Is it feminist or not?

17 March 2011

In my professional life I happen to be writing about the question of political expediency, and it’s affecting the way I think about feminism and pop culture. To wit: I’ve become concerned that when feminists debate publicly whether something is feminist, it leads antifeminists to hold up a banner saying WHO OWNS FEMINISM?, as if us feminists are angrily policing some kind of fortress. I strongly believe that feminism is not such a plastic word that it can encompass both Audre Lorde and Sarah Palin; but here’s my question: for the sake of political expedience, should feminists restrict their public battles to decrying anti-feminism, rather than parsing what counts as feminist?

I got off on this question after watching Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent Feminist Frequency video (if any of you are unaware of her terrific pop culture analysis, give yourself a treat and get up to speed NOW) about whether the character of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, right) from True Grit is a feminist character. In doing so, Sarkeesian responds to a number of mainstream articles claiming that Ross is feminist; she maintains “it’s a bit of a leap” to make such a designation. She advances two key reasons for disagreeing: 1) Mattie’s character doesn’t change but remains “basically the same person from the first scene to the closing credits,” and 2) Mattie’s strength, independence, and grit are all coded as male; that is, she’s accepted the rules of a male-dominated society and plays along. In contrast, Sarkeesian says,

“The feminism I subscribe to and work for involves more then women and our fictional representations simply acting like men or unquestioningly replicating archetypal male values such being emotionally inexpressive, the need for domination and competition, and the using violence as a form of conflict resolution.”

Oh, the mixed feelings. On one level I agree with Sarkeesian on all counts: it’s one thing to say it is a feminist act to place an interesting, complex female character at the center of a film and watch the events through her eyes and a far different thing to call Mattie Ross a feminist. One might even go so far as to say that the question of her feminism is irrelevant to the film, the era it describes, and the range of emotions it covers. Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood has a neat way of drawing a line between feminist movies (with female leads as well as narratives that seem to promote women’s equality) and movies that she’s “not so sure they are feminist but they are about women.”

It’s great to hold high standards, but have you noticed that most female characters onscreen aren’t just one-dimensional but so stereotypical that I want to hurt someone? Is it really important to dicker about whether Mattie Ross (or Uma Thurman in Kill Billor Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar Galactica, or Chloë Moretz in Kick-Ass) is a feminist? Wouldn’t it be better to complain about all those rom-coms oriented around weddings and bridesmaids — or, for that matter,’s consistently contrarian rejections of all feminist issues? Katee, hand me that gun so I can blast some holes in Hollywood execs’ heads!

I “hear” myself write that paragraph and laugh, because as an academic I spend a lot of time on far more esoteric questions no one gives a shit about. And, frankly, I’d love to engage in a debate about the relative feminism of these characters — these discussions are fun. So why do I suddenly care about political expendiency such that I’m willing to argue we keep those arguments amongst ourselves?

Because the battle to define feminism is ultimately not just a distraction but a zero-sum game, and I’d rather leave those definitions open enough that we feminists can stay focused on denouncing anti-feminism. I would rather see writers at Slate spending their time analyzing the deeply misogynistic notions that women need to have 24-hour waiting periods and detailed explanations of sonograms before being permitted to get their legal right to an abortion — rather than read some idiotic essay about how the Tea Party is feminist simply because it has a lot of women in it. Look: women can be just as effective anti-feminists as men can be. (WHERE is that gun? Chloë?)

And because Chloë Moretz was the best part of Kick-Ass, and likewise Katee Sackhoff was one of the best parts of Battlestar Galactica. I’m not sure it’s a rejection of feminist values when films depict worlds in which not all women exhibit the characteristics of cooperation, empathy, compassion, and nonviolence. I think it helps us all question whether there’s anything necessarily male about being violent, emotionally inexpressive, dominating, and competitive (can I introduce you to some of my female colleages?). More important, such characterizations offer opportunities to explore complex expressions of gender identities. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to see just a bunch of gun-totin’ women in film (for gods’ sake, I live in Texas already). Besides, wasn’t True Grit just a great story with a great female lead? 

What do you think: is it useful to have these public discussions about whether something’s feminist or not, or it is more politically expedient to avoid having them publicly?

8 Responses to “Is it feminist or not?”

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    An overly simplified answer (or non-answer) to your question is offered:

    Not all discussions are useful.
    Not all discussions are public.
    Therefore not all public discussions are useful, or need be useful.

    Since Feminism is only one of an infinite number of possible topics for discussion either publicly or privately, it is a given that some of the discussions will be useful and some will not. So my opinion, or others opinions as to whether or not said discussions will be useful, or should or ought to be held privately because of political expediency are valid only based on who is talking and who is listening.

    What I mean is that I live in a apartment complex, and If I happened upon a group of women discussing this topic at the poolside, or in the clubhouse, I would most likely not listen. But if I knew you were in town, or discussing this on the internet, then I would listen.


    • Didion Says:

      Why, thank you kindly. I’m on the fence, I think, because I really do find these conversations fun — so long as people (like the wonderful Sarkeesian) are thoughtful in their analysis. But I’ve seen too many horrifying uses of the word feminism during the past few years to let it go by undiscussed. You can see here I feel a degree of frustration with these public conversations as distractions from more significant ones!

  2. servetus Says:

    I do think it gets tedious after awhile — especially if people think there is some kind of party orthodoxy they have to subscribe to (that always rubs me the wrong way — whether it’s political or religious). On the other hand I resent hearing Sarah Palin described as a feminist.

    • Didion Says:

      Exactly! “party orthodoxy” is exactly what I mean. For the sake of political expedience it seems feminists can get across a fairly clear understanding of what feminism means and what it doesn’t, and save our intra-feminist discussions (which, again, are SO fun if it’s only us participating) for ourselves.

      • servetus Says:

        Wow, I never anticipated we’d have this conversation. I hope we’re still friends when it’s over.

        If you asked me to define feminism (I always joke and say I’m an attenuated feminist) it means something like equal pay for equal work / equality in the work place + not forcing people into roles based on their sex / gender. I often got the feeling from “real” feminists that that wasn’t orthodox enough or I wasn’t a good enough feminist. And it reminded me of stupid arguments from my childhood about whether you were really a Lutheran if you didn’t believe in certain things, etc.

        It seems to me possible to define what a feminist is not — but the attempt to be too exact creates divisions that I find exhausting.


      • Didion Says:

        Perhaps the reason we’re friends is because I believe in the big tent approach to feminism. But I think that while there may be some choosier types among us, in general feminists would likely agree with you: that there is a small list of things that feminism is not, but that otherwise we’re more eager to invite people in than draw boundaries. I think.

        And I’d agree strongly that the best thing about feminism is its eagerness not just to bring about social, political, economic, etc. equality, but that it ultimately gives women more choices. That’s why choice is such a big deal on the abortion issue.

        Beyond those kinds of matters, I’m glad that there are feminists who want to go further and set high standards; but I think many of us would agree that ultimately the forces of anti-feminism are so much in control right now that any good press would help.

  3. servetus Says:

    In principle I agree with you — and I also tend to vote centrist even when I feel left for similar reasons. To argue the opposite case, though, what about the “minority constituencies” in feminism that want recognition of whatever it is they want recognized, in some cases the intersection of issues around race, for example. I mean, I don’t have answers to this question, but I wonder, especially when people are suffering demonstrably from discrimination. I tend to be for the big tent but lots of people don’t see themselves in that tent because it’s too big.

  4. servetus Says:

    Sorry to keep bringing up these religious examples, BUT. There’s this debate in Jewish circles about what to do at events when people of different levels of observance show up at them. The rule of thumb is that you follow the most stringent level of observance, because it would be more of an inconvenience to the faithful to have their observance disturbed than it would be to the less observant to have to be more observant for a few hours or a day or whatever. In practice, though, this turns off the less observant, who will often avoid more observant occasions because of dislike of observance, or perhaps because they are afraid of making a mistake. The result is that the communities end up segregated. But I’m not willing to say that the more observant should abandon their convictions, either. If you see what I am saying.

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