Tag Archives: Identity

Misconception Corrections: Feminism Is Not Hate or Terrorism

Man is not the enemy here; but the fellow victim.

— Betty Friedan

Popular opinion nowadays frequently labels Feminism as ‘Hate’. Feminism as Women Hating Men, feminism as the flag of Angry Lesbians, feminism as Terrorism enacted by those hateful females to instill fear in our enemies, men.

The actions of women before us – radical gestures of empowerment, outrage or defiance – often define the feminist movement, providing memorable samples of revolutionary behaviour to be assembled in a case against it in our contemporary, politically-correct society. Why, were Feminists not those who stormed court houses to make their case, who smashed shop windows on London’s high streets, who marched with banners bearing messages of impassioned resistance to patriarchy, who used their naked bodies to make political statements on a global scale? Did they not hijack mainstream media with their own agenda, throw themselves into public disgrace by breaking the law, fill gallery spaces with graphic vaginal iconography (representations of female genitalia), make paintings with menstrual blood and rally women to revolt against the very foundations of western society?

These are things that women did for the cause of feminism, yes: they adopted the language of social change because passivity and acquiescence had proven ineffective. What was heard – what was moving and memorable – were words and actions that so shocked and disquieted the public that their plight became at least a blip on society’s radar. Feathers were rustled to rouse rigid minds to flight: this, irrefutably, is still the case. Almost everything you think of has been done before; you need to find a way to shock and move your audience lest your work go tragically unnoticed.

Susan B Anthony: helped establish the American Equal Rights Association in 1866 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which vocalised her calling for the same rights to be granted to all regardless of race or sex. Anthony and Stanton created and produced The Revolution, a weekly publication that lobbied for women’s rights in 1868. The newspaper’s motto was “Men their rights, and nothing more; women their rights, and nothing less.”

Alice Stone Blackwell: in the early 20th century, Blackwell translated and published several volumes of verse from various oppressed groups, notably Armenian Poems (1896 and 1916), Songs of Russia (1906), Songs of Grief and Gladness (1908; from Yiddish), and Some Spanish-American Poets (1929), and she wrote against czarist oppression in The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution—Catherine Breshkovsky’s Own Story (1917). Her focus was not on her own experience of oppression: it was on the cause of equality for every person, everywhere, regardless of gender, race or religion.

The Redstockings: Womens’ rights lobby group The Redstockings stormed a hearing of the New York State Joint Legislative Committee on Public Health in 1969, which was considering abortion law reform. They objected to the hearing, asking “Why are 14 men and only one woman on your list of speakers—and she’s a nun?” The committee chairman countered that these were the experts on the subject, to which The Redstockings responded by saying that there were no better experts on abortion than women.

We need to be long-distance runners to make a real social revolution. And you can’t be a long-distance runner unless you have some inner strength.

Steinem to People magazine, 1992.

The Guerrilla Girls: a group of female artists passionate about leveling the patriarchal playing field that had always been the Arts, this group’s motto is reinventing the F word: Feminism! The Guerrilla Girls formed in 1985 and threw long-accepted ideas into the light of interrogation, and the under-representation of women and racial minorities in major galleries and publications was their overarching focus. To me, the more important message is conveyed by their decision to mask their identities with gorilla masks, drawing the focus away from their identities and directing it solely towards the issues. In this way, their modus operandi was not to terrorise, to obfuscate, or to hide; it was not about who they are or gaining notoriety for championing the cause of women everywhere or ingratiating themselves as artists with political motivations.

Judy Chicago: few will be unaware of Chicago’s iconic work, Dinner Party (1979). Indeed, Chicago chose to depict the women of Western society throughout history with fine porcelain sculptural representations of their genitalia. Widely misunderstood and considered, at the time, obscene and antagonistic, I see this work is the wrangling of femininity out of obscurity and into a self-contained symbol of power, pride and beauty. By taking the institutionally and socially taboo vagina and flipping into an art object and symbol of female empowerment, Judy Chicago subverted prevalent notions of femininity as inferiority—as lack of masculinity—and earned herself a permanent place in feminist history.

the-dinner-party-by-judy-chicago

Today, what characterises ‘feminazism’ is the impassioned expression of outrage, defiance and frustration by women online and in the streets. ‘Feminist rant’ has become a term with which such expressions can be swiftly and subtly discounted, and one that is frequently stamped on outspoken womens’ rights activists, from Australian politician Clementine Ford to global comedic success Amy Schumer. Other MPs who have voiced feminist notions have been hit with criticism for ‘not being able to handle mean tweets’ (mean being physically threatening or using, more often than not, the words ‘slut’ or ‘whore’) or labelled as humourless ‘control freak feminists’ taking issue with petty annoyances.

It is easy to forget that we are all victims of a distorted way of thinking that inhibits global equality, and that equality, not antagonism, is the purpose—the only reason—that women express their frustrations, or at least it should be when they call it Feminism.

In the fight for equality, we are not fighting against each other: women are not fighting against men or fellow women, nor race against race, nor religion against religion.

 

Foremothers

What makes a woman a Feminist? Some things that shape our identity are universal: from our parents we inherit our biological make-up, our language and a spate of social and personal mannerisms. But change is instigated by those who break away from the frictionless familial, societal and cultural mould and forge a new path for themselves, undaunted by uncertainty. I cannot claim to have taken this kind of solo leap into the unknown: a century of empowered women have fought policy and prejudice to allow me – us – the opportunities that are now my rights. Moreover, the lives of my foremothers are emblazoned with tenacity, independence and self-belief in times before these values were so ardently indoctrinated for women.

With this in mind, when my maternal grandmother recently asked for help in recording memoirs of early life on a Dictaphone, I took the opportunity to enact my own information-gathering agenda. I prepared some questions with which to gently nudge her through cloudy memories and meandering stories of formative years (allowing maximal flexibility for the elderly person tangent factor).

My grandmother grew up in small town New South Wales, the second of nine children. I’m told that they “lived off the smell of an oily rag,” but not by Nan, to whom this seems to be an extraneous detail. Her father was a ‘service car’ (taxi) driver whose strict, Methodist parents had rejected him on account of his choice of wife: when he chose to marry a woman whose unapologetic delight in dancing would surely drag him to hell with her, they wrote him out of their wills and wiped their hands clean of him.

His defiant resolution to marry for love rather than socio-economic or religious propriety marked, I believe, the inception of a culture of respect for women that would expand the possibilities in life for his wife, his daughters, his granddaughters and their daughters after them. Ken Wein set a precedent: rules imposed by, and opinions of, institutions – be they religious or cultural, or people, be they politicians or your parents – should not overshadow or eclipse one’s own educated judgement of character and personal code of ethics. Ergo, just because others alleged that women should be a certain way, did not mean you should believe or endorse it. Love and personal freedom are our rights and universal, primal needs, and by holding them to be more important than social and cultural regulations, Nan’s parents modelled liberal ethics that recognised and promoted equality, respect and acceptance.

Indeed, they were unfazed by Nan’s unusual tom-boyish behaviour. At age 5, her hair entwined in curling rags per her adoring, unsuspecting aunt’s tradition, she had her brother hack it off with craft scissors and ran excitedly to inform her parents of the change: “LOOK! YOU’VE GOT TWO BOYS NOW!” Nan and her hackjob bob clung to her father’s and brothers’ company more often than her mother’s and sisters’, playing with sticks and stones outside rather than babies and bonnets inside. Nanny’s parents were supportive and gentle, never smacking with a disciplinary hand, and their preoccupation with maintaining the familial home meant she quickly developed intellectual autonomy and maturity far beyond her years. By the time she was 12, Nan was the acting Eldest Child for 7 younger siblings, a role that she took very seriously. She coordinated the Sunday Schooling of her siblings which they did by correspondence, leading them to the Homework Tree and supervising their completion of all coursework satisfactorily. Nan was bright: her performance at school earned her a scholarship to local government school otherwise beyond the reach of her parents’ income.

She continued to excel in her studies as well as extra-curricular activities – she was a writer for and co-editor of the school’s magazine along with her best friend, a role that she would have pursued as a career in an ideal world.

Unfortunately, the world is not ideal, and university was not free. Nursing was within the familial budget, and unlike Journalism or Teaching, both scholarship and board were provided. Nan became a nurse at age 20 and got a job at Beaudesert Hospital where, a few years later, she met her future husband, Bernie. They married at age 24 and had their first of four kids shortly thereafter, and just like that, aged younger than I am now (having barely started my career), Nan’s career was over: by law, women could not return to work as public servants after having children. While the post-war government had employed married women to alleviate the shortage of labour, the marriage bar remained until 1966, as did widespread unease over the ‘proper’ role of women. Still, she was happy – this was the norm, and she loved her husband and children – but what happened to all that promise, all that pent up intellect and strength and drive?

Fate was kind to have given her two daughters who grew to match Nan’s indefatigable industriousness and incredible self-discipline. Studies have shown that communities with strong female leaders and daughters of working mothers have higher aspirations, complete more years of education, are more likely to be employed in management roles and earn higher incomes. Like many daughters of 1950s women, mum and her sister were raised with the knowledge that they could do anything they put their mind to – a climate of infinite possibilities and therefore, extremely high expectations.

It’s possible that my mother’s upbringing in this environment is responsible for a range of neuroses: a catastrophic, nuclear explosion probably still couldn’t stop mum from getting up at 5, going for a run, working a 12 hour day, doing a few selfless favours and coordinating the affairs of her parents and (adult) children. But it’s also the reason that she and her sister are both in high level management positions, my mother at a girls’ high school, being a strong female role model for not only her own two daughters but hundreds of other young girls at the precipice of their own independent, adult lives and potential careers. It’s the reason she chose to return to work after having my siblings and I, and that she was unfazed and resolute in doing so despite her (purest of heart and intention) mother-in-law’s repeatedly outspoken disapproval. It’s the reason she tactfully calls out everyday sexism with flawless argumentative intellect and points a finger at the remnants of patriarchy in our culture with an educated, analytical mind. Ultimately, it’s also the reason that I now do as well.

Through this retrospective of my maternal ancestry, one thing has become clear. I learned to demand respect and fight for equality down to the last socio-cultural stigma from Mum, and Mum would not be a model of feminist values if it weren’t for Nan: an obvious testament to the importance of strong female role models in the empowerment of women. But Nan would not have believed herself deserving of equal respect, rights and opportunities if it weren’t for her father, whose choices in life were manifestations of his own belief in equality, tolerance and liberal ethics. And to me, this is a powerful illustration of the fact that equality is a paradigm upheld by both male and female role models, never more powerfully than in collaboration.

Advice to my teenage self

If I could pass only one message of wisdom to my adolescent self, it would be this:

STOP READING FASHION MAGAZINES.

I used to torture myself on a weekly basis with the latest runway pictures, supermodel editorials and beauty features in Bazaar, Vogue, Yen and Cosmo. I’d starve and self-loathe to inch closer to the unattainable goal of waifdom, forcing my blessedly healthy teenage mind and body through years of demoralisation and damage. I’d obsess over photoshopped images of underweight models in exorbitantly luxe clothing and jewellery, bargaining with the universe to make me exactly like her.

I watched movies with Cool Girl / Beautifully Damaged / Deceptively Vulnerable Ice Queen protagonists and took internal notes on Ways To Be Desirable. Wear hair in messy bun. Wear adorably mismatched socks. Buy lingeree. Be aloof and cold / vulnerable and innocent. Be wild and impulsive / dorky and creative. Be a carefree tomboy / smouldering glamazon.

All of these things that I desperately wanted to attain – would have traded my own body for in an instant – are completely removed from my actual self, and in fact any real person. They are constructs: edited images of elaborately designed settings and heavily made-up faces and hair. Celebrities, movie heroines and television stars are characters created to engage with audiences (including my impressionable teenage self) by possessing qualities we desire, such as beauty, spontaneity, mysteriousness and sex appeal. These archetypal identities are so cogent and mesmerising that we are convinced they are attainable realities. In his book Money for Nothing (2007), media theorist Saul Austerlitz proffers that we in turn project our own self-image onto these constructs and make adjustments to assimilate – a theory validated by the Advertising industry’s best known strategies, particularly for selling products to women.

Hollywood cinema, reality television, advertising and popular media outlets historically present women in a shallow, limited way, usually fashioning female characters into passive, compliant, sexualised and disposable objects of desire. By shoving it down our throats from every possible platform, a series of roles have been created which we inevitably try to perform in order to conform to mass media’s idealistic contemporary identity – Cool Girl, Damaged Beauty, Sex Kitten, Trophy Wife. We don’t want to be like us, we want to be like them, because their perfect faces, perky breasts, effortlessly cool demeanour and happy-ending-romance story are almost all of what we see and are told is right.

One tenet of feminist ideology is exploration of the effect of mass media’s representation of women on the contemporary female experience. Theorists Laura Mulvey and Mary Ann Doane are key contributors to this discourse, placing the onus for imposing a severely limited range of roles on women on the ‘boys club’ that is, or at least, historically has been, mass media. Also perceiving mass media as operated by men with the primary objective of engagement with male audiences, theorist Joan Riviere proposes that in a mass media world, femininity is defined only by its absence of, or opposition to, masculinity.

Jose Gomez Fresquet circa 1970

The effects of this on our formation of identity are complex and variable – Doane claims that women can be compelled to exaggerate gestures of femininity, calling to mind contemporary normalities such as breast augmentation, lash extensions, garish make-up and the almost mandated, never-ending quest for hairlessness.

I cannot overlook  mass media’s effect on school-age girls, either: anyone privy to the goings-on of high schools and their students will know that the objectification and sexualisation of women in mass media trickles into impressionable communities, resulting in a range of scandals of the nudity-on-social-media variety.

In her study of mass media and related technologies effect on contemporary identity formation, theorist Rosalind Krauss  suggests that in a world in which disembodied versions of ourselves can be constructed with images, ideas and social or material associations – i.e. our social media profiles – that now the self requires mediation in order to be verified or completed (1986, p184). This theory is corroborated by ‘instafamous culture’ in which young women attain a type of fame predicated on their construction of an idealised lifestyle and selfhood, usually by exploiting their bodies. The culture perpetuates the notion that self-worth can and should be externally validated, in this instance by the number of likes on a photo and followers on a profile.

Earlier this month our news feeds were saturated with the story of an Australian teen who revealed that her instagram profile was conflated with photoshopped images and painstakingly curated product placements. Essena O’Neill went on to say that her ‘perfect’ slender figure is tortuously maintained by starvation and enhanced by state-of-the-art breast-boosting bra technology. These revelations, while staggeringly obvious to me as an educated 25-year-old woman, are far less clear to teenage girls, whose social vulnerability makes them susceptible to mental health issues such as eating disorders for which social media can be a breeding ground. But the reality is this: statistically speaking, only about 5% of women have the body type represented in fashion media, yet over one half of teenage girls and one quarter of university-aged women use unhealthy weight control behaviours such as fasting, vomiting and taking laxatives – 35% of whom will progress from ‘normal’ to pathological dieting or full-syndrome eating disorders.

And it’s for this reason that I deliver this hypothetical address to my teenage self, still under mass media’s spell, fruitlessly trying to match my appearance and behaviours to the falsehoods it peddles.

Beauty is subjective: everybody has different looks, figures, personalities and lifestyles that they desire and seek. I am gobsmacked by this reality at times: a friend of mine recently scoffed at my declaration that Kim K is irrefutably and extremely hot. She’s just not my jam, he said. Another male friend was discordant with my similar assertion that Heidi Klum was the perfect woman. These opinions were incomprehensible to me before I’d heard them – they have the sexiest possible figures, most flawless skin and hair, most covetable wardrobes and enviable, opulent lifestyles.

Of course we think like that – they have millions to spend on beauty and wardrobe, maintaining gorgeous bodies comprises a large part of their occupation, and a gaggle of PR agents, publicists and marketing professionals are paid to deliver their perfect public image right to our doorsteps.

Furthermore – and most importantly – they are not everyone’s type. It shouldn’t take a man’s opinion to make me realise that, either: decades of taking the mass-mediated archetype of female desirability as gospel is what’s backed us into this corner in the first place. Enormous breasts, a tiny waist, a big, beautiful behind and long, black hair is not everyone’s type, nor is statuesque and svelte with Scandinavian colouring. The rule applies to traits beneath the surface, too: some like bubbly, extroverted personalities while some find them irritating and tiresome. I, for example, have an unshakeable (and non-deliberate) penchant for European men, while I have friends whose dating records feature locals only. Hell, there are people out there who love rat’s tails and merkins, and who are we to judge?

What I’m trying to say is this: there is no point trying to be or look like someone else, because ‘beauty’, ‘sex appeal’ and ‘attractive personality’ are completely subjective. The qualities that are universally desirable are confidence, happiness and authenticity. We are drawn to happy, confident people whose qualities we are inclined to admire and emulate in the course of being happy and confident ourselves. Confidence is the greatest marketing tool for our authentic selves, and authenticity – being true to our personalities – is the only way that I have found to be truly happy.

After years of insecurity and self-loathing, I now consider myself enlightened through this knowledge. I love myself, exactly as I am. I’m a homebody no longer masquerading as a night-clubber; I’m a mesomorph no longer attempting to defy the laws of genetics; I’m a planner no longer pretending to enjoy utterly unplanned weekends or holidays. This is my own kind of cool, my own kind of beautiful and my own kind of desirable, and everyone has their own brand. If we had the reach and power of mass media our brand would be popular too. But to be honest, I don’t even care what everyone else thinks – since accepting myself as awesome, I am infinitely happier, and since accepting my body as beautiful, I am healthier. Confidence in myself allows me to dismiss any negative opinions or actions as ill-conceived, immaterial and/or false; and ceasing to act out of insecurity makes my actions and words authentic. No pretending, no lying and no self-hatred.

If I could have imparted this wisdom on my poor, hungry, confused, desperate, insecure, depressed adolescent self six years ago, I would have half a decade of extra happiness under my belt. I believe, though, that those years are responsible for the intensity with which I value myself and the understandings of my experience as a woman I gained which freed me from the futile quest to be someone else. Central to this is to stop allowing false and constructed images and ideas define beauty and start looking, lovingly, within.

Images: 

Inset: Jose Gomez Fresquet (Cuba), Lipstick, c. 1970

Featured: Installation view (courtesy of Capricious 88 Gallery) of Swedish artist Cajsa von Zeipel’s Pony Tails: To Live, Play, Move and Clash As She Will (2014) at Capricious 88 in New York City. Von Zeipel’s work explores the objectification of women for visual pleasure, making a statement by showing them as sexualised, fetishised objects on display in an art museum. I first came across Von Zeipel’s art at Goteborgs Konstmuseum in 2013 where I saw part of her similarly topical exhibition Sex, Cigarettes and Angry Girls and snapped one of her striking muses for my Samling:

sweden kunstmuseet.jpg