Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Some musings on 'fun feminism'

There’s been a lot of debate lately about so-called ‘fun feminism’. From Julie Bindel’s post on the New Statesman (FTR, i agreed with some but not all of her points in that article) to conversations in comments sections on blogs and on Twitter, fun feminism seems to be everywhere this summer, lauded and derided in equal measure.

And, judging from the comments and the conversations, I don’t think I’m the only one who is confused about what ‘fun feminism’ actually is. Is it having fun whilst being a feminist? Is it cupcake feminism? Is it Slutwalk? Can it be found in glossy magazines? Is it good or is it bad? Is it powerful or is it frivolous? What on earth is it?

So, I am writing this blogpost as a plea to my feminist fellows across the world. Lets stop talking about fun feminism. It is a meaningless term that just seems to be used to disagree with one another. Instead, I would ask that we use the term ‘Feminism TM’ as trademarked (aha! A pun!) by Nina Power in her fantastic book, One Dimensional Woman.

Feminism TM, in brief, is about feminism that has been co-opted by patriarchal capitalism. It’s about treating feminism as something designed to make the individual ‘feel good’, that puts individual happiness or fulfilment above a collective goal. With Feminism TM, buying a pair of designer shoes or a Primark handbag is as ‘empowering’ as marching for your right to choose or volunteering at a rape crisis centre. Feminism TM means that Sarah Palin can call herself a feminist because she is a powerful woman, a ‘grizzly mama’, even though her anti-woman policies are an anathema to feminist ideals. Power writes that, with Feminism TM:

‘the political and historical dimensions of feminism are subsumed under the imperative to feel better about oneself, to become a more robust individual. As a response to the ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ pose it’s very successful. Almost everything turns out to be feminist - shopping, pole dancing, even chocolate.’

The problems with this are clear. Feminism isn’t a lifestyle choice that we can define for ourselves. It isn’t a matter of saying ‘this is my choice as a woman and therefore it’s a feminist choice’. ‘Liberalising’ feminism ignores the impact our individual choices have on others, on other women, in favour of telling you ‘if it feels good – just do it! Go on, that’s empowerment!’. And this isn’t good enough. Feminism has to mean something, or it risks meaning nothing at all. Feminism is a social revolution dedicated to making the world a better place for women and men. It isn’t a 12-step guide to making you feel not guilty about shopping for clothes made in sweat shops, and eating chocolate bought from Nestle.

If feminism becomes something you define for yourself, then what stops feminism becoming defined as being anti-choice, pro-war, anti-sex education and gun-toting, like Sarah Palin? What stops feminism being used as a rhetorical term to justify harm to women?

Fundamentally, I think this is what a lot of people were driving at when they talked about ‘fun feminism’. And I think that there is a big problem with individualist feminism or me-me feminism as defined by Power’s Feminism TM. So, if that’s what I think fun feminism is, why do I want to change the term?

Well, first of all because I think Feminism TM says a LOT more and it says it more clearly about capitalism and patriarchy and how feminism can be co-opted by a liberatarian idea, and how this is problematic. I don’t think ‘fun feminism’ says or explains this.

But I am also really concerned that by framing Feminism TM as ‘fun feminism’, and the ‘fun’ bit as being something bad, then it supposes that feminism can’t be fun, and if you are having fun as a feminist then it’s because you’re doing it wrong. It suggests that there is ‘proper’ feminism which is hard work and difficult and not fun, and then there is ‘fun feminism’ which isn’t serious and isn’t the ‘real work’ of destroying patriarchy.

And that’s bullshit. It’s also destructive and divisive. And, finally, it plays into dull, dull stereotypes that feminists are humourless and boring. And we know that’s not true. Angry, yes. Strident, always. But humourless? No.

A lot of the work of feminism isn’t fun of course. I hate it when people accuse feminists of not having a sense of humour about women’s rights, when we are often dealing with issues such as the fallout of the horror of male violence against women. There’s nothing funny about that and I don’t recall any other movements for social change being criticised for not being funny enough. But many things we do as feminists are fun. I stand by the fact that one of the most enjoyable (and hilarious) days of my life was when Jenny, Sue, Angel, Mark and I ran through Bristol in hoodies and dark glasses, flyering lad’s mags about their effect on violence against women and girls. Leading the Reclaim the Night march last year was one of the most empowering and exciting experiences. Sharing stories of street harassment in a room full of laughter and tears with other women is both fun and painful.

There’s been a lot of debate around whether Slutwalk is ‘fun feminism’ or not. Although I have written elsewhere about my concerns about some aspects of Slutwalk (and mainly the Canadian and USA ones) I think by calling it ‘fun feminism’ there was a suggestion that it wasn’t ‘proper’ feminism, not ‘real’ activism and that the women involved weren’t ‘real feminists’. I don’t feel this is fair and it certainly isn’t true. Marching on the streets to say that violence against women and rape culture must end? This isn’t drinking a glass of Chardonnay whilst going to a lap-dancing club (it’s my choice as a woman so it’s a feminist choice and so the impact on other women is irrelevant). Of course one of the problems with Slutwalk has been the individualist element that has not addressed the impact of the word ‘slut’ on survivors of violence but I think the Bristol and London events have gone some way towards remedying this. To write off everyone who is involved in the Slutwalk movement as ‘fun feminists’ really does a huge disservice to many of the women involved who do so much feminist activism.

The issue I have with the term ‘fun feminism’ is that it tries to define what is and what isn’t feminist activism in a very negative way. It also tries to define the ‘proper’ way to discover feminism. We all approach activism in different ways. We all become feminists for different reasons. Some feminists are activist by volunteering, some by guerrilla actions, some by signing a petition, some by reading or teaching or attending consciousness raising groups. It’s important that we support one another and listen to one another and encourage one another in our actions. And, of course, we should question each other’s actions and activism when it’s needed.

Take one example. I do lots of feminist activism. I write, I organise meetings, I fundraise, I organise awareness raising events, I speak at conferences, I advocate for charities, I do guerrilla stuff, I lobby the government. I don’t however, volunteer at a rape crisis or helpline. I don’t do this because I know I wouldn’t be very good at it, that my skills are more suited to other work and because I can’t commit to the regularity of it. It doesn’t mean that I am not as ‘proper’ as the women who do amazing and vital work in this area and who I have endless respect for. It’s that I recognise my skills and my abilities as a feminist activist lie elsewhere.

Feminism TM is a clearer way of saying that a meaningless self-defined feminism is a problem. It doesn’t create a false division between what is ‘fun’ and what is ‘proper’ and instead reminds us that feminism isn’t and mustn’t be just about me, but about a collective social movement to end patriarchy.

So, that’s my muddled rallying cry to say no more using ‘fun feminism’ and lets call it by its proper name ‘feminism TM’. Feminism to me isn’t about hierarchies. It’s collective. It has meaning. And it’s changing the world.

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