Saturday, November 7, 2009

Woman's Inhumanity to Woman & I'm So Happy For You

How do women perpetuate sexism? Are there ways in which some of us benefit from patriarchy? I know some people are still fond of that old riot grrl saying, "there's no such thing as reverse sexism". I understand this as a strategic position aimed at redirecting the discussion to a more constructive (in theory) examination of power; the imbalance is societal and there is a difference between discrimination and institutionalized oppression. But is it really true that women can't be sexist? If we really want to dismantle oppression, don't we need to take responsibility for how we, as women, also participate in this crap? For example, how do straight women put pressure on men to live up to a patriarchal ideal of masculinity? That is something I have witnessed my whole life and I think it's really damaging to men and women.

But these are hard conversations to have with men who have power over you on some level. It's often too exhausting and unproductive to sustain this kind of dialogue. Plus it might require giving up something that makes you feel powerful or even gives you real power, especially economic power. For example, if a man is "the breadwinner" in the family, the bills are more likely to get paid. If a woman tries to be the breadwinner, on average, she will make less money than a man. Statistically, if she has children she will make even less money. For reasons like this, some women tend to be more open to talking about "internalized sexism" or sexism between women. For some of us it's easier to confront. For many of us it's less risky in really concrete, material ways. This is not to say that this lets us off the hook.

I still think both of these things ("there's no such thing as reverse sexism"/ saying "internatlized sexism" instead of sexism) at least slightly fall into the "victim feminism" category, meaning this way of thinking assumes we are victims and not responsible for our own actions. I mean, even though ideology exists, power exists, institutionalized oppression exists--we do have free will, we do have agency--at least to some extent. I'd like to believe that anyway. So if we are going to be feminists and hold others accountable, we also need to be accountable for how we choose to live our lives.

Thinking about how women are sexist towards each other, I picked up a book at the library called Woman's Inhumanity to Woman by Phyllis Chesler. Woah. It certainly made me think re-evaluate some of my own behaviors. For example, why is it sometimes easier to deal with guys "being jerks" than it is to deal with women who are being mean, controlling or dramatic? I think I tend expect less from men, so really I don't let it bother me so much when they fuck up. But by being harder on women than I am on men, I may also be perpetuating sexism towards women. I know this is something that people talk about a lot, but to see it in your own relationships with people is intense.

The book itself is not great. It suffers from that kind of second-wave feminist tendency towards universalizing. It draws examples of "woman's inhumanity to woman" across cultures without situating them adequately. Additionally, the book seems to be driven by personal vendetta. Chesler is angry about several incidents that happened to her in the woman's movement and by writing this book she seems to be trying to call people out on their shit without naming names. I realize the personal IS political, but at times it feels like reading someone's chap book from middle school where they write what they really think about you--the ostensible logic being that only you will know they are talking about you--the reality being EVERYONE you both know will know EXACTLY who the shit talk is directed towards. Ironically, as a result, the book itself feels like a catty act of revenge. Sure maybe there are some legitimate grievances here. But if you are gonna call someone out, call them out! What good is served by talking around the issue? For me it got confusing and tedious and I didn't finish reading it. This is not to say that feminists shouldn't talk about this stuff, but if we are going to talk about it, let's talk about it clearly and directly so that it makes sense and is constructive. I realize this is hard to do and I think this attempt is better than nothing.

Around the time I picked it up I ran across a "not-your-ordinary chick-lit" novel by Lucinda Rosenfeld called I'm So Happy For You. It might not be typical of the genre, but compared to the male-dominated George Pelacanos novels I've been reading lately, it is pretty female-centered. Unfortunately it's also pretty mediocre and there are some really...dare I say "sexist" undercurrents? The plot revolves around two best friends from college who are at different points in their lives and become "frenemies". Everything is fine, from the protagonist's point of view, until her friend starts getting her shit together and living her own life. As soon as the friend is no longer a complete fuck up, things gets weird in their relationship. So while this is an interesting theme to explore--how friendships between women can get competitive and bad when one is perceived as having more power than the other--the book was pretty depressing and ultimately disappointing. Although the book seems to be about cattiness it also uses cattiness for entertainment value and does not explore what it means that women are catty to each other--it just shows us how awful it can be and kind of normalizes it.

On one level, I enjoyed reading it. I think I read it in one evening from start to finish. It is a page turner. But there was this annoying hipster-turned-yuppy who lives in Brooklyn type "identity" or maybe "niche market" that was trying to be sold to me that was ultimately conservative. The main character works for an ineffective leftist magazine but spends her days reading entertainment news on the web. While this was funny at times and maybe also realistic, it seemed to endorse a kind of post-everything why-bother version of reality. There is an acknowledgment that we are at war with Iraq, but the characters feels disconnected from world events. Is the reader supposed to then feel absolved from her own complacency? Why even mention politics if you aren't going to say something interesting? It's more than a little annoying. It reminded me of that terrible film Away We Go and I kept hoping no one makes a film of the book. Maybe it was meant to convey "realism"? Not sure.

I'm also not sure if the book has anything revealing to say about female friendships. It depicts them realistically on some level--you will recognize the cattiness and weird games straight women often play with each other--but it also makes this kind of thing feel somewhat inevitable. I guess the author is absolved because she has a "touching" ending where a mother and daughter who didn't like each other discover a deeper connection? I don't know. Anyhow don't be surprised by this book being kind of crappy if you do decide to read it. It's the kind of thing that would be good to read on the plane. I really felt the author dumbed down her characters because she wants to market the book to Hollywood or something. I mean really, they come across as cliches, and the story centers around the demographic that has the most money to spend on stuff like books and DVDs. So maybe that's cynical of me but I felt there was a market driven motive for the book that was noticeable and distracting. Is cattiness marketable? Yes. Sexism sells.

So how would someone write about this stuff without perpetuating it?

Awhile back I did some research on the 70's "woman's novel", a genre I vaguely remember from high school. This was possibly my first introduction to feminism. I tried re-reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and Woman On The Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and didn't get very far, though I still really liked The Golden Notebook. I had better luck with The Woman's Room by Marilyn French, which I had never read before. I liked it but it was limited in scope. This is something I will continue to explore....maybe someone can recommend a book similar to Shelf Discovery about 70s/80s feminist novels? I know there's a lot of Sci Fi, which I'd love to read about more than re-read...

Here is something a former colleague of mine forwarded me when we were discussing this stuff via email. It's called "Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood". It probably deserves it's own post. It was written by Joreen for Ms. Magazine in 1976.


Tobi Vail said...

I revised this since I posted it earlier today. I think it makes more sense now.

Tobi Vail said...

I guess I should also clarify where I am coming from on this.

I am trying to examine "reverse sexism" as a conceptual tool. I am not trying to argue against its usefulness necessarily. I understand there is a difference between a man being sexist towards a woman and what is called "reverse sexism" and that that difference is systemic. I use this framework all the time.

But what I'm trying to examine is how this might let us off the hook as women. I am saying we need to be accountable for how we participate in patriarchy (in our relationships with men for example) and that this includes the ways we can are sexist (for lack of a better word) towards women --this is called internalized sexism usually, but maybe we should just call it sexism in this case.

Anyhow, I have been thinking about all this a lot lately, inspired by some of bell hooks' writings on the subject and that is why I read these two books and was directed to the piece about "Trashing".

Tobi Vail said...

Following Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's conceptual tool of "strategic essentialism", maybe we need a new rendering of "strategic there's no such thing as reverse sexism"...this would allow us to use it as an explanatory device when we need it, but would also allow us the space to really examine the ways in which we do participate in patriarchy by using the word...or is that a misreading of Spivak?

Tobi Vail said...

from wikipedia:
"Spivak also introduced terms such as 'essentialism', 'strategic essentialism'.[16] The former term refers to the dangers of reviving subaltern voices in ways that might simplify heterogeneous groups, creating stereotyped impressions of their diverse group. Spivak however believes that essentialism can sometimes be used strategically by these groups to make it easier for the subaltern to be heard and understood when a clear identity can be created and accepted by the majority. It is important to distinguish that 'strategic essentialism' does not sacrifice its diversity and voices but that they are being downplayed temporarily to support the essential element of the group."

kanako said...

Tobi, i think it is really cool that you openly examined your own sexism towards women, i.e. being possibly harsher on them and having higher expectations of them then your male friends. Very cool.

I have been thinking about how difficult it is for me to socialize with other women and also stay in healthy relationships with them lately and am currently reading ODD GIRL OUT, the Hidden Culture of Aggression In Girls, by Rachel Simmons. I'll post my review soon.

on a tangent...

Also,I heard recently about a the concept that men have a tendency to try and take out "weaker" men and keep the one with power in position, and that women with less power have a tendency to work collectively in a group to try and take out the women with power. seems to be a pattern that I recognize and have been trying to comprehend.

Tobi Vail said...

well actually, I didn't write about this, but it's also making me think a lot about how badly I have been treated by other women, i.e. born the brunt of their sexism or internalized sexism towards me--this was especially true when I was younger. not to whine or anything, but really, what a drag. not only do we have to learn how to navigate this stuff and survive all the crap that dealing with sexism from guys can bring--but also dealing with it from women--as well as trying not to perpetuate it ourselves.
no wonder a lot of people prefer a more simplistic analysis, where guys are "jerks" and women are "rad" or whatever. at least that is how I saw a lot of riot grrl type thinking back in the day. meanwhile, whole scenes of girls were talking shit about me because I was confident and in a position of (perceived) power via my band...well not to rant or anything...but I see this stuff in my teenage and childhood friendships/clicks as's almost like the worst thing a girl can be is confident and like herself...which is kind of what was interesting about novel, even though it was crappy--just the plot where a friendship basically ends because someone no longer has low self-esteem...pretty depressingly realistic I'd say. anyhow, back to reading the Slits book, which is full of really interesting history and great interviews!