Field Notes, Storytelling and narratives
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This feminist’s fatigue

Or: an assorted list of arguments I’m tired of.

1. Explaining that we love men.

Most every feminist argument I’ve engaged in or witnessed recently, and which attempts to critically examine masculinity or patriarchy, has had to include a caveat along the lines of “don’t get me wrong, I love men.” I am tired of having the choices be ‘thoughtful critique with caveat’ or ‘presumed man-hating.’ When is the last time we heard someone say “don’t get me wrong, I love socialists,” when they engage in a critique of socialism? “Don’t get me wrong, I love aid-in-kind,” when they argue in favor of vouchers or cash instead of direct food and soap distribution in humanitarian settings? Critics of systems other than patriarchy get to engage in deconstructing and pointing out the holes and offering the counterpoints — the very things feminist gender analysis seeks to do in patriarchal systems, only we have to bathe in caveats first, lest we be discredited for man-hating.

2. The choice between likeability and assertiveness.

Here, I turn to the essayists and novelists. When confronted in an interview with suggestions that a character in her novel The Woman Upstairs was “angry, really angry”, Claire Messud responded:

“Because if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of the angry woman.”

When the interviewer pressed on, saying “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora [the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs], would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim,” Messud noted:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.

Lena Dunham and Zadie Smith echoed similar sentiments on the gendered dimensions of likeability in a recent conversation — sentiments with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Except when I look beyond fiction and the products of our imagination, I find that likeability matters to me in my daily life. I enjoy community and companionship, I enjoy engaging in thoughtful arguments with groups of people I love or have just met — and, in that context, I am tired of my choices being ‘speaking up/being assertive/yes, even being angry’ OR being ‘likeable.’ This is particularly the case with uncomfortable or feminist arguments (which are often an overlapping set). To be clear: I will almost always choose the opportunity to have the feminist conversation, to ask the feminist question, and I am daunted by neither discomfort nor propriety in this context.  I am, however, increasingly exhausted by being treated as though my critique, my emotions, or yes, that anger, threaten my warmth as a human, my capacity to be kind and caring, my ability to find things humorous or to take things lightly. I wish I could say I do not care, but I do. I care enough to notice this is a standard we do not equally impose on men who critically engage in conversation, and that this is a standard I do not wish to live by.

3. The demonization or discrediting of emotions.

When did we become so dismissive of sentences that begin with “I feel?” As someone who spends much of her life thinking about how to use evidence-based research to inform better decisions in policy and practice, I am all for data (which, by the way, serves a similar function to “I don’t hate men” as a prelude to feminist claims — see point #1 above. It goes to prove how difficult the caveats are to shed if we wish to be taken seriously, and also that perhaps not all caveats need to be shed.)

But: Feelings are a data point too — and the fact that they are harder to quantify, measure or account for is not license to dismiss them.  Humans experience injustice and inequality. They feel it. They feel marginalized. They feel invisible. They feel unheard or silenced. They feel as though their opinions and/or their identity do not matter. Just because they may not in that moment be able to provide a standard of proof for their marginalization that would meet a conviction claim in a United States court of law does not mean their experience is any less true or valid, and any less of a data point.

Similarly, the word “emotional” has become a not-so-subtle way to discredit women’s arguments (and the arguments of certain types of men, for the targeting of loaded labels with gendered undertones is not only limited to women). And I ask: When did it become acceptable — indeed, cool — for anyone to aspire to not having emotions? To being someone unaffected by feelings?

4. Binder-making.

There is a pattern in my life these days, and in the life of my feminist colleagues in fields from academia to foreign policy and beyond. It goes something like this: Someone publishes a list. Let’s call it “Top 10 foreign policy thinkers of all time” or  “Top 10 foreign policy thinkers of 2015” or “Top 10 novels” or… You get the drift. Sometimes the list is an academic syllabus, sometimes it’s a conference panel of experts. Said list consists almost entirely of men and is almost always predominantly white (and the overlapping of those identities is rarely a coincidence in itself). A colleague points out the identity politics behind the list. The list creator apologizes and provides one of a number of explanations of why women were not included. One of the explanations is almost always “this was not a deliberate exclusion, we just did not know who the women in ____ <insert field> are.” The colleague (a position in which I have often found myself) then makes it a mission to compile Binders Full of Women. Binders Full of Women Novelists. Binders Full of Women Foreign Policy Experts. Binders Full of Women In National Security. Binders Full of Women You Did Not Know About.

As someone raised in the school of “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” I fully support binder-making. I intend to continue to do it, and I fully embrace the mission of elevating women’s voices and visibility in fields from which they have been traditionally excluded or in which their work is less known. I also commit to demystifying the politics of this exclusion and invisibility for, as Cynthia Enloe said in my favorite talk of hers, “nobody is made marginalized by the ether.” But I also ask, from a non-cynical place: At what point is the binder-making another way of simply tasking the people who were already asking feminist questions with ‘fixing’ a decidedly unfeminist narrative? And at what point do we hold institutions and individuals accountable for nuancing this narrative themselves, instead of looking to their dutiful binder-makers to do it for them?

***

I am tired. I am tired of gendered spaces, gendered notions of expertise and credibility, gendered double standards, the gendering of emotions and legitimacy and data. I am tired of pointing out these dynamics. I am tired of explaining that, in my mind, working on gender inequalities is not antithetical to working on issues of race or class or ethnicity or…  — and tired of acknowledging that yes, these activisms are often pitted against each other because that is an easier (and lazier) path for the status quo than pitting them against itself. I am tired of having this fatigue be followed by “oh, I thought you were happy/doing well/just got married/things are so good in your life.” Why can’t we hold many worlds simultaneously in our hearts?

I am tired of the caveats and the disclaimers. Like, for example: This fatigue does not mean I will not continue to work towards gender equality or advocate for feminist causes. This also does not mean that I do not acknowledge my position of relative privilege on some of these issues, and lack of privilege on others. As Roxane Gay writes in my favorite chapter of Bad Feminist:

In online discourse, in particular, the specter of privilege is always looming darkly. When someone writes from experience, there is often someone else, at the ready, pointing a trembling finger, accusing that writer of having various kinds of privilege. How dare someone speak to a personal experience without accounting for every possible configuration of privilege or lack thereof? We would live in a world of silence if the only people who were allowed to write or speak from experience or about difference were those absolutely without privilege.

Simply, on some days, I am tired of the privilege wars, and the gendered disparities, and all the inequalities and injustices I experience, witness, or contribute to. On a good day, an optimistic day, it is this fatigue that fuels my work and activism. On a day like today, frustration is exhausting.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for saying all of this which I have felt for a long time, without being able to put into words. I am so very tired of explaining that crying doesn’t make me weak, rather sometimes I cry when I am enraged by a person or situation which is intolerable. So tired of being labeled “bossy” where a man would be “assertive”. So tired of worrying if people will like me after I speak the truth.

  2. Mita Patel says

    Great post!! I loved your description of likability vs. assertiveness. My favourite line: “I am, however, increasingly exhausted by being treated as though my critique, my emotions, or yes, that anger, threaten my warmth as a human, my capacity to be kind and caring, my ability to find things humorous or to take things lightly. ” I’ve experienced this too on occasion; an opinionated woman is a very scary thing to a lot of people. She speaks her truth no matter what people think. It’s nice to see that this quality is now being admired in society though. Women’s voices are being elevated thanks to people like you!!

  3. Rando says

    The reason feminism has to have caveats about loving men is feminist organizations consistently lobby against granting men equal rights. It is basically the equivalent of the guy who constantly talks about why gay men shouldn’t get married or be allowed to adopt spouting off about how much he loves the gays, their culture, or his gay friend.

    Feminists have to keep saying it, otherwise people might realize fights against equal protection for men, whether from rape or domestic abuse (at least if the aggressor is female). They don’t want people to realize how feminism fights tooth and nail to deny men paternity rights and also denying them the right to deny paternity the way a woman can maternity. Women who consent to sex don’t commit to a child/pregnancy, because they should be allowed abortions, yet men for some reason do, and we should continue forcing them into financial slavery because the woman is the only one who gets a say in parenthood after conception?

    Feminism fights to keep men from enjoy many legal and societal privileges women possess. That’s why you have to keep saying it: you are trying to make us forget all that.

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