

What does it mean to be pro-feminist if that means not quite feminist, or not feminist? Are there well-developed strands of actual feminism which I am simply not doing enough reading or research to discover, which perfectly situate me and my feminist perceptions?

To me, being pro-feminist is an essential ethical position for a man in this political and cultural moment, and I think it’s great that many more men now identify or describe themselves as feminists per se, often with explicit reference to their wives, daughters, relatives and friends, and the struggles and treatment they witness them withstanding. Is one better than the other? Is being a pro-feminist ally different from being a feminist ally? If you are a man, perhaps not. If a man calling himself a feminist was ever considered to be stepping on the toes of a woman’s identity, that time seems to have well and truly passed.

If you are woman however, and you are uneasy about the degree to which the philosophical essence of feminism may (or may not) be self-defeating, perhaps being a pro-feminist is a more honest position. Or perhaps it is just cheating, evading an honest position. If I want to support feminist causes and campaigns, but fear that there is a self-limiting aspect to the wider project, the best thing would probably be to be braver and say that I don’t identify as a feminist (because I cannot get fully behind it philosophically). But that would leave me estranged from my feminist friends: women who might be working harder than I am to effect real cultural change, which I will benefit from… back to square one. As a woman, my very indulgence in philosophy is probably indebted to past feminists.

It seems time may be a key factor. My wishfulness may be another. My perspective on men and on humans in general is obviously heavily involved, but perhaps it is the self-perpetuating nature of -isms that is at the heart of the issue.

Looking into the future I want to see feminism become redundant; arguably any feminist who doesn’t want this is a weird kind of feminist (a career feminist?). It can’t be that I want this more than most, so that therefore I distance myself from the movement in an ultimately pointless gesture of comforting, delusional futurism, or something. It can’t be that I think gazing into a post-feminist future helps anyone win battles, and it doesn’t help me feel less angry or less vulnerable each time I witness or learn about new (or old) affronts to women.

My thoughts are pushed forward by the inevitable question of what will result from our actions, or inactions. There are plenty of examples of things getting worse because of inaction and plenty of successes achieved. But where each of these are amalgamated to promote an overarching movement or philosophy, we must draw on huge generalisations – like men, and women. These are always dangerous. The million dollar question is: do they obscure far more than they reveal? I suspect they do.

My pro-feminism is about wanting to support a just cause without becoming an -ist. I have long felt happy to abstractly denounce ‘isms’ in their own right, and so this remains the simplest thread in my memory of doubt in adopting the feminist label, as my daily life and other struggles (related to my structural position as a woman and a mother), push and pull me so very far from this place where my intellect gets the luxury of forming opinions at all. I like to give isms a wide berth and I’m not afraid to say so, so why can’t I refuse (femin)ism? Because saying I am not a feminist aligns me with anti-feminists? This is the danger with isms, they are world-views, and thus by their very nature they encompass everything, and that includes everyone. If you’re not a feminist you’re part of the problem.

As a way of analysing gender relations in order to redress social inequality and improve the cultural attitudes towards women which have crushed them, feminist movements are superb and vital. Analysts still regularly provide new conceptual tools with which to assess common behavioural patterns which are covertly or demonstrably gendered power-plays, leading to real-life improvements for many people. How many of these particular gains could be achieved, or not, without the rubric of feminism? That’s not a rhetorical question. I know I don’t know.

Meanwhile, what if holding our image of ‘men’ firm, so that our project retains coherence, could prevent us from witnessing, and maybe even conceiving, the future we want where all individuals are held equally responsible for their own behaviour towards others (and, crucially, deserve the assistance of all others if they are not taught well in the first instance)? Maybe the categories of man and woman underpin a feminism-ism, an ideological layer which perpetuates the adversarial thread within gender relations. We know not all gender relations are adversarial, hell we love each other don’t we? And boy are there some noxious women about. Sure, some women’s noxiousness is rooted in their patriarchal subjection and identification. That’s exactly the same place men’s is rooted. They are still women, suffering the loss of a more enjoyable life, in the same way horrid men do.

Women aren’t responsible for teaching men how to treat women mind you; well yes in a way, but not any more than anyone else. We are all responsible for each other, because we are never really individuals in more than name. Are women responsible for their own abuse because they allowed it to happen? No. Maybe every woman who has been abused by a man because she trusted him had a father she could trust. Maybe every woman who has entertained a dangerous man even though she did not trust him had a father she loved but could not trust. Is it therefore every father’s fault if and when his daughter is abused? If not, can it be the fault of mothers that their sons abuse women and girls? How? Maybe every man who has been abused by a woman inhabits a special minority category, which we should research and give a label to? Maybe, maybe not.

To go beyond feminism used to mean to me: envisioning a post-feminist world, in the sense that major feminist goals were realised and the discourse around it fell away, and became a matter of historical interest and reflection, a celebration in fact. But it won’t be that simple. I am certain that there are fundamental obstacles to a true re-visioning of gender relations which the feminist framework holds in place. I still believe we need thousands of concerted ‘feminist’ actions and campaigns to keep bringing a better future closer, and to prevent the conditions of life for women from getting worse. I also believe we can make massive contributions to social change using feminist networks and women’s networks. Going beyond feminism means finding something which does all the work we need feminism to do, even better. It’s a sexy challenge, no?

I suspect that class now underpins virtually all social and cultural sexism and gendered abuse. (I believe that there are some evolutionary psychological reasons why it served societies to demean and devalue women. But it does not serve women, and the costs to societies of this strategy is now painfully obvious.) If ever there were a time when male and female persons were treated with a fundamental asymmetry of justice, within coercive social structures, and class was not a relevant factor, that time is literally prehistoric. The fact that men are a bit bigger is pretty interesting, but a strong person bullying a weak person isn’t sexism, it’s simply violence, it’s human immaturity. It’s also really easy to imagine through hypotheses about the work males have done while women nurtured babies, which they simply did a lot.

My basic understanding of humanity is that a civilisation or tribe or society which does not condemn almost all internal violence is more or less unheard of, and yet, yes, in every case still it erupts. I am categorically not an expert in evolution or anthropology, but I think the class roots of most contemporary sexism and oppression are sitting there waiting to be found.











Poem for Friday 29th

slight throbbing in my head
hello friend
hello continuity
jazz saxophone
hello playful thought battle hero
hello dream of silence
hello memory of bliss
ash and gravel voice
hello sinking out of tension
hello wondering whatever
the Skids
hello something new

whirring computer fan
hello three weeks later
distant car door
hello silent Sunday after the gales
slight throbbing in my head
hello overthinking
hello forcing myself to write
hello goodbye


What do I want? Part one

friday1Over the weekend I’ve learned that I am not as good as saying what I want as my b/f, because he pointed it out to me. I love that he is so able to say simply and clearly what he wants or needs without any fuss. Of course at times life throws spanners and blindfolds, but in general it seems to be a natural process for him. Not so for me.

I immediately wondered whether I am less good at even knowing what I want. It’s not the only factor, for example I do know that I have a real thing for wanting to appear amenable, flexible, easy going, willing to adapt… I am always getting people to express their preferences so we can go and do things that I know for certain they are going to enjoy. When I get a massive passion for something and persuade people into doing it with me who wouldn’t normally be into it, my tension and confusion about whether they are going to like it and whether that ultimately matters, can spoil it for me, and so sometimes I like to do things alone, just to make sure I don’t spoil it for myself!

And what about when there are choices that don’t make me burn up, choices I can sweet-talk others into making? I wait until they have expressed a preference, then suddenly perhaps I find out how I feel about the options for the first time. It’s easily said that choice can paralyse us, even though it’s touted nowadays as the be all and end all of market driven society. But this paralysis isn’t something new that comes with the explosion of consumer goods and entertainments. Surely it’s an older dynamic, which comes into play wherever we are not quite sure of our footing. If we are constantly unsure of our rights, our power, our relation to the other parties if there are any, choices are inevitably fraught. How does this become a trait? By being overdone, relied on too heavily for too long? Have I been punished for my choices? Well yes pretty much.

But it’s time to know what I want. An excellent piece of advice to know what you want from a relationship before you go looking for one was given to me by a great friend and it stuck fast. I had just separated from a 9 year relationship and was determined not to jump into another one as seems to be my way. Although I never wrote the checklist, it compiled itself steadily in my head in all it’s logical, illogical, deluded glory, until the moment when I met my new boyfriend and I had to completely burn it.

Not knowing how brilliantly good for me someone I had never met could be, my little list was composed of wants that I thought would make life easier or better. The real person makes life fuller and richer, partly because he enables me to be more me. Some of the ways in which we are similar aren’t even things that we would call good – but when we see ourselves both doing them, instead of despairing we laugh.

That said, there was one massive new criterion on my list that another friend gave me in post break up advice, which the new guy meets. “Maybe this time you should go out with someone who likes you.” If you have never tried this, I can tell you now, it rocks.

Getting what you want isn’t achievable just by list making, unless you interpret your list with extreme retrospective pragmatism. But list making and list thinking focusses the mind and can give you a massive leg up when it comes to assessing a complex real life situation with confidence. I have started to think about how I can improve my ability to know and say what I want in the moment.

One part will be less chatter in my mind about the options (Tea or coffee? That’s a good question, did you know they contain different types of caffeine which do different things?…). One part will be literally tuning into myself more deeply to increase focus on the things that really matter in my life so that I can stop sweating the small stuff. I will know what I want. I will work hard to find out. I will probably bend people’s ears. As always, writing will help me get there.

For example, I need to think through what it is about the place where I live that I like and dislike, so that if I ever move I will be choosing somewhere that has or offers or is, what I want. Compromises and surprises are inevitable, but I’ll have a logical illogical list to start me off. Tuning into this question will be fun and illuminating, and I’ll be back to write about my utopian visions very soon.


Writing / Sex / Mistakes

headinhandsHaving got officially sick and tired of hearing myself think about blogs I might write complaining about not knowing what to write (having exhausted in reality the topic of complaining about being too afraid/too anxious/too busy to write), I am back and ready to write actual stuff.

Not that these topics aren’t important at all, but certainly I am hoping to develop my ideas into a conversation other than the one with other writers about the experience of writing. But you know, one day I will look back at the obstacles I faced from a distance (she says willing this to be true) and on that day I may well see something more interesting than what I’ve had to say on the subject so far.

I ought also to wonder whether the book I’ve written (but not published, or sent out very far) is ultimately a veiled account of what it feels like not to write. I wrote it precisely while I was supposed to be writing a PhD. It was an escape from a harder task, and it caught me up in its deeply satisfying mental-health-giving properties. My blog posts about writing itself have probably all popped out when I have not been at work on it for some time.

In fact the book is about a lot of things, a great many, and on my to-do list long before approaching publishers, is to re-read it expressly to find out what my themes were (sex, gender, justice?). I like to describe it as a philosophical stream of consciousness confessional, but hey, who likes them? Maybe lots of people would like it, but equally, maybe I wrote it just for me. When I say it’s philosophical, I mean it’s full of questions. Literally, it’s full of questions. When I re-read it, it will take me back to them all and maybe from there I can get some clarity about what it matters most to me to write about. (Sex, gender, difference.)

Because I am only just beginning to bring the strands of my life together to see that my obsessions actually matter. For instance, this week my work bit me hard in the personal-interests department. For that piece of code, read: my ‘boss’ called me ‘rather a strident feminist’ to a male colleague because I called out sexism. I reeled at the grilling I was given, though I should have expected it and, logically, it’s a fair cop; I tried hard not to name names and events, so my claims must have seemed pretty vague. But the real reeling is in the insane laziness of this characterisation. He was literally implying that if I’m a feminist then my view of sexism is inherently inflated. Worse, his emotional reaction (in a nice way) at being called out suggests that he thinks his workplace practices are feminist. He obviously doesn’t know that this is the right word for the things he is proud of in his workplace, not to mention in his personhood, but it is.

In fact I was really trying to call him out for his sexist positive treatment of arseholes. I suspected that a particular issue affecting two women colleagues would illustrate this weakness. In fact people thought that the guy in question was the root of the sexism I was calling out. What a fricking mess.

When I say sexist, I mean shockingly blind to an affection (weakness) for certain men who personify a brash confidence, but are rude or mad. Perhaps they got good results, but they were paid more than and treated with far more respect than the women whose jobs they made infinitely harder. It’s painful to throw another stereotypical judgement onto my own karmic log sheet but these guys are in marketing. The sex of an arsehole or an empty suit shouldn’t matter, and women should get employed for their skills and competencies, and men should not get employed when they lack these. And I should know better than to think I can fix a very old and entrenched psychological problem by flagging up how it disadvantages certain staff, using the method of professional observation and reporting. Apparently I have “a bee in my bonnet”.

Before I run screaming back into gainful relative unemployment (I’m freelance so it’s nicely vaguer than that), I need to reap some ‘lessons’ from this that are going to make me real goddamn happy but not smug. And I need to finish the work on my plate like a grown up, albeit a grown up in a team of grown ups with an overgrown child at the helm, calling the shots and giving me glare-eye.

Are there lessons? Hell yeah – you’re reading it now… I am coming to realise that, even if my report was strictly speaking true, my belief that it would work was in contradiction with the reality I know. Each time I tell myself that I don’t really know what I need to write about (sex, gender, sexism), I am making a temporary escape from dark shit that depresses and scares me. Then I go about my daily life thinking that all the tools we need to fix things are just there and we can use them and change things. Well they’re not. They need making. I need to remember that, much as I hugely value making discoveries through direct human contact, writing is a way to create some of these tools.


What’s the worst thing that could happen if … I write?

Calvin-WritingThe worst thing that could happen if I write, is that I could be hunted down by a group of vigilantes, carried to a temple and put in a hole where my skin in then cut off with razor blades.

Another diabolical thing that could happen if I write is that an invisible cabal of powerful, wealthy media professionals could easily, quietly, ensure that my work is ridiculed and dismissed before it is given a fair hearing by the wider public.

Or I could become so introspective, unsupported and undermined all at once that I would discover I truly do not know why I am here, or what is the point, or how my being alive differs from my being dead, in relation to the rest of the world, and so decide to stop all thoughts by wading into a river.

Another terrible thing that could happen if I write is that I would become more microscopically aware of the enormity of the structural obstacles to reducing and removing the structural injustices which ruin us, compared to the impact of just about anything I might ever be able to do, until I lose faith in ‘progress’ and ‘change’ and just walk into the sea.

I needn’t worry about these things happening to me though because they only happen to famous, talented people. Also, there are many far worse things that could happen if I write, that I haven’t even heard or thought of for chrissakes.

It is quite possible that people will laugh at what I write, even if it is not meant to be funny. It’s also possible that I’ll write dry, sarcastic jokes, and people will miss them and totally misinterpret my work. That wouldn’t be my fault! It’s also possible that I’ll write something so ridiculously wrong that it will be lambasted and eclipse and outlive anything sensible and decent I write. It’s also possible that I’ll write and write and write and then one day look back in shock to see I’ve missed out on the things I always wanted to say. I could pick up a book by someone else one day, and think, fuck, I was going to start writing this twenty years ago, and I never did.

Another terrifying thing that could happen if I write is that no-one will like what I write at all, or that a huge number of people will dislike it and a tiny number will like it (or pretend to, to be friendly). It’s quite possible that any public writing could be trolled, the emotional impact of which outweighs the felt benefit of any positive engagement. It’s also possible that there is a completely indifferent response to what I write so that I am suddenly face to face with myself, realising that my rage, my inquiry, my obsessions, my instincts, my convictions, all boil down to one painfully obvious piece of common sense which everyone else already knows. I guess if that’s the case, it would be good to find out what it is, sooner rather than later.


Long-haired privilege


Is it just me or is anyone else getting a bit overwhelmed with all the types of privilege we are now supposed to know we have (or not) and check? (As in ‘check your privilege’.) Thin privilege and white privilege and male privilege and of course, class privilege, which often (though not always) the others almost boil down to: this tapestry is a bit like saying that we are all unique, except that it calls on us to search the term intersectionality and learn what it means and why it matters.

Today I was feeling the wind in my hair for some time, having been forced to take the simple healthy step of going for a walk by the apparently terrible circumstances of having a stressful job. Do I have employment privilege because I am earning, or is it a sign of my underprivilege that I have to sell my labour to survive since I cannot live for free on the Earth which I was born on?

While feeling the wind in my hair I felt feminine, and this experience tapped me in to all the images of flowing hair you see in the movies, and music videos, and glamorous fashion photography. I had short hair for a while and was regularly assumed to be gay, which didn’t cause any problems but certainly made me realise how powerful a metaphor for straight femininity long hair is. I am very glad to be living in a time and place where women can easily choose to have a short haircut and men can, relatively easily, choose to have long hair even if not through a religious tradition, though this is much harder for men working in some contexts than others.

But why do I have to suffer the dilemma that I might be somehow capitalising on a privilege that others do not or cannot share, just because of what grows on my head (and choosing not to cut it off)? For the sake of full disclosure (I just love full disclosure), I can share that I don’t shave any part of my body any more, ever, and the bits I pluck are very small and I am very lazy about it.

While I mull over the pointlessness of my objection to how I am internally feeling about my hair, I realise that I am combining the urge to try and be clever about being bored hearing about privilege with an observation that there is a glaring and huge state of privilege that is rarely called out: feminine privilege. Okay, maybe I do live under a rock and there are raging twitter debates about feminine privilege, but I would rather write this in ignorance that trawl through men’s rights fora to absorb some stale brain-wincing dialogue about how men being expected to change is just cruel and a sign of a world gone mad. Feminine privilege is probably not discussed because of our collective fear of inadvertently encouraging these guys to talk more.

But it is real. All the tropes about men not knowing whether to hold the door open for a woman are insignificant compared to the real, embodied expectations of the opposite sexes that relate to different kinds of dangerous and unhealthy work, the taking of risks and responsibilities, and the endemic risk of violence from men. The taboo against violence against women, however much it is not strong enough yet, is far greater than any taboo that is yet to fully take root as such, against violence against men. Identifying men as the perps of the majority of violence does nothing to protect men from the threat of assault and neither does the extraordinary number of brutal deaths we clock up on screen each year – often of men given little or no identity but violently disposed of to add dramatic tension to a plot. While many men truly benefit from being neutral in society (male privilege), they are portrayed simultaneously, for our entertainment, as appearing in such numbers as to render them almost disposable. Being a woman is hard, and being discriminated against for being a woman is also hard, but there are many aspects of culture where it is a given that women should be treated with respect, just as, at the very same time, there are many aspects of culture where it is still easy to disregard and discriminate against women. The same is true of men, and this is why assigning privilege to adjectives (white, male, female, thin, long haired) is only one awkward step on the road to mutual respect of all regardless of identity markers, aka true human solidarity.

Before I sign off I want to throw another spanner at privilege discussions – because I once had to endure a white Canadian couple visiting the UK who were so expert at their own white settler guilt that a local low-income working class white male anarchist nearly killed them. How we would have secretly been relieved.

My point is that their consecrated guilt determined them to educate other whites in privilege, and cost them their ability to recognise difference when it stared them in the face. And they became self-righteous and patronising. And no-one had a productive conversation. No matter how long it takes us to educate everyone ignorant in the world about their discriminating practices, we are still soon going to need something more sophisticated than identity chastisement to forward our desires to be surrounded, on the whole, by increasingly humane and intelligent companions. What device comes next?

Depression: to have or to be?

If I was depressed I probably wouldn’t be writing this, right? Yet there are still small moments in my life when I feel nothing, or rather, when I might wish to feel nothing instead of what I am feeling. I was once told not simply that I was depressed, but that “what I see is three generations of depression” and later “you and all your friends are depressed.” If I am being honest, I don’t think this observer was very objective – though they are better qualified than me to speak about depression. Their own needs created a special perspective: yes they may project onto others some of their own (felt or blocked) emotion and experience, but also they are so finely attuned to depression that a cycle of emotion that is normal and healthy in relation to real circumstances may still appear as depression.

But before I declare that I have hereby logically demonstrated that I am not depressed, we can turn this on its head in two ways. Firstly we can ask where real circumstances end and our emotional embodied response to them begins. We can ask whether it is possible or even healthy to be un-depressed in a depressing world; we can ask whether depression is a successful strategy for protecting us from certain horrors, temporarily? We can ask, if this were so, does it follow that for some individuals, there is literally no way out, because the cost of traversing the gap from the safety of depressive self protection to something more like a fluid interaction of the full range of emotions, in real time, in live response to live events, is too great.

I often think back to my twenties as a time when I did not know that I had no emotional understanding of myself, and not even the idea (until about 26) that emotions were a thing that I wasn’t doing. That more or less had to be explained to me by a professional. Was I depressed in my twenties? What about before then? I think back to my thirties as a time when I generated a profusion of emotion and spread it thickly over everyone who managed to tolerate me. This crossing of the death strip from silence to freedom required me to endure almost constant, sometimes overwhelming feelings of being pathetic or unattractive, of being weak, vulnerable and a drain on others. The reinforcements they provided, so that I could continue, led to feelings of being selfish, self obsessed and taking advantage of them. I can hardly recommend this experience. But now in my forties, I am beginning to understand that I can be emotional without showing it all here and now, and that that does not mean I am or will become depressed, or, my ultimate fear, that I will go back into denial or hiding, leading to one day where I suddenly have to feel a huge backlog of emotion in one go and will surely break.

In this process I have seen that emotion never goes away until you feel it. Some of us choose to carry it around for a long, long time rather than feel it. That weight suffocates us and I would call that depression. Nevertheless, when an experience overwhelms us and we are not able or free to respond to it gracefully, we are each entitled to choose how much emotional pain we release at any given time, and clearly there are no escapist drugs to compete with our efficiency at anaesthetising emotion by trapping it in the body, using all these mind tools we have evolved to enable us to just keep going in spite of terrible traumas. Then again, escapist drugs are a very popular choice when that shit inevitably starts to leak out by itself. And maybe when it never does is precisely when the universal mental health problem of a fucked up culture becomes the individual mental health problem of uniquely reconfigured psychological coping strategies that no fucker can get a grip on, not even the self, or especially not the self.

Which reminds me of the second way I must turn on its head my observation that my observer was not very objective in defining me and all my friends and family as depressed. The family comment did lead me to seek help. I had had therapy for a couple of years before that comment was made, after other shorter stints, and I had decided to approach an integrated healer who believes you can communicate with the unconscious and combine this with body work to encourage the release of trapped emotion (or if you prefer, to encourage the relaxation of muscles and tissues that have seized up at the time of a traumatic event). Setting up the first session, I told him about the ‘three generations’ comment, and so we worked first on depression. I don’t get it any more. Whenever I think that what I am approaching is depression, my train gets steered down another track, sometimes leaving me wondering why I can’t just have my anaesthetic when I want it like everyone else. When I feel as if I am depressed, I notice it is just the normal flow of emotion, not a layer of numbness underlying or overlaying everything. I think my observer friend could see that I have the layers of sedimented misery and bullshit that comes with growing up in a segregated community with an indoors culture.

To go back to my thick spreading of emotion… maybe some people liked it. Maybe it gives us permission to feel ourselves, or if that’s not a problem, to express our messy selves, when others get messy. I am glad to hear this said more and more often, and have close mutual friends who have told each other this: When you allow us to see that you are depressed, we love you exactly the same way as when you are cheerful. It feels different to you but not to us. Of course, we want to see you happy and fulfilled, not depressed and anxious. But we do not want to see your cheerful mask because then we are not seeing our friend at all. (Some people manage to see only the cheerful mask of their friend, even when the friend is not actually wearing it, because they can only deal with their own need to share. They’re so annoying.)