Where in the samhill have I been? Sorry, y’all. I have excuses, but posting them would be both narcissistic and boring, and I’ve got other things I want to talk about.
Whilst enduring a flight from Portland to Atlanta last week, I decided to read this month’s issue of Harper’s rather than watch the same three episodes of The Office that Delta has been playing on their flights for the last three months, an issue that included an article by Susan Faludi entitled “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide.” How could I resist, right? A cover story in a tweed brigade northeastern intellectual rag intimating that young feminists, in accordance with the boring old trope derived from the progenitors of classical western misogyny, are literally (OK, fine, figuratively) killing old feminists, which explains what the (weighty pause followed by the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey) Problem with the Feminist Movement is? Not only was I going to read the shit out of that, but I even got a pen out to take notes. I mean, there might be a letter to the editor in there somewhere, might there not?
I didn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that Faludi had accepted a position as the shoeshine girl of the mainstream media establishment that she had eviscerated in Backlash, but I will admit that I did start skipping in that direction. How could I not? From the title alone, I surmised that I was about to read another tired rehashing of the same old bullshit line: there’s a fundamental and inherent flaw in the feminist movement, and that flaw is women, whose very nature requires that they scratch each others’ eyes out and steal each others’ boyfriends and precludes them from accomplishing anything other than inspiring the coining of the term “fashionista.”
Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but there were some pretty serious problems.
Faludi starts out illustrating the misunderstandings between Second and Third Wave feminists and the ways in which those misunderstandings undermine the cohesion of “the feminist movement” (whatever that is), then extrapolates the purported generational rift that characterizes the contemporary world of feminism back to previous eras. To sum it up, the First Wave earned women the right to vote, and the consumerism of the 1920s created a generation of frivolous, ungrateful young women who rejected their mothers’ idealism in favor of a new image of womanhood that advertisers had sold them. Cigarettes and mass-produced flapper fashion came to replace the ballot as the symbols of women’s freedom, and the feminist movement had been neutered by the power elite, whether intentionally or not. Then came the Second Wave, in which young feminists expressed hatred for their mothers and the stifling brand of conformist femininity they represented. Finally, we have the current round of matricide, in which Third Wavers are waxing poetic about pube waxing while pronouncing Second Wavers and their methods and ideas irrelevant in the age of the iPod.
It’s a tidy little picture, and it works well with a sleek and misogynistic cliche like the ol’ Electra parable. The problem, as is always the case with these attempts to misrepresent feminism in order to sell magazines, is reality.
The first problem is that the argument isn’t actually all that smooth, which I suspect might be the result of the fact that Faludi herself doesn’t truly believe that feminism as a movement is fucked and that it’s fucked because women hate their mothers. Faludi’s sympathies clearly lie with the Clytemnestras in her formulation, or at least with the First Wave and Second Wave Clytemnestras, but there seems to be a giant break in her cyclical progression of ritual matricide; the daughters of the First Wavers, having been duped by Edward Bernays and his disciples into believing that projecting an image of liberation by means of Lucky Strike cigarettes was good enough, eschewed further substantial feminist agitation and shat all over their mothers’ dreams, and then we jump to the current Second vs. Third Wave throwdown, in which the younger generation’s narcissism and consumerism has destroyed the unity and potential of their mothers’ movement. The picture, a few quotes from Second Wavers about hating their mothers notwithstanding, looks more like a parallel with a two-generation gap than a steady progression of generations of matricidal women. First of all, who were the Clytemnestras to the Second Wave Electras? Stereotypical 50s housewives? I thought this was a story about inter-generational squabbling within the feminist movement, but Faludi doesn’t make a single reference to the existence of feminism between the 20s and the 60s*, which is a fairly major problem. If I’m to give any credence to a historical argument, the person making the argument needs to know something about history. She could have easily made the argument that Second Wavers jettisoned the difference-based ideology of labor feminists in favor of smashing gender roles and achieving equal legal protection for women (or at least some of them did), but I don’t know whether she even knows those labor feminists existed.
The second problem, provided that we look only at the two generational conflicts that Faludi presents as parallels, is that young women in both instances come off as lazy inheritors of a legacy they don’t deserve or make the most of. I’ve obviously got mixed feelings on the Second/Third Wave issue, being that I’m a 33-year-old radical anti-porn feminist whose activism has, until recently, consisted of writing blog posts under a pseudonym, but I do take issue with that characterization, if only on behalf of other young feminists I know, who do an awful lot more actual (as opposed to virtual) stomping around and kicking ass in the name of women’s liberation than they’re given credit for. But anyway, it’s 2010. Does anyone pay attention to groups of people in public with signs? Isn’t making use of modern communication media a more effective means by which to raise awareness of an issue? Tactics evolve with movements, and the internet has allowed more and more women to join the discussion when they might otherwise have been excluded. Until young women quit volunteering their time to support causes that they believe in, let’s quit giving them shit for writing about women’s issues on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, huh?
We’ve got a third problem: why are we always trying to figure out what’s wrong with the feminist movement? At what point will there not be something wrong with the feminist movement? When every single person who uses the word “feminist” agrees on every single issue that affects every single woman? Sorry, but that shit ain’t coming any time soon, and when it does we’ll know that the movement has been taken over by men. What is constructive about pontificating on the failings of feminism? Does it teach us how to move forward? Faludi’s piece ends on an extremely bleak note, with a professor of Women’s Studies lugubriously recounting her program being cut as a result of the fact that young women just couldn’t be bothered to learn about anything other than Lady Gaga and exclusionary Judith Butler-esque abstractions that take the focus off of real women’s lives and allow privileged, narcissistic brats to feel superior in their ability to understand what the fuck is even being discussed. I understand her concern, I truly do, but that ain’t all there is out there, and Faludi comes dangerously close to doing what she accuses the mainstream media of having done throughout the course of the history of the women’s movement: pronouncing feminism dead. Constructive criticism is one thing, but sounding the death-knell for the feminist movement and blaming it on some threadbare trope from gynophobic folklore is quite another thing for a feminist to do.
I’ve got some constructive criticism: feminist writers ought to focus on the ideas they have that are actually interesting and insightful and express them honestly rather than forcing them into a mold that will be acceptable to a bunch of old crotchety sexists who someone has mistakenly anointed the arbiters of intellectual rigorousness. I know we all have to make a living, but let’s at least try not to sell out that hard. And I say that honestly, because Faludi touched upon something far more interesting, important, and potentially revolutionary than the ridiculous Electra complex style device: the role of marketing and advertising in the co-optation and attempted destruction of feminism. It’s no surprise that she detects increasing danger in the attempts of marketers to repackage and neuter feminism, and it’s no surprise that she sees these attempts increasing in intensity in direct response to the threat posed by the progress women have made in society (she did write Backlash and all). She’s right. But how about we place the blame for that where it belongs rather than with women themselves? I realize that such an approach makes me sound like an arrogant dick who thinks she’s the only one who “sees through the bullshit” while calling young feminists in the 1920s and the 2000s dupes of the highest order, but I’m not writing this post from Jupiter a thousand years from now. I’m a dupe, too. We’re all dupes (and I mean all of us, not just women and/or feminists), and we need to face it or we’re fucked.
But what does it even mean to be a consumerist sap? What makes us susceptible to buying into watered-down commodified versions of feminism? Why and how do the powers that be rip us off and then sell our own ideas back to our kids (or little sisters) in an adulterated form? It seems to me that the cycle is fairly consistent, at least with regard to consumerist “democratic” societies since the 1920s (things tend to work out serendipitously for the power elite, I know): a group of people gets tired of being shat upon and makes their presence known, the people who sell us things freak out and worry that these people represent a threat to their continued existence and dominance, they then calm down and try to figure out how to sell things to these people, they put all their resources into analyzing and manipulating this new target market, it starts to work because buying products is far easier than sustaining a revolutionary movement over the course of years or even decades, and then the power elite regain their grip on things until the next upheaval comes to pass. (Of course, you have to believe that under capitalism the interests of government and the capitalist class dovetail in order for this to ring true, but if you don’t believe that, you should probably not be reading this blog.)
That’s where I agree with Faludi’s analysis: consumerist co-optation of feminism has become ever more insidious and effective over the course of the past half century or so. But I don’t believe the outlook is so dismal. Maybe it’s because I’m young (we’re optimists!), maybe it’s because I’m a radical (we’re idealists!), maybe it’s because I’m a fool (most likely), but I think I may have found a nugget of the solution in Faludi’s piece.
The problem is the obsession with the concept of individualism, and if we can either temper our desire to be “individuals” or find a way to actually be individuals, we may just be alright. Group movements, posing the huge threat that they did to the status quo, provoked too much retribution in the late 60s and early 70s to survive, and people turned inward, hoping that they’d foment a gradual revolution by revolutionizing themselves. Self-actualization and self-realization took the place of group action and unity, and the power elite took note of that turn and exploited it. Republican politicians encouraged identity politics and the division of the working class and along racial** and gender lines, capitalists found ways to market “lifestyles” in order to help people create and maintain the illusion of their own new-found individuality, and selfishness and self-absorption triumphed over cooperation and empathy as the world (and especially the US) made the transition from the fairly radical liberal consensus that characterized the 30s through the 60s to the conservative consensus that has dominated our lives and political culture since at least the late 70s***. Individualism has, of course, always been a part of our political culture and our foundational sense of who we are here in the US, but the fragmented, mistrustful, and generally selfish tenor of American society in the last three decades is a direct result of the purposeful manipulation of that concept by politicians and corporations in their continued effort to get greater control over and to better be able to predict our behavior as voters (subjects) and consumers****. And just think about the billions of dollars that have been made by opportunists who have capitalized on our belief that we are all special little snowflakes and that we need to express our uniqueness to the world in order to be understood by other “individuals” that, if the cult of individualism has any internal logic, have no hope of ever doing so. We’re being divided and conquered, my friends. And duped. Marketers have convinced us all that we’re discreet units, complete individuals, totally alone and unique, which precludes us getting any of our needs met by anything other than consumerism. That was at work in the 20s, but it’s been so successful since the 80s that even the attempts at thinking of “women as a class” that characterize Second Wave and Marxist feminism have been lost to “my experience.” *****
There has probably never been a bigger threat to the foundation of our social hierarchy than the specter of women’s liberation from patriarchy and the misappropriation of our labor under capitalism. It stands to reason, then, that those with capitalistic or patriarchal leanings would put their back into sucking the qi out of any movement that posed that threat, and that they’d do it the same way they always have: by doing their best to dupe us into taking the easy way out and buying symbols of our liberation rather than sustaining the fight to actually win it. Feminism became yet another lifestyle that could be marketed to women as a means to express their individuality and power. So we got a bill of goods in place of anything substantial: Virginia Slims, shoulder pads, Playgirl, and the Pill. We got the opportunity to act like men for a price, and then the phallocrats got to blame the fact that such a facsimile of equality didn’t make us happy on feminism rather than on the fact that what we were buying was an empty package that claimed to contain personal liberation.******
That process of co-optation and chicanery has continued apace, and recognizing that and moving away from it might be the key to the future of the feminist movement, if it is decided that there needs to be one. I obviously do believe we need a feminist movement and that it’s possible for one to exist without any matricide or filicide, but you can’t work to ameliorate the conditions of women as a class if you can’t conceive of yourself as part of a class called “women” and can’t conceive of the word “feminism” without “my” preceding it.
* See Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America; Kate Weigand, Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women’s Liberation; and Daniel Horowitz, Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique: The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism.
** See Hugh Davis Graham, Collision Course: The Strange Convergence of Affirmative Action and Immigration Policy in America; John David Skrentny, The Ironies of Affirmative Action: Politics, Culture, and Justice in America; and Skrentny, The Minority Rights Revolution.
*** See David Vogel, Fluctuating Fortunes: The Political Power of Business in America.
**** See Lizbeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.
***** This paragraph is the result of a combination several years of school and a recent viewing of The Century of the Self, a super rad BBC documentary series.
****** See Susan Faludi, Backlash.