Noah. 22. Birthplace: Hamburg, Germany. Currently: Montreal, Canada. Not Religious. History/Music. Student (History).
What does the concept/word “feminism” mean to you? What does the concept of equality mean to you?
The word is a placeholder for a slew of things that people often disagree about. Contested by the people who support it, contested by the people who disagree with it. The word is a tool: a discussion tool, a theoretical tool to be used for and against its own purpose. The concept of equality? I definitely associate it with feminism. The concept of feminism for me is a recognition of struggle, a recognition of difference and inequality and a baseline with which to critique society, to address issues, to be used in concert will all kinds of other important concepts and words. And equality is definitely important to both the definition and the concept. I have a problem with equality because it’s so general and people are different. It’s a very broad concept and it takes for granted all kinds of similarities that can often be harmful, like gender, class, race. It can be used as the word feminism for and against itself. It is definitely inextricably linked to feminism because equality is a form of comparison I guess. It’s how you compare terms and situations and can then evaluate them. It’s complicated and fraught.
What do you think is the most pressing struggle for women today? What is the most crucial aspect in your eyes specifically?
It’s hard to pick one, there are so many. They’re all very important and I think they’re also linked. Reproductive rights are probably somewhat linked to violence and they’re all just so linked. I don’t like giving clear answers. It isn’t for me to decide. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question.
Is feminism a subject you think about? Have you ever read a book or seen a documentary about feminist issues?
Oh yes, well and hard. I’ve both read and seen a lot.
Why do you identify as a feminist and how/when did you learn about it? What were you taught about women growing up?
I blame my mother. I mean, it’s an accusation but it’s not necessarily a negative one. Learning about feminism at home wasn’t really explicit. You know how when you’re a kid your parents help you foster friendships? Well my mother helped me foster friendships with women – girls at the time. I came to see them as friends, as worthy compatriots, on equal footing: someone to disagree with and challenge myself with and challenge them too and think about difference and the consequence of that difference. Growing up, my mom used to read to me and the reading corner where we read was her personal library that is filled with feminist theory and I saw all those titles growing up and was terrified of asking what they were but somehow she communicated the contents of them to me. I wasn’t explicitly taught anything from home or in school, but my high school English teacher Mrs Johnston was definitely known as a feminist and I respected her a lot and learned a lot from her. It was never explicit. I think my most explicit education would have been my girlfriend in New York, Ruby, who took me to The Vagina Monologues on our first date. And that was pretty close to being explicit. I think immersion more than teaching is how I learned about feminism. It features very heavily in what I read and what I think about now – the way I learn and approach life.
Why do you think the word “feminist” is associated with such a negative stigma? What do you think it connotes? How do you think it could change?
I think feminists have always tried to change things and change is terrifying to a lot of people, especially when they’re invested in a system of privilege, or think that there are certain things about the way they exist that will be altered and uprooted by the kind of change that feminists might want. People think they are comfortable with the way society is now. Honestly it’s hard to speak for other people because I mostly encounter these people mediated through others criticizing them so I’m definitely biased in that respect. I rarely have a conversation with someone who doesn’t identify as a feminist. I’ve made it a point to surround myself with people who at least don’t challenge me in that way, which may not necessarily be a great thing. Criticisms are valid to the extent that they are possible. That changes the way I think people who disagree with whatever feminism might be are wrong but I think they are right in their own sense that they have valid concerns.
A lot of people have a “man-hating” connotation for the word.
Honestly, I can see some of that. There’s the community (for lack of a better word) of people who often identify as feminists and are vocal about their support and they talk about enjoying white male tears and being unapologetically almost vitriolic. It’s confrontational and righteous. They might be right in what they think but the way they do it often goes against principles of feminism and that is to the detriment of the cause I think. It’s also not taking people seriously with their concerns by telling them that they’re just stupid white men and they’re oppressing you – as an arguably stupid but definitely white man, it’s intimidating. I’ve also encountered the other extreme of calling out, where people (who instead of telling), ask – the word for it is ‘calling in’. People say: “Oh what you just said I don’t necessarily agree with, why do you think that way?” which is maybe more respectful, but respect is also tied up in respectability politics. It often gets thrown around that you don’t need to and you shouldn’t have to conform to the oppressive language, which I also think is valid. It’s messy. I don’t think people should necessarily be comfortable with the word. I’m often not necessarily comfortable with it. I’m always wondering if I’m doing feminism right, if I’m allowed to call myself a feminist as a man – some people would disagree. I think an uncertainty like that is interesting. It would kind of be scary if everyone agreed because there are so many different variations of feminism that if everyone agreed, and everyone came at it from the same perspective, I don’t know. It’s bad that people disagree but it’s because they’re trying to do a good thing – the fact that people disagree means that we’re not that far yet and it hasn’t been fixed.
People have been wanting to use other terms like equalist, humanist, etc. to avoid the stigma even though they mean the same thing.
Well equalist is even more generalizing, I’m not sure I would call myself an equalist in that sense because again, the difference wouldn’t be recognized and I think feminist and the derivatives of feminism, feminist thought, queer theory, trans rights, etc. gives room for the intricacies of individuality in a way that an equalist term is not going to cover. Equal pay is not going to solve the problem of global capitalism. Have I digressed too far? Sorry.
Is feminism empowering for men? If so, how? How does feminism differ for you?
I wouldn’t use the word ’empowerment’ because again, I don’t think it’s good if there are only women who are ruling the world. I often hear empowerment in the context of Beyoncé or recently the whole Fergie video “M.I.L.F. $“. People were talking about how empowering it was, (although it was awful music, they conceded that), but the message of the video that women who are empowered are what is to be strived for. I would also add that empowerment is important for people who don’t have power, so I don’t know. It’s unfair for me to say that empowerment is completely false because I personally don’t need it. I can critique it because I can take it for granted essentially. But I don’t think anyone should feel like white men. I think what we can take for granted is not good.
I mean the word “empowerment” as a term for women to feel on the same level as everyone else. I don’t know what the right wavelength is because it doesn’t exist yet. Maybe empowerment isn’t the right word but I don’t know how else to get at that idea.
I think it’s a shortcoming of feminist thought that empowerment doesn’t go far enough. That’s why I recently retreated a little into political and leftist thinking to compliment my feminist thinking because I’ve been quite frustrated with the kind of people and the kinds of discussions people are having about things like empowerment or representation. Compared to the First and Second Wave, feminism today is almost individual. Everyone’s feminism is their own which is great for the individual but I think it’s a dangerous road quite honestly, because then mass mobilization which is kind of necessary to enact change, is no longer possible since people are free to define themselves, which again, is not awful but it can be. I don’t know, I really don’t have a clear answer.
What issues/reservations do you have with feminism today? What do you personally think needs change?
I think a major issue would be a disrespect for history. In my friend groups it’s almost become a catechism or a dogma to denounce First/Second Wave feminists because they were white, they were oppressive, they were in some ways bad, yes, and then think that everything good still has to come and that nothing good has happened yet. I think that’s dangerous.
It’s important to at least acknowledge the history despite its lack of intersectionality (amongst other problems) and criticising the past is important too.
Well that’s not what I’m hearing. They acknowledge forgotten histories of people who have been left out of history, which is fair – it’s important to focus on too. But there would not be reproductive rights, there would not be the vote, hadn’t someone done something. I encounter a lot of people who think they are rediscovering or discovering things but they’re just reinventing the wheel because they’re taking strands of thought that exist now and thinking that it’s new when it’s been around for quite a while. That effort could be expanded by using the knowledge that already exists to do something like organize. I’m also definitely biased because I like history a lot and there are still some 200-year-old thinkers that have raised important questions that no one has solved yet. 150 years ago Marx was writing his “Capital” and he was pointing out things that are still incredibly relevant today; like the way the capitalist system works. It could be ignored for the duration of the Soviet Union because there was this obvious example of it not working, but I think that (and this is just a complete digression), Marx was a great physician but terrible at prognosis. He was really good at diagnosing things but not necessarily good at building a coherent idea for the future. Marx and Frederick Engels talking about the origin of family, private property and state, written a little over 100 years ago is still relevant. I can’t quote it right now but while reading it I noticed things that he was saying that are still very true – people point things out today and think they’re finding something new. Especially about women, the struggle women have in society, their relationship to men etc.
What do you think are important questions for feminists to ask now, since maybe historically they haven’t had to – what are things to change or work towards?
I think looking towards work and labor: things that are material reality. First of all, critiquing consumerism which doesn’t happen a hell of a lot. The old-school bell hooks does it from time to time and gets flak for it. When Beyonce’s “Formation” came out, bell hooks was talking about how it was an issue – I’ll preface it by saying that that the line: “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper” is really not the right way to go about things. During the song, Beyoncé also says: “I might just be the next black Bill Gates in the making”, and bell hooks was saying things about how that’s not the right way to go forward. That’s not the way of thinking that will get us out of crisis, out of the situation we’re in right now. Then people started giving her flak for critiquing it because that’s the way people enjoy things. You’re consuming, you’re enjoying a product. Beyonce’s work goes back to the individual: If she’s being individually empowered then that’s her business. Is it fine? I don’t know, it might be detrimental. I didn’t know Beyoncé, I remember hearing about who she was and not liking her music although I thought her new album was quite good. At the BET awards she did a song with Kendrick Lamar that was quite impressive. Another example is Nicki Minaj – I remember going to an event organized by the Black Students Network at my university where we were discussing “Anaconda” when it came out and there were voices saying: “This is a black woman celebrating her sexuality and reclaiming her body.” That was the consensus; that it was a celebration, but I think bell hooks also said something about the fact that it wasn’t even a new discussion – “Whose booty is it anyway?”. Also these are topics that I have opinions on but I have no authority over them.
Is there anything else you want to add? Are there any other questions you think I should be asking?
Just my general confusion and lack of clarity. This is more a question for you: to what degree is feminism political? How can it be politicized? Is it parliamentary politics, is it individual politics, is it a movement? I struggle with the place of feminism in politics. I mean, Hillary Clinton is a woman, does that mean we should vote for her? Unless you’re turning against Trump (which is just a big clusterfuck), but she would be the most empowered woman in the world next to Angela Merkel. Is Angela Merkel a role model?
It depends. If you’re a politician you have to be vocal about subjects, you often have to take a definitive stance on issues. I personally feel that Hillary Clinton would change less for women than Bernie Sanders would have – just because she’s a woman, doesn’t mean I as a feminist have to support her. Hillary is very opportunist so I’m not clear on her stance on women’s issues because she often contradicts herself and now the word “feminism” is a popular marketing tool she might be cashing in on for popularity. The only thing I like about her is that she’s a woman.
But why would you expect a woman to stand for women’s general well-being? Why should she take the pro-female side?
She certainly doesn’t have to take the stance that I want her to take. I would just like to know what her stance is in the first place because she’s gone back and forth on so many things.
I think that’s an indication that there’s something wrong with that political system. And it’s something that gender studies can’t do. Especially because she’s also an individual she represents all kinds of interests and constituencies. I think usually when you raise these kinds of questions, my next step is always to say that the institution that is facilitating this problem is at fault rather than the individuals, although the individuals are definitely complicit. I don’t like Hillary either, but I would criticize her because she embodies and stands for, takes advantage of all the things that I think are wrong with a system that allows her to do that. So she’s just kind of the symptom of a more insidious problem.
This post was originally published on the author’s Tumblr and is republished here with her permission.
Photo credit: Deryne Keretic