Last night, like many other Americans, I watched the Democratic Debate. I watched it with, more or less, the same low expectations I have when I watch the Republican Debates (which, for whatever reason, I do).
But what stood out to me, last night, was not necessarily the theater of the debate (and let’s face it, most debates are little more than performance art), but that a question, delivered by Andrea Mitchell to Bernie Sanders, seemed designed to humiliate Hillary Clinton.
Here’s the question, posed to Senator Sanders, Let me ask you a question. You called Bill Clinton’s past transgressions, quote, “totally, totally, totally disgraceful and unacceptable.” Senator, do you regret saying that?
This was not a policy question. This was not a question in re: Hillary Clinton’s past actions. This wasn’t even a question for Senator Sanders. Rather, this was a question posed entirely to embarrass Clinton, to shame her, to remind us all of the time her husband (not she) engaged in some quintessentially male, utterly reprehensible behavior. And what we are, as the viewers, to infer is that she (and not her husband) is responsible for that “transgression.”
Politicians’ lives are laid bare. That’s part of the deal. Part of the political game has become to amass dirt on your opponents and use it for your own gain. That’s the way it works. (One has to be something of a masochist to even want to enter politics – I mean, none of us are fucking saints. There’s always something to be had.) But I was struck by how truly fucked up, how deliberately humiliating, the question was. And while Sanders responded to the question perfectly, Clinton had to stand there, a tight, seemingly indifferent smile on her face, while this man commented on her husband’s inability to keep his dick in his pants. I saw this, too, during a Republican Debate, when Trump told Fiorina he thought she was a “beautiful woman” – she, too, had to stand there, pretending not to be humiliated, while some belligerent, repulsive mogul “evaluated” her on her looks.
And while these women, knowingly vulnerable to public scrutiny, have practiced their poker faces, questions about their spouses’ unfaithfulness to a marriage, comments on their physical appearance are not part and parcel of “politics as usual,” but an active, deliberate effort to annihilate a woman’s credibility vis-à-vis shaming them into obscurity.
Aren’t you ashamed to be seen in public because you’re over fifty?
Aren’t you ashamed to stand on this stage when your husband is a known philanderer?
Never mind your professional, political, academic accomplishments. You, as a woman, should be ashamed: for aging, for the decisions made by men in your life, for the thoughts and feelings you have had that don’t align neatly with what the male majority is telling you to think and feel and be.
And I think it matters that Andrea Mitchell, a woman, asked this grossly irrelevant question. I don’t know if Mitchell herself formulated the question, but it matters that she had to ask it and not the male moderator. Because I think it matters that we look at how women participate in these cheap “shaming” tactics, how women have internalized misogyny and, in turn, unleash that on other women.
There’s a lot of discussion in popular culture around the notion of “shaming” – “slut shaming,” “body shaming,” etc. Most of this talk, however, exists to encourage women to remain consumers and active participants in systems and industries that benefit men, but ultimately do women harm: make porn, keep prostitution legal and thriving, keep busy buying shit you don’t need, and buying into ideologies that work against your best interests . . . oh, and don’t stoooop believin’ that female is a feelin’ — in a man’s head!
Thanks to the gains made by liberal feminism, I can . . . uh . . . feel empowered by porn or my holiday weight gain (seriously, I got super friendly with the couch and went to town on some cookies and ham in the month of December) or I can empower myself by saying I’m “genderqueer” or something . . . And no one can SHAME ME for any of this because right now, all this shit is super cool.
Here are some things that women, according to the zeitgeist, CAN AND SHOULD be shamed for:
- Knowing penis is male
- Knowing gender is a construct
- Being a lesbian who doesn’t want to date men
- Having feelings that are “not feminist enough.”
I want to talk about the fourth variety of shaming for a moment, because it’s just as pernicious as the myriad other ways women are actually shamed, but almost never discussed. We reserve this fourth type of shaming for women who call “bullshit,” who feel their own feelings, who understand that their stories won’t always fit cleanly within the rigid parameters we’ve set up for “Feminist narratives,” but decide to tell those stories anyway.
As I’ve written, to the point of mental exhaustion, on this blog, feminism has come to mean “Whatever anyone says it means” – ergo, in popular discourse, feminism means absolutely nothing whatsoever. I mean, based on the current “meaning” of feminism, making this cup of tea I’m drinking was a feminist act because I, a female person, made the fucking tea.
And, as readers of this blog well know, I do not ascribe to 1) feminism means whatever anyone says it means (actually, it’s rooted in some solid theory and that theory requires meaningful praxis) and 2) feminism is for everyone. Because at its root, it’s not “for everyone” – it’s for female human beings.
I don’t even really believe in “types” of feminism: there is one feminism – the kind that prioritizes women and girls and tries to disentangle us from the toxic fucking mess patriarchal behaviors and norms (this includes gender) have ensnared us in: mind, body, and (ahem) ladysoul. This involves class analysis. This involves working with other women. This involves some knowledge of history, of theory, of root causes, of issues. This involves paying attention, and critical thinking. This involves being able to parse reality from delusion, even when the delusion feels better. This involves being able to call bullshit on dogma that, however trendy, will hurt women and girls in the long run. This involves empathy, and listening to women, and not shaming other women who have ideas that are different from my own. Shaming is a paternalistic tactic, and as a feminist, I don’t “do” paternalism.
I’m not interested in “equality.” I’m not interested in individuals and identities. I’m not interested in telling women what they can and cannot do, and I’m certainly not interested in telling women what they can or cannot feel. See, part of what I want for women is that they can feel however the fuck they want to feel, and NOT be ashamed for that, and NOT be libeled and slandered and run out of town for that. I want women to feel all their feelings, and to know they own those feelings.
Because here’s the funny thing about “feelings,” they stem from emotion and emotion doesn’t always line up with theory, with political inclinations, with principles. Women are human beings, and human beings have instincts and inclinations and desires and drives that – for better or worse – don’t always neatly align with sterile philosophy, much less intellect. Our feelings, also, don’t always reflect reality. That’s the tricky part about feelings: they’re valid, they have meaning, but they don’t always “make sense.” This is why we can’t (or rather shouldn’t) legislate feelings, why we can’t let feelings alone guide social movements, why we sometimes (as sane, rational people) have to examine our feelings, weigh them against a larger whole. We couple our feelings with our intellect; we try to strike a balance, and for most human beings, this is an ongoing struggle.
I had some feelings last week that didn’t line up neatly with my feminist convictions. I felt sad that David Bowie died. Like, really fucking sad. Like, water came out of my eyes, and I listened to Low on repeat pretty much all day. And as many of my feminist “friends” were quick to point out: David Bowie was a rapist, so feeling sad is wrong.
In fact, all over the internets feminists of all stripes – radical, liberal, genderfancy – were coming out of the woodwork to brow beat other women who felt sad that David Bowie was dead because he raped girls. Didn’t matter if you, like me, condemned Bowie’s actions, if you FELT SAD you were wrong. You were doing feminism wrong. And when a philosophy, even one I ascribe to, starts to mandate how one “feels,” we’re no longer merely in political territory: we’ve slipped into fanaticism, fundamentalism. And if history has shown us anything, it’s that fanaticism doesn’t bode well – especially not for women.
As someone who loves music and poetry and fiction and photography, I’ve long grappled with the fact that some of the art I admire was produced by horrible human beings: rapists, anti-semites, thieves, frauds, liars, men who battered women, women who abused their children . . . The question “how do we/should we separate the art from the artist?” is one of great interest to me.
And in a sense, I suppose I envy people who can simply say, “Now that I know that beloved piece of music was made by an asshole, I no longer feel an emotional connection to that music.” Or people who say, “Those two lines of poetry that gave me chills were written by a rabid anti-semite? Well! I am no longer moved!” But I can’t do that. And I don’t know if I’d want to do that. And while the question “should we/can we separate the art from the artist?” is a fascinating one indeed, it’s not a question whose answer – if it could be answered – has all that much meaning in the grand scheme of things.
I mean, yeah, you can stop watching re-runs of The Cosby Show now that we all know Bill Cosby is a monster (and he absolutely is), and I can stop listening to Ziggy Stardust because I know Bowie was a rapist (and he was), but as a “political act” where’s the value?
The music exists. My memories exist. My fondness for the music exists. Should I re-imagine my memories, reconfigure my feelings to fit my political ideologies? Am I committing a thought crime for having these feelings? Is this where we want to be? Where we’re accusing other women of “feeling crimes”? Is that our feminism?
I’m not interested in feelings. I’m interested in facts. I’m interested in actions and ideas. I don’t want to be in anyone’s head that way. I don’t want to dictate how women may or may not feel about their lived realities – hell, the “LGBT” orgs have cornered the market on that shit. I don’t want to manipulate women into conforming to what I believe by way of “shaming” them. I don’t want to be part of a society, much less a movement, that only values “certain feelings” and makes “one feeling” compulsory. The whole impetus for this blog was being sick to the back teeth of dudes “who feel like women” telling me how I should feel about them, how I should feel about myself. And it’s still happening. And it’s fucking painful, and I’m not going to heap more of that bullshit upon my sisters.
The fact is, you can attempt to set rigid parameters on people’s feelings, but it’s a pointless, futile endeavor. And shaming – whether it’s happening on a campaign stage, or on Twitter – is a cheap and easy, albeit deeply malicious, technique used to diminish the worth of women’s perspectives.
The trans lot will keep shaming women for knowing dick is male, and the LGBT orgs will keep shaming lesbians for not wanting dick, religious organizations will shame women for wanting birth control, journalists will shame Hillary Clinton for being married to a cheater, feminists will shame other feminists for having feelings that aren’t feminist enough, and me, I’ll be drinking my tea in peace, not worried about your feelings, and enjoying some beautiful music made by a shitty person.