Monday, September 22, 2014

Emma Watson & What Feminism Is

Emma Watson's UN speech was very articulate and surprisingly moving. A few comments to follow not necessarily on the speech but inspired by it. A prefatory comment, however, is required: to examine and question feminism critically is not in this context meant to denigrate women. That should go without saying, but unfortunately, such uncharitable antipathy happens enough that a preface is warranted.

If feminism is "by definition" the belief that in all cultural affairs (e.g. political, social, religious, economic, etc.) men and women should have equal rights and opportunities and that both sexes are equal (but with respect to what, this equality remains undefined), then the strange situation, which Watson even mentions towards the end of her speech, occurs in which people were feminists before ever self identifying as such (or ever could do so at all)—so-called "inadvertent feminists"—or in which people, after the fact of feminism, wish to maintain the belief that feminism purportedly upholds as defined above without accepting the label of feminist.

What is to be made of this strange alienation and tension? Perhaps it may be that there is a difference between feminism "actually" and the written definition of feminism, that feminism in its totality encompasses more than what it supposedly pursues or self identifies, that feminism has the "baggage" of additional, invisible cultural signifiers that, for good or for ill, make it somewhat if not very unappealing to those who otherwise subscribe to the core belief that feminism seeks to promote, namely, the equality of the sexes.

Perhaps the very ambiguity of the notion of equality, which not only I but many have explored, creates hesitation to accept a label that has capitalized, in some cases unconsciously and in others, consciously, on this ambiguity. This embrace of the ambiguity of a notion of equality has incorporated pursuing ends through various means that I, like others, have found objectionable. Perhaps not only have the means been found wanting but the ends as well. Perhaps because a precise notion of the end of feminism (i.e. its goal/purpose and not its annihilation) and the means entailed by this end cannot be settled or have yet to be settled in the political sphere that I, like others, have hesitated to embrace the label of feminist. (Full self disclosure here, however: I would say the only labels that ultimately matter—and hence the only label that I really consistently apply to myself—are the labels of the holy and the not-yet-holy [I fall under this one] that are best encapsulated by incorporation into the Catholic Church through Baptism and faith, i.e. becoming a committed Catholic, but this is for another discussion.)

Furthermore, generalizations must be made because the culture as such generalizes about feminism; this is the unescapable reality of this movement. Indeed, whether one likes it or not, feminism is a political movement that transcends all of its sub-groups and sub-purposes; it is a mass signifier under the control of the Other. As such feminism must and always remain a generalization, and the less sophisticated (this is not to call them unintelligent; perhaps "naive" or better yet "innocent" would be better than "less sophisticated") self-identifying feminists will always resent this association that is out of their control. (Of course, the real solution then would be to give up the identity and retain the core so as to escape being associated and compartmentalized before one has even finished a sentence; yes, the assumption here is that I see no hope in rescuing the notion of feminism from how it has evolved to its present form, nor do I quite see the practical point in making the effort to do so.)

Finally, the difficulty of generalization and its cultural utility and reason for its go-to is because one is frequently met with comments such as, "For me, feminism is..." If feminism possesses the shades of every individual, then feminism as such is being used as a generalization by the very people who resent its being used as a generalization. The line must be settled: is there a difference in kind or degree among these feminisms, and how shall this difference be adjudicated?

Thus the question must be asked as it is being asked: what really is feminism? Is it simply the assertion of gender and sexual equality? What does this equality entail and why? Etc.

Emma Watson is right in this respect: feminism is culturally associated with aggressiveness, anger, hostility if not hatred towards and of men, a certain subversiveness, etc. This association transcends the power of any individual or even corporate body to control; like almost every other cultural signifier, its deep channels and chains of signification have become mostly cemented in the popular mind, for good or for ill (Watson would say for ill).

Furthermore, Watson is right when she asserts that what is important is not the word "feminism" but the "idea and ambition behind it," i.e. the reality, the impulse, the intention both individual and corporate that works for this goal of gender equality. But what is the implication of accepting this proposition that the reality is more important than the word? Perhaps Watson has overlooked that feminism—the word—has been swept up off of its own feet, out of the hands of feminists and into the public forum as more than the ambition that originally inspired it. Perhaps now the word feminism signifies not just the "idea and ambition" of the most genuine and noble feminists but everything else that is disingenuous and ignoble about the movement. One must ask Watson why she would still accept the label of feminist even after having conceded the foundational premise that leads to the above conclusions. If she is committed to the core reality of feminism and not the word and understands that the word has come to be associated with many negatives, why still push the word feminism and apply it as a personal label?

I really must stress the notion of equality with respect to what because without this clarification, the discussion can never go anywhere. All animals naturally and on the most fundamental level sort objects of experience according to a threefold schema of 1) favorable; 2) unfavorable; or 3) indifferent. Objects are thus sorted unequally. Equality with respect to this schema could mean, and I'm giving only a few variations as examples, every object is treated according only to 1), 2) or 3), or it could mean that the same number of objects are divided equally into all three categories.

Furthermore, as animals we participate in any number of simple-to-complex social games. E.g., a man walks into a bar (this isn't a joke) to find a woman to hit on, and the two are already playing a game before the man ever enters. The game is by nature zero-sum, and men and women alike will experience both rejection and acceptance. What would equality look like in such a situation? What of other games? How far down the rabbit hole does this analysis and application go? Should it go there? Who shall enforce it? How shall it be enforced?

Perhaps these last examples may be called red herrings, but I bring them up simply to draw attention to the original point that equality with respect to what is not a self-evident notion. It is heuristic and requires deep and continued reflection and dialogue. Its application is as diverse as relationality itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments ad hominem or deemed offensive by the moderator will be subject to immediate deletion.