The Women’s March on January 21 followed defiantly after Trump’s inauguration. What began as a nationwide grassroots movement for women’s rights grew into an international protest for a hodgepodge of liberal/leftist values; people paraded signs to call an end to police brutality, to champion equal rights for racial minorities, and to recognise the urgency of using sustainable energy sources. It was called the Women’s March and the name suggests a pretty straightforward fight for gender equality, but as usual, things got kinda messy because they involved diverse collectives of people. A woman wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat was reportedly kicked out of the protest. The Women’s March clearly happened on Democrat terrain, and was hostile towards the participation of Conservative-leaning women. (I think the bipartisan system in America has the tendency to polarise people and create pools for extremism on either end, but that’s a story for another day.)
According to the exit polls from the presidential election, 53% of all white women who voted placed their vote for Donald Trump. This lays in stark contrast with the 94% of black women who voted for Hillary Clinton. That’s nearly all of them.
Here’s a photograph from the Women’s March that illustrates that perfectly.
In the picture, Angela Peoples is holding the sign “Don’t forget: White Women Voted for Trump” and nonchalantly sucking on a lollipop. Behind her, almost as if composed and spray-painted by Banksy, stand three oblivious white women. Conveniently enough one of them looks like she’s taking a selfie, and we all know that’s the gestural cue for solipsism, don’t we. Also, it really doesn’t help that, taken out of context, the pink pussy hats make them look like ridiculous caricatures. Feminism is messy. Women disagree amongst themselves about what feminism should do, and some outrightly reject feminism.
Feminism is defined as the movement for the social, economic and political equality of the sexes, and the women at the Women’s march were protesting for different types of feminisms. After all, equality is not something you can qualify on certain terms. Does equality mean we are treated identically? Does it mean we earn the same amount of money? What about equal happiness, and how do we measure that?
And what is this blog post about exactly?
It’s about why feminism is contentious even amongst the supposed beneficiaries of the movement (women). If we’re all individuals with unique vantage points within a complex hierarchy and we’re all acting in self-interest to a significant extent, then life is like a card game where the stakes are high. We don’t want to play the most obvious hand, we don’t want to show anyone what we’ve been dealt, and some of us play beneath the table.
Let’s take another look at the definition for feminism:
Feminism is defined as the movement for the social, economic and political equality of the sexes.
Because feminism is a movement, it is inherently political. Maybe it shouldn’t be politicised because that rubs people the wrong way, but it already has been, because it’s an outward declaration of resistance, an active step in a defiant direction. When you support and subscribe to the values of feminism, it necessitates that you lay down your cards and surrender your weapons in the power play of social hierarchy. You have to bring everyone’s attention to the rules of the game, you have to admit that you’re losing and could be easily finished, or sometimes, you’re winning and you have to admit that you cheated.
Because I’m an erudite individual and I go to a fancy schmancy liberal arts college, this is the opportune moment for me to quote from a revered film classic. You know that film Django Unchained? Leonardo DiCaprio played the racist slave-owner who made his captives fight each other to their violent deaths. In reference to the slaves he controlled, DiCaprio was like “Why don’t they kill us?” He’s been owning slaves for decades and the slaves never acted against their cruel masters. If they really wanted to kill him one of them could just slit DiCaprio’s throat with a razor while shaving him. DiCaprio explained this all away with white supremacist ideas about the anatomy of the human brain, but the real answer is that sometimes, a movement that may benefit a collective of people may severely disadvantage an individual. If one brave slave slits the throat of his owner, it’s not enough to overturn the whole system of slavery. This one slave would probably be beaten to death as punishment, his story will be remembered as one of insolence from a lesser breed of human, and the American landscape remains largely unchanged.
Ok back to feminism. How exactly would outwardly supporting feminism disadvantage a woman? What does it look like when you surrender your cards?
Here are a few specific examples:
- You have to admit that you don’t look attractive naturally and you need a whole arsenal of beauty products to look beautiful. Nope, women aren’t beautiful creatures, we’re not mysterious seductresses. There’s no “something” about women. It’s all been a masquerade (read: “Film and the Masquerade” by Mary Ann Doane), and one to the tune of a 95-billion-dollar cosmetics industry. We’re not pristine princesses; sometimes we get explosive diarrhoea from cheap barbecues, sometimes we pick out our wedgies when no one’s looking, we get in-grown hairs on our armpits and we get yeast infections. When we shed our chicken cutlets, our spanx, our eyelash extensions and our Benefit Porefessional Primer, what’s left? If you’ve been depending on your looks to get you what you want, then what will happen to you once the secret’s out?
- You have to admit that you’ve been smart all along, but you’ve elected not to use your brain. You’ve been silently observing everyone and taking in information, and you’re a legitimate threat to the people around you. If you’ve settled with a wealthy husband, people will grow suspicious of you. You’ll look like a gold-digger, and in comparison to the other women who toughed it out in their careers, you’ll look lazy and unimportant. You’ve been intelligent all along, but you chose to do nothing with your smarts. This is a long-standing argument against the sort of values that emerged during Second Wave feminism. To many, it really doesn’t seem like feminism liberates women because women no longer feel like they can choose domestic work without judgment.
- If you’re middle-aged and married, it would be terrifying to look back on your life and realise that it’s been a series of unreciprocated sacrifices. Your brothers went to school but you didn’t, you settled down with the first man who could conjure a diamond ring, and you spent the rest of your life being someone’s wife and someone’s mother, never your own person. You put food out on the table and someone says it’s too salty, and after dinner, you clear the table alone. You’re already 50, what are you going to do now? Is it too late?
- Ladies get let into clubs for free because we’re not the customers, we’re the product. Men go to clubs for the holy trinity: booze, good music and sexy women. How are you going to rationalise your decisions to yourself now that you’ve found out? How many drinks will you let guys buy you, how many kisses are they going to steal, before you feel like you’ve betrayed yourself?
- And finally, my personal favourite: when you show your feminist streak, you’ll be a public loser. You’re admitting that you don’t like the way you’ve been treated, you’re a victim, and you’re broadcasting your insecurities. You don’t like your body, you are deathly afraid of ageing, you didn’t do anything when a man groped you on the bus. These things are deeply personal, and we don’t even want to speak about these things in regular conversations, let alone on blazing banners.
When you’re a feminist, you’re unattractive. You’re whiny and loud and your appearance is mere artifice. The patriarchal rules that bind women in an unspoken oath to their attractiveness, are the same rules that are broken when one identifies as a feminist.
Sexism is not absolute. It’s not a simple polarity, it’s not a lopsided black-and-white ying-yang. It’s a tangly mess of social conventions and restrictions that we learn to navigate from a young age. Women have learnt to keep their mouths shut and to sit pretty. We check our partners’ phones when they’re not looking, we let the men get drunk first, we go to the toilet to adjust our bras and clean up our eyeliner. Some women are getting ahead in the game, and I understand why they don’t want to quit.
If you’re waiting for the paragraph where I steer the debate in a different direction and convince you all to be feminists anyway, it’s not going to happen. Don’t be mistaken, I still think that feminism is important and I’m going to fight very hard for it, but I also understand why so many women are intimidated. This a blog post for them, and a post for everyone else to understand why this issue is so complex. When it comes down to it, it really is a man’s world out there, and the sane and smart thing for women to do is to stay out of the fight but reap its benefits afterwards.
What do we do now?
I don’t know, I don’t have all the answers. And to be very honest, it’s been very tempting to give up. Speaking so openly about social issues has earned me a reputation for being “so angry” or “agitated” all the time. It’s a paradox isn’t it? It’s smart to keep silent, but we can’t all be silent either, then no change will every happen. I guess I’ll just keep writing.