I notice a theme that interests me… Several of the commenters say that you need to “get over yourself,” that “it’s not all about you,” or some variation on the theme that a feminist critique is somehow narcissistic… I am interested in what they are trying to say, because I recently had a guy say a similar thing to me when I made a feminist critique of something he liked.
I’m beginning to smell an anti-feminist trope that I hadn’t particularly noticed before. Theories?
Well, Ashley, I’m glad you asked! Your insightful comment has inspired – yes, inspired – me to write a blog post that is, to a disconcerting degree, All About Me. Because one of the chief points I want to make, concerning feminist critique in general, and (for a more specific example) the feminist critiques leveled by Me, is that most of them are not All About the writer. So, why would someone argue otherwise?
Here is the first and simplest answer: feminist critique is, typically, about women. To be more specific, it is pro-women, and anti-things-that-oppress-women. I am, as it turns out, a woman! As are many feminists! Therefore, when people who don’t care for things such as “reading” or “analyzing arguments” or “paying attention on the most basic level imaginable” read or hear pro-woman critiques from women, they often assume that the person talking about women in general must be talking, specifically and entirely, about her own personal self. At best, they think, she is feigning concern for other women, in order to cover up the fact that she is upset about things that affect her, and would like her own life to be easier.
Now, as far as I am concerned, this is a stinging and terrible and on-point critique, if you assume that being a woman is the single defining factor of my identity. If, that is, you assume that the only thing going through my brain at all times is “woman, woman, woman, woman, woman: boy howdy, am I ever a woman,” it would make total sense.
Unfortunately, however, I am not every woman, it is not all in me, there are plenty of other things that comprise the marvelous package that is Sady, and if I wanted to write about issues that affect me, specifically, I would be doing precisely that. I would not be writing about gender in society, but about 5’4″ brunette white straight women from the Midwestern suburbs who moved to New York six years ago, spend too much time on the Internet, are moving in with their boyfriends at the end of the month, just got moved from full-time to part-time at their jobs due to the ongoing economic fucktastrophe, and need to buy new copies of Microsoft Word but aren’t sure they can afford it given the economic fucktastrophe thing. “WHY DOES MICROSOFT OFFICE COST SO DAMN MUCH: A Problem for Society Today,” my post titles would go, if I were doing such a thing. Or: “I CAN’T REACH THE TOP SHELF: Why Are There Things Up There, Which I Cannot Reach? How Did That Happen?”
This would be very boring! The fact is that I write about gender specifically because it is a thing that fascinates me, and that I like to read and think about, which is pretty much by definition not All About Me. As it turns out, around 51% of the people on Earth are ladies, and I am only one of them! I would assume that most other feminist writers, who spend hours researching and studying issues that affect women, are not doing it specifically so that they can write about themselves, when the fact is that they could do that just by registering and writing at WhyIsThereSoMuchCatHairOnMyCouch.wordpress.com, which would require no research whatsoever. At least, not into anything but the source of the cat hair.
Let’s pretend it is About Me, though, for the moment. Let’s assume that you, and I, and every woman who has ever leveled a feminist critique, have in fact done so because we are upset about things that affect us personally, and would like our own lives to be easier. Let’s assume that we don’t care about the fact that these things also affect other women (which would totally explain the amount of time we spend thinking about and talking about and seeking to understand or counteract their effects on those women, right?) and are only concerned with the things that happen to our own personal selves. Because the next question is: why is that so bad?
“Narcissistic” and “selfish” are, for some reason, particularly potent insults to aim at women. Narcissism or selfishness have been offered as an explanation for lesbianism, female masturbation, “frigidity” and/or clitoral orgasms (yes, ladies, if a dude is not getting you off, it’s because you don’t care about his feelings), women not wanting to get married, women not wanting children, women wanting jobs, women wanting children without marriage, women wanting marriage without children, women wanting children and/or marriage without jobs, women wanting marriage and/or children and jobs, women being successful at their jobs, and basically anything else that even slightly resembles self-esteem. Dudes can get the “selfish” label, too, but they actually have to work at it (in spite of the fact that actual narcissism, the kind that is a personality disorder, is diagnosed mostly amongst men): all a woman has to do is think about or talk about or act on behalf of herself even a little, and the whole stereotype of the self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-enthralled ladyperson comes down instantly upon her head.
The reason for this – the reason that any level of self-involvement is so terrifyingly repugnant and hideous in women – is that, basically, women aren’t supposed to have selves. You know the drill: we’re empathetic not objective, relationship-driven not goal-driven, givers not takers, team players not leaders, feelers not thinkers, and boundless sources of love and compassion and fluffy sparkly puppy twinkly fairy snuggly wuggly bullshit. Women – REAL women, that is – are supposed to be willing to put others first, all the time, no matter what. So, when you voice anything along the lines of, “can we please stop pretending that your comfort is the most important thing in the world and focus on the crap you just pulled,” somebody is going to get deeply offended, because: you are not playing the game right! You are not supposed to refuse to take shit; you are supposed to put various multi-colored sprinkles on it and pretend that it is a delicious chocolate sundae!
Now, here is where we dive from the heights of generality into the lovely, welcoming depths of talking about voicing feminist critique, because: the fact is that, to do this, you do have to have an unladylike amount of self-esteem. Something in your brain has to click – to go from, “huh, that is sort of messed up,” straight to, “what I have to say about this is important – important enough to interest others!” You, basically, have to stop looking for permission to have an opinion. This scares the hell out of people.
Andrea Dworkin, a lady with whom I have a ton of disagreements, actually pretty much summed up the entire Tiger Beatdown Approach to Cultural Criticism when she wrote this:
[This book] does not narrate my experience in order to measure it against Norman Mailer’s or D.H. Lawrence’s. The first person is embedded in the way the book is built. I use Tolstoy, Kobo Abe, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Isaac Bashevis Singer, not as authorities, but as examples: I use them; I cut and slice into them in order to exhibit them; but the authority behind the book – behind each and every choice – is mine… I love the literature these men created; but I will not live my life as if they are real and I am not. Nor will I tolerate the continuing assumption that they know more about women than we know about ourselves.
And, as we all know, everyone loved Andrea Dworkin and she never had any problems and her opinions were always listened to and debated respectfully and thoughtfully, forever, The End.
Oh, wait! That is totally not what happened! Sorry!
No, what happened is what always happens: people tried to silence her, and they did this, first and foremost, by attacking her as a person. Because, if you don’t like someone, there’s no way they could possibly be right! Is what a second-grader, or exceptionally stupid adult, might think. A slightly brighter adult, who also happens to be evil, might put it another way: if a person doesn’t like herself, she won’t be able to say what she thinks, because she’ll be too busy self-hating and trying to get approval from outside sources.
Which brings us to our final point: the issue of why the “it’s not all about you” or “get over yourself” mode of silencing is so fucking weak and ineffectual. When somebody aims this at you, they’re not actually saying you’re wrong. They’re not demonstrating any kind of flaw in your argument. What they’re saying is that, since you are saying an entirely valid thing about something that affects women, or you (a woman), your argument is unimportant, because women (including you) are not worth caring about. They’re saying that, since men are the more important gender, they’re allowed to hurt or oppress women; since men come first, women should not be allowed to challenge or object to this. They’re saying that the only people we should talk, write, or care about are men. They’re objecting to “selfishness” in the most profoundly selfish way imaginable.
Because, when someone tells you that feminist critique is wrong because it’s “all about you?” That’s not actually why they dislike it. They dislike it because it’s not all about them.