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.


Alex said...

"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."


It is, obviously, complicated by the fact that every woman's individual understanding and analysis of feminism will be slightly different. But the answer to that is to come together MORE and understand what we need to do together, not to separate off into dribs and drabs fighting each other and shouting into the ether to make our individual points.

I'm not saying we do that much either - I'm aware there's this misconception of feminists all tearing each other to shreds over everything which is ridiculous. As I venture into more feminist spaces online, I see more sisterhood than anything else. However, there is a dismissive element to the term 'fun', which is not welcoming to women (including me) who are still developing their feminist thought and practice.

We are all on an individual path, but the journey's end is the same. The more we come together, and resist dissipation into individualised navel-gazing, the better.

gherkingirl said...

This is a very useful piece. I haven't read much feminist theory. I don't really know where to start and most people's recommendations cancel each other out (although I have a few in my ever increasing 'to read' pile.)
Therefore while I'm quite big on the practical side of feminism, I'm poor at identifying waves and theories and classifying things, so a piece like this that sets it out clearly is great.

Slutwalking left me cold and this has helped put my finger closer to why that was. It also helps me articulate my dislike of poledancing as liberating and the suchlike better.

I do my feminist stuff through things like rape crisis befriending because I actually know about it. Weirdly I've always felt a bit like a play-feminist for only doing that and not lots of guerilla stuff and reading up. I wonder if people in other movements suffer from this inferiority feeling about their actions or is that another extra burden on feminists along with not upsetting men, proving our humour credentials and maintaining a neutral level of grooming that doesn't contradict our beliefs or confuse others?

sian and crooked rib said...

Thank you for lovely comments!

Alex - i agree. We can have different opinions, different priorities and still stand in solidarity and sisterhood. i agree that the stereotype of feminist in-fighting is more often than not a stereotype, and i am glad like me you have found sisterhood in feminist spaces more than anyhing else.

As you say:
'We are all on an individual path, but the journey's end is the same. The more we come together, and resist dissipation into individualised navel-gazing, the better.'



I think we all worry we should be doing more because the problems we face are so bad and wideranging! I know i am always worrying about what i don't do - e.g volunteering on helplines but actually we all can only do what we can do and as feminists we need to support one another and recognise one another's strengths! For some, activism comes with reading a book or going to a consciousness raising session, for others it means something else but it isn't a hierarchy.

As you say, there are enough pressures on feminists...

I'd recommend the equality illusion as a good book on feminism.


Ray Filar said...

I thought the Bindel piece was horrific, but I very much agree with the rest of what you've said here.

sian and crooked rib said...

I thought what she was saying about how we mustn't sanitise or prettify feminism in order to get patriarchy to 'like us' was interesting, and made me reflect on what I think about how feminism needs to mean something...vague I know but I know what I mean!! I didn't agree with other parts of the article, or perhaps all of her way of approaching it. As with a lot of things I read by her, I agree with some bits and not all!

sian and crooked rib said...

Anyway, have made it clearer in the op that I agreed with some of the points she made but not all. Was worried that I was starting an article by appearing to criticise a feminist when I was trying to explore a issue and that wasn't my intention, esp as I have a lot of respect and admiration for Julie's amazing work in the fight against violence against women and the commercial sexual exploitation of women. even if I don't agree with everything she says. But is there anyone who we always agree with completely!!

MadamJMo said...

This is a very interesting post, Sian. Though I think the biggest problem is that the term ‘fun feminist’ means different things to different people, and it’s not always clear that the person one is talking to has a different interpretation of it to oneself. For that reason, perhaps the term ‘fun feminist’ does need to be scrapped – but I’m not sure replacing it with ‘feminism TM’ is the answer because (having read Nina Powers book, and having read your post several times) I really can’t see the difference between them. Plus, ‘feminism TM’ is as open to misinterpretation as ‘fun feminism’ (or indeed, any term) is.

I’ve just re-read Julie’s NS post on this, which I thought was excellent the first time round, and have to say I still agree with her whole-heartedly, even in light of having read your post here, which posits a more thorough discussion of the term.

What does need to be addressed is the fact that the term ‘fun feminism’ implies feminism is never fun, and buys into the ‘sour faced feminists’ myth. Obviously you address this in your post. And I think this is the crucial issue. As someone who sometimes uses the term ‘fun feminist’ (and I have been called up on it by people who have misunderstood what I meant by it), I do not use it to belittle the many different strands of activism, nor do I believe feminism cannot be fun – this is clearly not true.

However, like Julie (and doubtless many others), I have a problem with ‘cupcake feminists’ (as I’ve started calling them, after realising ‘fun feminists’ is open to misunderstanding). This quote from Julie in the NS article sums up what I think the problem is: ‘These "fun feminists", who have little or no idea about the theory or practice of this movement, take advantage of the benefits that radicals have fought long and hard for, whilst contributing nothing.”

Maybe this makes me sound unsisterly, or unsupportive, and I am sure there are plenty who will say so.

You hit the nail on the head when you say: “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.” Exactly. There’s no right or wrong way to be a feminist, there’s no rule book, but I for one am worried about some of the actions currently being branded as feminist (and I include Slutwalks, notably the US ones – I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the branding of the Bristol one) and am concerned they are unpicking much of the hard work achieved over decades of tireless activism.

As I’ve said before, in the 1970s, feminists made seven demands. 40 years later, we are still waiting for 6.5 of those demands to be met. It is slow progress. I’m not prepared to sit back and watch as some misguided women (no doubt unintentionally) undo that hard work.

But am sure I will be corrected by someone for having said this ;-)

sian and crooked rib said...

Hi Jane,

thanks for your thoughtful and considered post. Obviously 'feminism tm' can still be misinterpreted - as you say, all terms can. The reason i prefer it to 'fun feminism' is because it removes the false dichotomy between 'fun' feminism and 'un fun' 'proper' feminism and instead takes a view on the capitalist patriarchal co-option of some feminist ideals. As you say, my definition of fun feminism is the same as my definition of feminism tm, but i find it a more helpful term because it gets rid of the unhelpful 'fun' bit. So feminism is and can be fun, whilst still being activist and vital.

I think if we take the 'pole dancing is empowering' angle then we can see how the co-option of feminism into capitalist and patriarchal ideas has gone badly. It's individualist, it's 'this makes me feel good and i'm a woman so it's feminist'. it ignores the impact on other women - for example the normalisation of the sex industry and often silencing the experiences of the women in or leaving the industry. As you say, and as Julie says, taking this individualist view of feminism, this 'feminism tm' co-opts the language of feminism, co-opts the fight for 'empowerment' and 'choice' whilst simultaneously trashing the goals of women's liberation and ignoring why sisterhood and communal action is so vital and important.

Feminism has to mean something. It has to have aims and a voice. but how we discover those aims, how we find our feminist voices, how we come together collectively, these are individual journeys. Like you say, there's no rule book and as we grow up and learn more about feminism, our opinions change and our outlooks evolve.

Anonymous said...

I don't see what's so fun in advocating censorship and disguising it as progressive thinking, to an outside observer this seems to be the main focus of feminism.

"Comedy gone too far!"
"I'm not a racist, but.."
"I'm all for freedom of speech, but..."

sian and crooked rib said...

I'm sorry, but your comment doesn't make much sense? Feminism isn't about advocating censorship ( although many anti feminists do seem to enjoy silencing feminist voices!) But about ending patriarchy so that everyone has equality.

Cath said...

Excellent article! I encountered the "any choice a woman makes is a feminist choice" mindset regularly while at (a very middle-class) university, and it was very frustrating.