Yeah, There Really is Bad Feminism

by - Monday, October 15, 2012

An old high school friend of mine recently posted an article online that really annoyed me.  This article,written by Heather Wilhelm, uses Caitlin Moran's book (which I had never heard of until this article, but sounds poor) as a straw man, suggesting this one woman's autobiographical essays are somehow indicative of all of feminism. This article from Real Politics (which from what I can tell is a right leaning blog) intentionally mis-characterizes feminism to make an argument that could have been more effectively presented otherwise.

Intentional ignorance is the worst. Intentionally misreading the argument you are rebuffing so as to make your claims seem stronger goes under that heading. It does not make you look clever or make them look stupid. It mostly is just a weak rhetorical turn. If you can't hear, you can't do much else. Last year, I heard one of the icon's of art history say that the only way to truly rebuke an argument is to first bring out the best in it. To actually understand the reasoning behind it. She very famously will read other's essays brilliantly, to the point where you have to read on before you can tell whether it will be tore up or not (ok, once you have read enough Krauss, you know).

Because I have never heard of Moran, and I study feminist theory for a living, I can definitely say that Moran has not been received as some club-wide rave-reviewed new manifesto(I will never understand why essayists feel no compulsion to cite- where is she finding these reviews). From what I can tell from the characterization, it is a selection of essays, none of which is revolutionizing feminism or rocking our world with new arguments. This is not to say Moran's opinion isn't valid, but the first failure in Wilhelm's argument is to treat Moran as the be all end all voice in what she calls "the gigantic, flaming, multi-car pileup that is modern-day feminism."

Secondly, conservative arguments like Wilheim's suggests that contemporary feminism is not feminism at all, subtextually claiming that they understand the true root of the movement (the other essay I am railing against is another post from said-friend earlier this year about how the Pill is actually keeping women from their feminist potential- if you have a strong stomach, you can read it here- These arguments are never historical, so I am never sure what the heart of this is (are we all still fighting for suffrage? what's the real goal, ladies?). The best I can tell is that these writers are aghast that feminists would encourage behavior that they see as explicitly bad for women. Wilhelm uses Moran's book to suggest that feminists antagonize women who have children, while praising pornography and "being sluts." Wilhelm accuses Moran of glorifying behavior she describes as "crazy," but she is missing the key to Moran's less than sophisticated argument- that behaviors previously seen as disempowering to women have real feminist potential if that individual finds it helpful to them (I am being generous here, but I think that's the root).

This is my number one pet peeve of these articles- they come off as, for lack of a better word, maternalistic. They are sure they know what's right, and they are sure what's right for them is right for everyone. In the same way, I think they have trouble effectively understanding the real point of feminism, because they are sure these women are telling them they should get abortions, and work, and never have babies. This is what makes me, and I am genuine about this, sad for them, because they see difference as a threat or command, when it is just difference. They are sure we think everything they do is wrong. But I don't feel that way, and I don't think many feminists would either (though who knows about Moran- I can't say for sure, because this book could be saying all women should go on slut walks, but I doubt it).

I would absolutely never characterize conservative life-decisions as bad- I think it is a perfectly legitimate decision to be a stay at home mom, or to never get an abortion, or embracing their femininity, or any number of other decisions my friends have made. In fact, I cannot think of any feminists I know who actually have a problem with women having children. Ever. Seriously. I think in general, women of all kind are happy when their friends reach their goals, and I think raising children is a tough and worthy goal for sure.

In the same strain, I have never felt antagonized for being heterosexual (and in general, pretty heteronormative- I am a girly girl, just one that will bite your face off if I feel like it). Though I recognize that there is a theoretical strain that sees heteronormativity as potentially dangerous for feminists, I think very few would make the argument that if you have gone the other way you absolutely could not be a feminist. Those feminists who do think only lesbians are real feminists or that only focusing on a career could empower you are equally ineffectual in their thinking.

I feel like I say this over and over, but this kind of feminism, where a woman could possibly suggest that the only "good" way to live your life is the way she is living it, is the worst kind of feminism, and Wilhelm's characterization of feminists as saying that, I really really hope is wrong. The point of being a feminist, to me, is recognizing that there are many different kinds of women on this planet, and they each deserve to have the choices they need to live their life to the best of their ability. Period.

I recognize the irony in choosing two pieces of writing which I would characterize as having failed rhetorical logic as my objects here, but I think that the person who posts them is a genuinely intelligent person, and I think seeing empowering potential in conservatism is a potentially fruitful line if you follow it in certain directions, but as soon as you say everyone should do it like you, you've failed. This isn't the only kind of bad feminism, but it is certainly the worst.

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