I am trying to teach people about feminism, but I don’t even know if I am a feminist. Or, I call myself a feminist, but I don’t really know what that means. Nobody seems to really know what that means, because feminism doesn’t really seem to be about anything anymore, except as a collection of aesthetic sensibilities (buying certain t-shirts, expecting a certain number of women to be in the superhero movies I watch, wanting people to mind what words they use when). This is not to say that there isn’t feminist action happening—you only need look at the Herculean efforts of women in Argentina, Ireland, and First Nations women in Canada to know that feminist activity is abounding—but these are limited campaigns, limited actions with limited goals. Abortion, contraception, equal pay, employment rights, these are all the demands that serve as cornerstones of feminism (and have since its earliest days!), but they are just that: demands. They aren’t strategies, they aren’t tactics, they aren’t ideologies, and half the time, we don’t even know why we call these things feminist demands, just that we do, to say nothing of problematising whether or not we even should call them feminist.
And herein lies the crux of the problem: feminism doesn’t mean anything anymore. Everyone, so it goes, is a feminist these days. The barrier to entry is nonexistent, with a gesture as simple as purchasing a $25 graphic t-shirt, you too can be a feminist. The ‘movement’—if it even merits that label, which I’m not convinced it does—is so amorphous as to be practically uncriticisable. Who do you hold to account for the lack of strategy, when all of us are equally as feminist as the next person? Is it Mary-Sue-Ann in the ‘I Drink Male Tears’ t-shirt’s fault that the movement doesn’t have a 5-,10-, or 20-year strategy? Is she more or less to blame than Cheryl Sandberg, or Angela Davis, or Gloria Steinem?
So why does feminism not mean anything anymore? Where did we lose our way? Feminist historians have lots of answers—as a lapsed one myself, I can certainly rattle off moments in history that feel like the moment it all went wrong: Women’s Liberation Movement conferences gone awry, political campaigns that relied too much on the American legal system, the election of Margaret Thatcher… All of these feel like good answers to the question, they sound nice and clever, and importantly, they absolve us in the present day of any responsibility. The truth is, as bell hooks writes, far more mundane than any Singular Event, but rather the professionalisation and institutionalisation of feminism. “The dismantling of consciousness-raising groups,” she writes, “all but erased the notion that one had to learn about feminism and make an informed choice about embracing feminist politics to become a feminist advocate.” When ‘feminist’ became a viable career choice, feminists who staked their livelihoods needed to ensure that those livelihoods weren’t taken away from them; the radicalism inherent to feminism, a radicalism borne of criticising the status quo, or proposing, defending, and living out alternatives to patriarchy, all became untenable—it’s very hard to kick out against the structures of patriarchal oppression when it is the patriarchy itself that pays your bills. But that’s a bad narrative, it’s an uncomfortable one, and it implies that, in some small way, feminism (and by extension, feminists, including the individuals who now cash their paycheques in its name) failed. Rather than radicalising feminism, it was necessary to universalise it, to make it palatable (and marketable!) to as many people as possible, to ensure that feminists could feel like they’d succeeded even if in practical terms, they hadn’t.
A fundamental rule of marketing is that you can’t call your customer a cunt. Another fundamental rule of marketing is that you probably also shouldn’t call them a moron. Unfortunately, these are both essential elements of intellectual debate, and have been since the very earliest days of the Enlightenment—unpleasant, difficult, and often outright cruel discussions have always been a cornerstone of the development of intellectual and political movements globally and historically. Should that be the case? Maybe, maybe not, maybe we would get farther if we learned to be a smidge nicer to one another, but the parallel (and well-documented) conflation of disagreement with cruelty has stifled the evolution and course-correction of feminism, allowing it to be almost entirely hijacked by those who would see it turned into little more than a slogan on a graphic t-shirt. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for a return to the brutality of the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement (though I would argue that it has truly never left, it’s just that the women doling out the brutality are now the ones in power), but I am arguing that we need to throw off the yoke of marketability and get comfy with being uncomfy.
I don’t say this to be pretentious, but the average person who calls themselves a feminist really shouldn’t be doing that. They haven’t done the reading, they haven’t done the thinking and introspection, and they haven’t exhibited the praxis necessary to earn that label. Yet poll a room of left-liberal people, and easily 90% or more of them will openly identify as feminists. That’s an enormous problem, a problem that should be getting far more airtime than it is. The truth is, I don’t want people—here meaning left wingers, I really couldn’t give a fuck about liberals—to feel comfortable calling themselves feminists unless and until they can argue back against principled anti-feminists on both the left and right. I don’t want ten thousand people who call themselves feminists but subscribe to bad or meaningless feminism, I want a hundred people who subscribe to ideologically-rigorous feminism and can defend it as staunchly as they defend socialism. And the only way we’re going to get there is by teaching people about feminism, and then putting it into practice. Good feminism, not shitty, milquetoast, fits-on-a-bumper-sticker feminism. If I had to trade for a world where nobody called themselves a feminist but everybody did feminist things, I would make that trade in a heartbeat, because it would mean at last—at last!—a recognition that political ideologies are instructions for action, not identity labels.
One of my biggest worries is that a focus on comfort and marketability has made it impossible to teach people about feminism. I am not railing against ‘wokeness’ generally, or the apparently-popular surge of support for increased sensitivity for the life situations of those around us—those are broadly good things, and things I am happy to see more of. What I am worried about is that the emphasis on conflict avoidance over conflict resolution means that the extremely, extremely questionable tenets of liberal feminism are impossible to dismantle because it requires dealing with subjects that are, well, uncomfortable.
I know someone who calls herself a feminist, puts her pronouns in her work email signature, donates money to women’s empowerment funds, and thinks we should deport more refugees. I also know someone who calls people ‘pussies’ when he plays video games, who doesn’t know what a pronoun is, and, for his defence of low-wage women workers in a highly-exploited industry, is a better, more strident defender of the rights of working-class women than almost anyone else I know. Of these two people, I know who is on my team, and who I want on my team, yet the standard liberal feminist calculation would have me chose the woman who loves a little deportation over the man who is occasionally uncouth, solely because the woman knows to keep her language civil, and the man doesn’t. Liberal feminists get incredibly caught up in the politics of language, because language is all they have. They don’t have a revolutionary programme for overthrowing patriarchy, so they’re forced to tinker around the edges of it, quibbling over word choice and jargon instead of building the coalitions necessary for destroying patriarchy.
Andrea Long Chu, in her stunning essay on the relationship between desire, gender, and sexuality, points out that there’s an inherent crassness to this very intimate question over the sense of self. Transness, she argues, is fundamentally about desire, and desire isn’t mandated by political programmes or etiquette books, it’s motivated by something that’s a little ugly, a little rough around the edges, but ultimately untrammeled. This observation is extendable to the sheer bulk of human experience: it’s all a little fucked-up, it’s filled with vulgarity that can’t be ignored, no matter how hard moralists try. Because the human experience is crass, we need to accept that any movement that tries to improve the lives of actual, breathing human beings is going to have to contend with crassness, too. This, really, is where modern, mainstream feminism fails to cope, its emphasis on comfort in a world that is unendingly uncomfortable means the discussions that need to happen can’t.
I am trying to teach people about feminism, and I don’t want everyone to come out of it feminists. Or, I do, at least in the long run, but I don’t want people to sign up to my explanation of feminism simply because I’m a woman, and because we ought to defer to women on issues of feminism. Why? Because feminism isn’t only a women’s issue. Yes, it suffers for the (perhaps unfortunate) name that implies a centrality of the experience of women, but the destruction of the patriarchy is something that will improve the entire human condition, not just the women’s half. As such, it’s a movement that needs not just the support of men, but the active engagement of men with its structure. Men need to come not just to Reclaim the Night marches, they need to be criticising fucked-up strategies promoted by feminist groups, not just letting it pass them by because women are inherently more correct about feminist strategy than men.
Left wingers are content to make fun of liberals for frothing at the mouth over ugly shots of six women doing Tory power stances in billion dollar film franchises, but they’re not content to make fun of themselves for having no viable alternative to that brand of feminism, except slapping ‘socialist’ stickers on their ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirts. I need people to treat feminism as seriously as they would treat Marxism, and I need them to recognise that Marxism’s history is littered with bitterly uncomfortable disputes that ultimately led to better outcomes for Marxist praxis and theory. I need people to get uncomfortable with occasionally telling the women in their lives that they’re bad feminists when they do things that represent acts of bad feminism. I need people to get comfortable being wrong, not knowing everything, and telling other people that they are wrong or don’t know everything. I am trying to teach people about feminism, and I’m struggling to do it because feminism right now is bad, and we’re all too scared to talk about it.