Monthly Archives: December 2010

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.”