Years ago, a guy I knew said to me, “feminism is dead, I read it in an article written by a woman.” I replied with a “so what if she’s a woman”, but he insisted that because she was a woman, her opinion was the definitive word. This must have been at least seven years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. At the time my immediate reaction was to argue only I didn’t because I thought that maybe she was right, after all, she was older than me and a published woman. After many years to chew it over, a few questions have surfaced to the top: can feminism die? and does being born with female plumbing (to quote one of my Women’s and Gender Studies professors) mean that you know best?
Can feminism die? First off, the argument that feminism can die doesn’t even make sense because it is an abstract concept. Second, and as I argue with the very backbone of this blog, there are many feminisms and all are subjective. Maybe her feminism was dead, or perhaps one that she felt wasn’t getting enough street cred. Though sometimes I admit, I do lean towards essentialism-that there are commonalities between women simply because we are women. For example, when I heard that Arnold cheated on Maria Shriver with an employee and then the woman continued to live with them and stare Maria in the face day after day, I thought, “shame on her, she should know better as a woman”. But really, who cares that she’s a woman and given that one was a maid and one was a Kennedy, they probably had very different things on their minds. Like the issue of feminism itself, there are many sides to every issue, and I also find this thinking within myself problematic. Feminisms are based on the personal, the location, the economy, the political, the racial, the ethnicity, the sex, the gender, the earth (shout out to eco-feminist Vandana Shiva), the home, the children, the men, the reproduction… If that writer felt that she was lacking a public feminist agenda, then she could have looked up Ms., Bitch, or even Bust magazines (I definitely think that Gloria Steinem would have a problem with her argument). Or turn on the television and watch the Chicago Abortion Fund’s call-in TV show, or go to http://feministvideo.mirocommunity.org and watch feminist videos online. And true, what concerns a third-world based feminist probably won’t be the same thing an upper-east side Jewish princess in New York, and this is the glorious thing about feminism-its multifaceted nature and its subjectivity.
Onto the second issue at hand-is every woman inherently a feminist?
Exhibit one: In the 1850s and over the 70 plus years of the fight for women’s suffrage, women were divided (I’m referring primarily to Caucasian women in the United States). One group, or as I like to call them, the sane ones, were the Suffragists. They consisted of men and women who fought for a woman’s right to vote. The other group was also made up of men and women, and they were the Anti-Suffragists. These groups of women rallied, bribed legislators, and spread nasty rumors about Communism and Suffragists in order to scare the public into believing that women should not have the right to vote. Were these women feminists? It seems odd, but in some ways, I could argue yes. Yes, in the same way that Sarah Palin is a woman and can campaign for president. And yes, in the same way that there are women-only sections of the Ku Klux Klan.
Citing instances where I find women acting in ways that I would consider less than feminist in society at large is a vast and daunting prospect. Here, I will limit my fodder to film, though it would be a fruitful conversation to explore American politics and literature as well. One of the first movies that comes to mind is Juno. This movie was written by a woman and directed by a man. During the scene when Juno goes to the abortion center, she is met with a young female employee who discusses her own favorite condom flavors, is dressed and acts unprofessionally and the way that the clinic is portrayed makes it look dirty and seedy. I did not read the script for Juno so I don’t know whether Diablo Cody intended for this scene to translate to screen this way or if it was the vision of the director, but I definitely see that an anti-choice agenda has made its way into this movie. My second example is director Penelope Spheeris, who directed Wayne’s World, Black Sheep, and the Beverly Hillbillies. This female director is an example of a Hollywood director-she makes movies for money. I have seen all three movies (she has also done more work of the like along with documentaries on the Academy Awards, for example) and am hard pressed to find any sort of feminist agenda. Another movie that comes to mind is Swept Away, directed by Lina Wertmüller from 1974. This movie is shocking the first time that you see it, a Bourgeoise Italian woman from the north and a poor, southern Italian man get shipped wrecked on an island the for most of the movie where he physically and verbally abuses her and all the while she keeps asking for more. I actually like this movie, but when watching it I need to do so through a lens that reminds me that this movie is essentially about class. Wertmüller is making a political statement about the socio-economic tension of the time and while this is her focus, I would argue that making a feminist statement is not.
Given the few examples that I’ve offered, one could make the case that being born a woman does not necessarily make you a born feminist. But what about being a man…can a man direct a feminist film? The Hours is the first film that comes to mind that lends itself to several feminisms: lesbian motherhood, gay and lesbian friendships including romantic relationships with each other and their respective love interests, women and art, non-maternal motherhood, et al. This movie was also written, adapted and directed by three separate men. Another male-directed movie is Repulsion by Roman Polanski in 1965. It’s probably a safe assertion that most of us are aware of his debatable past involving a sexual encounter with a younger woman which may taint some viewers’ perception of his work. However, in this movie a young French woman is repulsed by the presence of all men. Polanski directs the film in such a way that you really question the way that men are socialized to be seemingly uber-sexualized and socially aggressive beings.
Is feminism dead? The answer to this question can fill an ocean and more. Naysayers can argue yes, optimists can argue no, and some of us can just argue. What I do know is that feminism is an equal opportunity employer, open to all those who would apply themselves to its mission. When it comes down to the nitty gritty, black and white of it, no, feminism is not dead, it just sometimes hides in the dark like a superhero, waiting to aid those who are in need of rescue.