Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Failing Feminism

This past week, I’ve been exposed to some interesting interpretations of femininity and what it means to be a woman. I watched Anita Ratnam present ‘Her and Bliss,’ a wonderful lecture-performance that depicted some of the many facets of the sacred feminine. I then attended a lecture that outlined Kali’s evolution from a little-known tribal goddess to one of the most powerful divinities in the Hindu pantheon. Being a goddess, clearly, is complicated.

Being a woman, even more so.

But it was when I was reading anthropological literature about women’s experiences as fashion models – supposedly as research for an ongoing project, but largely just an exploration of a topic I found oddly compelling – that I was forced to acknowledge that being a feminist is, quite simply, fraught.

Feminist scholars have long shared a love-hate relationship with fashion. To oversimplify the extant literature I’ve been skimming through, fashion models are either perceived as agents in the perpetuation of stereotypes about femininity, or as beautiful women caught in the same cycles of discipline and power as us lesser mortals.

Either-or. Something to make one long to hear faint echoes of old-school feminism, when change and progress seemed less nebulous, and when feminism seemed like it could claim something resembling an overarching agenda. Although, even back then, this unity of purpose must have seemed tenuous – for how could one ‘ism’ ever be expected to satisfactorily address the aspirations and demands of radicals, structuralists, race activists, cultural relativists, well-meaning liberals and socialists?

Feminism today is thought of as being deeply unfashionable, if not entirely antiquated. It doesn’t help that contemporary feminism is difficult to terms with, continuously assuming new positions and striking changing poses against the backdrop of a complex world. Contemporary feminism allows for all actions, gestures, conditions and objects – high heels, burkhas, arranged marriages, prostitution, becoming a home-maker, French parliamentarians taking their babies to work, abortion – to be interpreted as either empowering, or as symptomatic of socio-cultural oppression, depending on where one comes from and how one sees things.

The oppression-empowerment binary seems superficially similar to the ‘for-against’ foundation on which early feminism was built, but it is in fact fundamentally different. The words can be, and are, frequently used interchangeably. To put it simply, where one feminist sees oppression, the other sees empowerment. All except the most intractable contradictions are reconciled by invoking the word ‘choice,’ which fulfills the remarkable function of making the inequitable – such as the commoditization of women’s bodies – acceptable. ‘Choice’ as it used in the discourse of contemporary feminism is semantic sleight-of-hand at its most accomplished.

The politics of choice, the complexity of choice, the idea that social conditioning and obligations might, in fact, be shaping choice – these are questions that contemporary feminism, at least in its popular forms, often neglects to address. Academic feminists will engage with such questions, but all too often, their arguments are theoretical feats, having little or no bearing on change as it must be achieved in the world.

It’s impossible to define and describe feminism in any one way. It is also true that different women will interpret feminism differently, and will try to adapt it to the truth of their own lives. It's almost amusing to suggest it, but feminism needs to reconsider its own political correctness - there are only so many competing interpretations or points-of-view that any movement can accommodate before it collapses in on itself. And things can truly be said to have reached a point of no return when Sarah and Bristol Palin are anointed as flag-bearers for the new wave of Christian feminism. 

Feminism has had more than its fair share of adversaries and critics. Today, the criticism seems at least partly justified – which is unfortunate, because gender inequity remains pervasive, and the world needs its feminists. It’s often hard, though, to tell whether it is feminism that has failed women, or whether it is women who have failed feminism. 

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