Feminism in Three Parts: Part 3–The Labeling

*Disclaimer: These are my personal views not a philosophical argument or theory. This is where it gets interesting.*

As I established in Part 2, I’m mostly a nihilist (insofar as one can be a nihilist), so calling myself a “feminist” doesn’t actually mean that much to me.

Feminism–it’s a word.

But I do understand the weight of that word.

I understand that while the word doesn’t really matter in practice, it does matters to people symbolically. It helps point out a group of people with a shared goal. Depending on your point of view, it either picks out the people you find to be subversive or the people who might be the ones you should turn to if you need help or support.

But I also understand that people hide behind labeling words like “feminist” while others use the label to discriminate, criticize, and berate. Because using a label means you don’t have to think about what the word means. How many people call themselves “Republican” or “Democrat” or “Libertarian” without really grasping what identifying as such commits them to believing and supporting?

Credit: MTV

Credit: MTV

Labels and demographics are two things that rule our episteme[1]–the way we think about things and our practices and discourses. We take completely ridiculous personality quizzes to determine what stereotype we were in high school. (As if we didn’t go to high school, live through it, and selectively block it out of our memory.)

We deny the complexity of motivations that drive us, instead narrowing them down to our gender or our sex–which often get conflated. Labels are a mental shortcut, a technique we use to establish group identity (and all the biases that go along with it).

But a lot of times what could be fruitful discussions turn into name-calling and finger-pointing because of these labels, these words, and these demographics.

I’ve seen men be criticized for calling themselves feminists, on the grounds that it looks like they are trying to take credit for feminism. That is, it looks like they want to be acknowledged for not being misogynists.[2] It looks like they want to take ownership of a movement that points out how men are oppressors. And I understand why this might feel like another exercise of paternalism, but (1) we’re not going to escape paternalism with a word and (2) isn’t it more important to ask if they at least helping the cause in some way? Are they changing the discourse? Do they act as if women are equal?

Human beings do this thing where we criticize the movement and the people involved in it instead of trying to emphasize and understand what the movement means. On the whole, we are pretty terrible at critical thinking. In this case, while I see a lot of hemming and hawing about who is or isn’t a feminist, the question that I never see asked is: why are women systematically and institutionally denied opportunity, safety, and autonomy? And how do we make that not happen?

You pick your battles. Most people aren’t willing or able to enter the battle of why, preferring instead to complain and antagonize (you frequently find these people in comment sections on the internet). But is standing on your self-righteous soapbox pointing out how everything is problematic helpful? No. Similarly, is criticizing people for how they choose to label themselves helpful? To that I also say no. With a but.

Like I said, we take mental shortcuts. Your brain actually likes to see patterns; it remembers them and fills them in for you. Human beings are fantastic at finding patterns. That’s why you can raed srcmblaed sntecnes. That’s why you like putting things into groups and demographics and labels and checking boxes. You can’t help it. You’re human.

Foucault got it. Image source: meetville.com

Foucault got it. Credit: meetville.com

But we can also evaluate the social repercussions of relying on patterns that have social consequences when recognized.

When we use patterns as a way to self-identify and to identify others, sometimes it makes other people feel bad. Sometimes we privilege people who are like us simply because they are like us. This escalates quickly if we start to put religious or political or economic idealisms behind it. To try to understand why people do this–to understand why women continue to be subjugated–is to unpack a lot of biology, psychology, history, sociology, ethnology, etc.

A label like feminism is not an easy thing to pin down. Feminism isn’t one thing. Feminism–which at its heart is a case for socio-economic equality–is a critique of the paternalistic institutions that have made equality not the case. Because of this, feminism is wrapped up in race and class and nationality and religion and politics and economics. It’s not a simple matter of women and men being “equal” because that doesn’t actually mean anything, because it can never be actualized, because people are never, ever going to be decontextualized clean slates (until Brave New World happens and oh, Ford, do I want to see that day).

We focus on labels and we don’t answer the why questions, because those are the hard questions, and (spoiler alert) because there isn’t really a why.

I thought I made this up, but a Google image search proves otherwise. Credit: wayfair.com

I thought I made this up… Credit: wayfair.com

But the why questions are, at the very least, the points where the absurdity of paternalism and misogyny is exposed and we can realize that, oh, well, we’re sort of all in this ugly mess of a human existence together, so maybe we should stop making other people feel like shit just because we can.

Maybe we can use our energy instead to, I don’t know, build cars that can drive themselves and continue giving Sylvester Stallone movie roles and keep convincing ourselves that we need end tables shaped like elephants and eat and sleep and fuck the way humans do.

I guess my point is that everything (and I mean everything) human beings do is kind of stupid and it’s certainly meaningless. But can’t we at least stop trying to keep people, and in particular women, from doing all the stupid human things, too?

Really, why not?


[1] You know I can’t help myself and get Foucault involved. In The Order of Things, Foucault writes: “However, if in any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice” (168).

[2] I’m not a serial killer. Can I get a pat on the back for that too?

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