Published on January 9th, 2014 | by Wild Gender0
Lan Pham: Feminism is Not Assmiliation
By Lan Pham
Recently, two articles came out which aim to shame, chastise and correct women—both celebrity and everyday—about their misuse or misunderstanding of the word “Feminism”. Kate Dries over at Jezebel.com published an article entitled “The Many Misguided Reasons Famous Ladies Say ‘I’m Not A Feminist’”, in which she lists a battery of (admittedly inane) statements from prominent female celebrities, mostly pop stars, as they distance themselves from the label of ‘Feminist.’ Over at the Huffington Post, Rebecca Searles has posted a glib little flow chart called “How To Tell If You’re A Feminist In Two Easy Steps.” Both articles boil down the definition of feminism to a belief that women should have equality with men. Both articles purport that anyone who believes that women should have equal “political, social, and economic” status with men are automatically feminist, and should thus claim the identification. Should these hypothetical feminists, waiting to be welcomed into the fold, also be concerned and engaged with popular representations of women in the media? Not explicitly. Should they educate themselves about the increasing incarceration rate of women in this country? Not required. Should they study the intersectionality of race, class, and gender presentation, and how all of these things come to bear on the lives of not only women, but all marginalized groups within our society (i.e. queer people, trans* people, people of color, economically oppressed communities…)? Again, not required. Should they be politically educated, committed to social justice, and engaged in a substantive critique of governmental, legislative, and cultural systems which produce the very inequality that they are against? No. Happily, according to these articles, all a woman must do to call herself a feminist is believe that women should have equal standing within the (perniciously racist, militarized, rape-and-pillage, corporatized) hegemonic system that we call America.
Here’s the thing: it’s because of articles like this that I have recurring and persistent problems identifying myself in the feminist camp. The problem with this universalized, innocuous, and flattened conception of feminism is that it carries with it an implicit call to assimilation. If you believe that the endgame of feminism is the achievement of equality with men, then you also must believe in the system that grants that so-called equality. The problem here is that “equality” is a construction. Equality is not a transcendent human right. In reality, “equality” can only be achieved through a fabricated and policed system of legislation. “Equality” is not a thing that exists in a vacuum, waiting for women to claim it for themselves.
It is a thing that is created by a closed cultural and legal system. It is a production of the state. And it is the logic of hegemony and of capitalism itself to work to continually mask this production. Marx’s commodity fetish masks the conditions of its production, as does the commodified feminism of Dries and Searles. And the conditions of its production are this: the state doesn’t give a flying fuck about whether you are a woman or not. It doesn’t care if there are more women writers in Hollywood, at the top of the corporate ladder, or in powerful legislative positions—claiming ‘equality’ with the men who run the game. All the state needs is your assimilation, your ability to buy into its version of equality, in order for its hegemony to function. That’s why it welcomes certain individuals from marginalized groups. As long as marginalized bodies rid themselves of any revolutionary potential by claiming a place within the institutions that the state legitimizes, the state can use those bodies to further its institutionalized power. It can use their bodies to continue the ultimate, global agenda to consolidate wealth and power into the hands of a privileged few. This is the logic of assimilation.
Let’s take the U.S. Military as an example of this logic. On June 18, 2013, President Obama announced a plan to lift the ban on women serving in combat positions in the Military. That decision was hailed by certain feminists and progressives as a victory for women. And, according to the logic of Dries and Searles, it is a victory; A victory for equality. But instead of blindly celebrating this ‘equality’, I counter that it is much more important and pressing to analyze what that ‘equality’ actually means. To me, women being granted the “right” to serve in combat for a global imperial death machine is not something to celebrate. I don’t think that women being granted a more prominent place in the continuing U.S. military campaign to murder innocent civilians, dismantle the economies and foreclose on the right to self-determination of non-white communities across this globe constitutes progress toward a more ethical world. And a feminism that does not take this into account is not a feminism that I want to identify myself with. A feminism that rids itself of any vestige of ideological critique is a false feminism, a duplicity, a betrayal. Articles like those written by Dries and Searles work to actively erase both the radical history and the contemporary insurgency of feminism in favor of a more palatable version of feminism that is legitimized and endorsed by the state. They seek to silence the work of feminists of color who have spent lifetimes writing and working to end the economic and racial oppressions that intersect with women’s issues. They aim to erase a feminism that is politically educated, involved, and revolutionary. Searles explicitly states that when celebrities reject the term ‘feminist’, they perpetuate the “myth that feminists are a bunch of bra-burning man-haters, and that’s just not true.” In this one phrase, Searles privileges the feminism of the straight and cisgendered, the kind of feminism that does not pose a direct challenge to heterosexism, to patriarchy, to systems of domination and oppression. Instead of challenging the sexist logic used by Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and other celebs cited by Dries that blindly equates feminism with militarism (instead of with sustained critique), Searles ends up complicit with something very close to that root sexist logic. She becomes complicit in an ideological maneuver that endorses a feminism that essentially apologizes for itself, expunges any vestiges of a revolutionary character, and thus makes itself a fit label for any and every woman who believes in the most shallow of ways that women should be ‘equal’ with men. This ideologically-rife form of feminism is a kind of feminism that runs directly contrary to a kind of feminism that not only examines the inequality that women experience every day, but the ways that those inequalities are inextricably tied to political, economic, and cultural systems. Let’s not forget here that a belief in equality within these systems does not equate a critique of the systems themselves. Not to mention that the collapsed feminism of Dries and Searles is also complicit in the continuing ideological belief in a gender binary, rather than involved in a critique of the violence of that binary itself.
Dries and Searles betray their own ignorance to sustained ideological critique in the moment that they single out pop stars as the objects of their righteous indignity. To me, there is a critical reason that the choice of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga to identify as feminists or not is a moot point: because they aren’t people. The entities that the public understand as Katy Perry or Lady Gaga are complexsemiotic conglomerations that ultimately constitute a commodity fetish. A music video or public appearance by a pop star is a highly engineered, artificial, and constructed semiotic sign that aims to dupe us into thinking that the thing we are seeing is a person, when really it is a capitalistic production, engineered for consumption. But, it is to the benefit of the capitalistic system that we go on believing that we are interacting with these pop stars as people when we listen to their music or read an interview that they participated in, because it gets us to buy their records and paraphernalia. It’s Branding 101. If each pop star has her own unique identity, exemplified by her individual “personality” as a woman and artist, then her brand is secure, and people keep on buying “her” output. Any public statement that this brand makes is automatically subsumed into a larger context of capitalism, commodity, and profit. Ultimately, Dries and Searles, and Dries especially, are setting up these celebrities as avatars for the ‘misconceptions’ of the everyday woman. Their alternate definition of feminism (the belief that women should be equal to men) is thus set up as a counter-point to the misconceptions of Perry and Gaga, and thus as a worthy alternative for everyday women who were siding with the celebs. However, to think that the statements of Gaga and Perry are comparable to any remark by an everyday woman on the street is to divorce those statements from the economic and cultural contexts that produced them. The very action of isolating their statements about feminism, as if they occurred in everyday conversation, is to decontextualize those statements from the complex machinations of capitalism and commodified representation that produced them.
I honestly don’t care if Lady Gaga or Katy Perry choose not to identify as feminists. In fact, if they aren’t involved in a sustained critique of the systems of inequality in this country, and in a dismantling of those systems, I actually prefer that they don’t. To me, feminism is a conscious and engaged political stance. If we are going to be pointing fingers here, the action of collapsing feminism’s nuanced and varied applications into a one-size-fits-all, generalized assimilation agenda is the real misuse of the word ‘Feminism’, the real wrong that needs to be corrected, the real misunderstanding.
To me, feminism is radical. Feminism is insurgent. Feminism is necessarily offensive. It is offensive to challenge and critique the systems of power, law, and economy that keep entire classes of people oppressed. It is offensive the question the very premises upon which this country was built. Feminism should, necessarily, pose a threat the pervasive injustices that our American institutions perpetuate every day. To me, these actions are what constitute the heart of my feminism, and if they don’t fit in with the cute, simple, and digestible conception of feminism of Dries and Searles, then I guess I’m not a feminist to them. And that’s OK, I’m happy to forgo the identification of ‘Feminist’ if it means that I am standing for something more substantive, more just, and more engaged than the pale smokescreen that they are peddling.
*This article was written in response to Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and The Edge of Normal