Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What is Feminism?

In writing class we’ve been working on compare/contrast writing. We started by using Venn Diagrams – as you do – to see the similarities and differences between two things. After practicing whole group, we set off to partner work, and I collected this Venn diagram from a sixth grade pair:

This pair of sixth grade girls believed that women could be successful, but were ultimately unpowerful.

Being in Turkey has got me contemplating/hypothesizing/proliferating about gender in a way that I didn’t do in America. Not because America is the be-all-end-all of gender equality, but because my version of normal, everyday sexism is different than Turkey’s normal, everyday version of sexism. When I brought this up at work one day – I don’t remember why, perhaps something about the prevalence of covered women – the conversation went a little something like this:
Female Co-worker: “It’s so much better in America.”

Me: “I don’t necessarily agree with that.” Cue breathless sentence about cat-calling, the glass ceiling, double standards, victim blaming, language, and inherent prejudices and the jokes we make about them because that’s just the way it is.

Female Co-worker: “At least I don’t have to cover myself. And at least my husband doesn’t cheat on me because I’m not a frigid Turkish woman” and some other mansplaining that made me roll my eyes and return my attention to my computer.

I’ve been teaching an adult speaking class on Monday and Tuesday nights and, void of a book, we’ve been engaging in debates centered on TED talks. This past Tuesday, we focused on gender equality. I broached the subject with a t-chart that read on the left side “Men are…” and on the right, “Women are…” According to the adults in my class,

Men are:
-          Providers.
-          Able to think logically.
-          Not fans of shopping.
-          Financially responsible.
-          Good at science, engineering, math.
-          Able to do whatever they want.
-          Successful.
-          Single-minded.
-          Focused.
-          A little bit lazy.

Women are:
-          Emotionally unstable.
-          Financially irresponsible.
-          Good at caretaking.
-          Great cooks, but are rarely chefs.
-          Multi-taskers.
-          Jealous.
-          Constantly talking about their problems.

I then asked this class, “What is feminism?” Much to my surprise, as I presumed many would shield their eyes with their hands like a vampire being blinded by the harsh light of day, and hiss and scream a little bit, they generally decided that feminism was equalizing the scales. “What does that look like?” I asked.

A young man spoke up and suggested, “It looks like women having to enlist in the army, just like men do.”

Yes, I suppose all things being equal, women should have to do that.

“Does it look like women making money and men caring for children?” I asked. Many in the class laughed as if the idea were utterly preposterous. I inquired as to why.

“That won’t happen,” was the response.

The idea, however, of women having to enlist was not a laughing matter. Fair, as we know, isn’t equal.

Privilege is invisible, particularly to those who have it. It is a luxury to wake up and not have to think about your race, your gender, your ability, your size, your class, your sexual orientation, and numerous other things that are subconsciously – or consciously – on the social hierarchy.
As the adage goes: the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Having privilege is just that, a privilege. As a white women, I can go into a shop and nobody looks twice at me. Except that I’m also a fat woman, so the body checking that happens when I enter a shop that isn’t specifically geared for bigger women happens with an annoying glibness. But nobody thinks I’m going to pocket their merchandise. And when I’m getting onto an airplane, nobody thinks I’m hiding a bomb in my jacket. The privilege of being white makes many things easier. Whiteness is a master key.

The fickle thing about privilege, however, is that it’s really scary when somebody points it out to you or, heaven forbid, works hard to earn the privilege you have already been given. Now, this experience may sound familiar to some of you upon hearing that you are privileged:

Denial: I am most certainly not privileged. I’ve had to work hard for everything I’ve gotten. Nobody gave me any handouts.

Anger: Why is it my responsibility to deal with this problem? I didn’t ask to have privilege! I didn’t ask for other people not have what I have. I shouldn’t have to deal with this.
Bargaining: Why do I have to have the privilege? If I could, I’d give it up so other people could have privilege.

Depression: I’m horribly sad because I have so much privilege. Rudyard Kipling coined an apropos term: "White man's burden."

Acceptance: Yes, I have privilege. I didn’t ask for it and I wish it were different, but now I will navigate the world with the knowledge that privilege exists and I will try hard to remedy what I can.
This is the ideal, anyway. But a lot of people get stuck in anger because, instead of acknowledging that other people are fighting tooth and nail for the same opportunities awarded to a select few, this struggle is viewed as the former’s loss of privilege.

We call this “reverse gender discrimination.” Such accusations are also prevalent in issues of race with affirmative action, which leads to absolutely asinine arguments such as, “I would’ve gotten that scholarship if they didn’t have to give it to a black person/woman/immigrant/any other minority lacking privilege.” Or, “That job should’ve been mine, but because of diversity laws, I didn’t get it.” Most of the time this comes from the mouths of white men. White men – at least white men in the USA and Europe – have been granted the best affirmative action deal in the history of the world. It’s called: the history of the world.

A speaker on feminism, Michael Kimmel, said, “Feminism will make it possible for men to be free.” This means a lot of things. Firstly, on the surface, it means that men will be happier when women are happier. When men share – don’t just pitch in or “help out” (I hate that phrase) – in the housework, child-rearing, and the quotidian chores that had prior been assigned to women, men will be happier because their wives/girlfriends/mothers/sisters won’t be wasting so much energy being annoyed that she’s the only one who does something. When women earn as much as men for the same job, men can be happy that women are self-sustainable and can feel financially accomplished in their work. It can make sex better because the gender roles in sex are extremely tightly wound and can lead to both men and women engaging in actions and behaviors simply because they think they’re supposed to and not because they enjoy it. It can also open up the door for men to do what they enjoy outside of the bedroom. Patriarchy isn’t just stigmatizing for women; it also dictates that men are supposed to be “tough,” “aggressive,” and uninterested in “girly” things like design, caretaking, dance, etc. All the wins!

Annoyingly, though, and Mr. Kimmel addresses this, his opinion is viewed by many of his audiences as “neutral.” In other words, if a woman were to get up there and give the same opinions and same information, her speech would be biased simply based on the fact that she’s a woman. Ergo, many of you will assume that my blog is biased, even if I cite all of the facts. Houston, we have a problem.
As a fat feminist, I frequently – and by frequently, I’m talking at least once a day, normally more – find myself in situations where people are saying or doing things that I feel are insulting, incorrect, or, more likely than not, said out of ignorance. Activism is tricky because 1) it’s not an obligation, 2) it often comes across as piety, and 3) it often elicits this response, “You need to learn to take a joke.”
Well, buddy, I fear you need to learn to take a serious.  Believe it or not, jokes that are based on stereotypes are one of the main reasons stereotypes still exist, because jokes normalize it. The thought process becomes, “Everybody knows that (fill in your own ridiculous stereotype here)” instead of something productive or, god forbid, something actually based on reliable information. I’m going to sound like a horrible researcher for a minute, but I read somewhere (and I can’t remember where), that, while most women in America do not believe most men are rapists, most rapists believe men are rapists. Why? Because people make jokes about rape. Because there isn’t a discussion about rape outside of small circles. Because the prevalence of the patriarchal paradigm persists in in normalizing sexism to the extent where it becomes physically and emotionally dangerous.

I know what you’re thinking: Wait a minute, she was just talking about feminism and now she’s talking about rape. She’s not just biased, she’s got terrible organizational skills! Here’s an ugly truth: Intersection. Fucked up shit – oppression against women, transphobia, homophobia, racism, you name it – all intersects. This is why, although activism is always an option not a requirement, I highly advise you taking a good look at some of the thoughts you have, actions you take, and things you say. As cliché as it might sound, change starts with you. 

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