Sunday, December 31, 2006

FOR PW: A Primer on Feminism

My student PW asked me to write a little overview on feminism. He wrote:

I am going to be quite blunt here; I don't get feminism. I do not really understand why or if there is such a stress on women as opposed to men.

It's a tricky thing when anyone asks you to explain what feminism is, especially when they stress that they don't see the need anymore and that after all, everyone is struggling. Sure, in some ways it is true that all people are struggling, men, women, people of color, disabled people, poor people, rich people, Westerners and non-Westerners. We could just describe struggle as a generic human thing. This is not, however, what feminism does. So, I will attempt to answer PW' question for three reasons: (1) I should be able to give a really straightforward answer to what feminism is since I am the Mad Melancholic Feminista; (2) PW is asking me sincerely, not to "bait" me; and (3) It's always a good idea to review why feminism is still important and worth considering.

When I teach Feminist Theory (a Philosophy class), I often ask students a series of questions:

(a) Do you think that young girls in Thailand should be sold into prostitution?
(b) Do you think that women and men should be paid the same wage if they are doing the same job?
(c) Do you think women should be allowed to pursue any career field they are passionate about and have talent for?
(d) Do you think women who were raped should be stoned by their villagers?

If you answered: no, yes, yes, no, then you are a feminist. Why? Because feminism is the struggle for social, economic and political equality for women worldwide. That's it. Ok, well, it's not that easy, right? After all, what the hell does equality mean? What most feminists mean by equality is political equality, e.g. equal protection under the law or the right to be valued as full and equal citizen. Equality does not mean that men and women are essentially the same.

Many critics of feminism like to make a strawfeminist argument and claim that all feminists think that men and women are essentially the same (i.e. talents, potentials, strength potential, etc.) and what makes us different is social conditioning (nurture). However, this is an absurd view only rivalved by the perhaps even more absurd view that all men and women are is a product of their biology. The latter claim is absurd precisely because most people who make that claim have little to no understanding of biology, or science in general. They are generally the same folks that denouce evolution and global warming, but hey, men and women are completely determined by their biology. It's a sort of convenient picking and choosing of scientific theories, i.e. when they accord with one's ideology.

Men and women are different; no one serious challenges this fact. However, biological differences among men, for example, do not lead to political differences. I have yet to hear a good reason for why biological differences means that political equality is impossible. But, let's leave that for another discussion, shall we?

So, I think, perhaps, one way to show PW why someone like me would be a feminist, and why it is still relevant is to give you a picture of what it is like to grow up as a girl in the U.S. From birth, a little girl is socialized into a role that our culture deems proper and fitting for all girls. The first question that anyone asks of a new parent is: boy or girl? Once that important distinction is worked out, the family, relatives, and friends can begin participating in the socialization, e.g. a pink blanket and pink booties. Walk into a toy store this week and compare/contrast the toys deemed appropriate for girls vs. appropriate for boys. At 3 and under we are having little girls wash fake dishes, bake fake cakes, and take care of their babies. Boys, however, have lots of weapons. I am hard pressed to see the real differences between 9 month olds, but we do a good job culturally sending those signals out.

Now, consider you are a 6 year old girl and you get up every saturday morning to watch cartoons. Who are your heroes? Frivolous girls who obsess about boys, fashion and pop music. You could be the nerdy little sister who always gets in the way of your smart and clever brother. Or, you could be a Power Puff girl who, while saving the world for evil, talks like a grandmother sucking on helium. The role models send a clear message to little girls: sure, you can be important as long as you look cute, pink, play in a band, and are attractive to boys. If you are a scientist, fine, but as long as it doesn't interfere with your more important qualities, cuteness.

Now, let's fastforward to the teenage years. The popular culture--through advertising, pop music, magazines, TV shows, and films--makes it very clear what young girls should be worrying about: weight, looks, 'personality,' popularity, and fashion. What is even worse now is how sexualized pre-teen bodies are in advertisements. Take a look at advertisements for watches, jeans, cars, perfume, electronic equipment, diamonds--you name it--you will see lifeless dolls, portrayed as adornments, allurements for the male gaze to purchase the products. We see millions, perhaps billions, of advertisements a year and the effect they have on young girl's self esteem cannot be underestimated.

What message do these young girls get about their worth, their talents, their future?

Now, let's skip to young adulthood. Let's say that a young woman has emerged from all this socialization and still desires to enter into a previously male-dominated profession. How many other women are in the Finance class? Even if women are outperforming men academically, how many of them are landing a spot at the power table? How many women are high ranking policians? How many are CEOs of fortune 500 companies? How many female Presidents have we had in the U.S.? All around you are messages that you are lucky if you make it and those who do make it often tend to be harder on the women coming up--sort of like hazing in Fraternities.

While this is a gloss on why feminism is relevant, I hope it gets PW and others to start paying attention to the powerful ways in which the culture attempts to socialize women into a particular role. And, to fight against that role is hard enough, but once you do, you still have to confront pervasive sexism.

Let's go back to the six year old, who grew up listening to her older brother call his friends "girls" of "pussies" if they didn't do what he thought was tough, cool or if they showed signs of human vulnerability. It doesn't take long to learn that being a girl is tantamount to be inferior, deficient and unworthy. Feminine traits are frivolous, grating, catty, vain, narcissistic, passive, bitchy . . . (this list was compiled by my students when I asked them what they associate with femininity). What do we associate with masculinity? (Go ahead, make a list).

So, you see, the differences between men and women have been used to rationalize giving women less respect, less opportunities, and laying at their feet the full brunt of nurturing others: their children, their elderly parents, and their spouses.