c.e. taillefer

December 12, 2013

An Island Never Cries: The Enlightenment, Feminism and Loneliness

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I’ve been mulling over this idea for a while now, ever since a coworker posted an article about being a “feminist killjoy” (guilty!) and my general sense of consternation and disappointment in feminist communities. In the past I’ve jokingly said I can focus on more than one thing wrong with sexism at once, but lately I’ve been feeling stretched out in too many directions, wondering where all the disconnects came from and what happened to genuine community.

There are many good reasons for a lack of solidarity and community within feminism.  Trans women are understandably leery of the movement since TERFs poisoned the well with their dangerous rhetoric.  Women of colour have often been excluded from, if not experienced downright hostility by, white feminism.  (See the #solidarityisforwhitewomen tweets that @karnythia got rolling late this summer.)  To many women, feminism has always been synonymous with white, middle class cis women.

I can’t remember a time where I didn’t personally identify as feminist.  It’s possible part of it stemmed from the fact that I was (and still am) a contrary asshole, and I was surrounded by sexism, so rebelling against that became important to me.  A lot of my fledgling feelings about women’s rights were crystallized through stuff like volunteering with Scarleteen in my young adult life.

But then in college, I remember picking up a feminist theology book, either edited or written by Mary Daly, and reading it in the tub one night after class.  Before the water had even stopped steaming, I had to put it down, confused.  Not only did it seem intellectually dishonest – reading aspects of modern feminism back into first century Palestine to the point of speculating the magi visiting baby Jesus might have actually been witches – but it was patently wrong in its examinations of gender and sexuality.  (Mary Daly was quite well known for her vicious transphobia, as I later learned.)  I didn’t like the idea of that being what people thought of when I said I was a feminist, and a theologian.  Was Jesus a feminist? No! Would he be a feminist, if he lived today? Probably (or something similar.)  For me, believing and studying the gospel made me feel that social justice is the only acceptable solution; not that social justice should be read backwards in order to rearrange the gospel to suit us.

I began to read more widely and found some really excellent stuff (Jess (Yee) Danforth’s Feminism for Real, for example, and Lauren Chief Elk, who’s currently getting well-deserved accolades for her letter to Eve Ensler). I also found a lot of feminist stuff that made me deeply uncomfortable – male feminist “allies” getting far more air time than the women who said it better before them; a trend towards making feminism fun, sexy and palatable; feminist narratives around choice that implied that… well, Lisa Simpson says it pretty good:

No, no, I was talking about “As a feminist, virtually anything a woman does is empowering.”

Now, I’m pretty sure that the line in the Simpsons is meant to be a rib at exactly that kind of thinking.  Lisa Simpson, while totally amazing, is also only eight years old and she’s a great avatar therefore for subtly jabbing at misguided ideals.  My biggest and most growing uncertainty about my role within feminism as a community lately has been centred mostly around issues of choice and individualism.

It’s important to remember that, historically speaking, concepts of individuality are relatively young.  The Enlightenment was only a few hundred years ago, after all.  It hasn’t been all bad; concepts of individual human rights isn’t something I’m ready to chuck out.  For certain issues – like reproductive choice – the individual is the only person that matters. That’s the kind of thing, in my mind, “your freedom to do whatever you want ends where my body begins” as an ideal was meant for.

Now, forgive me, because this part is ticklish.  But I’m finding myself more and more concerned with certain aspects of feminism where the individual choice is held paramount and therefore, because the individual is a feminist, the choices are therefore also feminist.

Last year, I had the honour of attending the Faculty of Celebrity Studies hosted by Elaine Lui. You can read the whole experience on my post about it, but a lot of the discourse from the audience was about how they had chosen to become stay at home moms, and how mean feminists were for criticizing their choices, and blah blah blah until I got all Mount St Helen and caused a scene.

Look, it should be obvious: can you be a stay at home mom, and a feminist? YES.  Is being a stay at home mom a feminist choice? Well, for one – how do you define what a feminist choice is?  But more importantly, is it even a choice, when it’s typically more practical for a two-income family that a woman stay at home because she earns less? Or that even today, we’re still primarily bombarded with messages of motherhood being the ultimate fulfilment of being a woman?  (Having done some Christmas shopping for my niece recently, with massive difficulties in even finding gifts that weren’t kitchen or baby-doll related, I’d argue it’s even worse than when I was young!)

Or take a recent post at popular blog Shakesville, there’s a post against this article on high heels (which is admittedly, terrible in equating high heels to self-injury, and issues of consent, which redlightpolitics addresses in her storify on white feminists and consent.) This comes on the, pardon the expression, heels of the selfie conflict sparked by Jezebel, which created interesting dialogue about combating male gaze and controlling the photographic narrative.

But the argument that heels are an important feminist decision because they allow women to feel sexy and/or professional, particularly fat women, doesn’t sit right with me either.  Can feminists wear heels? Yeah, for sure.  Is it a way of spitting in the eye of the patriarchy? I don’t know.  I don’t think so.

There shouldn’t be an argument that long-term use of heels, particularly high ones, or heels with narrow toes, do damage to your feet.  There’s no question I’ve seen some seriously hyperbolic rhetoric out there comparing high heels to … idk, burkas and FGM.  That’s bullshit.  Spinning “to wear heels or not to wear heels” as an issue of feminist choice feels bad to me, on a few levels.  One, it feels like we’re gilding the cage.  Heels are necessary, it can be argued, to be seen as professional in the office. Yes. Similar to office dress code rules about cleavage, shaved legs, etc., if you don’t want to be the centre of a shitstorm, you suck it up and follow the code. I don’t feel comfortable spinning that damned if you do, damned if you don’t choice as a feminist act.  We should openly acknowledge it as one of the series of concessions we make in our day to day lives in order to not be in combat 24/7.

I also want to acknowledge that for trans woman, this issue is wrapped up in much more troubling and dangerous narratives about femininity, passing and safety, and I want to be clear that I would never question any woman’s choice about clothing.  Criticizing the practice, and the social history surrounding it is necessary to breaking down the restrictions, though.

There’s been a backlash lately against ironic racism, or ironic sexism, particularly in the comedy world.  If you’re a member of the privileged class, making jokes that sound exactly like racism or sexism, and copping out of it by saying “But I’m not ACTUALLY a racist” is rightly mocked or called out.  Whatever someone’s personal intent is, the audience at large can’t judge it’s truthfulness; only the surface.  Similarly, when a woman wears heels or chooses to stay at home with her kids, there’s no way of knowing at first whether this is a conspicuous choice, or just going with the flow because that’s how life is, or a combination of both.

This does not look like aspic. Some 50s housewife!

This does not look like aspic. Some 50s housewife!

And so on, with sex positivity (sorry, I don’t find vagina-centred feminism very positive, or inclusive, Vagina Monologues)(Eve Ensler’s on everyone’s shit list today!), shaving/waxing/plucking, etc. etc.

Remember the Enlightenment, and me cursing it’s name? (Oh, I haven’t yet? Fuck you, Enlightenment. Eat a butt John Stuart Mill) Here’s where it’s getting me into deep shit. Criticizing the practices has become criticizing the individuals who have made that choice.  Because you’re implying they’re too stupid to not know the societal constraints (They’re not, and I’m not).  Or that you think someone can’t genuinely derive enjoyment from painting their nails or cleaning their house (patently untrue, though I will bemusedly welcome house-cleaning lovers to enjoy my poor cluttered basement if they’re bored).

It’s almost as if the meaning of “the personal is political” has been turned on its head to indicate that personal choices – no matter what they might be – are important political statements.  This is only true if the important political people are recognizing that those personal choices are subversive (and again, in some cases, like abortion, they are!). But when your subversive choices look identical to patriarchal buy-in, then what? The argument then becomes “Well, why aren’t you fighting the patriarchy instead of other feminists?”

The move towards fun sexy feminism has alarmed me in a number of ways. One, we end up with a lot of gross male allies who realize that saying they’re feminist gets them laid. For another, we end up with vitally important concepts like consent being boiled down to “because it gets you laid (and also not charged with rape)”.  Tied into that last link, we also get a bunch of corporate buy-in from Pantene and Dove marketing their beauty care products to women with mildly feminist messages or ideas, which feels alarmingly like point one, only with companies.  Capitalism is anti-thesis to feminism. Shouldn’t we be skeptical?

The problem with skepticism is its lonely.  The moment where you realize you’re a feminist killjoy and you lose all your friends is lonely.  The moment where you realize you’re a feminism killjoy and you don’t even really fit into with a lot of feminist spaces is lonely.  How do we build bridges?  How do people participate in feminism when there are many avenues in which its gone that they don’t agree with, when critiques have become personal jabs rather than a plea to think critically? Is this navel-gazing tome of a blog entry just more of the same? Where do you fit?

May 24, 2013

I Graduated from the Faculty of Celebrity Studies

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Last night I had a dream that I lived in a world where gossip was a felony crime, and being caught with gossip rags or thinking about celebrities was a dangerous act of rebellion. My first thought was, “Wow, what a shitty world to live in.” My second thought, close on its heels was, “Oops, I never did write that post about going to Elaine’s lecture.”

A few years ago, a good friend of mine introduced me to Lainey Gossip. “It’s different,” she said. “Just read.” Indeed, without Belen’s timely intervention and shameless wielding of “I’m coming from really far away just to see you!” we might have not even gotten an invitation to the Faculty of Celebrity Studies.

Since we’re both camera shy dorks, have a representative graphic of the evening:

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Belen’s the one in the teal dress with the curly brown hair. i’m the one in the lighter teal dress with the shorter brown hair.

FCS was held in London (ON, not UK), at my alma mater UWO. Compared to the other stops on the tour (Vancouver, Edmonton, Halifax), London was a small and strange detour – save the fact it was also Lainey’s old college. So, under the stern and paternalistic eyes of the presidents, Lainey presented her lecture & discussion on elements of what it means to gossip, images of celebrity motherhood, gender biases in advertising and expectations of privacy in a social media world. Don’t be fooled – this wasn’t a two-and-a-half hour session on who’s dating who, where and the literal ins-and-outs – Lainey is canny and pointed, and doesn’t hesitate to use her years of experience in the celebrity studies world to call people’s assumptions into question.

On privacy: What right do we have to expect it, especially when we’re constantly updating our Facebooks or our Twitter accounts? When we use those mediums to further other agendas? (For example, the tweet I’ll make about this post when I’m done.) Most of all, why do we do it? For one student, it was simple. She has a lifestyle blog. Using Facebook and Twitter, she devises ways to connect with her audience in a seemingly personal manner, so they’ll be intrigued and look at her blog, thus earning her money. Lainey: “So, you believe your lifestyle is aspirational, which is why you share it with the world?” “No, but I think people are interested in the places I eat, or the wines I drink.” It’s conceit, but none of us want to call it that. For me, personally, privacy is a weird duck. I expect it; as a person, I’m entitled to it. But neither am I surprised when my illusion of privacy is broken. I mean, before the internet, I had a little unicorn diary with a rinky-dink gold key and lock, and I don’t even think then I expected my thoughts to remain especially private.  The internet only serves to disseminate that violated privacy far and wide.  It’s not my fault either, for not buying a bigger lock for my diary, or stronger privacy settings on my Facebook account. It’s the fault of the snooper, the boyfriend who shares illicitly gotten sex pictures, the corporations mining social media for consumer data.  Anita Sarkeesian didn’t stop putting herself out there after she was targeted for daring to criticize video games from a feminist standpoint; she just disabled the comments. (Angering tons of men who wanted to call her awful names, which indicates she’s doing the right thing in both cases.)  We don’t need to hound the targeted – we need to make targeting far less valuable than it is.

Celebrity motherhood was another hot topic, leading eventually to what I had to call “the incident” (but I’ll get to that). We went through slideshows of celebrity moms and sometimes dad out and about, just living their lives despite the beleaguering mobs of paparazzi. “Paparazzi aren’t that lucky,” Lainey said, “They’re not just going out for Starbucks and lucking into getting a few shots of Thor holding a baby burrito. They know ahead of time, either because the agents, or the celebs themselves call them.” Jessica Alba hasn’t made a movie in years, yet she remains consistently photographed. Her films aren’t her brand anymore; motherhood is. (Literally.)

Hear that stony grinding sound? That’s me, and Belen, wearing our teeth down to nubs as audience member after audience member praises the mothering lifestyle. On the other hand, they were careful to note that ‘real’ mothers don’t have housekeepers, or nannies, or nurses, like Jessica or Gwyneth.  Thus hoisted by their own petard of choice feminism, the conversation wandered in unusual and ugly circles for about half an hour with regards to motherhood and choice and careers, despite Lainey’s best efforts to herd it back. (“Why do you think they’re so often white?” she desperately asked a group of 40-50 middle class white women.)  Finally, I end up cutting into a woman’s rambling story about how her 4-year-old son loves their law-school babysitter so much, he wants to “take care of her when they’re married.”

“It’s not a choice, not really. How can it be, when we’re raised from birth to supposedly want to mother children and keep house? How can we say, ‘I chose this’, when the media is carefully self-selecting women who are moving away from acting careers, not into scriptwriting or directing but motherhood?” That was the gist of it, I think, drowning as I was in bellinis and confusion. In a way, it was good because when the shouting died down (one woman asked me from across the room, “Do you have children?”), we got to take a five minute break.  A few women spoke to me during the break, and I got a cool celeb head-rush when Duana told me to keep on trucking. But I felt painfully aware of the consequences of a difference kind of privacy – feminist yelling on the internet in the privacy of your home is so much different than doing it in a physical space. To me, the room felt stifling and awkward. Then felt awkward. Belen patted my hand and told me she was proud of me.

faculty-08may13-01

The evening wrapped up with an audience free for all: Is Vin Diesel a dick? (Yes. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth over that one. From like, two of us. Okay, from me and Belen.) Are a bunch of different people gay? (“What is everyone’s obsession with who’s gay?” – Lainey) Was meeting Gwyneth exciting? (Very, even though they couldn’t shake hands because Gwen just had her nails done.)  Is Mariah Carey a diva? (Second-hand story but yes, and brilliant about it.)  My one regret is that the event happened too early for the Star Trek: Into Darkness junkets to really get going because I am dying to pick someone’s brain about John Cho being just plain excellent.

It was probably one of the most interesting lectures I’ve ever attended on Western’s main campus (sorry but I’m an affiliate kid through and through) but I couldn’t help wondering how different the audiences and interactions were in other cities. London is a medium sized town, bursting with some pretty serious issues with racial ghettoization and class privilege.  I was disappointed, though not surprised, how heavily it affected the conversation.  Especially when Elaine states pretty baldly how her experiences shape the ways she interacts with gossip:

“When I’m writing, I quite often infuse celebrity reporting with my own experiences. I see celeb gossip through the prism of my life,” she says. (UWO alumni gazette)

That’s true for all of us; however we interact with the concept of celebrity, we do so through our own lenses. The reason why Elaine’s site is so compelling is that it’s a fresh lens, poignant and sharp and witty, skewering our expectations of gossip and often subtly lampshading or turning the tables on the reader to consider the broader social understandings that we draw from, and corporations and media infuse into, celebrity culture.

Are you a gossip girl? Trash talker? Smuthound? Give us the deets.