Once upon a time, I was a feminist. Wait, I’ll have to tell you the year, because it seems to me that feminism manifests itself differently depending on the decade you are talking about. Let’s say 1992, when I was a freshman in high school.
I was part of a women’s support group. We got to get out of class for it. We would have heated discussions, mostly about negative images of women in the media. We made collages of women being objectified in magazines, or women who were anorexic. We cut the images out and pasted our collages together and posted them around the school.
I think most people who saw the collages didn’t understand them. What they saw were these sexy ladies posted all over the school. The images themselves drew people’s eyes more than the headlines that spoke of how terrible these images were.
Looking back, I think about how difficult it is to change a culture. It seems almost impossible. Later, in college I wrote a paper about the perils of pornography, and how it was perpetuating rape culture. I read a lot of Andrea Dworkin and people like that.
But then I found out that almost every man that I knew — often really nice men who seemed very respectful to women — enjoyed porn. This was very upsetting for me, and eventually I gave up on trying to convince them that it was bad.
In my later college years, I read Feminisms, an anthology of feminist writings from queer theorists, women of color, and other writers beyond the “mainstream” feminism dogma that challenged the hetero-white bias that had come out of the 1960s and 70s.
I liked the idea of equality, but beyond that, feminism was too confusing to think about. I found, in the years after leaving Macalester, that to bring up the word “feminism” in casual conversation was kind of a downer. This image of the “feminazi” — the unattractive bitch who was always angry or worse, whining, came up as something that was very unattractive, and that I didn’t want to be.
So I kind of gave up on the whole thing.
But I feel like the tides have changed recently. Over the past six months, I’ve thought more about feminism than probably the last 10 years. It started with SlutWalk. Even for people like me who didn’t even go (although I did write about it), the movement has sparked tons of conversations about it among the people that I know and also in the comments section of my article and on Facebook.
What was interesting about those conversations was the divide between women themselves. Some believed that it was hurting the movement to be parading about in “sexy” clothes. Others felt that it was very much geared toward a white middle class sensibility.
Then there was the Garden of Truth report, about prostitution and sex trafficking in Native American communities and the abuses that the victims suffered. The article that I wrote about that report, too, got a lot of comments, mostly from women. Some said that the answer was that prostitution should be legalized, while others believed that more resources needed to be given to advocacy groups.
Last Thursday, I attended the first of the four “Out There” Series performances at the Walker Art Center, featuring Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company’s performance of “Untitled Feminist Show.” The whole performance was done by naked women of various shapes and sizes. Mostly a dance piece, it wasn’t exactly cohesive but rather a series of dance skits that spoke to different themes that one might learn about in a introductory Women’s Studies class.
There was a skit that was a kind of fairy tale, and focused on the “witch” stereotype, which was very funny and silly. There was another scene that had a woman go from being the object of a pornographic fantasy — miming getting a blow job as she smiled and pointed to people (men) in the audience, to turning it around and becoming a sexual aggressor, eventually miming castration and anal rape, always with a seductive smile. And there was a really compelling piece performed by an apparently “butch” woman who did a kind of burlesque dance, shifting at various points from being seductive, to show-y, to blasé, to freaking out that she was doing it, etc.
While I wouldn’t say the show was particularly groundbreaking, it certainly was entertaining, and it was fascinating to watch the different bodies the whole time.
I spoke with a few older women (i.e. who were around during the 1960s) after the show. A number of them expressed that they felt they were missing some kind of inside joke. One woman said her reaction could be summarized by: “Yes, and?” Because ultimately, the idea that nudity is a statement in itself has kind of been done before.
The thing is, people in my generation just don’t have the experience of what it was like to live through women’s liberation in the 1960s and 70s. We never burned our bras — we bought padded ones with wires to shape them.
Maybe what’s happening right now is a return to feminism. I think that would be great. But I also think that if we are going to be talking about feminism again, maybe we need to do it a little differently this time. Feminism can’t be a conversation between only women. Somehow, this needs to be a conversation with men, too. There were moments in that Young Jean Lee show that I felt were a bit anti-man, and honestly, I don’t think we’re ever going to get anywhere unless this is a conversation that includes everybody. That means men, women, people of all different genders, races, etc. Conversations about feminism can’t exclude conversations about race, class, homophobia, and vice versa.
But most importantly, these conversations need to actually happen. Americans are so afraid of talking about “isms.” I think there’s a fear of admitting they still exist. Well, news flash — racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. still exist. I hope the tides are actually turning to bring these problems into focus so that we can bring about some change.