Yesterday was a challenging teacher-lady day. I was responsible for leading a discussion on feminism(s) in theatre and media. I hadn’t thought this would be such a challenge. I teach Women in Film at a community college and felt that I could easily translate my techniques from that institution to the discussion section in dramatic analysis at the university where I am a Graduate Teaching Assistant. I have always tried to approach discussions about feminisms in a non-threatening way. Yet I also believe that some provocation is necessary in order to get people to really begin to question their handy, tidy, comfortable belief systems. It’s a delicate balance and it doesn’t always come out the way I would like.
At the beginning of class I asked how many people consider themselves feminists. Only a few did. This didn’t actually surprise me. But I was surprised to see that most of the hands that went up belonged to men. I smiled inside. I was glad to see that men are willing to openly identity as feminist. I was optimistic for the discussion. But, alas! I should have been more cautious.
We discussed the backlash against feminism. We discussed the differences between some of the various flavors of feminism: liberal feminism, cultural or radical feminism, and materialist or Marxist feminism. I, perhaps unfairly, described – as a tenet of radical feminism – the strategy to acknowledge that there may, indeed, be some “essential” differences between men and women. And that “P.S., female qualities are inherently better!” That was where things started to go south. Rather than acknowledging that a patriarchal system is inherently flawed and must be dismantled, the class fixated on the concept that women believing they are better than men is the same as sexism, only in reverse.
We discussed the term “feminazi” and its pejorative nature. But I don’t think the majority of the class appreciated just how wrong, unfair and offensive the term is. One student said he knows someone who all his friends call a feminazi because “she always tries to belittle men. She is always putting them down.” I asked the class what that would be called if the situation were reversed? They all said “He’d be an asshole!” What I had WANTED someone to say was that this is how things actually are for most women. All the time. Everywhere. And it was happening right in front of me in my classroom. I found out later that the loud voices and opinions from the male members of the class overwhelmed some of the voices of the women in the class. The men were complaining that it wasn’t their fault and that people should just ignore the media and do what they want. Everyone was agreeing that feminazis are bad. The tendency for everyone (including women in the class) to want to play devil’s advocate apparently left at least one student frustrated and angry that so much blatant sexism and misogyny could exist in this classroom: the very classroom where critical questions are supposed to be asked about how representations in media might affect the real lives of the public that consumes this media.
Here’s where it gets tricky. I am a provocateur by nature. I love to stimulate difficult conversations because I feel like those are the only ways people can be forced to look at themselves and really examine what they do and believe that might be comfortable, habitual, or might be a reflection of unrecognized privilege. And quite often, people don’t really enjoy having their belief systems shaken up a bit. It’s weird and uncomfortable. And it should be! But I believe that it is in those weird, uncomfortable moments that the seeds of real change can be planted. I’ve tried most of my life to work other ways. I’ve tried to tell people they were being ignorant and to just open their eyes and look around. That doesn’t usually go over very well. I’ve tried to show statistics and figures that prove my point. But people are stubborn creatures. They will stick to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And of course, I’ve tried yelling at people I thought were stupid or ignorant, and, when that doesn’t work – just walking away. None of those tactics has ever been particularly productive or useful. So I provoke, instead.
Now, here is where it gets fuzzier. The discussion has been on my mind ever since I left the classroom yesterday. And the fact that one of the brightest and bravest young women in the class felt belittled and unsafe is only the beginning of why I can’t quite wrap my head around what is really wrong with the situation. I ran through the script in my brain. Where were the nuggets of evidence that might offer us ways to comprehend what was really at play? It took me several hours. And in fact it required sleeping on it. But I think I figured it out. It’s the radicalisms. The overwhelming notion that “Radicals are bad, … mmm kay?”
Much of the conversation revolved around how radical feminists are in the extreme minority and therefore should not be linked to other women who merely want equality and safety and social justice. Merely. As if those are such tiny achievements. We barely even got to the point of being able to talk about radicalism as an effective strategy. The resistance to that concept was huge. There was hemming and hawing. There was shuffling and fidgeting. And then I posed a question for which I miscalculated what the response might’ve been. I asked “so, if you believe that radical actions are not the right way to handle injustice, what do you think of Malcolm X?” Oh boy. I opened a can of worms. I can’t even remember how these underinformed young white men went so quickly from “Malcolm was too radical” through an uncritical comparison between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., to the flippant question “Wasn’t Malcolm X linked to those radical groups that wanted to bomb places?” Another student chimed in with “You mean the Black Panthers?” AAARRRGGHGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!
I think that might actually be what I said. Maybe not so loud. But I almost had a panic attack. I asked them if they even had ANY idea what they were talking about. (Clearly they didn’t). I told them the only reason the Black Panthers had that reputation was because that’s how they were portrayed in the mainstream media. I didn’t even get a chance to say that the true name of the Black Panthers was The Black Panther Party of Self-Defense or that their main motivation for organizing was to provide for their communities which were generally either ignored (at best) or persecuted (at worst) by the official power structure. I did ask them “So, you don’t think it was a legitimate strategy for Malcolm X to say “Hey white people, your structure isn’t working for us so we’re going to create our own structure over here, which will be better for us?” I can’t remember what the responses to that were. Maybe it was just a wall of blank stares. Maybe they were still trying to determine how radical could be good. Naahhh. I don’t even think I can give them that much credit. Maybe I’m a pessimist. But there was sure some damn strong unrecognized privilege floating around that classroom.
Let me get back to the main point: the assumption that radicalism is, by its very nature, bad. Pretty much everyone in the classroom, male and female, openly proclaimed to espouse the noble ideal of equality for all. But as soon as the word radical came into the conversation, no one wanted to embrace it as her own. One student even asked if we could stop referring to it as radical feminism and use the alternative term: cultural feminism, because it has fewer negative connotations. It’s softer, right? It implies women are willing to stay in their place if push comes to shove, right? What does it imply, actually? Does it imply that we are going to dismantle hegemonic patriarchy little by little? In tiny steps? Seductively, so it won’t be painful for the men? And why didn’t I proclaim loudly and proudly in front of the whole class that I have been, and still am a radical feminist! Why am I? Because no meaningful change will EVER come to fruition by working within the system. I think the last 40 years are a testament to that. But I didn’t say that. I didn’t think quickly enough on my feet. Or maybe I was afraid of being seen as that angry, militant, bald, fat, ugly feminist teacher lady. Shame on me. Really. Shame on me. I’m supposed to be the role model, right?
This morning I asked myself “Why didn’t I think of Wonder Woman?” Wonder Woman is pop culture’s most famous radical feminist. Just look at Paradise Island. Hello!? Men weren’t even ALLOWED on the island because they were such a bad influence with their wars and their anger and their pride and their aggression and … well, you get my point. But Wonder Woman is not considered a threat because she runs around in star-spangled underwear and a golden bustier.
I could go on. But I’ve got work to do. I could go on about the conversation surrounding the concepts of “slut-dropping” and “slut-shaming” but I won’t. I could bring up the awkward assumptions behind the questions “Why do we have to spend TWO WEEKS on feminism?” or “Why do I have to listen to someone’s view if I don’t agree with it?” Instead I’ll just quote Samuel L. Jackson from his latest meme. “Wake the Fuck up!” Radicalism is not negative. It is not evil. It is not automatically bad. In fact, I would bet money that if you looked back through every single successful movement for social change in the last 100 years or so, it was the radicalists who actually got shit done. Today is 10-11-12. It’s coming out day. I come out as a radical, gender-fluid, “smart-is-sexy” feminist woman. The revolution begins today.