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, Slate.com’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?

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