Aug 17, 2015

Feminism as performance and appropriation, or why I stopped calling myself a feminist

I wrote earlier about how I'm going through a pretty intense period of self-reflection on a lot of things. One of these is my participation in politics, broadly speaking. I can't really call myself an activist as such, but I have tended to be pretty outspoken on issues like feminism and antiracism. My personal opinions on these things haven't changed one bit, but there are things going on right now that make me uncomfortable.

There was a thing in June this year where a mother wrote a Facebook status about how her son, Lenni, was bullied because he likes to wear dresses. This inspired a whole bunch of men to post pictures of themselves wearing dresses, many of them captioned "I am Lenni". A reporter for our government news service described this as a great way to change the world through social media.

I'm all for public statements of solidarity, and most definitely for fighting cissexism. Let the kid wear what he wants, damn it. But I'm a little uncomfortable with the way we're doing these public spectacles of feminism and solidarity these days. I'm finding it a bit difficult to put this into words, which is why I'm writing about it on my English-language blog that something like three people read, months after the event. I don't want to criticize anyone who participated in the campaign, still less dissuade people from participating in similar campaigns in the future. What I want to do is point out what I think is a problem with our public feminism.

Another local example. Earlier this year, another journalist lady working for our government broadcaster wrote a piece on how stupid feminism is, and how women need to stop complaining about stupid, insignificant things and man up, lean in and so on. I thought it was monumentally stupid, and I really wasn't alone. The problem was that several feminist men responded with blog posts where they explained to this woman how she was doing feminism wrong. Again, I don't want to discourage men from participating in feminism and debates on feminism, but on the other hand, that just isn't right.


Isn't saying "I am [a less privileged person]" pretty much the exact definition of appropriation? And isn't the spectacle of straight white cis men writing authoritative texts instructing women on how to be feminists the same damn thing, or worse?

Intersectional feminism can't just be about making a kinder, gentler patriarchy. Feminism needs to challenge the notion that white cis men are the supreme authority on everyone's experiences and ideologies. When cis men perform feminism, we appropriate the struggles of other people and make feminism into a public spectacle that's centered on us. That isn't feminism, it's bullshit. If we white cis men want to be feminists, to really make the world a better place for the less privileged, we need to do our part to dismantle patriarchy. We need to challenge our own privilege. We need to not always make everything about us. Feminism isn't something that we can appropriate, master and claim as our own; it stops being feminism and becomes just another way of maintaining white cis male supremacy. If we just step into the limelight every now and then with a little feminist performance, pat ourselves on the back for being such good feminists and carry on with 99% of our life exactly as before, then this public performamce feminism is compete fucking bullshit.

In other words, we need to learn to shut the fuck up.

As a white cis man, I don't know how to participate and be active in feminism without appropriating it. I try to retweet rather than tweet, listen rather than talk. Probably the most revolutionary thing a white cis man can say is nothing. Feminism needs to be an ideology and movement that dismantles privilege and decenters the privileged, not one that gives the most privileged representatives of the heteropatriarchy a new discourse with which to master everyone else's experiences. We white cis men absolutely need to stop making ourselves the arbiters of everything around us. That's pretty much the definition of patriarchy. The public spectacle feminism of white cis men doesn't challenge patriarchy, it reinforces it.


After writing the above, I got some pretty devastating feedback on my personal behavior. A person I have a huge amount of respect for and who's gone through quite a bit came out and basically said that of all the people they've encountered, the ones they wanted to single out as toxic and incapable of respecting people's boundaries are self-identified "feminist" cis men. I.e. precisely my demographic. And in this case, some deeply thoughtless behavior of mine has certainly played a part. I'm absolutely mortified by this, and deeply sorry. I try to do better. But this was what finally pushed me to stop calling myself a feminist. I don't think I have any right to do that, and if you ask me right now, I don't think any cis men should call themselves feminists. We make feminist spaces unsafe and toxic. We co-opt feminism into our own ego project and virtuoso performance. I'm seriously coming to think that a cis man calling himself a feminist is never anything but privileged appropriation.

I need a new word that says I completely and wholeheartedly oppose our transphobic, racist heteropatriarchy, and recognize that overthrowing it means giving up my privilege, not redressing it as public performance "feminism". Right now, I believe that the only way I can be a feminist in a way that isn't appropriative, destructive and frankly poisonous is to shut the hell up about feminism. I now intend to do that.

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