Tag Archives: gender

Why I Am Not A Feminist

(Update: This seems to have travelled some little way on Twitter and someone (http://twitter.com/OrangeThoughts) asked me if I had any examples of the below. Well, how about Robin Thick informing us that Blurred Lines was in fact a feminist movement? Or former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer – another feminist? I culled both those examples from this rather excellent piece by Meghan Murphy on XO. It was the first piece on Google that came up when I searched on ‘men calling themselves feminists‘.  I also (let’s face it, I live in my own little bubble where the only gender theory action I usually get is blowing the dust off my masters notes, feeling guilty about whether I’ve forgotten to stack the dishwasher and arguing with my five year old about Barbie) had no idea that there was an entire thing call ‘Pro-feminism‘. My core point, though remains. I’m a man I’m best off leaving being a feminist to people who identify as women. And the sterling examples of ‘feminists’ cited above do rather back me up.)

This post is addressed to men, not women.

The short explanation of “Why I am not a feminist” would be “Because I’m not a woman.” But, given the amount of unprompted, wounded whining I see drifting into my Twitter stream like so many tender, dead, little fledglings caught in a flood of feminist outrage, I suppose I should go into a little more detail.

‘Feminist’ is an interesting term. The Oxford English dictionary pronounces it as meaning a “person who supports feminism”. Feminism is pithily defined as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”. On the face of it, you’d think people who defined themselves as being members of either sex could easily identify as feminists and no harm done. But then you look at the root of the problem – power, and where it’s situated – and the limitations of this definition immediately become apparent. A feminist may well be an ‘advocate of women’s rights’ but advocacy without an analysis of the power relations between the advocate and those that the advocate intercedes on behalf of risks becoming patronised at best and fatally compromised at worst.

Think of the relationship between Western nations providing aid to former colonies in the Third World and its unintended consequences. All too much of it is predicated on the basis of “We are going to save you”. The underside of this generous salvation is “We know what is best”. And the underside of that is “We are still in charge. And we still own your oil fields.”

Women earn less, work more and are subject to an ongoing torrent of sexual abuse from all sides. Do I really have to explain where the balance of power is in this particular relationship.

Rachel Bowlby, in an essay called ‘Domestication’ (Deconstruction, A Reader, ed. Martin McQuillan, 2000) notes that “what gets domesticated – in this case a form of feminist theory – is something defined as being subversive of what will thereby attempt to take it over , settle it down, suppress its difference.”

If Feminism is anything, it’s disruptive of the established order. Let the established order speak for feminism and it’s game over.

That’s why when someone who identifies as a man claims to be a feminist, many feminists, veterans of too many long meetings dominated by men speaking at great length, get annoyed. They think that the man, by claiming the mantle of feminist, is somehow attempting to speak for them. And whether the man means to or not he is.

This is the crux of it.

If you speak on behalf of the voiceless, you continue to deny them a voice.

If you speak on behalf of people who very much have a voice, you deny them that voice.

If you are a man and you call yourself a feminist, you’re colonising a place you have no right to. You can be lots of other things. You can be a supporter of women in the workplace. You can vote for parties who pass empowering laws. You can complain about other men who harass women. And so on. But what you can’t do is co-opt the feminist voice. Because that belongs to women.

In short, the best thing a man can do when a woman is speaking is shut up and listen.

And if you call yourself a feminist and a woman gives you a slap for it, button your lip and take it like a man.

“The Rebel Worlds” by Poul Anderson (1969)

Poul Anderson’s The Rebel Worlds begins so promisingly:

Make oneness.

I/we: Feet belonging to Guardian of North Gate and others who can be, to Raft Farer and Woe who will no longer be, to Many Thoughts, Cave Discoverer, and Master of Songs who can no longer be…

And so on, for five hundred or so impenetrable, poetic, evocative words as Anderson takes us deep into the thoughts of the thoroughly alien race he’ll eventually (and all too briefly) introduce us to. Unfortunately, we’re cheated. The novel we’re actually given is a fairly standard, if entertaining, space opera enlivened by a chastely portrayed love triangle between doomed, heroic figures: Commander Flandry, the swashbuckling, womanising hero of a number of Anderson’s books, the rebel Admiral McCormac and his wife Kathryn, whom Anderson blesses with one of the more bizarrely rendered accents I’ve encountered in a major character. Possibly it’s meant to be Irish. It reads like the speech impediment I had as a child.

“Well, learnin’ does seem to go easier’n for our race, but ’tis not instantaneous…”

Overall, this is classicist stuff – readers of Heinlein and the ‘New SF’ of the late sixties will recognise the push and pull between reactionary libertarianism (men are men and women are…well, we’ll come to that) and counter-cultural mores (“We have the regular assortment of drink and drugs…and would you like a bite to eat?”).

The plot, hinging on the tension between rebellion for short-sighted but well-meanng motives versus long-sighted paternalistic imperialism, is well structured and pacey and the action sequences all you’d expect from the author of Broken Sword. Flandry is a surprisingly complex creation and the aforementioned aliens justify the entire book.

But seldom have I encountered a text so thoroughly (and, occasionally, comically) of its time – 1969.

“Because his object was not to enlighten but to simply to seduce her, he twirled his mustache and leered…”

Oh. My God. The lead character has a mustache. Which he twirls. The mission he’s sent on interrupts his birthday celebrations with “three gorgeous girls, ready and eager…” A page later, he meets another woman dressed in a ‘translucent wisp of rainbow.’ Fortunately, “she was constructed for it…”

Finally, however, Flannery meets his match in the formidable Kathryn. Astonishingly, she looks like his mother! And he promptly gets the hots for her like no other woman he’s ever encountered in his life. Perhaps its because she’s dressed in a “nacreous slip”?

What exactly is going on here? From ‘woman is the recreation of the warrior’ to Oedipus within a few hundred words? She is of course, a red-head. Every ‘strong woman’ in the whole history of 20th century SF has red hair, from EE ‘Doc’ Smith and his Lensmen onwards. She’s also broad-shouldered, muscular, bronzed and did I mention that she looks like his mother

Enough already. The Rebel Worlds is a product of its time and no more or less sexist than most of the rock music or art produced in the late sixties. The question one has to ask is “Shouldn’t science fiction writers of the time have known a little better?” One can make excuses for Dickens – I’m not so sure that ‘it was the times’ holds completely true by the time we were putting a man on the Moon.

Still, there are at least those aliens which provide another Freudian twist to the text. They’re tri-partite beings consisting of a lumbering manual labourer, a flittering bird of prey type thing and a vaguely chimp-like creature. Together, they form a single sentient being. It’s hard not to speculate about ids, egos and superegos, though Anderson’s id seems to take charge of his typewriter every time a woman wanders (slinks, sashays, flirts…) onto the page. 

Overall? Read with gritted teeth or (better) seek out Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness, published in the same year. After that, things would change. Slowly.

Me, Tori Amos and Bjork

The wonderful Noble Savage left a nice comment on my Confessions post about me and Tori Amos.

It’s a weird thing because Tori is at utter odds with most of my listening but I’ve got almost everything she’s released. The song ‘Playboy Momma’ made me cry when I first heard it and I suspect that album – “Songs From The Choirgirl Motel – is possibly my favourite. Wish she’d edit a bit these days, though.

I’m falling in love – aesthetically – with another female singer more and more these days, though – Bjork and especially “Vespertine”. With Bjork in general and “Vespertine” in particular, I wonder whether it is to do with the lack of the maturity? confidence? courage? to deal with the self-examination and challenge of a powerful woman dealing with complex issues of love, sexual and otherwise. I used to utterly put down Bjork ( “That’s not a tune, it’s a Bjork”) and could be very cutting to people foolish enough to admit liking her music in my presence. Why? I think I was scared of embracing the music of a strong female artist who celebrates her life and psyche so completely and honestly. Tori Amos is no different as a human being, I’m sure, but much of her work chronicles damage and survival. It’s easier on the sense of requiring less emotional work to relate to that if you’re me.

Oh, and if you’re reading this and you remember some bitter little squib sneering because you idly mentioned that Venus As A Boy was a pretty good tune, sorry. I was wrong. Still not too fond of that particular song though.

(from Oxford Circus on my iPhone, hence any typos.)