Politics round-up

This is an awesome project giving examples of how expressions of power and privilege play out in everyday life:  Microaggressions.com.  There’s also a post discussing the project at Madhushala

A great post from Another Angry Woman, We still need to talk about consensus , about the problems which still affect activist groups, and which are just as relevant to feminist groups as they are to anarchist groups.

From Liberal Conspiracy, The perfect victim theory of rape

From Big Think, Attention Space Cadets:Do not proposition women in the elevator. Good points here about the requirement that women be constantly vigilent about the possibility of sexual assault.

From Pink News, Lesbians Speak up! We can’t see you.

And a humorous one from The Onion, Vatican reverses stance on gay marriage after meeting Tony and Craig

Towards transformation, or more abuse and loss?

Three posts about rape culture.

From Shapely Prose, Shrodinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced

Now, you want to become acquainted with a woman you see in public. The first thing you need to understand is that women are dealing with a set of challenges and concerns that are strange to you, a man. To begin with, we would rather not be killed or otherwise violently assaulted.

“But wait! I don’t want that, either!”

Well, no. But do you think about it all the time? Is preventing violent assault or murder part of your daily routine, rather than merely something you do when you venture into war zones? Because, for women, it is. When I go on a date, I always leave the man’s full name and contact information written next to my computer monitor. This is so the cops can find my body if I go missing. My best friend will call or e-mail me the next morning, and I must answer that call or e-mail before noon-ish, or she begins to worry. If she doesn’t hear from me by three or so, she’ll call the police. My activities after dark are curtailed. Unless I am in a densely-occupied, well-lit space, I won’t go out alone. Even then, I prefer to have a friend or two, or my dogs, with me. Do you follow rules like these?

So when you, a stranger, approach me, I have to ask myself: Will this man rape me?

From Shakesville, Rape Culture 101

Rape culture is 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Rape culture is not even talking about the reality that many women are sexually assaulted multiple times in their lives. Rape culture is the way in which the constant threat of sexual assault affects women’s daily movements. Rape culture is telling girls and women to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you carry yourself, where you walk, when you walk there, with whom you walk, whom you trust, what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it, what you drink, how much you drink, whether you make eye contact, if you’re alone, if you’re with a stranger, if you’re in a group, if you’re in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, if you’re carrying something, how you carry it, what kind of shoes you’re wearing in case you have to run, what kind of purse you carry, what jewelry you wear, what time it is, what street it is, what environment it is, how many people you sleep with, what kind of people you sleep with, who your friends are, to whom you give your number, who’s around when the delivery guy comes, to get an apartment where you can see who’s at the door before they can see you, to check before you open the door to the delivery guy, to own a dog or a dog-sound-making machine, to get a roommate, to take self-defense, to always be alert always pay attention always watch your back always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn’t follow all the rules it’s your fault.

Even Ensler, Dominique Strauss-Kahn: so much for us to learn

When do we stop separating how we treat women from our vision of a free, equal, just world – ie how do you call yourself a socialist, an intellectual, a leader, a freedom fighter, an anti-apartheid, anti-racism, pro-earth champion, and not make honouring women a central part of that equation?

How do we create a real dialogue between men and woman about violence: what it does, how it hurts? How do we stop saying that women who are opposed to violence hate sex? When do we stop seeing them as the same thing?

The DSK scandal has rocked the world: it has brought into question issues of sex, power, race, class and gender. It is not simply a matter of winning or losing this particular case. The stakes are much higher. This case is a defining moment, a signifier of the direction we move in – towards transformation or more abuse and loss

Little link round-up

Gender in the film Salt (2010)

I like to spend Friday evenings watching silly films.  A couple of weeks ago we watched Salt, a totally preposterous thriller starring Angelina Jolie as a CIA agent who is accused being a Russian double-agent.

It’s not a film I would bother to mention here if it wasn’t for the gender issues it raises.  When it was released there was some talk about how the role of Evelyn Salt was originally intended for a male actor, someone like Tom Cruise.

I would say that casting Jolie as the lead does have the effect of lifting the film out of the level of totally run-of-the-mill because it turns it into a (no doubt unintentional) reflection on the gendered conventions of the thriller.

Salt presents femininity as a performance.  At the beginning of the film, Evelyn is represented as highly feminine (heels, tightly-fitted suit, full face of makeup, beautifully coiffured blonde hair etc), but as the story progresses she is gradually divested of her femininity, ending the film as an androgynous figure who is able to pass for male.  This is all good fun, but there’s an anxious question underlying the film’s representation of Salt’s gender, a question concerned with what femininity means in a world in which women have access to power.

Having a woman in the role also allows the film to play around with the apparatus of femininity – for example, the scene in which Salt uses her lacy panties to block a security camera and the one in which she goes into a ladies toilet and gets a menstrual pad, only to apply it to a bullet wound to stop the bleeding.

Also, it was apparent that Salt’s husband, who would have been his wife in the original script, was written as your classic ‘girl in the refrigerator’ – a woman who has something horrible happen to her just to advance the man’s story.  This movie treats us to a ‘boy in the refrigerator’ and the convention is not much less irritating for being gender-flipped.  It still feels like lazy storytelling.

For me, the gender-flipping does fall down a bit because Jolie is so fragile-looking in this film that I found it hard not to laugh when she took out two or three burly CIA agents with a couple of kicks. Mind you, this kind of action scene really isn’t much less ridiculous when it’s a man doing the fighting, it’s just that gendered narrative conventions have accustomed us to accepting the idea that Tom Cruise or Matt Dillon would be able to take out several CIA agents in one kick, when it reality, it isn’t any less preposterous.

So Salt is a film that manages to be both extremely silly and quite thought provoking.

Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)

It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about

In Search of our Mother’s Garden’s reminds you just what a great writer Alice Walker is: a novelist, a writer of short fiction, a poet, and a tremendous essayist as well.  She writes the kind of prose that just carries you along.

The book is a varied collection of essays and short pieces held together by common themes of writing, literature, black women’s experiences and creativity, feminism, civil rights and economics.  There are so many pieces in the collection that all I can do here is mention a few of the ones that stood out for me.

My favourite essays are the ones about writing and literature. In ‘Saving the Life that is your own: the importance of models in the artist’s life’, Walker pays tribute to the models who have had a ‘life saving’ impact on her work, in particular Vincent Van Gogh, Flannery O’ Connor, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer. ‘Beyond the Peacock: the Reconstruction of Flannery O’ Connor’ is a fascinating essay about O’ Connor enacted through a visit that Walker and her mother took to O’Connor’s house.  Walker’s writing is hugely influenced by O’ Connor and they come from the same area, but the racial and economic differences in their positions causes Walker some ambivalence.  ‘The Divided Life of Jean Toomer’ looks at a black writer who struggled to accept his identity and yet wrote Cane, a groundbreaking prose-poem about the lives of black people.  There are two essays about Walker’s idol Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale’ and ‘Looking for Zora’ which explores Walker’s belief in the importance of rediscovering and valuing forgotten black women writers and artists.  Her efforts in this area led to an important reappraisal of Hurston’s work.

One of Walker’s great skills is her ability to use autobiographical material to illustrate political points. The title essay ‘In Search of our Mother’s Gardens’ is a really powerful piece that bounces off Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of one’s own’, taking the example of Walker’s own mother to talk about the ways in which black women’s creativity has been repressed but also how they have found ways around that repression.  Walker’s mother married a poor sharecropper at seventeen, had eight children and very little time to herself, but managed to find some space for creativity in her life by growing flowers in her garden:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as a Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in the work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of beauty,

Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down her respect for the possibilities – and the will to grasp them. (p. 242).

The essay ‘Brothers and Sisters’ is another much anthologised piece in which Walker uses the different treatment of her male and female siblings to critique the behaviour of black men in the family – Walker herself received a lot of criticism in return for raising these issues. ‘Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self’ is a moving account of how she came to terms with the accident that disfigured and blinded her in one eye when she was 8 years old.

In ‘Writing The Color Purple’ she gives us an insight into the processes that created her most famous novel.  In general, though, I think this book is best read alongside the collection of short stories In Love and Trouble because it contains a lot of background to the stories collected there.

A writer who uses so much autobiographical material in her political writing is bound to experience some tensions and for Walker these seem to be particularly evident in her relationship with her family.   Her brothers and sisters can’t have been too pleased about the way she depicts them at times and I got the impression that her relationship with her siblings is ambivalent to say the least. But more discomforting is Walker’s ambivalence about motherhood and her decision to write about this ambivalence so publicly, apparently without giving much thought to the effect doing so might have on her daughter Rebecca when she grew up.  Walker and her daughter are now estranged and Rebecca has written about how hurtful she found it to read essays like ‘One child of one’s own’.  If you have a difficult relationship with your own mother, this essay is probably not a good place to start as it’s likely to cause strong feelings!

Overall, though, Walker comes across as an incredibly driven woman for whom writing is paramount and everything else in her life has to give way to her art.

‘Be Nobody’s Darling’

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.

Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.

Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared; an adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it.  Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary.  But the idea was real.  It was important.  For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced.  What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.

The Dispossessed begins when Shevek, a physicist from the arid, anarchist colony of Anarres, leaves his world branded a traitor and travels to the planet of Urras, where the people of Anarres originated over 100 years previously.  Shevek’s story and that of Anarres and Urras unfolds slowly through alternating chapters which move us between the two worlds.

The people of Anarres left Urras in the hope of establishing a utopian society based on the theories of an anarchist philosopher named Laia Odo.  The Odonian society on Anarres functions without social classes, money, property, states, borders, laws or prisons.  It is unified by the individual’s sense of responsibility to the society as a whole, and the society’s sense of responsibility to the individual’s right to self-determination.  Compromises between individual and society have to made, but they are supposed to be made with consent and respect.  Wealthy Urras, meanwhile, remains much closer to the kind of westernised capitalist state we can easily recognise, with a consumer society divided along the lines of economic status, social classes, nationality, and gender.

Shevek, a theoretical physicist, is working on a unified theory of temporal physics that will enable instantaneous communication between different planets. On Anarres he finds that, although his society lacks the apparatus of state control, subtler forms of bullying have developed over time and his ideas are being suppressed by people who crave power.  He realises to his horror that ideas are suppressed not by state laws, but rather by people ignoring the ideas and refusing to change.  He leaves Anarres in the hope that on Urras he will find a society more welcoming to his work, but he soon finds himself treated as something to be bought and sold and realises that he can’t give his work to anyone because, if he does, it will only be used against someone else.  On Urras his theory only has value as property, an investment or as a weapon.  Shevek concludes that his only viable option is to give his theory to everyone freely at the same time, but just how is he going to achieve that?

The Dispossessed is an unapologetic allegory about our own world.  The brilliance of Le Guin’s analysis lies in her using Shevek’s point of view, as someone who has never experienced it, to defamiliarise capitalism and question whether we need the things we think we need in order for a society to function.  As always with Le Guin, the strength is in the world-building, her ability to combine anthropology and literature and make different societies believable.

Odo theorised that a healthy society should let every individual exercise his or her ‘optimum function’ freely, that is enable them to do the work they can do best and therefore offer their best contribution to society (it’s disturbing to think how far we are from living in a society that enables anything close to this ideal).  Although his society hasn’t quite lived up to its ideals, Shevek remains thoroughly Odonian and his time on Urras brings him to an even stronger appreciation of life on Anarres with all its flaws.  Ultimately you feel that Le Guin can’t help but side with Anarres against Urras, although she does allow a character from Earth to question the view that Shevek’s has reached of Urras as utterly irredeemable.

From a feminist perspective, the most important aspect of The Dispossessed is Le Guin’s attempt to imagine Anarres as a world in which women are not the ‘sex class’ and have equal status with men.  She explores this through Shevek’s moving relationship with his partner Takver (again, it’s not an easy thing to imagine, being as our world is still so very far away from such a possibility).  She presents the lives of women on Urras as unremittingly degrading and objectifying, but you don’t feel these women have anything that’s worth being equal to, really, because the men’s situation there is hardly enviable either.  She’s asking some pretty radical questions here – when we talk about women being ‘equal’ to men, what exactly are we wanting to be equal to?

The Left Hand of Darkness remains my favourite book by Le Guin, but The Dispossessed is a great work full of ideas that gets better with re-reading.

Little link round-up

Little link round-up

  • Cast announced for BBC adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel The Night Watch.  I would like to be excited about this but I’m also a bit worried because, while I like Anna Maxwell Martin, I can’t imagine her as Kay.
  • Stony Stratford library users check out all the books in protest against library closure.
  • Peter Bradshaw writes about Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 horror film Don’t Look Now. This film has one of the creepiest atmospheres of any I’ve seen.   When we were teenagers my sister started watching it unawares in the kitchen and even though we were in the next room, she was too terrified to shout for help.
  • My partner has conflicted feelings about Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gilbert’s seminal work The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.
  • Wolves from Hyperbole and a Half.   A game of “Tyrannosaurus Rex” with my 3 year-old nephew got a bit out of hand the other day.  Let this tale be fair warning to me not to encourage too much biting of auntie.

Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974)

I found The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft both compulsively readable and quite irritating.  My other books went on hold while I read it, but I read it with teeth gritted some of the time.

Tomalin is a very entertaining writer, one who doesn’t make the mistake that a lot of biographers do, of bogging the narrative down by quoting from too much source material.

However, I do not think this is either a fair or a sympathetic biography.   The author seems determined to depict Wollstonecraft as unreasonable, unstable and even narcissistic, without giving her enough credit or sympathy for the immense obstacles she was up against.  Reading between the lines of the rather snide narrative, all I see is an impulsive, brilliant and all too human woman who made the kind of personal mistakes a lot of us make in our lives (at a time when the consequences for those mistakes were much higher), but who managed to achieve more than most of us ever will.  For example, I thought Tomalin was far too indulgent towards the abusive behaviour of Mary’s lover, Gilbert Imlay. She even implies that Mary was stupid to be fooled by him and was rather unreasonable in her despairing response, but how many of us have fallen for a charmer at some point in our lives?  Only for a woman of Mary’s time, falling for a charmer meant being left a stigmatised single mother with an illegitimate child and no hope of retuning to respectable society.  What Imlay does to her is dreadful and he would have known about the consequences of his actions.

Overall, I felt that Tomalin’s own discomfort with radical feminism coloured her interpretation of Wollstonecraft’s life.  There are a few moments where she lets this discomfort slip.  For example, on p. 198, referring to French feminists during the Revolution:

The citoyennes certainly dealt a blow to the cause of their own sex, helping to build up male resistance to any idea of women’s rights and giving pause even to better educated women (a pattern that repeats itself in feminism whenever there is unruly behaviour from its adherents).

I get the feeling that when she wrote this biography Tomalin was one of those feminists who argue that women shouldn’t be too ‘aggressive’ because that will damage the movement.  Maybe this is why her Jane Austen biography is better – she seems a lot more comfortable with Austen’s more sneaky brand of feminism.

I’m now looking forward to reading Lyndall Gordon’s more recent biography, Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication which sets out to right her wrongs.

Readable, but rather biased.

Daphne Gottlieb, Final Girl (2003)

This is something of a follow-up to Andy’s post about Why Things Burn.

The ‘final girl’ is the one who survives right through to the very end of the horror movie: screaming, covered in blood, most likely traumatised for the rest of her life, but still alive, still fighting, challenging the audience with her survival, challenging us to identify with her in her terrifying struggle.

In her collection of poetry, Final Girl, Daphne Gottlieb takes this common, rather hackneyed, horror movie trope, and turns it into, not only a testament to female survival against the odds, but a steely-eyed look at the price that survival exacts from us.  We don’t get out unscathed and there’s a reason why the final girl is such a persistent figure in popular culture.  There’s a lot of humour in her poems, but with such cathartic and visceral subject matter, I would warn anyone who’s experienced sexual or gendered violence to take care when reading.

Continue reading

Kate Chopin, The Awakening and Selected Stories (1899)

In 1899 Kate Chopin published The Awakening, the story of Edna Pontellier, a young wife and mother who falls in love with another man and “awakes” to the possibility of a new life of erotic and spiritual freedom.  The outrage with which it was greeted by critics destroyed Chopin’s reputation as a writer.

The Awakening is very much a fin de siècle novel; it’s shot through with a sense of change and instability, and a profound questioning of conventions, especially conventional morality.  For Chopin, marriage represents a moral and spiritual dead-end in which women cannot thrive because it necessarily involves men imposing their wills upon them.  Edna Pontellier is only able to come into her own as a creative person when she decides to leave her marriage, become independent and pursue her relationship with her lover, Robert Lebrun.  It’s also interesting that the only woman who is represented as completely free and fully creative is the coded lesbian, Mademoiselle Reisz.

I loved The Awakening.  I think it’s a very mature work full of emotional truth.  Edna is not a particularly “nice” woman; she’s a complex person with conflicting emotions and drives.  As Susan Gilbert notes in the introduction to my edition, Chopin uses careful changes of style to enact the changes that occur within Edna – the text loosens and becomes more experimental as Edna moves through her sensual and emotional journey, and we move with her, drawn into her internal world.  It contains an incredibly vivid and familiar description of what it feels like to fall in love for the first time.  Chopin also cleverly rewrites “the fall”.  Instead of falling into degradation, Edna is buoyed up by her experience, awakened and renewed; paradise is glimpsed, but only glimpsed as a possibility, never achieved, because this is still the nineteenth century and Edna’s actions lead to a tragic conclusion, not because of her weakness, but because of the weakness of others. The end of the story is a kick in the stomach.

The rest of the stories collected here with The Awakening are extremely good and tend to cover similar themes around conflicts between the needs of women and the conventions of society.  ‘Desiree’s Baby’ is a shattering story about racism. ‘The Story of an Hour’ takes another look at marriage as a kind of prison for women – Chopin’s husbands are never abusive; it’s not abuse that makes marriage awful in her stories, the problem is the construct of marriage itself. ‘Lilacs’ contains heavy lesbian undertones in the story of the love relationship between a nun and a “fallen woman.” Chopin explores her belief in sexual fulfilment as a female birthright in the linked stories ‘At the ‘Cadian Ball’ and ‘The Storm’.

My only difficulty with reading these stories is the high number of horrible endings.  Like The Awakening, the short stories also tend to deliver a sting in the tail, and I actually started to feel anxious as I approached the last few pages of each story.  ‘Elizabeth Stock’s One Story’, for instance, is just draining in its exploration of the effects of male corruption on one woman.

Still, I’d highly recommend The Awakening to anyone interested in women’s writing and the history of feminist literature.

Disaster Movies and Patriarchy (or the World is ending, but at least Daddy’s a hero)

I’m a big fan of disaster movies.  They allow me to confront my death anxiety while indulging in the fantasy that I and my friends might manage to survive, but over the last few years I’ve noticed something interesting going on in disaster movies with respect to patriarchy.

With a few exceptions, disaster movies tend to present strictly gendered worlds in which men are MEN and women are WOMEN.  Since the 1990s a lot of disaster movies have more or less explicitly linked the representation of a terrible disaster with the representation of fatherhood.  The emotional centre of these narratives is the story of a man who is a Dad, or at least a potential Dad. At the beginning of the film, he does not appear to be a good candidate for fatherhood because he’s emotionally shut down/divorced/doesn’t see enough of his kids/obsessed with his work etc.  But as the disaster unfolds, so too does his increasingly heroic Dad potential.

Warning: this post contains spoilers for several disaster movies. Continue reading

Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking Sex Class and Literature (1994)

What I have tried to do in my own life is refuse the language and categories that would reduce me to less than my whole complicated experience (213)

Skin is a compelling collection of essays.  Dorothy Allison shares with Joan Nestle an ability to make complex ideas and arguments accessible.  It’s interesting that both these writers come from poor working-class backgrounds and I suspect they brought their “no bullshit” attitudes with them into their feminism.  Allison is particularly good at getting to the heart of difficult issues.

She grew up in South Carolina, a member of what she calls “the bad poor”, the American underclass. She experienced horrific physical and sexual abuse from her stepfather. She came out as a lesbian in her adolescence and and got to university where she became involved in feminism.  Since then she has become notorious for being on the “sex positive” or “pro-sex” side of the feminist “sex wars” (she was a founder of the Lesbian Sex Mafia and has been open about her femme identity and interest in BDSM). She also writes fiction and poetry.

As you would expect, there are essays about sex and pornography in this collection, but I think it’s important that Allison is not simplistically reduced to the role she has been ascribed in the feminist “sex wars”.  The essays show her interest in a wide range of issues, such as class, lesbian experience, abuse, violence, creative writing and science fiction.

‘A Question of Class’

This is about how her experience of coming from “the bad poor” has shaped her politics. It explains a great deal about Allison’s uncompromising attitude and insistence on speaking out about the complexities of identity.  Where she comes from, not speaking out is fatal:

I grew up poor, hated, the victim of physical, emotional, and sexual violence, and I know that suffering does not ennoble. It destroys. To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us – extraordinary (p. 36).

I can see why this essay is the first in book – it is the basis for everything that follows.

‘Public Silence, Private Terror’

Here she talks about her experiences of the feminist “sex wars” and the impact they had on her. It is unapologetic, but makes it apparent that she honestly didn’t foresee that speaking openly about her views on sex would get her into so much trouble with other feminists. She took the radical feminist incitement to women to talk about their experiences very literally and then got burned in the process of doing just that. You might disagree with her views on sex, but I think this is an important essay to read:

The hardest lesson I have learned in the last few years is how powerful is my own desire to hang onto a shared sense of feminist community where it is safe to talk about dangerous subjects like sex, and how hopeless is the desire.  Even within what I have thought of as my own community […] I have never felt safe. I have never been safe, and this is only partly because everyone else is just as fearful as I am. None of us is safe because we have not tried to make each other safe. We have never even recognised the fearfulness of the territory. We have addressed violence and exploitation and heterosexual assumptions without first establishing the understanding that for each of us, desire is unique and necessary and simply terrifying […]

As feminists, many of us have committed our whole lives to struggling to change what most people in this society don’t even question, and sometimes the intensity of our struggle has persuaded us that the only way to accomplish change is to make hard bargains, to give up some points and compromise on others. What this has always meant in the end, unfortunately, is trading some people for others.

I do not want to do that.

I do not want to require any woman to do that.

I do not want to claim a safe and comfortable life for myself that is purchased at the cost of some other woman’s needs or desires. But over and over again I see us being pushed to do just that. (113 – 114)

‘Survival Is the Least of my Desires’

This is about writing as catharsis, something Allison seems to believe in very passionately. Some quotes:

I believe the secret in writing is that fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer’s courage. The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides, the edge of our worst stuff. I believe, absolutely, that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough’ (217).

It seems to me the only way I have forgiven anything, understood anything, is through that process of opening up to my own terror and pain and re-examining it, recreating it in the story, and making is something different, making if meaningful – even if the meaning is only in the act of telling (p. 218).

That’s what I believe to be the important of telling the truth, each of us writing out of the unique vision our lives have given us (219).

Her essay ‘Believing in Literature’ is also very good.

‘Skin, Where She Touches Me’

I found this the most disturbing essay in the collection. It left me feeling shattered and emptied out and it took me a little while to figure out why. It’s about her relationships with two of the most important women in her life: her mother and her first lover.  Both of these women betrayed her in extremely painful ways, her mother though her inability to leave Allison’s abusive stepfather, and her lover by not caring enough to give up the heroin that eventually killed her, so both chose other things over Dorothy. But I think that what’s so disturbing about this piece of writing is the truth it expresses about the way women can have such complex and painful relationships in which we commit terrible betrayals and yet at the same time carry on loving each other because we do understand why it happened.  This is not something we like to talk about.

All in all, I found it by turns a difficult, challenging and inspirational read.

Linda Nicholson (ed), The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory

In between everything else, I’m working my way through The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory, edited by Linda Nicholson.  The book leaves out a lot because it’s limited to more highly theoretical feminist writing, but it contains some very influential work. I’ve only read the first section ‘Early Statements’ so far, but I already feel like I’m gaining a better understanding of how we got to where we are today.

One interesting factor, which Nicholson draws attention to in her introduction, is the division between the ‘Woman’s Rights Movement,’ which emerged in the early 1960s, and the Women’s Liberation Movement, which emerged out of the New Left in the later 1960s. The Women’s Rights Movement was basically what we now call liberal feminism.  It was largely made up of professional women who put pressure on organisations to end discrimination against women in the workforce. It drew on the dissatisfaction felt by a lot of middle-class housewives at the time.

The Women’s Liberation Movement developed the approach now known as radical feminism.  It was concerned with getting women and men ‘to recognise the importance of women’s oppression, its presence across large stretches of history and its fundamentality as a principle of social organisation.  This meant developing a theory that explained the origins of women’s oppression and the means by which it has been sustained’ (2). Of course these different strands were not completely independent of each other but they represent radically different approaches to the same problems and it’s important to be aware of them.  While much of the creative thinking (and therefore most of the essays in the book) came from the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement has been hugely influential in determining the feminist agenda.  These days you quite often seem to get people working with a combination of the two strands in ways that can be problematic.

The first chapter is the ‘Introduction to The Second Sex’ (1953) by Simone De Beauvoir. In trying to account for the historical oppression of women as a group, De Beauvoir argues that physiological differences between men and women gave men the opportunity to define themselves as subjects and women as ‘other.’  Biology therefore became elaborated as gender:

‘It amounts to this […] there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus; these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature. It is often said that she thinks with her glands. Man superbly ignores the fact that his anatomy also includes glands, such as testicles, and that they secrete hormones.  He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it.’

I love the opening quote:

“For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on women. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in the quarrelling over feminism, now practically over, and perhaps we should say no more of it’ (11).

The quarreling about feminism over? In 1953? Oh how we laugh now!

The second chapter is from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Drawing on Marx and Engels Firestone continued the project of trying to account for women’s oppression by locating the problem in biological differences, specifically reproduction, arguing that women’s capacity to bear children put them in a relation of dependence on men which allowed men to oppress them.  The solution:

‘to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility – the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of childbearing and childrearing.’ (24).

Is that all then?

It’s a powerful argument, but also a problematic one.  As Nicholson notes in her introduction to the book: ‘Are not all of us dependent on each other in some way or other?’  Does the existence of relations of dependence really explain the oppression of more than half the human race?  What about all the women who have never born children with men? And why should reproduction automatically be interpreted as a reason to oppress women?  Why was it not interpreted as a source of power, as seems to have been the case in some early societies? Perhaps Firestone answers these questions in the rest of her book, but I think her argument also puts women with children in a difficult position with regard to feminism because under current conditions there is no way they can seize total control of human fertility.  In having children with men at all, they are doing something arguably anti-feminist.

I prefer Gayle Rubin’s argument in the following essay, ‘The Traffic in Women’ (1975), which locates gendered oppression in the exchange of women which takes place within kinship systems.  I also love this essay for its sheer audacity. Rubin manages to weave together Marx, the anthropology of Levi-Strauss, and the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan.  I’m going to write a separate post on  this one because I think it deserves a more in-depth discussion than I can provide here.

The next chapter is The Combahee River Collective’s ‘A Black Feminist Statement’ (1979), which I also think deserves a post of its own.  Basically, the statement defends identity politics, rejects separatism and insists that gender cannot be abstracted form race and class:

‘The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.’ (63).

More on that when I have a moment

The final essay in this section is the ‘The Equality Crisis,’ the one Women’s Rights Movement piece in this section and I haven’t read it because… I can’t get up much energy for liberal feminism at the moment.  I may go back to it later, but right now I have skipped to the next section which is on feminism and Marxism and interests me more.

A Talk by Del LaGrace Volcano

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk by Del LaGrace Volcano and I thought I’d post my notes here.

Del  LaGrace identifies as a ‘gender variant visual artist’ and has published several books about lesbian sexual subcultures, especially female masculinity and drag kings. The latest book pays attention to queer femmes.

Del uses the term ‘queer’ in the sense that it implies a ‘questioning’ (inquiry) and as a resistance to any imposition of ‘obligatory gender.’   Del started by talking about the gender binary and intelligibility. The first thing someone does when they look at you is decide whether you are male or female.  If you’re not intelligible as either, your identity is illegitimate and you are pathologised.  Del wants to question the whole notion of fixed sexual identities and explore possibilities for deliberately choosing beyond the parameters of male and female.

Del raised interesting points about gender and desire, describing showing images of masculine female-bodied people to groups of gay men who were rather disturbed when they found out that the sexually attractive body belonged to a ‘woman.’  Likewise, lesbians would be disturbed to find themselves attracted to male-bodied feminine people.  It made me think that we tend to associate this kind of sexual panic and insecurity with homophobic people and violent male responses to the discovery that a female object of sexual interest used to live as a man.  But, to what extent are we all subject to the norms that create these insecurities?

Del argued that we need to think about the fact that we ‘cannot not believe that there is truth in gender,’ not least because who gets to produce knowledge/truth is very tightly regulated.  As we know, only certain types of female bodies are allowed to take up cultural space.

Queer strategies of subversion focus on some basic questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I belong?
  • Who is my community?

This interested me because I know I’ve been asking myself these questions since my teens and I suspect they resonate with most people who fall between binaries in various ways.  I don’t have any firm or final answers to these questions in my own life, but I keep on asking them.

Del was resistant to the idea that some kinds of bodies are more transgressive than others. It is rather the case that some kinds of bodies are more visibly transgressive. Queer femmes are less visible than butches and drag kings, and the latest book is an attempt to make them visible.  This is also important because mainstream representations of lesbians tend to depict us as quite conventionally feminine women who do not threaten the gender order.

The ‘queer feminist methodology’ in making the images was based on a desire to make the subject feel empowered in the process of constructing the image. Del wants to create images with ‘speaking subjects’ partly because it is important to remember that the history of photography is the history of the violent exploitation of those who are considered marginal and disposable.

Del said that queer feminists tend to try and distinguish their feminism from the feminisms that exclude them.  I would like to have heard more about what exactly this queer feminism involves and its implications for feminism, but the images got me thinking.

I felt that the images present an in-your-face femininity, edgy, sensual, and often composed through a juxtaposition of the materials and signifiers of conventional femininity with something unexpected that creates a defamiliarising effect.  This image of Kathy Acker for example. I can see that this defamiliarisation of conventional femininity could be considered a feminist act.

The queer femininity in the images seems to be linked to the use of materials and technologies – clothes, jewellery, makeup, hair products, tattoos and piercings.  As one questioner pointed out, this brings up some uncomfortable questions about the role of capitalism and consumerism in queer subcultures. To what extent is this kind of gender subversion possible without engaging with consumerism? Del said that the femmes tended to accessorise in an environmentally friendly way, but there’s still a problem here.  Before we unquestioningly celebrate this gender subversion, we need to remember that a lot of people would lose their jobs on the spot if they turned up with green hair, big tattoos and obvious piercings.  I am always anxious that we do not use queer theory to set up alternative gender hierarchies and expectations that become normalised or idealised.  If certain kinds of queer ‘looks’ become celebrated, wouldn’t that just reinstate the system we’ve been trying to deconstruct?

Still, it was interesting and it made me think about the importance of certain materials and technologies in my own gender presentation.  I have a strong liking for certain materials, especially cotton, denim, velvet, corduroy.  I think I own about 12 velvet and corduroy jackets.  These materials have become extensions of my sense of my own gender. This is why I never talk about gender being ‘natural’  because I don’t think any of us have a chance of a non-technologically constructed body in this world.

Assertiveness Rights

Some basic rules of assertiveness, which I’m trying to live by these days. They’re from Anne Dickson’s book, A Woman in Your Own Right (London: Quartet, 1982):

1.       I have the right to state my own needs and set my own priorities as a person independent of any roles that I may assume in my life.

2.       I have the right to be treated with respect as an intelligent, capable and equal human being.

3.       I have the right to express my feelings.

4.       I have the right to express my opinions and values.

5.       I have the right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for myself.

6.       I have the right to make mistakes.

7.       I have the right to change my mind.

8.       I have the right to say I don’t understand.

9.       I have the right to ask for what I want.

10.   I have the right to decline responsibility for other people’s problems.

11.   I have the right to deal with others without being dependent on them for approval.