A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a male friend about a particular facet of sexual behaviour common amongst some of his female friends that he found baffling.
He found it particularly so because the friends in question were mostly of the feminist persuasion, and the preferences in question struck him as rather, well, patriarchal. One of them had even said to him, “You know, this really makes me a bad feminist.”
To which I replied, “The thing is though, in one way or another, every feminist is a ‘bad’ one.”
"How so?" he asked me.
Well, I explained, feminism (and its associate movements, such as anti-racism, anti-ableism, anti-classism, anti-homophobia, etc) is a political critique of a wildly imperfect world. It draws to our attention the many ways in which inequalities manifest themselves, and gives us to the tools to question things that might otherwise be taken as natural, or ‘givens’.
But just because we’re able to make those critiques and ask those questions doesn’t mean we’re not also products of that world. Human beings are deeply social creatures, and it is not so easy to extract ourselves from 15, 20 or 40 years of social conditioning. Hence, individual women - even feminist women - might continue to engage in behaviours that are oppressive to themselves (or, more problematically, to others), even if on an intellectual level we understand the ways in which our behaviours and desires might have been socially conditioned. The process of reprimand and reward runs deep.
What’s more, it’s entirely possible for behaviours that might be construed as patriarchal or gender-normative to provide genuine - and I would argue, unproblematic - pleasures.
For example, I like to cook, but not because women have been traditionally told to get our arses into the kitchen. I like to cook because I like learning about different flavours, what I like and what I don’t, and I like having the power to decide what I do and don’t eat, and to fill my body with healthy, tasty food. Similarly, I pretty much only wear dresses - partly because they flatter my body, but also because I genuinely find them more comfortable to wear. I don’t think it’s about being “feminine” - I’d at least argue there would be some social reward in wearing pants more often, anyway.
And telling someone else not to do something relatively harmless that brings them happiness and pleasure would make me just as “bad” a feminist as engaging in behaviour I suspect to be a consequence of my own social conditioning.
So in what ways am I a bad feminist? I spend too much time and/or money trying to achieve the long, mostly-straight-slightly-wavy, hair ideal. I believe in and desire marriage (not immediately, but at some point) even though I know that this desire is partially grounded in an illusion of stability, and in women’s socialisation to derive value from being “chosen” by someone else. And I have been known to pass judgment on other women for their ostensibly “anti-feminist” behaviour - because, well, as much as I believe in the individual’s behave as they please, I also don’t think it’s right to erase the politics from the personal. And because, to borrow from Avenue Q, everyone’s a self-righteous asshole sometimes.
Point is, each and everyone one of us is politically imperfect.
Personally, I’ve come up with two main ways of navigating these contradictions.
First, I try to focus my own critiques on behaviours rather than on individuals. Knowing that most people engage in sexist (or racist, or classist, or homophobic, or ableist) behaviour on occasion - whether intentionally or otherwise - I find it more helpful to focus on what is problematic about a behaviour or pattern of thought, than with what’s wrongwith that individual. And when it comes to my and other people’s choices about their own lives, my modus operandi is that everyone is free to do as they wish (so long as they’re not hurting anyone), but that does not mean our choices are exempt from political criticism or debate.
What about you? In what ways are you a “bad” (or good) feminist, and how do you navigate these ambiguities to be a “better” one?
Elsewhere: Choice may be sacred, but it’s not always empowering (SMH)