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August 3, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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The Real F-Word

Feminism is so difficult to talk about that it’s become a bit of a social taboo. Is ‘feminism’ the new F-word?

There’s something ominous about writing for the women’s issue. While I’ve had no issue arguing about the harmful side of fitspo, or the problematic way New Zealand media portrays Māori, it’s as if this is the one chance I get to say something about women’s rights. So let me say this: that’s messed up.

It seems somewhat counterintuitive to me to even have a women’s issue. Surely, boiling women down to a weekly theme like ‘sport’ or ‘food’ is the kind of objectification of women that feminism objects to? For me, the very core of feminism is equality and liberation. All genders should be embraced and celebrated. If women are to be treated equally, there shouldn’t be an entire issue dedicated solely to women. This just reaffirms the notion that women are, and therefore should continue to be, treated differently because of their gender. This is exactly what I oppose.

But the very fact that I felt the need to explain that proves exactly why it really is necessary to dedicate an issue to women. Things won’t change unless we talk about them.

But talking about feminism is hard.

The discussion is still in its early stages, like we’re at a family dinner and your mum just told your sister it was you who ran over her cat three years ago. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of jumping up and down, a lot of yelling. Your dad thinks you’re fighting over a hat. What’s more, your other siblings, who were key witnesses of the incident, have only just walked in the door.

To reiterate what has become perhaps an unnecessarily elaborate metaphorical scenario, conversations about feminism have, for a long time, left out key participants who have equally important things to say as those who have been leading the charge. For many, the conversation is quite scary. A lot of people don’t know what to say, or how to say it. Others are blissfully unaware the conversation is even going on.

As with many social movements, the mainstream media has been a dominant contributor to broader feminist discussions, presenting a limited range of perspectives in such a manner that pays lip service to feminism without upsetting the present patriarchal order. If feminism is seen to be discussed on television or in the newspaper, people feel assured that some kind of progress is being made, and are therefore less likely to revolt or feel the need for more drastic measures.

Perhaps that is too media-essay-ish. Stay with me. Take, for example, discussions of pay inequality between men and women. This is an easy issue for mainstream media to address. It’s something that appears to be remedied relatively easily by putting pressure in relevant political and commercial areas. No one feels personally accountable. It’s someone else’s problem. And for a moment, it seems as though women’s rights are being taken seriously. If it’s in the news, then presumably someone somewhere will do something about it. You just stay there on the couch.

But pay gaps are only a small part of the problem. How is mainstream media to deal with deeper, societal issues that have no quick-fix solution – like posts such as this from Overheard @ Vic:

“Overheard in the library level 3:

Chick 1 : “I brought home a guy on saturday and i can’t believe he just left because i didn’t sleep with him!”

Tbh I don’t know why the bitch is complaining, put out or get out. [sic]”

This post of symptomatic of New Zealand’s rape culture. Someone presumably thought this was funny, and I chose not to respond with, “well, bastard, tbh I don’t know why you think women are sex toys”, for fear that I would be ridiculed and misunderstood.

While it’s hard enough to articulate that these sorts of throwaway comments perpetuate a culture in which sexual assault is framed as the victim’s problem, something that women should protect themselves against, no one wants to watch news that tells them they’re the problem.

Of course, no one woman can speak to the needs of all, nor should they try. To return to the gender-pay-gap example, the discussion usually focusses on women already in well-off positions missing out on top executive-type roles, like positions on political-party lists and partners in law firms, disregarding consideration of women’s unemployment and other systemic hurdles.

There are multi-layered facets of oppression to deal with. This is what intersectional feminism recognises – that oppression is experienced in varying interrelated configurations based on aspects of identity such as race, gender, class, ability, religion and ethnicity. Ava Vidal, writer for The Telegraph, explains that as a black woman, she faces both racism and sexism daily. It’s a treacherous negotiation. Vidal gives the example of someone calling Chris Brown a “black bastard”. Vidal’s objection to the racism of such a statement was misconstrued by a white woman as meaning Vidal condoned Brown’s physical assault of Rihanna. Intersectionality recognises that Vidal is not only black, or only a woman, that she is always both, and more.

Intersectionality raises awareness that feminism that is overly white, middle-class, cisgendered and able-bodied presents just one view. Traditionally, this view is that which is seized by mainstream media. SlutWalk, for example, protesting against the notion that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order to prevent being raped, was all over the news. But of course it was – hot white women were walking around topless.

Without integration of diversity among women, the feminist movement risks fragmentation and waning effectiveness. If one voice speaks louder than the rest, others may be so far marginalised they no longer recognise the movement as their own. This is not to say that feminist discussions need to be homogenous, but rather, the feminist movement needs to be united in order to be productive. For the feminist discussion to be united and productive, it needs first and foremost to be accessible to everyone.

The internet provides a forum to develop alternatives to the entrenched mainstream notion of feminist imperatives and assumptions. There’s an opportunity presented by the internet for traditionally muted voices to speak as loudly as those usually permitted by mainstream media, as it grants equal access and is non-hierarchical. It’s not perfect, of course – not everyone has unfettered access to the internet, but it’s definitely progress.

Tumblr and Twitter have played integral roles in consciousness-raising – connecting individual problems to social ones in order to counteract the mainstream media’s narratives of feminism. Feminist discussions are enhanced by the inclusion of as many voices as possible. It also enables those unwilling to participate in extreme demonstrations and protests to become feminist activists.

Social media allows for teaching moments, in which individuals are able to share their knowledge in a conversation, including references to other stories and research, which others can then listen in on and interact with. There are countless examples of this kind of productive conversation – such as a discussion on BlackinAsia’s blog of how the whiteness discussed on Tumblr is US-centric, and does not necessarily comply with the oppression ‘white’ women face in other countries.

But just because Tumblr provides this potential to learn does not mean the discussions on Tumblr necessarily always fulfil it. Feminist discussions have repeatedly been stereotyped as a ‘catfight’ – for good reason. Frequently, conversations on Tumblr result in users being called out for use of offensive terminology, or ignorance – there’s a lot of policing of feminist discussions. While in many situations this is necessary, in others it may be losing sight of what’s truly in issue.

Mikki Kendall began a #lesstoxicfeminism conversation on Twitter about how to have a less hostile and more productive discussion. Over-policing may silence voices and discourage people from engaging in the discussion for fear of chastisement of their best-intended comments. The feminist movement can’t call for conversation while also invalidating people’s contributions because of an unfortunate word choice. If someone is willing to speak up, it’s likely they’re also willing to learn.

It’s all very well for everyone to be able to join in a conversation, but are the necessary people really listening? Conflict and aggression makes for interesting news; constructive discussion lacks the necessary click-bait sensationalism. Mainstream media discussions of feminism often only arise in relation to high-profile sexual-assault cases, reflecting a deep-seated problem with the way our society perceives women’s issues.

While intersectional feminism may struggle to gain traction with mainstream media, those involved in online conversations have an obligation to change their daily interactions with others, to explain and educate the unaware one brick at a time. Feminism is difficult to talk about at the best of times, so let’s not knock people down who demonstrate a willingness to try.


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