*This piece was a collaborative effort between myself and the amazingly brilliant Phonaesthetica. (If you’re not reading her blog, you should, because she’s an incredible writer.)
It’s review day. Let’s clarify, once more, the differences between radical and liberal feminism.
Liberal feminism asserts that women’s liberation comes through equality with men, and therefore positions men as a benchmark, the “best possible case,” the default setting, the gold standard, the brass ring – if only to be respected like a man, if only to be paid like a man, or to be free to “choose pornography” or fuck anything that moves like a man. In liberal feminism, male is aspirational.
In liberal feminism, society itself isn’t broken, we just need to learn how to better exist within it – like men.
Radical feminism, on the other hand, understands that if you polish a turd, it’s still a turd. Radical feminism posits that the system itself is broken and the game is rigged. Radical feminism asserts that pornography and gender are designed to further subjugate women, while liberal feminism celebrates these as sources of female empowerment. Radical feminism is not concerned with appealing to males, or with making males feel comfortable, because radical feminists believe feminism should be a movement that prioritizes women, and that works to address and dismantle systems that contribute to female oppression – even when it makes men uncomfortable or angry, or divests them of some of their power.
Radical feminism isn’t very sexy.
So I’m never surprised that when the “f-word” comes up in popular culture, it is liberal – not radical – feminism on display. Liberal feminism is decidedly more palatable. Liberal feminism is totally safe and really poses no threat to the integrity of patriarchal infrastructures – on the contrary, liberal feminism often repurposes and supports the most pernicious elements of patriarchy.
This Emma-Watson-at-the-UN speech has been making the rounds on the internets, and I finally had a listen. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything radical, anything revolutionary, anything that challenged the dominant paradigms. Which saved me from disappointment, because it wasn’t there.
Watson was at the UN to promote a new campaign, called “He for She” – which is basically about reassuring men that feminists don’t hate them and that they should care about things like child marriage and rape because, um, gender can hurt men too.
While well intentioned, the speech is rife with liberal feminist “theory,” and I felt, given the popularity of the speech, it might be helpful to hit upon a few moments from Watson’s talk to illustrate some problems within liberal feminism, from a radical feminist perspective.
Exemplifying the rhetorical zeitgeist, Watson makes use of the term “gender equality.” What’s fascinating is the reliance on this term “gender equality” without any critique whatsoever of “gender” – e.g., men are, and are purposed for, Things A-L; while women are, and are purposed for, Things M-Z. (Hint: Things M-Z aren’t very fun. At best, they’re uncomfortable and limiting; at worst, they sign you up for violence and murder).
And on the heels of proclaiming the need for “gender equality,” Watson asserts, not unlike so many of her liberal feminist peers, “Men are imprisoned by gender stereotypes.”
Uh, no. That would be women. Are men impacted by gendered stereotypes? Absolutely. Do we “fix” men who stray from masculine stereotypes (as a way of upholding said stereotypes) by convincing them they are female? Yep. Are men imprisoned by gender stereotypes? That seems, how shall I say, a bit histrionic to me especially when gender itself, by design, exists to subjugate women. Even within the gender constraints, men seem, on the whole, to be enjoying a huge amount of freedom in contrast with these women or these or these — or even in contrast to Watson herself, who, for making some truly non-controversial claims about women’s equality has been threatened by men’s rights groups.
Watson also addresses the notion that people are reticent to embrace the word “feminism” in large part because the word has become synonymous with “man hating.” “Why has the word become an unpopular one?” she asks, following up with “If there is one thing I know for certain it’s that this has to stop.”
This of course is not the first time this question has been asked, and unanswered.
The word “feminism,” I would argue, has always been unpopular because it connotes a desire to free women from the prisons, literal and figurative, built by men. The unpopularity of the word “feminism,” as long as it retains its actual meaning, will never stop, because the very notion of true, unadulterated women’s liberation is deeply unattractive to men – and unattractive also to many women who have been so steeped in male bullshit they cannot fathom a life without it, or they do not know how to define themselves independent of the trappings of patriarchy. (Think: Plato’s “Cave.” Think also: this.)
Watson also mentions that feminists are viewed as “too strong, too aggressive, anti-men, unattractive.”
Whether the 24-year-old, straight Watson knows it or not, this reads like an old, tired code for “lesbian.”
What if we ARE very strong, both physically and intellectually? Like, with bulging muscles and a Ph.D? Like, bigger and smarter than all the men in any given room?
What if we ARE aggressive? (You know, like political activists tend to be?)
What if we ARE anti-what men as a class do to women as a class? What if we understand that individual stories, however interesting or inspiring – “My husband does half the housework and volunteers full-time at the rape crisis center!” – don’t take the place of class analysis; of statistics; of what we see going on around us every day?
And what if we are – horrors! – unattractive? Older than 24? Fat? Disabled? Big-nosed? Short-haired? Uninterested in couture and coiffure? Are we just a big dykey patch of shade thrown across the grand liberal feminist vision?
Granted, mainstream feminism has zero to do with liberating women, but the – ahem — stigma of the original meaning has remained. Even Watson says, “it’s not the word that is important.” In our world of hyper-relativism, ain’t that the truth.
Feminism should be unattractive to men, because men benefit from women’s oppression – from the theft of our labor as well as sexual and reproductive resources. Real, actual liberation movements shouldn’t give any fucks about what the oppressor thinks or feels. That’s for social clubs. And this ain’t the Rotary.
Liberal feminism posits that men and women share the same values, desires and goals across the board, because “We’re all just people, right?”
Radical feminism understands that men and women do NOT share values, desires and goals across the board (e.g. women don’t rape, nor do they generally make war, traffic in human beings or pillage the Earth for all available resources).
More importantly: radical feminists understand that we’ll all be “just people” after the first 24-hour truce in which there is no rape. We’ll all be “just people” on the day that no female infant is murdered for being female (having no way to “identify” her way out of it); on the day that no twelve- or ten- or five-year-old is sold in “marriage” to a grown man; on the day I can go where I can go where I want when I want without carrying a terrifying vulnerability between my legs. On that day we can be “just people,” but not before.
And as for speeches like Watson’s, as for campaigns like “He for She,” as for simply saying the word feminism, as for begging men to support its aims, or aspiring toward some abstract “equality” within a system that was built, from the ground up, with women’s subjugation in mind? This doesn’t work. This has never worked. This is merely an attempt to renovate a home that should by right be condemned and demolished.