Thursday, March 5, 2009

More on Radical Profeminism

[Some of this was revised on 8 March 2009]
When I was a profeminist youngin', I was led to believe a few things in some profeminist circles that I have since found to be not only untrue but self-serving to the interests of men and dangerous to the well-being of women. I will add that I was ignorant about a lot back in the day, and while I remain ignorant about most things to this day, I can only update my progress to note that I no longer accept that some white theories about women's oppression are more truthful or complete, to the extent anything by women is seen as such. I no longer accept that because a book has footnotes, for example, it is smarter than one without. (I used to believe that.) I no longer believe that being "anti-sexist" means being proWomanist or profeminist. (I foolishly used to believe that too.)

Another belief I sort of held, was that there is something sort of monolithic called "patriarchy", and that "patriarchy" (alone) is what harms women. This statement was and is almost always made to me by college-educated, white, class-privileged profeminist men who believe they have done sufficient reading and empathic living among diverse populations of women to make this determination. They typically hold up the work of Mary Daly, Susan Brownmiller, Sonia Johnson, or other self-defined radical [raceless] feminists, or white theorists John Stoltenberg and Michael Kimmel, believing that these women and those men, together, express the truth about what harms women and why. I have seen whole Women's Studies curricula identifying white Western women's writings as the work that must be read to comprehend, let alone challenge, this problem of misogyny. I have seen whole Men's Studies programs centrally concern themselves with "the problems of manhood for men" not the problem of manhood for women.

Such a statement about "patriarchy" is often not sufficiently qualified, in my experience, with the reality that many systems of oppression harm women in misogynistic ways, male supremacy being perhaps the most obvious and overwhelming to people who don't also experience the others. I am not making a case for decentralising a concern about and challenge to male supremacist misogyny, as a critical profeminist agenda.

Radical Black feminists, other radical feminists of color, as well as some radical racially aware white feminists have pointed out to me the serious problems with the view that "patriarchy (alone) is the problem".

I've come to believe that white supremacy is just as misogynistic as male supremacy, for example. So too is capitalism. So to is Western Civilisation. So too is anti-Indigenist policies and practices which constitute genocide. This ought to be implicit, but every genocide I've ever heard of is also gynocidal. (This is being written by someone with the great privilege of never experiencing one first-hand.) All of these systems harm women in specific ways systematically, chronically, and lethally for being women not men. In this radical white profeminist's view, the misogynist harm of white supremacy and capitalism out not be viewed without centering the experiences of women most harmed in and by those systems.

Behind the assumption of "patriarchy" being what most harms and oppresses women, is an effort to centralise the experiences of white class-privileged women, which, globally, is a minority population. Behind the assumption that patriarchy is what harms men most(relative to women of the same class and ethnic group), is the willful ignorance bolstered and encouraged by male privilege, which doesn't even allow men to own how we benefit from these systems which also dehumanise us.

For a profeminism to be "radical", in this view, anything that oppresses any woman is important to pay attention to, and ought to fall under the umbrella of "profeminist men's concerns and calls to action". But for me that action must centralise the experiences of women, not men. And specifically the experiences of women of color internationally, to the extent that one has direct information from and contact with women globally.

For more learning in this area, I recommend, if men haven't already, that we pay close attention to the messages, guidance, and demands addressed in the following:

When white profeminist men show or tell what we've read that educated us about feminism (often in these men's own writings), I see the passing along of stunningly racist herstories of "Radical [unnamed race almost always meaning "white"] feminism". My anger with men who are not profeminist is usually much greater than at those who do profeminist activist work, which is not to say there isn't plenty of reasons to be distressed and despairing at the behavior of those of us who doidentify as profeminist men. I see many men who identify as radicals or progressives do at least one of a few things:

1. Completely invisibilise or significantly marginalise or tokenise the experiences of women
2. Make arguments, speaking of course for all of humanity, that "patriarchy" is not the problem, as if we men, collectively, would have a fucking clue about what the problems are for women
3. Only read men's analysis of women's struggles, or only read white women's analysis of the struggles of all women
4. Gender oppression came after other forms of oppression and therefore isn't the core issue. Descendants of various strains of marxists cling to this argument in order to make sure what happens to women, that men do, is never centralised as a concern

To this last point from men, I say to them: "Were you there? Given that women have not been the primary writers of history, that recording history through writing, in and of itself, is a tool of both Western white male supremacy, what makes you think any analysis that leads to this conclusion wouldn't be heavily biased in favor of white male supremacy?"

I have argued at great length over years about these issues, these roadblocks to radical activism, and have found that men are usually satisfied to be where they are in their own respective places of ignorance and privilege. We men, on the whole, are not particularly concerned about, nor do we organise against, the various methods of oppression which negatively impact the majority of women in the world. Or, to the extent we express concern, our activism must fit within white male-centered analytical frameworks to be perceived as "useful".

An assumption that keeps surfacing in these conversations, which I'll illustrate in a moment, is that because an act of harm or system of oppression does one thing well that doesn't target women (in men's view) as women, it is not misogynistic.

What follows are some classic argumentation styles utilised by U.S. liberal white males in the Academy, who've primarily and overwhelmingly read the work of privileged white men, and who don't sufficiently understand what it means, politically, to be white or a man, let alone a woman of color.

From LiveJournal I have copied and pasted some of what appears here. The substance of that discussion, about some of these issues, follows. The topic is "feminism and brett easton ellis" and the host of the conversation is a white man named kunzelman.

on feminism and bret easton ellis [Feb. 22nd, 2009|06:49 pm]
From: kunzelman
Tags | activism, bee, bret easton ellis, feminism, protest, radical
[All text not in brackets in what follows is written by kunzelman; all text within brackets was added after the fact by me, for this blogpost]

[kunzelman writes:] I just finished reading this essay on Bret Easton Ellis and free speech, from a feminist perspective, and I can't seem to agree with anything that the authors state. [Why am I not surprised?] I find it funny that the preface talks about how it was not published to begin with, and that it was hard to find a publisher in radical magazines, but at the same time I understand exactly why. The actions that Tara Baxter takes are the perfect form of disempowering radical action. [This is a classically arrogant example of "boys know best" when it comes to women organising against male supremacy and misogyny.]

Her actions themselves, though, are incredibly clever. By reading BEE aloud and being arrested, she does make a clever point, but the problem with that is that no one really cares about what she is reading. [This would be a prime example of a man being condescending and patronising regarding feminist efforts to combat male supremacy.] By standing around and proclaiming that violence should be committed against someone, all that gets accomplished is people covering their ears. What did she accomplish? Creating an arrest record, making sure that she's known as a radical, making herself a target. [And through what tools, kunzelman, do you arrive at these conclusions? Have you spoken with every person impacted by this action? Are you aware that women reading about the actions of other feminists often functions to inspire and empower women to create similar and other ways of confronting the problem?]

At the same time, I think that she ignores the huge potential for subversive action in the essay itself. It is incredibly clever to use the exact same methods that Ellis uses, making sure that we don't really know what's going on, creating a fiction within the reality of her "true story." That, however, is where the cleverness ends. She could have used the master's tools to destroy the house, as it were, but Baxter is so concerned with being "radical" and "hurting misogyny" that she misses everything that she could actually do something to change. [kunzelman, I read your use of the term "clever" here to be patronising and condescending. And borrowing from a title of Audre Lorde's essay doesn't indicate to me that you have any understanding of what the points of Lorde's essay were.]

There is nothing more painful [nothing more painful? Not genocide? Not battery? You have been a very privileged and lucky person to rank this as the thing beyond which nothing else is more painful] than the section where she calls her "teacher," Nikki Craft, who then sings happy birthday to her and tells her what a great job she's doing. [huh? Women can't look to one another as teachers? Nor celebrate together? Nor support each other?] It's just disgusting. [What exactly is disgusting there? I experience your arrogance in interpreting this woman's action's 'objectively' obnoxiously, if predictably, disgusting.] Hell, for all the change they achieve, they might as well be fifteen-year-olds who steal from Hot Topic and calling it "hurting The Man." [Your patriarchal condescension and arrogance apparently has no self-regulating mechanism, nor a capacity to become aware of what it actually functions to do.]

I suppose that I'm just frustrated because of how I perceive Baxter's method to be disempowering, [I experience your analysis of Baxter's method to be belittling and thoroughly sexist] and I really encourage other people to read the essay and tell me how they feel about it. [Consider it done, here, now] I would like to hear other opinions, simply because the essay itself is so damn polarising. [I find your writing far more polarising, to be honest, and really inappropriate.]

From: rabidgod
2009-02-23 12:33 am (UTC)
When Tara Baxter became aware of American Psycho she was, as any feminist would be, disgusted and furious.

From: kunzelman
2009-02-23 12:41 am (UTC)
exactly. how can you miss that he's being critical of the exact same thing that she is? [And how can you and rabidgod makes claims about what "any feminist" would feel? That you both mock being disgusted by the misogyny in B.E.E.'s work is a form of misogyny, in and of itself.]

From: line_of_flight
2009-02-23 04:37 pm (UTC)
This is what happens when people don't adequately theorize radical action!

From: kunzelman
2009-02-23 05:37 pm (UTC)
Huzzah good sir!

[And are you two claiming to know how to adequately theorize radical action? And, do you understand that radical actions' function is not "to be theorised" but rather "to effect fundamental changes"?]

From: oddrid
2009-02-23 01:39 am (UTC)
I have never read that book, but that's not cause I'm a feminist. I've seen the movie though and it didn't really tick off my feminist radar too much. Those passages that she quotes in the beginning are disgusting though.

Her protests though are pretty lol.

From: kunzelman
2009-02-23 01:58 am (UTC)
To be fair, the BEE allows his character to do terrible, calculating things to women. At the same time, he allows his character to do terrible, calculating things to heterosexual men as well as animals.

Does she attack those aspects? No. I don't uniquely think that the book is misogynistic, but rather a criticism of late capitalism and consumer culture. We're desensitized to everything, as Ellis says, because we "have nothing to lose."

The book is brutally long in the middle, fyi.

[For me, this is where you show a shocking level of ignorance, under the banner of being a literary and social critic, stating that someone's work cannot be both misogynistic and something else as well.]

From: rabidgod
2009-02-23 03:49 am (UTC)
that's exactly it--p.bates does brutal shit, but it's not just to women

[Ok, rabidgod--that's quite a screenname, btw--so by your "logic" that means that if a man's behavior does anything else other than that which you determine to be misogynistic, that renders every misogynistic act he does null and void as such? I think that's ridiculous thinking.]

From: kunzelman
2009-02-23 04:07 am (UTC)

I think it's funny that one of the first things she says in the essay is that he commits acts of violence on homosexuals. The problem with that is that he doesn't. Louis Carruthers is never killed, only thought about.

[So we can now discredit her work altogether, is that your ploy?]

From: julian_r
2009-03-05 08:30 pm (UTC)
misogyny or not misogyny?

Regardless of whether a man's violence extends beyond violence against women, that doesn't mean the violence done to women isn't misogynistic. If a specifically white man goes around hanging several people from nooses tied to trees, if he chooses a Black man as one of his victims, that has racist/white supremacist meaning and effect, regardless of what his intention is. Violence against women is one form of misogyny. Acts' meanings and their effects aren't determined solely by the intent of the harmer. If that were so, "rape" wouldn't ever be rape, according to most rapists. Brett's work is deeply misogynistic, among other things. American Psycho may also be offering the reader a critique of corporate capitalism's dehumanisation of all of us. But that doesn't make the text misogyny-free. Acts have different meanings and effects, after all. And rarely do works of fiction have one "right" perspective only. If women who know what misogyny is and feels like, experience his book as misogynist, that makes it misogynistic. Otherwise, we set up a situation in which only elites--like you?--decide what something means--which is a terribly modernist notion. Who controls meaning anyway?

From: kunzelman
2009-03-05 09:44 pm (UTC)
Re: misogyny or not misogyny?

I think that you have a terrible lack of distinction between a character that is misogynistic, and a work that is misogynistic. AP functions as a criticism of capitalism, identity post-Reagan, and modernity in general. I would contend, at the same time, that it is not an inherently misogynistic work. The character of Patrick Bateman deeply hates women, that is true. At the same time, he hates minorities (of race and sexual preference), the socially outcast, and most importantly, himself. He also commits terrible acts of violence against all of these groups, or he at least fantasizes about it. Sure, I fully believe that there are misogynistic elements to the novel, but you cannot reduce the commentary on that novel down to pouring blood all over it. This is the same argument that we need to burn Heart of Darkness because of its racist elements. They are there, but is that the meaning?

At the same time, you ask who controls meaning. No one, and that's what's brilliant, but the author is only dead by so much. I think that there is more than enough evidence in AP, as well as Ellis' other books, that would suggest that Bateman is struggling with the problems of modernity more than his is being violent; the violence is just a byproduct of adjustment. Representations of violence against women are important, no doubt, but so are representations of violence against anyone or anything.

In most readings of literature, or anything for that matter, I will look at all representations in a vacuum. At the same time, Guattari is always in the back of my mind. We have to be careful of fascism, of the left and right, and coming down hard on either side of representation is not the way to evaluate it and the implications implicit within it.

If you feel offended by American Psycho, remove the effect of the representation from your body proper. Burn your own copy. Don't make yourself a target. I found value in it because it gave me a touchstone for a lot of things that I had ideas on, but never explored fully, like what commodification really is, or what misogyny and class-based hate is. No one controls meaning, you're right, but if you're going to push one meaning and protest another, you need to go about it a better way.

From: julian_r
2009-03-05 10:13 pm (UTC)
Re: misogyny or not misogyny?

Regarding this, from what you wrote above, kunzelman: "I think that you have a terrible lack of distinction between a character that is misogynistic, and a work that is misogynistic. AP functions as a criticism of capitalism, identity post-Reagan, and modernity in general. I would contend, at the same time, that it is not an inherently misogynistic work. The character of Patrick Bateman deeply hates women, that is true. At the same time, he hates minorities (of race and sexual preference), the socially outcast, and most importantly, himself."

For you such distinctions are apparently very plausible. For the oppressed--for me as a gay man and a Jew, for example, if a book is written by a white gentile man who creates a white gentile male character who kills Jews because they are Jews, gay men because they are gay, in the text, the author is in any way making those acts forms of entertainment or eroticism for the reader, they constitute acts of anti-Semitism, and homophobia. And guess what? It's not for white gentile men to determine whether or not that's the case. I found The Passion of The Christ deeply anti-Semitic. Many white Christians I know found it "deeply moving" and not anti-Jewish. Who is right? Well, the point here is that their opinions alone don't count, or trump other views and experiences of that film.

As you may have noticed, it's been "all the rage" to have female characters be beaten and raped only to rise up at the end and seek revenge against their abusers, sometimes killing them. An audience sits for an hour and forty-five minutes being entertained by seeing a woman being degraded and assaulted, often while her breasts and buttocks receive a stupid and fetishising amount of the heterosexual male supremacist director's attention. The audience "gets into" the scenes where a white woman and a woman of color battle it out. The audience watches women be terrifying, horrified, by one man or many men, throughout whole genres of literature and cinema. Are you making that case that if, when the closing credits roll, she's alive and they are dead, then the film automatically becomes politically and socially responsible? If you believe this, I strongly disagree with you, about this and other matters.

"In most readings of literature, or anything for that matter, I will look at all representations in a vacuum."

I would argue that for you to even think you can do so is, well, implausible, but even if you could, that doing so is a form of dehumanisation, and extraordinary privilege. Read, for example, A Language Older Than Words, by Derrick Jensen, for more. Or Endgame, volumes 1 and volume 2. Or The Culture of Make Believe.

"If you feel offended by American Psycho, remove the effect of the representation from your body proper. Burn your own copy. Don't make yourself a target."

I believe women have the right to protest in any way they see fit to protest whatever they experience and name as misogynistic. Resistance takes many forms. And needs to. And men telling women what misogyny is, is like whites telling people of color what racism is: you'll find lots of space to do just that, but it doesn't mean you know jack.

I don't own a copy of the book, so I've nothing to burn.

I would argue that, by definition, an oppressed social group, and the individuals that comprise the group, doesn't make it/oneself a target. One is targeted by people who exploit their power over people they structurally oppress. If I put a bull's eye image on my white t-shirt, and walk outside, I am not marking myself as a target, I am wearing a t-shirt.

Only the most privileged people on Earth, who collectively, as adults, aren't especially targeted for real violence by an oppressor group, the kind that hurts, humiliates, degrades, subordinates, maims, and kills. Those of us who are primarily concerned with social and economic acts that only offend, or who wish to debate about oppressive acts we might might find philosophically problematic, can afford to believe we make ourselves into targets. That's because we're in denial about what's really going on in the world of real people who are not us.

I am not particularly offended by Ellis or any of his characters. The issue at hand is harm, not offense. The latter exists in the mind, primarily, and is regulated by shifting perspectives one is socially free to shift. The former is experienced more in the body, in a collective body of people, and, in my view, ought not be determined or named by people who don't share that experience.

"if you're going to push one meaning and protest another, you need to go about it a better way."

I fear the day white men's voices, primarily, decide how best to fight either white supremacy or misogyny, which are not at all mutually exclusive. What am I saying?! We white men already do decide these things, through law, policy, structures of civilisation, language, etc. See Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior, by Marimba Ani, for much more on this.


Flores said...

Could give me some examples of the stunning racist herstories of radical feminism?

Julian Real said...

Hi Flores.

I better be able to, or else I'd be an idiot to post such a thing. (And, when you're done reading what follows, please let me know if I'm an idiot.)

Here's my quote, from which your question comes:

When white profeminist men show or tell what we've read that educated us about feminism (often in these men's own writings), I see the passing along of stunningly racist herstories of "Radical [unnamed race almost always meaning "white"] feminism".

I will own, first of all, that I have been part of that stunningly racist herstory telling, but am (I hope) less so now than I was twenty years ago. Whether directly stated or not, I have done many of the racist things that follow.

When the only people some white men (from various political locations) consider to be exemplars of "radical feminism" are white women, I feel compelled to speak out and call that out as racist-misogynist CRAP. This is to say that the 'herstories' I'm speaking of here are often ones told by men to other men.

One example is on two white men's blogs, and on one white man's MySpace page, where it is very clear the agenda they have set for themselves, as self-identified pro-radical feminists, is an agenda that is one that leaves out the struggles of women of color that whites don't experience directly because of white privilege and position.

Another example is a conversation I had with an older, "wiser" profeminist man, who was telling me about feminism and pornography. When I brought up Audre Lorde's essay The Uses of The Erotic as one of the most significant writings on the topic of pornography and power, he looked confused. I realised he'd never read it. I was stunned because he was someone I considered to be "well-read" in feminist literature, especially non-fiction work.

"Pro-radical feminist" men's racism, our white supremacy, shows up in a variety of ways.

Only quoting, citing, or celebrating white women when discussing feminist issues, feminist theory, and feminist herstory.

Praising all the work of Andrea Dworkin without noting her work exposing various forms of white male supremacy and racist-misogyny (not only male supremacy and misogyny). And forgetting that in the introduction of her very first book, published in 1974, that, as a white woman, Dworkin wrote that Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman were her sheroes, exemplars of women's strength and stamina, and that unless white women deal with their racism and classism, the movement cannot be radically effective, which is also to say, "radical". (I'm paraphrasing.)

Holding Andrea Dworkin or Mary Daly up as "the" example of what a radical feminist looks like. (Many women of color and white women know I've done that with Andrea Dworkin.)

Only quoting women of color when talking about racism or when discussing the relationship of whites to people of color.

Never discussing how whiteness impacts any white person's ability to see reality in ways not distorted by white privilege, power, and position. This is partly to say that if a white person suggests "let's challenge racism" the conversation is rarely focused on those people's whiteness and its oppressive manifestations, and instead focus on other white folks and "their" racism.

Not really, carefully, "in a posture of listening" as Pearl Cleage writes, hearing women of color, or, when listening, responding patronisingly, condescendingly, or without the kind of regard and respect shown to white women. I have seen this on the blog of one white man who takes great pride in his anti-racism.

Considering "the women's movement" to have been created by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or to consider it to have begun with Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan, or to believe it started primarily due to the writings of Kate Millett, Robin Morgan, and Mary Daly, when Florynce Kennedy, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker were right there too, among many other women of color and white women, whose names fall out of the mind due to the tendency to collapse history or herstory into the stories of a few great individuals.

When "pro-radical feminist" white men deeply value Catharine MacKinnon's work, including on sexual harassment law, we don't realise how central women of color were to the creation of that law.

The "radical feminist anti-pornography movement" (and other anti-male violence movements) is often written up as being started by and continued only by white women. From the stories I have heard about who the activists were and are, women of color have always been part of that and other "radical feminist" movements and campaigns, but are often invisibilised because they didn't publish a book or twelve. Sometimes they're invisilbised even when they have published many books on these subjects.

When radical white feminists and profeminists don't consider the collective works of bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Patricia Williams, and Pearl Cleage (to name only four of many contemporary radical feminist women), to be "critical radical feminist reading".

Seeing gay white men only refer to white lesbian feminists as the lesbians who inspired them.

Seeing that self-identified white anti-racist feminists have described texts that constitute a good education in radical feminism as consisting of texts written only by white women.

When "radical feminism" is defined by whites, or when whites insist on a definition that, by its parameters, leave out many radical feminist women of color's work; and those women may or many not identify themselves as such precisely because there is a dominant cultural assumption that "radical feminist" = white woman. (Catharine A. MacKinnon once wrote something that reminded me that most women who fight male supremacy do not identify as feminists, let alone as radical feminists; this doesn't mean that their efforts are not radically feminist.)

The lack of knowledge, including within myself, of the central role Indigenous North American women had in the creation of the period of feminism attributed primarily (or entirely) to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

When women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and Fannie Lou Hamer, to name but four African American women, have not been counted as U.S. radical feminists, when the story of U.S. radical feminism is told.

I have been stunned by my own inability to come up with many names of Asian and Asian American feminists and other activists of color, as some of the women instrumental in the formation and maintenance of radical feminism.

When white feminist and profeminist blogs do not acknowledge the work of Yanar Mohammed.

I am stunned that women of color who, daily, are risking their lives to fight for women's safety and justice on a community or national level, are not even acknowledged as contemporary sheroes and won't be considered by some whites to be "radically feminist" because they haven't taken a stand on pornography, in part because pornography is not one of the main things threatening their and their sisters' lives.

I have been stunned that the visions laid out, among profeminists and white feminists, all of whom consider themselves radical, do not seem to notice that Indigenous women exist, or know what their many priorities for activism are, and that the unchecked promotion of Western Civilisation is the promotion of Indigenous women's deaths, globally.

When white feminists and profeminists take credit for work done by women of color.

And perhaps I am an idiot to be stunned at all. But I continue to be stunned my own behavior which radical feminist women bring to my attention as "misogynistic" and/or "racist". And it is brought to my attention most often by women of color.