Second Episode of Feminism Now! is up!

Fans of Dialectical Spin will want to listen to the second episode of Feminism Now!
In this show we speak with Jasmine Burnett of SisterSongNY and Trust Black Women about the Race and Sex Selection Bill reintroduced earlier this month by Representative Trent Franks of Arizona.

And we also interview Cynthia Enloe, feminist theorist and author of several books including her two latest: Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War (2010) and The Real State of America Atlas: Mapping the Myths and Truths of the United States, coauthored with Joni Seager (2011).

And.. not to be missed, an original audio collage on women and war by Becca Wilkerson.

Do write in the guest book or on our facebook page (address is on website) and let us know what you think!

And if you haven’t listened yet to the first episode, it’s still up!


Feminism Now! A new Podcast! and Manifesto for the premiere

I’m delighted to announce the premiere episode of Feminism Now, a new podcast co-produced by Becca Wilkerson, Catherine Barbarits and myself. On this first episode Lucinda and I engage in a dialogue about Occupy Patriarchy.  We also talk to a feminist activist at Occupy Houston who has a poignant and fiery story to tell about sexual politics at that site. We interview long-time Filipina feminist and transnational activist Ninotchka Rosca.  Finally Becca Wilkerson introduces our regular feature The Feminist Commentator. Check out the web-site where Becca’s commentary and my own “Manifesto: installment 1” for the podcast is also published in print.

Upcoming episodes include an interview with Cynthia Enloe; interviews with historians of autonomous women’s movements here and internationally; an interview with Lee Lakeman, radical feminist founder of Rape Relief in Vancouver, Canada; an investigation of trafficking in NYC, and much more. Stay tuned for continuous experimentation with format, content, style.

Here is  part I of The Manifesto Feminism Now: (I authored this installment)

Manifesto for a Revolutionary Feminist Media, Part 1: Introducing the new Podcast Feminism Now

We call for Feminism Now. It needs to be Now; it needs to be Feminist, Radically feminist. It needs to emerge as part of a new force of revolutionary women’s media.

We would have liked to have been born in flames. I quote the title of the only film on record about a women’s revolution in the United States.  Imagined and directed by Lizzie Borden in 1984, Born in Flames, (excerpted on our first show) is part sci-fi, part cinema verite/mockumentary and fully critical, fully utopian vision of a revolutionary future in the here-and-now (it takes place in our own home city of New York City). Lizzie Borden projects the image of women rising up across and against and through cultural/racial differences to confront a male dominant, racist “socialist left”—this women’s revolution is a revolution within a revolution. (Does the scenario ring a bell in this Occupy Wall Street moment?). The film marks women-making-media—picture a mobile radio station in stolen U-haul vans, not to mention women taking over television station at gun-point—as central to movement-making.

The word “media” is defined as

1.The main means of mass communication regarded collectively: “the campaign won media attention”.

2. An intermediate layer, esp. in the wall of a blood vessel.

The two strands of meaning resonate with one another as I think about what Feminism Now! is aiming at:  We aim to create media that acts as a living vessel through which new meanings flow in the interstices between dialogues with radical female thinkers around the world, political commentaries, news reportage, experimental audio-forms and some variation or mix of all of the above.

We want to create the media of what feminist movement(s) may already exist, to discover not only what has happened and what is already happening but in the process what has not-yet happened. Becca Wilkerson

We want our podcast-project to emulate the nomadic form of the pirated U-haul mobile radio station. Perhaps the image can be ripped too from the classic U-haul joke about lesbians, as in the what-does-a-lesbian-bring-to-a-first-lesbian-date?-answer: A U-haul.  We  want to turn the joke-image on its head with the image of the U-Haul in Born in Flames: we would like to steal a revolutionary sense of female “union” back from a state of Civil(ized) unions and political quiescence and re-infuse feminism with a more militant state of union real-ized as solidarity.  We would like to project through the “radio” now podcast form renewed forms of feminist union by means of connecting radical female and feminist thinkers across the sound-waves crossing geographical boundaries.

We would have preferred for these floating transmissions to have been born in flames. We would have preferred to emerge from the combustive friction where women of the Left once burst the walls of male dominance, claiming their own revolutionary movement. Today instead of flames we are forced to sift through the ashes of a fried feminism, a feminism burned out from within by capitulations often posturing as “female agency,” leaving us with a dry husk of itself, a container deprived of once living, revolutionary content.

Any potentially revolutionary feminism pushes against the over-determined complacency of existing states of feminism. By “over-determined” we mean that causes of the current tamed state of feminism are irreducible to a single source but rather exist in a yet to be described matrix of power relations between patriarchy in its neoliberal form and capitalism in its neoliberal form.  In this conjunction there is not only a race war against racialized women the world over, not only an imperial war against indigenous women everywhere, not only an economic war against the vast majority of women globally. There is not only a war against all women based on sexual politics.  There is all that but there is also a massive cooptation of feminist politics as a central component of these wars, this war.  We do not take the notion of “cooptation” likely; we are not black and white thinkers and do celebrate a diversity of tactics within a larger unity (unity of purpose if not of action).  But this requires a vigilantly critical attitude with respect to the ways that forms of feminism have been made “one dimensional” as I have written about on this blog.  This requires an expanded understanding of the war against women as it too often comes from within the ranks of contemporary mode of feminism.

Feminism Now aims to illuminate the players in this actual war, to illuminate the battles and give historical weight and connectedness to women in this context of struggle, to illuminate the connection of all women under a global neoliberal patriarchy.(Becca Wilkerson)

Our purpose is to expose the precise conditions under which feminist radicalism labors or must labor in order to be revived.



Beyond Safer Spaces to FREE Space for women

Check out my latest entry on occupy patriarchy:

Manifest(o)ing Feminism: Occupy Patriarchy!

See my new post on — my new blog co-authored with Lucinda Marshall founder of Feminist Peace Network–about bringing feminism into the Occupy Movement.

Branding Feminism

Branding Feminism: Brand-Slutwalk[1]

By now everyone knows the comment that sparked the first Slutwalk (Toronto) and its wild-fire spread across the globe.  It began with a classic scene of mansplaining[2]: A man  schooling women about how to avoid rape. To make things worse, the man was even more legitimized/authorized as a mansplainer due to his status as a police officer. In this instance the cop advised his audience that if women didn’t dress “like sluts” it might help with the rape-prevention. The feminist outrage spurred by the comment was fierce and a terrible thing to waste—which is precisely what happened when outrage against victim-blaming in a rape culture was (and is) redirected and de-fused into shallow and bubble-headed libertarian credo: If you’ve ever been called a slut, stand up now and say together – I am a slut. . . stand up and say it with me: I am a slut. I am a slut. I am a slut.  This is Third-wave feminist celeb, Jaclyn Friedman working the crowd at Slutwalk Philadelphia. For those who don’t instantly visualize a Saturday Night Live style parody of feminism, that’s due to years of priming by the “sex-positive-empowerment-industrial-complex” which has hollowed out feminism from within to a one dimensional version of itself. One dimensional feminism means minimally a feminism that joins the pop up individualisms of a neoliberal era.

Thus rather than arousing sheer incredulity from the Left, the pageantry called Slutwalk earns points from the main bastion of liberal-left media, namely The Nation where the usually sharp feminist writer, Katha Pollitt cheers the event:

Here at last is that bold, original, do-it-yourself protest movement we’ve been    waiting for, a rock-hard wall of female solidarity—an attack on one is an attack on all!—presented as media-savvy street theater that connects the personal and the political and is as fresh as the latest political scandal.


Hey Nation magazine! What have you done with Katha Pollitt? Is this a pod Pollitt?? Slutwalk Fresh and Original?

Reality check: Take a look at the NYC Slut-walk video


Critic of Slutwalk, blogger and radio journalist Meghan Murphy observes,. . .the women dancing and posing on stage in their underwear, the women with ‘tramp’ and ‘slut’ inked onto their bodies, the slogans: “I have the pussy so I make the rules”, the pole-dancing, and the men, standing on the sidelines grinning, leering, and taking photos. . .”


Bold? Original? Fresh?


“Media savvy” the protestors have in spades; though “savvy” might be a misnomer. How much real smarts are required to know that the media will slobber all over the image of thin white women wearing lingerie in public in the name of feminism? Isn’t the image of the hypersexualized female the very currency of the media department of rape-culture? Defenders of Slutwalk’s sartorial style rush in to school us critics about “parody.”  Here’s Pollitt again: “Apparently feminists have a sense of humor after all and grasp the concepts of irony, parody and appropriation.”  I suppose that the men on the side-walk are only “ironically” jerking off to the Slutwalk pageantry, keen to the subtle aesthetics of parody employed by burlesque stripper-costumes and women going top-less.  Oh dear, it’s sad to witness stalwart public intellectuals like Pollitt foiled by the same smoke-and-mirror tactics deployed by  the academic sophists, the postmoderns of the likes of Judith Butler, who for years have strained to “resignify” all forms of sexual exploitation as a “parodic reiteration” of “gender” that is the supposed un-doing of “doing gender.”  Of course the only thing that’s parodic about Slutwalk, albeit inadvertently, is the event’s appropriation of feminism; as obvious from any video of Slutwalk and certainly from Jaclyn Friedman’s speech, the appropriation of slut is done in dead earnest.


Branded Politics

Nobody disagrees that SlutWalk is a branding device “that gets attention,” although some who object to the name “Slutwalk”, ask that the event be “re-branded.” In either case the notion of “brand” is treated as if it’s a neutral device of PR for protest. But “branding” applied to activism is not value-neutral; the use of branding for politics shows the extent to which politics itself has been in-corporate-ated by which I mean the extent to which politics is enacted through market models of thought and practice.  Remember that Hope-y-Obama is often referred to as brand-Obama by critics to make the point that what voter-consumers bought to put him in office was a logo that had no real reference to any concrete policies or issues? Slutwalk is only the most recent iteration of brand-feminism; it substitutes its logo for clear thinking and acting on concrete issues. “Brand feminism” implies a one dimensional feminism “framed” within/by a neoliberal capitalist re-shaping of contemporary patriarchy.

Naomi Klein explains branding in terms of a shift in marketing strategies from selling things that are made—and then boasting of their utility in comparison to other products—to selling the logos of the (otherwise identical) things.  Klein points out that corporations require an ever fresh supply (and/or invention) of space(s) to colonize for circulating its brands.[3] No corporation rests until it plant its logo on the moon or at least sing, as in the Coke AD, “We are the world.”

See how the Coca Cola corporation spins its imperial project of “taking over the world” as Kumbaya-ism? Double-thinking is rife in a branded world—testament to the hollowing out of thought itself that is one of its effects: colonization is world-unity; war is peace. Botox (paralysis of facial muscle) is self-expression. Obama is the peace candidate. I’ll pause on this last example since Obama’s oft-noted brand-candidacy—which won Marketer of the Year award[4]—provides an object lesson in branded politics.

Brand-Obama is a key illustration of the way branding works to not only sell an idea of itself but a whole world view and as part of that world-view the self-concept of the consumers. The brand-self sold back to consumers breaks down to aroused feeling states, and fixed ideas/beliefs that fit with those feeling-states which in turn validate the fixed ideas.  Brand-Obama didn’t only sell Obama for president; it gave leftish-ists a “cheap fix of grace” as Glenn Ford of Black Agenda Report put it. Flushed with pride in itself as (repeat the mantra after me) “the movement that put Obama in power” the Left-for-Obama was in fact an effect (product) of the brand itself.[5]

Back to brand-Slutwalk which floods participants with the warmth of “empowerment,” a feeling-state that (in addition to the fact that the brand Slutwalk “gets attention”) serves for its defenders as a main justification for the event itself. As for those who object to the name “Slutwalk,” name-change alone would not impact the extent to which the event is an example of brand-feminism.  The problem is not with a bad label erroneously tacked onto otherwise politically good contents such as protest against a rape culture. The problem is that potential protest against a rape culture is itself branded by and through the event itself—an event which the logo Slutwalk codifies. This is because the “protest” is a crowning moment of Third-wave feminism and as such trades on sex-industrial-strength fantasies for its “fresh, bold and original” feminism.


Third Wave feminism

Slut-walk is really the latest iteration of “Third wave feminism.” “Third wave” is all about branding beginning with its trade-marking of the notion of “wave” which in previous eras referred to political movements. The “wave” of second-wave feminism refers to a collective project of liberation demanding wide-sweeping transformation of the entire world.  The “wave” in Third-wave has no referent in a collective movement for political change.  Third-wave in contrast has effectively displaced any collective world-changing project with (individualized) empowerment. In the process, “feminism” is converted from a term referring to a political movement to an identity-term whereby “feminist” has no contents save for whatever empowers the individual woman who chooses the identity for herself.

Brand-Third-wave feminist is an effect of neoliberalism; its notion of empowerment aligns with neoliberal imperatives to saturate the individual with responsibility for her/his fate while erasing the role of institutions of power, and most importantly, depriving individuals of the sense that they can act collectively for change. “Empowerment” is the smiley-face flip side of the kind of “responsibilization” that is preached by the austerity-freaks like Obama telling everyone after bailing out the banks and lining the already-bulging pockets of CEO’s that we “all” have to pitch in, because America is “one family.”  Empowerment is to life-style feminists and leftists what responsibility is to welfare-recipients—either and/or bloated with positive-think or deflated by blame—a mystifying ideology that is not only in the head but part of how we experience ourselves as human beings today: as isolate, atomized, individuals.

A key text of Third Wave Feminism and its branding of feminism is Manifesta, a tract where the alignment between neoliberalism and empowerment-identity-feminism could not be more blatant. In the following passage, authors Jennifer Baumgarten and Amy Richards could be speaking in the overhead voice of an infomercial when pitching feminism to readers:

Maybe you aren’t sure you need feminism …or you’re not sure it needs you. You’re sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are–but with a political consciousness.

Hmmm I guess only your hair-dresser (or today, Brazilian waxer) knows for sure –knows for sure whether you got feminism or not, right? In a stunning reversal of the main tenet of women’s liberation feminism, namely, “the personal is political,” the writers here are assuring women that “political consciousness” needs not interfere with one’s “personal” life in any way whatsoever.  The personal is re-privatized as the domain of individual consumer-modeled choices comprising one’s consumer-modeled identity. Political consciousness can be added and stirred without fear of chemical reaction, i.e. any challenge to the very structure of everyday life in a capitalist patriarchy. The consumer-identity-choices do not just happen to be stock ingredients of commodified femininity: white weddings; waxing, plucking, shaving; shopping. In branding feminism, Third-wave means there will be no interruption in your regularly scheduled programming of/by bourgeois  hetero-normative relations, no break that is, in the program of striving to be desirable to men.

Botox Feminism

Slutwalk is a Third-wave phenomenon, given that it finds its object of protest not in rape-culture but at best, individual empowerment in the form of  sexual and sartorial “self-expression,” and at worst, slut-as-identity.  This is Botox-feminism: the Orwellian reversal type lie in the Botox-promo that paralysis is expression hides a deeper truth: the logic of “self expression” today is really (political and critical) paralysis. “Self-expression” is part of the empowerment paradigm which bases feminism-as-identity on the right to express one’s individual self as one chooses. The logic of empowerment insulates itself against critical thought. Thus, the false promise often heard by spokeswomen of Slutwalk and read on placards is that how women dress or self-present has nothing whatsoever to do with rape.

This is an i-feminism which can not follow a thought through from a correct premise—namely that no women no matter what she wears is to blame for or in any way causes (e.g. “provokes”) rape—to its correct conclusion—that men who rape and the system (culture) that legitimizes rape are the only causes of rape. This is not to say that the event does not address “issues of accountability” but the belief in a phantom of women’s individual sovereignty overwhelms discussion of (male and systemic) accountability and is as sedimented for these Third-wavers as the fantasy of Progress or the American Dream is for others.[6] The main focus, rather than the power relations at stake in victim-blaming and rape becomes as we saw in Friedman’s I am Slut hear me roar panegyric some Madison Ave brand of female pleasure and sexuality.

Friedman claims that we’re here to demand a world in which what we do with our bodies is nobody’s business. That’s rich, given that what women do with our bodies is majorly big, big (to the tune of billions) business. Corporate investment in (branding) female sexuality is ridiculously obvious given the accelerating speed and intensity with which ever-new body-modifying and mutilating procedures are promoted as necessary for women’s “self-expression.”  The investment is not only a corporate but corporate patriarchal interest in forever dissecting and subdividing the female body as new space to invent and colonize for branding this body as a sexual commodity to put up for sale, whether literally in the sex trade or less directly in the sense of the branding of everyday life for girls and women in a capitalist patriarchal social order. It is a patriarchal interest to the extent that all men as a social class benefit directly or indirectly from branding the female body. And all men benefit to the extent that masculinity still comes with sex-right attached at birth, meaning the de facto right to have sexual access to the female whether through “the gaze” or “the touch” or “the fuck” or “the sale” or any surplus pleasure extracted from women for men from the branded sexual self-presentation of women. But brand-Botox-feminism means critical paralysis in the face of naming the root power relations at stake in a rape culture; this “feminism” means a feminism that shrinks from putting sexual politics (relations between women and men) at the center of its “critique” of rape culture.


Is women’s choice of dress a free choice?

A main slogan of Slutwalk, usually declared by women dressed in Victoria Secret lace and stilettos, is that however a woman dresses it’s not an invitation to rape. What point exactly is being made by this “look but don’t touch” approach—aside from its conformity to the construct of the “cock-tease”—except again to promote the false idea that how women dress has nothing whatsoever to do with rape, and that thus how women choose to dress is a free choice? But if the choice of sexual self-presentation for women was such a free choice why does it seem to come in only one flavor, namely, some variant of the patriarchal construct of “slut”?  And why does corporate patriarchy have such a mammoth investment in this construct?

The problem ignored by Slutwalk is that how a women or girl dresses and/or sexually self-presents is an obligation not a choice. By this I mean that from day 1 in any girl’s life, female development means learning the obligation to signal sexual availability to the male at any and all times. A sign that this is obligatory rather than optional is what Marilyn Frye calls the “double bind” constraining all choices made by members of subordinate groups.[7] In the case of women’s subordination, sexual self-presentation is a double-bind since whatever choice she makes will be punished (if sometimes both rewarded and punished).  Women are both exhorted to self-present as sexy but punished as sluts; failure to self-present as sexy is punished as prudish, or as lacking any existential validity/worth within a system that bases women’s worth—and indeed very visibility—on competency in displaying sexual availability (aka “sexiness”) without falling into the “slut” category.

Rather than (as often intoned in response to such arguments) denying female agency, if women are obliged to self-present as sexually available, fulfilling this obligation requires a considerable exertion of agency.  To fulfill such an obligation demands the futile enterprise of negotiating a fictional line between sexy and slut, or between good girl and prude. It demands real expertise to forever tinker with one’s own flesh and bone-structure, to make up and modify, model and re-model—and/or to resist any or all of such competency in femininity.  The issue is not the absence or presence of agency but the power to determine the “rules” of the game in which women are compelled/induced to maneuver between (or resist) different shades of the same demands for sexual availability to men. The issue is whether such agency is freedom, and whether a sign of brand-feminism is that it hopelessly confuses (individualized) agency on the one hand with freedom on the other. Because freedom is a collective phenomenon; for women it means the power to determine the rules, not negotiate the rules imposed by elite classes and interests.


Negotiation is not freedom and the reality of the double bind for Women of color

The double-bind does double (treble, quadruple) duty for women of color who have little if any “maneuvering” room to negotiate the fictional line between slut and sexy, and little if any option of self-presenting as “virgin” rather than whore.  Powerful statements from women of color have objected to Slutwalk on the grounds that women of color have been historically configured and concretely exploited as always already slut and thus unrapeable. A striking reminder of the persistence of this historical dynamic comes from no less an estimable source as the New York Times: The Times covered the story of an 11 year old black girl who was gang-raped by insinuating throughout their account that the child had provoked it. See the critique of this as stock rape-culture in its racist mold here.

The main point of the statements which were written by the organizations Blueprint Black Woman and A3firm is that “slut” can not just be plucked out of the air for “appropriation” but has a material history that has branded women of color in more ways than commercially exploiting/re-representing them, that includes the brute incision of colonization and slavery on brown and black female bodies.

In their statement on Slutwalk, the Black-feminist organization, Blackwoman Blue-print highlights the history of sexualization of black female bodies, in part by pointing to the history of African American female resistance to this sexualization:

Black women in the U.S. have worked tirelessly since the 19th century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent. Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a “SlutWalk” we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as “sluts” and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later.  Moreover, we are careful not to set a precedent for our young girls by giving them the message that we can self-identify as “sluts” when we’re still working to annihilate the word “ho”, which deriving from the word “hooker” or “whore”, as in “Jezebel whore” was meant to dehumanize.  Lastly, we do not want to encourage our young men, our Black fathers, sons and brothers to reinforce Black women’s identities as “sluts” by normalizing the term on t-shirts, buttons, flyers and pamphlets. 

In their statement, Af3irm—a new anti-imperialist, transnational feminist women’s organization–focuses directly on the agents who/that have sexualized women of color—most broadly colonial regimes and more specifically the sex industry that pimps and traffics women of color as a legacy of colonization that persists to this date.  Speaking as “transnational women who are im/migrants or whose families are im/migrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa,” they write,

Our collective transnational histories are comprised of 500 years of colonization. As women and descendants of women from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, we cannot truly “reclaim” the word “Slut”. . . . This label is one forced upon us by colonizers, who transformed our women into commodities and for the entertainment of US soldiers occupying our countries for corporate America.  There are many variations of the label “slut”:  in Central America it was “little brown fucking machines (LBFMs)”, in places in Asia like the Philippines, it was “little brown fucking machines powered by rice (LBFMPBRs)”. 

In the context of this history of sexualization they point to the fact that women of color are the ones who compose the majority of sex trafficking victims in this country, who comprise the majority of those sold in the mail-order-bride system, who are the commodities offered in brothel houses ringing US military bases in and out of this country, who are the goods offered for sexual violation in prostitution. We who are and historically have been the “sluts” from whom traffickers, pimps, and other “authorities” of the global corporate sex trade realize $20 billion in earnings annually cannot, with a clear conscience, accept the term in reference to ourselves and our struggle against sexual violence and for women’s liberation.

With Slutwalk, a smiley-face logo is slapped onto brute systems of exploitation in the way that Coke affixes a sunshine-rainbowy “we are the world” jingle to imperial corporate colonization. But the branding-mechanisms at work in Slutwalk are even more ingenuous than those used by Coke since for Slutwalk they function to hide the sign-chain of patriarchal—and imperial—remote-controls of women and feminism to which the smiley-empowerfulment-face is tethered.

Against In-corporate-ating feminism

In the world of corporate ads, little says the corporate appropriation of space like “product placement” a real marketing strategy that has effectively colonized everyday life. It is not only that specific logos are inserted into the stream of everyday common-sense by television shows and movies, and not only that they invade everyday discourse by actors on the next park bench paid to enthuse over the newest granola bar or the latest version of I-phone.  Worse than all of that, it is the way in which the strategy both metaphorically and materially makes what it means to be human more and more an effect of the branding process, so that we think, feel, and self-present within terms of branding, ourselves becoming holo (hollow)graphic projections of the process. This includes the branding of “protest.”

In the case of feminism, what should be of urgent consideration is the extent to which those of us who still want militant transformation of the dominant social order are now confronting a neoliberally adjusted patriarchy, which demands in turn a feminism “structurally readjusted” for the very maintenance of patriarchy.  Third-wave brand, and now Slut-walk is an example of this structural readjustment; the latter epitomizes the extent to which we are facing a feminism that functions like a product-placement Ad for capitalist patriarchy itself.

[1] Like most of my work, this article is shaped in part by the collaborative work I’ve done with Nancy Meyer over the past decade. Most recently we have been elaborating a critique of identity politics, and my discussion of feminism as an identity politics here has been particularly refreshed and expanded by this collaboration.

[2] Here’s one handy definition of mansplaining for those unfamiliar with the term:

[3] Naomi Klein, No Logo, Picador, 2000, 2002.

[5] A true sign of brand-leftism is when once-articulate members of the lefty intelligentsia started babbling: Take Michael Moore plugging for Obama on Democracy Now as the candidate of hope. When asked by host Amy Goodman about Obama’s plans to bomb Afghanistan, Moore giggled that he remained “hopeful”– in this case “hopeful” that  Obama would be like other politicians and not fulfill certain campaign promises. Or take Alice Walker’s paean to the shackled slaves who built the very capital where the first black president would soon ascend to office. These were the ancestors, she said, who must have known somehow that their slave-labor was all for this, for him.

[6] I’m not blaming the individual participants or even organizers.  The phenomenon I’m talking about is structural not individual and literally capitalizes upon the understandable (because well-groomed) desires that especially young women have to fit into the social order, to be counted as existentially worthy, through the same means that women have always been counted as worth, via desirability to men. There’s nothing wrong with sartorial sexy self-display per se. The problem is brand-feminism that—as an effect of structural shifts in patriarchy itself– makes this self-display the face of feminism (“this is what a feminist looks” like, i.e. not the hairy sort, not the butch sort, not “ugly,” not “man hating” etc.).  We all want to be recognized, to count, to be visible as human beings—the problem is that this human need is shrunken to fit the demands of market forces in their interplay with patriarchal social control of the female.

[7] Marilyn Frye, “Sexism,” and “Oppression” in The Politics of Reality, Crossing Press 1983.  These essays have not dated at all; like most of Frye’s essays they are feminist classics and are terrific primers in the basics of feminist theory for the “novice.”



Hit me with your privilege stick!

Blog Series: Legacies of Individualism in Radical/lesbian feminist thought and the question of Praxis (Revolutionary Change):  [1]

Entry One:  Hit me with your Privilege Stick! [2]

My plan for a blog-series

Individualism is a major obstacle to political radicalism today, and this includes–and of particular importance to me (and the world)–radicalism in feminism. In this blog-series I will explore different strands of my critique of individualism as it has manifested itself from within radical feminist thought and practice. As in my other blog entries, my purpose is to understand internal obstacles to radicalism within feminism although it is always important to refer to external forces of anti-feminism. Aspects of the individualism I will discuss overlap with what I call “one dimensional feminism” or have been impacted by one dimensional feminism.

I have long been perturbed by how aspects of radical feminist thought perpetuate individualism, sometimes strangely mirroring the po-mo queer trans trends it also, and often lucidly, critiques.  Related to the problem of individualism is the big question of how we envision social change and the very complex question—rarely explored by radical feminists—of the relation between self and society (patriarchy).  Radical feminism has a troubling tendency to at one and the same time critique gender as a social system based on hierarchy, domination and exploitation, and yet often suppose that feminists and especially lesbian radical feminists are already self-made individuals beyond the reach of all the strategies and tools and techniques that torture females into form as feminine—into becoming woman. When individual females—like many but not all feminist dykes–appear to have to some extent always already have resisted in their muscles and cells, as part of their development as humans, the shackles of femininity, this phenomenon tends to be treated as a normative ideal that every other women can and should catapult herself into, by force of will.  Sometimes this takes very silly forms (with serious implications) as does the “privilege-pushing” (credit to the mysterious RS of the internet for the phrase) debacle to be described in this entry. Sometimes it takes more sophisticated forms which are even more concerning and I will discuss this in future entries in the series.

“They didn’t even notice that two of us had Native American Heritage”

The Onion, that paper based wholly on satire, could have made it up:

“Lesbian group decries ‘femme oppression of butches!’”

“Lesbian group decides that femininity privilege must be eliminated.”

“After examining femininity privilege, lesbian group decides that anorexic women had too much of it and must be blamed for their part in the oppression of fat women.”

“When asked to respond to the dissenters who left the group, group member X states, ‘They didn’t even notice that two of us were one eighth Native American!’”

The Onion surely could have written the whole thing—but it hadn’t.

There was a feeling of a time-warp about it. An ultimately fractious anti-dialogue among feminists–mostly lesbians and self-defined radical feminists–about “privilege” in this cyber-domain was like a replay for me of twenty years ago.

It was the eighties. The atmosphere was ripe with immanent denunciations. Politics in the still-breathing lesbian community had begun to hollow out into a ritual called “name the racist (classist, homophobe etc).” Who would be next in line to confess her privilege? Once she confessed, she too could be admitted to the ranks of the righteous, entitled now to “call out” any others on their particular “isms,” these thingies that a person carted around as if (thank you Peggy McIntosh) in an “invisible backpack.” She now had an Id-entity. Indeed the self became implicitly re-imaged a container-entity either filled or emptied of privilege-chips.  In the seventies, activists had struggled against imperialism, poverty, the military-industrial complex and of course patriarchy.  But within “the community” the struggle against concrete structures of oppression had devolved into group scrutiny of individual behavior (the way she walked, the way she talked, how she dressed). Any lingering connection to thought of oppression as a system of exploitation and domination had faded into abstractness.

Skip ahead twenty or thirty years when most of what was then known as “the community,” and most vestiges of feminist culture(s) and/or feminist-lesbian culture(s) has been sucked into the vortices of mass-reproduced historical amnesia. (This amnesia is sometimes sold in the form of Third-wave feminism; sometimes in the form of Queer). It’s unsurprising that the debacle unfolded within the vertiginous zone of cyber-space. It is here that a new absence of presence and presence of absence has come to define everyday life for a vast majority of individuals in industrial capitalist countries. In my view the feminist corner of the net (as in other corners) has accreted around the absence of former community in any organic sense, substituting something new and strange, and not terribly rich.  In the presence of this absence, the detritus of the former era—the worst-of-the-worst-hit lists of the eighties seems to have floated back to the surface of one’s computer screen from who knows where. Privilege-speak had returned from the debt to demand its due in privilege credits and debits.  And the privilege-pushers went at it with the same gusto—i.e. vitriol—that had characterized the worst of the old days. For, given the lack of any real field of common struggle and any actual community, the level of emotional intensity unleashed was startling. What could possibly be the energy source of such transmissions?  Leaving aside that interesting question for now, I focus here on the contents rather than form of the whole “privilege-accounting” ideology, which, I argue, is individualist to the core.

“I don’t think patriarchy can be changed; I just want to make a safe space for lesbians”

One of the obstacles to critiquing individualism is that the latter, like all ideology, functions by obscuring itself and self-presents as “just the way things are.” It is the air we breathe, the element in which we swim, thus invisible. Because individualism is so naturalized as a belief system, it can disguise itself as knowledge—or invisibly form the preconditions of what is claimed as self-evident knowledge. In the wake of the Facebook and blog mash-up about so-called femininity-privilege, the privilege pushers repeatedly attributed the fall-out to those women who were afraid “to ask the real questions.”  But the questions they asked were substantially limited—to vastly understate the matter—by a view of society and change which they refused to question.

There was a fleeting moment when the implicit view of social change in the privie-pusher discourse was made explicit: Thus the statement of one of the main privie-pushers:  “Oh I don’t believe we can change patriarchy; I just want to make a safe space for lesbians.”

Understandably this comment was ignored by sister-privie-pushers who do fancy themselves as fighters of patriarchy. However, the above statement about patriarchy points to a common, if implicit, thread in the whole privie-pushing business.  The notion of Patriarchy lacks reality for the privie-pushers who, for radical feminists, display a curious blindness to the nature of oppression as structural (institutional, systemic). The privilege-pushers have a view of structure (thus of patriarchy) that is so vague that some of them dismiss the notion of a structural view of oppression as at best, academic bullshit, and at worst, a way for an individual to dodge examination of her own privilege. Oppression for them is most vivid, and perhaps only apparent, as it lives in individual behaviors. To them, this behavior—and thus oppression itself—is primarily defined by two choices: conform or dissent to “patriarchy.” I put patriarchy in quotes because “patriarchy” functions for them as more of a prop against which to measure an individual’s degree of conformity or dissent, rather than as a systemic set of forces and barriers (M. Frye, “Oppression”) which structure (organize, shape, mold, pattern) relations between individuals. Sometimes structural is called “institutional,” but it is deeper than that.

Thus armed with their behavioral notion of oppression, the privilege-pushers feel no sense of cognitive dissonance when claiming that anorexic women are oppressors of fat women. Anorexic women—women in the throes of self-starvation to the point of (often) death—are understood as willful conformists above and beyond anything else. Anorexia is a sub-category of those with “femininity-privilege,” namely those who conform to patriarchy through their choice of individual dress, adornment, style, etc. And “femininity-privilege,” according to the privie-pushers, directly oppresses butches (as well as fat women).

When looking for any idea of change in the privie-pusher discourse one can only come up with a 12-steppy (although in this case three-steppy) process: First, admit you have a privilege and second, confess to everyone whom you might affect with this privilege. Third—well this is unclear.  One of the privie-pushers advocates that femme lesbians dress as neutrally as possible so as to protect butch women in “the community.” It’s not as clear as to what counsel they would offer to anorexic women. Maybe, “Just say yes–to peanut butter!” ??

“Every woman’s privilege is at another woman’s expense”

The above line is a favored privie-pusher refrain.  There is the deceptive appearance in here of some sense of collective responsibility. Indeed we are all responsible for one another (and I mean not only all women, but all humans, and as humans, we are responsible for animals and the non-human world as well), and this is the reality hidden by the atomized individualism of capitalist-patriarchy. But the privilege-pushers actually mirror rather than challenge this individualism in their notion of accountability and thus obfuscate collective responsibility. This is because for them (and I have heard this voiced explicitly) “collective” means that individual women, one by one, “own up” to their privilege, and the idea is that somehow if enough of us did this, presto, power relations between women would change.  This just seems like common sense to them—again like the air we breathe. The problem is that the view assumes that individual behavior exists in a social vacuum—there is no social context for their notion of an individual. Instead there is a default notion that individual change exists in the application of something like feminist principles from text-books (or blogs) to everyday life. Needless to say, or it should be needless, this has never proved a particularly effective means for real change at individual or collective levels.

For the privie-pushers, the individual and privilege itself is an entity, a sack of goodies, to be emptied or filled (ohhh… nooo..  Peggy McIntosh, look what you wrought!).  What is striking is the fact there is very little about their notion of “privilege” that differs from the capitalist notion of “(self)interest.” To them all women and/or lesbians are atomized self-interested individuals clashing against other self-interested individuals in a bumper-car like game of “community.” Thus femininity is no longer understood as the way women are structured (marked and molded into) as feminine subjects but as a form of self-interest. “Got femininity?” If so, your sack of interests are colliding with and subtracting from the sacks of women who have less of it—to them butches epitomize such a femininity-disadvantaged group of individuals.

Oppression is a zero-sum game in which there is a scarcity of resources (privileges) for all women.  Is it odd that this is exactly the picture of women–as already always competitive with one another–as engaged in an eternal cat-fight–offered by patriarchal ideology? This is precisely the view of women that obfuscates and thwarts collective responsibility. What is collective responsibility?: I will go into detail in another post, but to abbreviate, it means that we look at the ways that oppression binds women together in both positive and destructive ways and thus accordingly, align and ally ourselves with struggles that fight patriarchy as a comprehensive system involving class, race and other social relations of exploitation and domination.  Of course the issue of struggle is highly complex.. so to repeat, stay tuned, or put in your own comments!

Got femininity? A personal anecdote about “femininity privilege”

The recent debacle did have the value of prompting me to reflect upon an unpleasant experience I had several years ago in the company of two thin straight women, and one straight man, all my friends.  It was in Berkeley in 1999, and I had been looking forward to the dinner all day. The two women, one of whom was in a couple with the man, were women of strong intellect, quick witted, and feminist. The man was one of my closest friends at the time, a graduate student colleague. I’ll call him Nigel (with a nod to the Aussies’ version of Tom, Dick or Harry), and the women, Lorraine and Suzanne.  We were barely seated at our table in a low-lit Italian place when Lorraine and Suzanne began chatting about starting up a gym habit, and suddenly commenting on how out of shape they were, Lorraine who is rail-thin not just thin, mocking her own supposedly flabby behind (I believe “cottage-cheese” was the  metaphor du jour for her rump). Already sinking in disappointment—sinking on my comparably ample behind–another blow was yet in store. Suzanne (the woman who was not Nigel’s girlfriend but who had harbored a long-time crush on Nigel) started doing the fluttering-girl thing. She was flirting, high-talking, giggling, and batting eyelashes, her attention entirely fixed on Nigel.  I was almost crushed to see this new friend and wonderful woman ignore me (and Lorraine) and just crumple into someone I could hardly recognize. The evening for me was ruined—not helped by the fact that the two skinny gals also ordered something ridiculously austere—salads–for dinner while I defiantly ordered pasta of some sort. At the time I think that I attributed the pang of alienation and rejection to the behaviors of the two women: I felt that they had blithely discussed themselves as “fat” in the presence of a woman who was not thin, and of course, had indulged typical hetero-feminine behavior in the presence of a lesbian. The privilege-pushers might call them “oppressive” towards me.

Talking this over with my friend Nancy Meyer, a few points became crystal clear and enabled me to see even more clearly into the deceptions of the privilege-pushing discourse. First of all, my feelings about my own body were distorted by the same ideals that filtered these other women’s perceptions of themselves. Although not “thin” I was not in the least fat. More importantly, my experience was that of being devalued in a competition that all of us suffered from believing in. Here I was taking the competition for granted; naturalizing it. Although I was legitimately disappointed in these supposedly feminist women’s failure to critically reflect on this basic ideology about “body image,” the failure was not “oppressive” just alienating. And the source of the alienation was the ideology, not the two women’s behavior, ultimately. Most importantly of all, I had failed to scrutinize the main beneficiary of all this. Yes, that’s right, it was Nigel all along! Regardless of his own intentions—whatever they were—he was certainly magnified by that magic mirror of feminine attention to men that Virginia Woolf talks about. It was not only Lorraine’s doting glances, but the specter of women’s self-scrutiny that magnified his subject-position as the One empowered as the ultimate dispenser of approval of female bodies, and recipient of the pleasures gleaned from the system marking women as objects of male desire.

Here I was in 2010, re-discovering feminism 101! It is patently clear to me now how it is the Id-entity of privilege-pushing—where each privilege hardens into its own Id-entity category, and every individual has one of these Id-entities—that obfuscates such basic feminist insights into the source of horizontal female hostility. And look who gets off the hook.

The main contradiction: Having your choice and eating it too?

Radical feminism is critical of the notion of individual choice when used by postmodern queer sex-positives to justify prostitution, pornography and pole-dancing and so forth as a matter of individual empowerment and agency. It is critical of the postmodern positive affirmation that gender is something an individual can make up as she goes as is expressed by terms like gender-queer, and by practices like transgendering. It is also critical of the idea that women actually choose heterosexuality, marriage, and any range of ways that male power is organized in a patriarchal society. Some radical feminists argue that women do have choices but that these choices are very constrained, often to the point of choosing between a rock and a hard place. Marilyn Frye’s notion of the “double bind” as a feature of oppression perfectly captures the situation of choice for subordinate groups, and women in particular (Frye, “Oppression,” The Politics of Reality). If a woman “chooses” to be (hetero)sexual, she is stigmatized as a slut; if she chooses not to be (hetero)sexual she is stigmatized as a prude or (horrors) dyke. If she is raped and found to have carried birth-control in her bag, her claim of rape lacks credibility since she is seen to be someone who was making herself sexually available. If she does not have birth-control she, not any man, is to be held responsible for (blamed for) her pregnancy. And so forth.

Given the radical feminist critique of individual choice, there is a major contradiction in radical feminist theory when it comes to notions of change—especially when it comes to the issue of the relation between the self and society. Sticking to the issue of femininity, the contradiction is in the following two mutually exclusive (explicit and implicit) propositions: The first is the explicit argument that femininity is the way that half of humanity is imprinted, molded, mutilated from birth into “becoming woman,” which also means constructed as beings who exist fundamentally for the use of men and male interests. This argument is that femininity—and gender—is structural, namely, a system of marking sex-differences as hierarchal and exploitative.  The second is the suggestion—implicit rather than explicit, that once one reaches adulthood at least and certainly upon identification as feminist and/or lesbian-feminist, femininity is now amenable to a woman’s rational, moral choices. Now that we’re grown up feminists, we can and should willfully reject all the trappings, so to speak, of femininity. So here’s the contradiction: If, as radical feminist theory has it, gender is ideological, structural and hegemonic as a system of dividing human beings into male dominants and female subordinates, then this gendering (feminine-izing) can not also be a matter of individual choice. We can not have it both ways. Am I saying that we are so socially determined that change is impossible? Of course not. Would there be any point to feminism if that was the case? I do think, however, that change is far more complicated than individually willed actions and that the notion of individual choice mystifies (obfuscates) individual change as much as it mystifies structural change. We need to think beyond the liberal-individualist framework to discover/invent what we mean when we talk about transformation at both individual and structural levels. We need to think about the notion of praxis: the complicated process of putting ideas and ideals into practice and thus how to get from here to there when talking about radically transforming, if not overthrowing, the patriarchal social order.

To be continued…

[1] This blog entry is indebted to the brilliance of both Isabelle Moreira and Nancy Meyer with whom I have had extensive conversations about the topics covered. Inspiration is also due on several counts to The Mysterious R of the Internet.

[2] “Hit me with your privilege stick”: I got the phrase from Isabelle Moreira and The Mysterious R who in turn referred to an event in Australia, in the seventies, when a women’s street-theater group, in one of their performances, changed the lyrics of the song, “Hit me with your rhythm stick” to “Hit me with your privilege stick.”

Accidental Lesbianism: Review: The Kids are All Right

by Kathy Miriam

I was surprised by how rich the issue of representation and cinema was for thinking at multiple levels; the essay had me revisiting old themes about the meaning of lesbian theory, the symbolic meaning of lesbian, about the question of how to represent what is unrepresentable within the malestream–within a capitalist culture that ransacks and cannibalizes all means of visibility and sells it back to us, a la The Kids are All Right. I also thought about those days in the eighties when so much passion was invested (in my circles) in the vision of aesthetic and political experimentation–in a lesbian/feminist/radical key. Now *that* has been ransacked by queer theory.  In future blog entries  I’d like to give a play-list of favorite feminist and/or radical movies that push against the malestream and capitalist framework of thought–that open up beyond a one-dimensional lesbian/feminism! and also to discuss some of the movies that I consider to be pushing in the direction of a utopian/critical vision. I also have not broached in any depth the issue of gay marriage except to focus on how it is framed within Hollywood and by mainstream gay politics. Although I do believe gay marriage is intrinsically part of an assimilationist model of politics, I am open to be convinced otherwise, and this certainly needs larger discussion than I’ve given it space for in this review.

A tip of the hat to Yael Yisrael for editing this piece.

This piece was partly inspired by two other writers: Carolyn Gage’s The Gage Gauge for lesbians in movies, which in turn was inspired by Allison Bechdel’s The Bechdel test for determining whether a movie was worth viewing or not.

Lesbian (In)Visibility

The Kids are All Right is the first mainstream Hollywood film projecting a “positive image” of lesbians and lesbian marriage?  The movie is the logical outcome of the quest for “gay visibility” and reflects the assimilationist model dominating gay politics today. This politics is defined almost solely by its claims for rightful insertion into two main bastions of capitalist patriarchy: marriage and the military! This is the general assimilationist political background against which lesbians appear in the “positive” light of mainstream cinema. However, assimilation is a pursuit that fails by virtue of its success. Gay visibility  is in-visiblity: To be visible, means to be in the dominant order of mainstream political, cultural and/or visual representation, thus to not exist except as seen from the mainstream point of view—a view which depends, in turn, on the naturalization (thus invisibility) of capitalism and other structures of exploitation. What does not appear as in-visibility is any vantage point that is critical and other to the mainstream. Lesbian in-visibility means that nothing appears that is different, much less uncivilized (wild, undomesticated, critical) about a lesbian or lesbian feminist point of view.

The Kids are Alright directed by Cholodenko (High Art; Laurel Canyon) tells the story of two married, middle-aged, middle class lesbians Nic (Annette Bening), Jules (Julianne Moore) and their sperm donor progeny, a son, Laser and daughter Joni. The premise of this “serious comedy” (Village Voice) reads like the proposal for another “wacky” sitcom: What happens when said sperm donor is summoned by curious pair of progeny out of anonymity and into the flesh and blood person of tall, dark and handsome stranger (Marc Ruffalo)?

With its high production values, witty repartee, and impeccable acting it’s hard not to welcome Kids given the steaming pile of dreck preceding it: Claire of the Moon, anyone? Moreover, Kids begs contrast to its descendents in Hollywood lesbian (melo)drama. Kids is not in the mold of the The-Lesbian-Must-Die genre (The Children’s Hour; The Fox (based on a story by D.H. Lawrence); Boys Don’t Cry); neither of the two lesbian characters fall into the classic predatory spinster role (Notes on a Scandal, The Killing of Sister George)—they are middle-aged and attractive (what a concept!); and the femme partner does not choose the virile male interloper over her lesbian relationship (The Fox; The Bostonians).  No, no tragic, desperate lesbians here; Kids is all about its “positive-image” of a lesbian marriage.  So it’s positive. But is it good for the dykes?

In an interview on the pop culture lesbian site, After Ellen, Lisa Choldenko offers that her film is not really about lesbians, but about family, and she hopes its message is “universal.”  Sure, Hollywood always tells us that white, bourgeois existence is “universal” and any other “attributes” to a white, middle-class defined “personhood” are well, accidental. The accidental lesbianism in Kids is the property (in the sense of “owned” by; in the sense of “trait”) of a solidly middle class white world.  The two-mommy household, one a doctor, the other a landscape designer, is nestled in the sun-splattered, shiny suburbs of Los Angeles. The glossy bourgeois whiteness of this world is punctuated by two minute-sized roles for people of color—a black woman, Tanya (Yaya DaCosta) who is the sometimes sex-buddy of Paul and who works for his restaurant, and what do you know it, but a sombrero-doffing Mexican laborer, Luis (Joaquin Garrido), hired to assist Jules’s work in landscape design on Paul’s property. Luis is given about one line to play, a persistently bewildered , “But Senora, Senora!” and then is fired summarily by Jules without explanation–for laughs!

The comic character of the naïve Mexican-immigrant is particularly irksome given the setting of Kids in California, a myth made concrete through centuries’ exploitation of immigrant labor. Just as the desert was forced to bloom with imported/pillaged waters (see Chinatown for this story about mob/government water-wars), so its affluence also flowers on ground and labor snatched from/through the bodies of others.  Here we have an LA set, lesbian-themed film replaying the myth by exploiting the clichéd dark-skinned servant role to shore up its white gaze—and worse, as we shall see, the heteronormativity of that gaze. Both the token black character and the stereotyped brown-skinned character exist to prove that there is no subject-position beyond the white, bourgeois and hetero-gaze. But, ironically or perhaps not ironically, the same must be said for the characters that function as token lesbians within Kids.

Liberalism as Bigotry by Other Means

The figure of the Lesbian as imagined in Kids, like the characters of color, is a staple of a myth of universality bound to implode on its own political fault-lines unless measures are taken to renew the myth. Outright bigotry will not do, for that would make these lines too clear.  In the wake of former political movements, new methods are need for sealing over any points of potential fracture where class-antagonisms (gender, race, class) might erupt. “Union-busting” is key here: not only literally but figuratively in terms of destroying (eliminating through erasure, demonization, and/or ridicule) any vestiges of solidarity clinging to former symbols of resistance like “lesbian” (or black power, etc). Give me a person of color and that person, like Tanya in Kids, must exist alone of all her kind in a sea of whiteness. Any time that people of color are configured as groups in the movies it is tinged with savagery, thuggery, and/or the myth of the underclass. And if lesbians are grouped together? L-Word soft porn, or hard, heaped up around the mens again. Kids takes the tokenist approach: Here we have a lesbian or lesbian couple in a world without other lesbians. In Kids the only outside friendship depicted is with a heterosexual couple.

A film like Kids is perfectly designed for a neoliberal era whose crowning moment was the election of a first black president, Barack Obama. As a neoliberal creation, Kids is “not about” lesbianism the way that Obama’s election was “not about race.” Brand-Obama, the movie, like Kids, results from the ingenuity of marketers who were and are able to promote their brand of “universality” by exploiting markers of former political identities and movements. We saw this in the presidential election: through the marketing of public figures like Obama and Clinton, race and gender identity-markers were reinvented as the ideal emissaries of empire. What Kids shows is the degree to which the figure of “lesbian” has been reinvented in recent years to stand as the ideal emissary of an order it once stood as a symbol of rebellion against, namely compulsory heterosexuality.

This is why liberals fawn over Kids—with the same elation—and relief—they greeted the figure of Obama—they can have their black cake and consume it too, meaning they can have their black as long as he or she (but especially he) is a black who distances himself from blacks as a social and political group and who allies himself with the neoliberal white elite. Kids allows liberals to have their lesbians and consume them too (sexually, commercially, and otherwise) as a new bar-coded objects of masculine and/or Amerikkan desire. Despite or because of its lesbian identified director, Kids is a movie without a lesbian point of view.

The Killing of Sister Gorgon

The notion of a “lesbian point of view” seems chimerical to the same extent that Hollywood-fantasy appears more Real than ever, but it was once an idea that reeked of a body that could not be consumed by mass culture. In 1977, Bertha Harris wrote of lesbian literature that it should be monstrous, meaning “outrageous, unassimilable, awesome, dangerous, outrageous: distinguished.” The same can apply to a lesbian aesthetic and political point of view in general.  Harris said, “Lesbian literature is the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable. It is also the pursuit of the unspeakable by the inedible; and it is this particularly” (Heresies, Vol. 3, No. 1). The pursuit of “lesbian visibility” represented by Kids is the pursuit of the edible by the speakable, the cinematic equivalent of fast-food.

The lesbian point of view in its monstrousness transcends silly devices of measurement like “positive” or “negative.” This can be seen when contrasting the pabulum positivity of Kids with two other lesbian-themed films, each of which projects an arguably “negative” image of lesbians. While Notes on a Scandal’s “negative image” reinforces fears of the desperate, predatory lesbian spinster, The Killing of Sister George turns these fears on its head, by representing a fierce, fat and middle-aged butch as its main subject-position and point of view.  The Scandal is a modern day Rapunzel re-playing the grim(m) tale of a crone (Judi Dench’s Sheba) so possessive of the peaches and cream maiden (Barbara played by Cate Blanchett) she would keep her locked away from male suitors. The film’s denouement locks the lesbian into position as permanent object of derision.

In George a similar stereotype of the lesbian predator seems to emerge in the (un)erotic dynamic between George and her lover; middle-aged butch, George (Beryl Reid) is sadistic to her young, conventionally pretty, feminine lover (Susanna York). But the representation of the sadism also allegorizes the cruelty of a system that George refuses to conform to. George is a soap opera star whose character is the cheery, humming, bicycling nun, namely, Sister George (hence the title character’s nick-name). The actress George refuses to assimilate to the rules of the big-studio, capitalist machinery of image-production thus the decision of the managers to “kill off” her character. Thus she who will not be digested by the ruling order of representation is imagined as a butch lesbian. The director Robert Aldrich’s vision is none too hurt by Beryl Reid’s magnificent performance either—she is no caricature (despite the bleak, satirical comedy of the film and her performance) or even icon but fully fleshed out in her complex, flawed, humanity.  Unlike  Scandal’s use of the lesbian figure to manipulate audience fears/hatreds of lesbianism, the lesbian George, a veritable Gorgon, calls for our identification with her. By identification I do not mean in the banal sense of “relating to” a character, for the latter boils down to “relating to” the fantasies that the culture sells us of our selves. I mean, instead, a process of opening up new spaces of identification altogether.  Lesbians might very well “relate to” the characters in Kids: In my view, this is only evidence that there is no longer any need to slay the monster (as in Scandal) when a positive image does the job. Better than slayage, lesbian in-visibility expunges any trace of lesbian as (again quoting Harris) “distinguished.” No longer distinguished from the norm, the lesbian of Hollywood is now so positive in its portrayal that men like it too.

It’s still the patriarchy, stupid

But no effort to assimilate lesbianism will deflect the wing-nuts from suspecting that behind any positive image of lesbians lurks a nefarious sub-plot to overthrow patriarchy. Thus we have the review of Kids by one Dan Gifford on the infamous Breitbart web-site—the site renowned of late for its vicious libeling of Shirley Sherrod. According to Gifford (who in bizarre of all bizarre twists happens to be the great nephew of path-breaking lesbian author, Del Martin!) the “normalcy” projected by the film is little more than a façade thinly disguising a leftist fantasy of a feminist utopian view of a world that rejects fathers and rejects patriarchy.If only.

To be sure, Cholodenko makes short work of paternity as a family-value and by the film’s conclusion has the lesbian family ousting  sperm-donor-daddy from its nest. But father-right is dead-beat; if you’re looking for patriarchy follow the money-shots which are not about father knows best, but man gets girl. The affirmative projection of the lesbian marital unit, follows on the heels of a steamy affair between Paul and Jules. The gymnastics of the boy-girl couple’s liaison teeters on the farcical but is no less “hot” for that depiction. In contrast, the single sex-scene between the two lesbian partners is all farce, and without any heat or steam. To add insult to injury, the comedy turns in part on the fact that gay male pornography is a staple of the couple’s sex life. I think of a line from one of Alix Dobkin’s odes to lesbian love: “no penis comes between us” (“View from GayHead”) How times have changed!

Kids displays the fact that when it comes to the Hollywood cinematic point of view, lesbian director or not, the male gaze is still the only sheriff in town ensuring that a “penis” will always come between women. What comes between us is a phallic view of women, including lesbians, as the objects of male (sexual and other) appropriation. Cholodenko uses stock, if not clichéd, visual codes of this phallic gaze to set up the first clinch between Paul and Jules. The stock phallic or male gaze refers to the voyeuristic perspective of a male character who peeps on a female character in a state of partial (or full) undress without the female character’s awareness. In the case of the scene in Kids, Paul stands on a balcony surveying Jules’s half-exposed derriere while she’s working, bent over, bikini panties peeking out, potting a bougainvillea or cactus or whatever on the ground below. At the same time that Paul sees Jules, he is also seeing Luis, the Mexican laborer, also on the ground below, also peeping at Jules’ butt. Cholodenko’s choices in setting up and shooting the scene the way she does uncritically reiterates a masculine gaze that is both shared among men and hierarchically structured along race lines. In fact, as if to underscore the man of color’s inferior and outsider status, Luis seems flustered and bewildered as if trapped rather than caught looking. We can see how the use of the token or stereotypical character of color is fundamental to the film’s mise-en-scene, establishing both the whiteness and heteronormativity of the world it projects.

So, no, Dan Gifford, a rejection of biological fatherhood does not the end of patriarchy make. Fraternal bonds, hierarchically organized around racial and class lines, displace father-right as the glue of contemporary patriarchy (See Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract): patriarchy in its inextricable structural overlaps with capitalism, demands new forms through which men gain access to women’s bodies.  In the visual order of representation, the male gaze is usually hidden in plain sight of the “girls gone wild” phenomenon as attributed to women’s and girls’ own “choices.” Women and girls are empowered to “self-objectify” but the grammar of the male gaze remains intact: Man fucks woman; subject verb object, as Catharine MacKinnon once put it.  It’s a coup for capitalist patriarchal mass culture when “lesbian” is inserted into the woman/object position.

The Futile Pursuit of being Normal

Dan Gifford’s condemnation of Kids is more than ironic, since historically, those who are outside the status quo who are forced or desire to assimilate are sniffed out as imposters, often at the apogee of their success. The most frightening example is that of German Jews during the era of Nazism; Jews’ successful assimilation as Germans—and their strong identification with national, German culture—was fuel for Nazi charges of a Zionist conspiracy and indictments of the Jew as fraudulent German. A similar charge, “imposter!,”  has been written in the blood of anyone who dares to successfully assimilate, successfully “pass”, and/or even attempt to assimilateor be perceived as attempting to assimilate. Thus the nativist drums of Fox News, Arizona legislature, Minute Men, beat their hymns to the whiteness at the specter of the “brown hordes” clamoring to cross the magical boundaries of “their” ever-so-pure Amerikka.  In the case of passing–for example the case of lesbians passing (or perceived as passing) as men, vitriol is piqued among the “real men” who would drag to their death any woman daring to take “their” women away. This is the story told by Kimberle Pierce in Boys Don’t Cry, her lesbian-feminist interpretation of the real life story of Brandon Teena. The film, and its contrast with the representation of lesbians in Kids, returns us to the point about the monstrous in lesbian suppressed by the latter film, and explored critically by Boys. Boys shows the fault-line where passing implodes on its own impossibility. Brandon Teena (in Pierce’s vision) is depicted as longing to fit in, to be a real boy, and “get the girls” and in Boys, Brandon exceeds the “real men” in this pursuit. Brandon is shown as the dream boyfriend for the female characters and her/his ability to attract Lana in particular proves fatal once s/he is “found out” to be a woman. When the thugs Tom and John discover the reality of Brandon’s female embodiment, the first thing they do is rape her. In punishment for her almost-successful endeavors to pass as a boy, Brandon must be proven to be rape-able, thus a real woman. Tom and John’s fury at Brandon’s success at passing is inextricable from their fury at Brandon for taking away their (in particular John’s) woman.  Women “belong” to men, as America “belongs” to whites.

Ultimately Brandon is murdered by the rapists. Between rape and murder, however, and after the murder in the film’s final shot, the director makes her lesbian feminist subject-position clear. It seems clear to me that the last love-making scene between Lana and Brandon—which comes after Brandon is discovered to be Teena Brandon—is explicitly constructed within lesbian feminist visual and narrative codes. The two characters are seated close to one another and Teena says something like “I won’t know what to do,” while Lana gently encourages her, “Yes you will.” (Not exact quotes). The lines and scene seem directly and lovingly lifted from lesbian-feminist lore, with its cache of stories about sexual discovery without a penis between-us and the newness and risk of it all.

Further the film does not end with the murder but with a lyrical shot of the open road, a night highway driven by Lana. She drives under a blurred streak of neon and stars, the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” entering the sound-track. It is as if she’s riding into the “off-space” of the screen into what remains inassimilable and unrepresentable, certainly within the confines of the world she is fleeing. This last shot of Boys resonates with another feminist film, a road movie, one that also ends with a lyrical vision of a moving car. I’m talking about Thelma and Louise and the two feminist outlaws who arrive at lip of a vast canyon at the end of a long, cop-led car chase. After a romantic kiss the two female outlaws extraordinaire drive off the cliff together, but the very last shot is of their car frozen mid-air.

I don’t read this as suicide. The shot of the car suspended mid-space suggests flight into a space of the unknown which is the only space where re-invention of a feminist/lesbian point of view can happen. I’m not arguing that a representation of death—Brandon’s murder; Thelma and Louise’s leap off a cliff—are the only representations of the boundaries of patriarchy—and hardly the ideal. I’m saying that these representations point to the lesbian utopia that strikes fear into the heart of men like Gifford; this is because unlike Kids, these two other movies visualize—cast into cinematic vision—the boundary-edge of patriarchy. Without a glimpse of this edge we are swallowed into the self-contained insularity of a bourgeois, male whiteness that is one-dimensional, establishing itself as the only possible dimension of reality.

So is it coincidence that Kids also ends with a shot of a car? In a parked car, a suburban mini-van of course, our lead lesbian characters reach across the gear stick, and there they clasp hands signifying their embrace, not of female solidarity but of the privatized marital unit and nuclear family, and private virtues of interpersonal fidelity which have all but displaced female solidarity within the neoliberal field of lesbian visibility. As a vehicle of Hollywood’s one-dimensional vision of reality this car is not moving, let alone flying across a canyon or shimmery highway; there is no elsewhere for women or lesbians here beyond the cul-de-sacs of a futile pursuit of normality. Lesbian outlaws don’t live here anymore; only “material evidence” of lesbian existence as measured by “laws” of visibility “we can believe in.”

Against Lesbian in-visibility

What liberals fear and deny at our (lesbians’) peril and right-wing bigots know for sure is that lesbian is threatening for one reason alone—that it still haunts neoliberal patriarchal America with the specter of a feminist challenge to the social order as heterosexual. Liberals would like nothing better than to see lesbianism as an accidental trait like hair-color, one life-style choice as good as any other, or as sexual objects of male desire, in a world white-washed of any trace of the menace once heralded by radical, political lesbians and feminists.  But the figure of the lesbian remains threatening for the very reason bigots hate openly, and liberals hate implicitly, namely because what “lesbian” represents is not a life-style attribute but a whole other world view, and, as the Lesbian Avengers once quipped, We recruit. Lesbianism will never be a mere life-style for either liberal defenders or right-wing detractors; for both sides, it is felt (rather than “known”) as an essence with dread-inspiring contagious properties. Once we peel back the self-deceptions at the heart of liberalisms’—and Kid’s—projection of a lesbian in-visibility, it becomes clear that in a social order still organized as heterosexual, lesbianism will always remain monstrous. We who are still desperately seeking a (albeit multiple, not unitary) lesbian point of view, can take some cold comfort in that fact and move from there.

One Dimensional Feminism Part 2: Where have all the flowers gone?

(print out for easier reading)

One Dimensional Feminism, Part 2

Where have all the flowers gone?

A Tale of a (Lost) Passion

Oscar Wilde, writing in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, said, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.”[1]

Preface: for Mary Daly in memoriam

I write this blog-essay on the occasion of the death (January 3, 2010) of my only Mentor, Mary Daly. And I wonder, is this the passing of the flowers of the utopian?

If Mary taught me one thing it was that feminism is a passion. By passion I do not mean emotion, but a whole world-view, an imaginary—meaning a sense of collectivity beyond the current scheme of things, implying DESIRE for a whole new world—and continuous NEGATION of that which-is. Continue reading

One Dimensional Feminism and the Election of 2008

Advice to old fogies like me: Print the article up for easier reading 🙂

One Dimensional Feminism: Feminism and the Election

(This entry is one in a planned series of entries on what I’m calling  One-Dimensional Feminism. In One Dimensional Man (published in 1964) Herbert Marcuse argued that societal power—he was focused on capitalism—had new modes of domination facilitated by technology and the accelerated commodification of all modes of life. Domination could win by satisfying peoples’ desires as much as through repressing them; peoples’ aspirations could mesh with the interests of capital more fluidly than ever before. This enmeshment of the subject with forces of domination made society and its subjects “one-dimensional.”   “One dimensional society” refers to a societal order that establishes itself as inevitable: no other dimensions of reality are glimpsed through the solid edifice it presents of itself. Reality is flat because the dimension of the negative is foreclosed—reality appears only in its positive form. Today the “positive” is not only the foreground against which negative space is simply forgotten. The “positive” is also that inducement to positive-thinking, to putting a positive spin on everything including practices once seen as the conductive tissue of subordination (e.g. consumerism is now seen as in and of itself a form of subversion). Residual forces of negation (opposition and critique) are digested within a social order that makes these forces reappear in their positive and positively incorporated forms.  My project on One Dimensional Feminism explores this basic idea in relation to the hollowing out of feminism as a former force of opposition and negation (critique)and thus the way that new forms of patriarchal control—neo-liberal patriarchy—function to better assimilate the subject of feminism within the interests of a patriarchal system, and generally the interests of men as a social group.)

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R-Train Ruminations on the *race* to Obama

A raw noon-time, early in 2009, the wind biting, the sun bright. It takes a moment upon descending into the dusky underground of the subway for objects to resume their shape, and I figure out which side of the tracks is the Brooklyn-bound side.

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