Review: Jamila Rizvi’s Not Just Lucky

9780143783534Jamila Rizvi’s recently released book Not Just Lucky is basically a very long riff on the old saying, “carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man”. This is a very useful adage, which works as a reminder of the ways that women are socially conditioned. I find myself repeating this saying to women in my life frequently, and it’s useful to have a  book that spends time unpacking ways that women are brought up with negative self-beliefs.

Rizvi is intent to present “solutions” not just “problems”, and so the book also provides a lot of extended advice on how to speak, dress, think, and act in ways that might get you ahead as a working woman (even though the book claims it’s not a self-help book, but a “career book”). It’s funny and well-written. I also appreciated the very organised bullet-point lists of recommendations – I daresay Rizvi and I are a similar collection of letters on the esoteric Myer-Briggs test.

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Obligatory selfie of me reading Not Just Lucky

But while I found myself nodding along to many of the passages exploring the sexism that women experience in the workplace and beyond, Rizvi’s solutions fall short. What is offered is at best a band-aid to the problems described, and at worst, a cruel promise that working hard and undertaking individual self-betterment can lead to certain success.

To be fair, Rizvi acknowledges from the outset that her book doesn’t have the solutions for fixing structural problems like childcare and the wage gap, but simply offers ways women can change their thinking that has resulted from structural enculturation.

I’m on board with women undergoing some gender-CBT, heck my job is literally to talk about gender and double standards and how things we think are innate are in fact social.

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I am more than ready for the “lady boss” obsession to end. Please end.

But presenting the antidote to women’s ills as endeavoring to be “brilliant” and offering a blueprint for how to succeed as a “lady boss”, is not what we need right now. In this day and age, when humans are staring extinction in the face, capitalism is in a late and hideous form, and there are right-wing forces mobilising around the world, these kind of liberal feminist solutions feel a little like over-prescribing antibiotics. Sure, it might help you feel in control of getting better, but it will make all of us more unwell in the long run.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, but the biggest blind spot is: you guessed it, class. While Rizvi acknowledges her own privileged upbringing as a limit to her ability to empathise, what is needed here is not an alternative individual view but rather a different analysis of how to fix a broken system. Of course proposing a workable solution requires identifying the underlying problem. If you ignore class, then you’re destined to merely tinker around with the symptoms.

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Rizvi’s book is similar to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In

The thing is, all our problems don’t just boil down to how we are socialised. Rizvi claims that “the challenge for each of us is to rise above our own conditioning”. But thinking about the pitch of my voice at work, or asking for a salary increase, isn’t really going to make a huge difference – except of course, for me as an individual. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question gender norms, but it does mean that we might have to go beyond ways of individually speaking, dressing, thinking, and acting, if we want to make substantive change.

I was a little surprised that Rizvi stayed so closely to discussing things individuals can do, given that she claims in the beginning of her book the work is “unashamedly feminist”, and also notes at the end that “it is only together that we can change the world”. These words remain, for the most part, vague gestures. I can well imagine my grandma reading this book and saying to me “we were talking about these issues in the 70s”. That’s the point isn’t it: gender inequality is a persistent problem. If you want to acknowledge the changes in our lives for the better that have occurred, you have to talk about the struggles and the tactics that have gone before.

ednext_20124_guthrie_openerWhat’s interesting here is that Rizvi and I are the same age, and we went to the same university, at the same time (and did student politics together – I was in the Labor students club that she was the leader of). Unlike Rizvi though, I came from a very poor single-parent family. Yet, we both were able to get stellar educations. Despite my low SES background, there were quite a few structural supports in place such as public housing and welfare support, as well as decent free primary and secondary schooling, that meant I could get a leg up. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that some of these structural supports were targeted by the very Gillard government Rizvi fondly remembers working for.

Rizvi does suggest that there are policies that need to change in order to best address gender inequality. Rizvi also makes one note about unions, and a worker’s strike in Brisbane in 1912. These pages provide a short breath of fresh air in the discussion about how to make change. But strangely Rizvi moves seamlessly from discussing the importance of joining your union, to how to treat the symptoms of an unfair system which includes how to be a great boss.

I think is somewhat of an indicator of what’s wrong with contemporary Labor politics. It’s not really about representing the working class, because the interests of bosses are seen as equally important. Rather than seeing how being in the position of boss under capitalism necessitates exploiting those below you, not attending to class at all means you can’t acknowledge nor resolve that power dynamic. Here’s the rub: CEOs and working class people do not share the same interests, even if they share the same gender identity.

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Rizvi brings up Elsa quite a bit so this feels relevant

This book is explicitly inspired by the Sheryl Sandberg Lean In idea: the cruelly optimistic notion that you too can succeed, if you employ the correct tactics. But in a world that is becoming more and more unequal in terms of the distribution of wealth, where a handful of corporations own pretty much everything, and where capital and profit is valued over human and environmental well-being, success cannot be measured by how well you individually survive the fire.

Rizvi proposes that it’s not really luck but hard work that gets you ahead as a woman. We would do well to question whether the ceiling is really a class one that needs to be broken, in order to make lasting change for the lives of women at large.

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Give Drag a Chance

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Priscilla, queen of my heart

When I was a little girl, I loved drag queens more than anything. It was back in the days when video stores were still around, and my babysitter asked me which film I wanted to rent. Of course I said Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which was my absolute favourite as an eight year old, and I couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it already. By the end of the film she was rather shocked, but I remember thinking thank god I am a girl. My thought was that if I had been a boy I would have had to be a drag queen, and things would have been really tough. To me being a feminine as a girl was like being a drag queen too, you just didn’t get hate for it.

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Paris is Burning

Priscilla, and films like Paris is Burning before it, helped to make drag intelligible to a mainstream audience. Today RuPaul’s Drag Race continues to work that magic, bringing a greater awareness of drag culture as well as a diversity of queens into the spotlight with each season.

But even though everyone is watching Drag Race, word on the street for those in the know is that you’ve got to be a bit careful because drag queens are, well, a bit of a drag. So the story goes, drag queens—at least those “normy” hyper-feminine ones—are just reinforcing every stereotype of womanhood that feminism has ever fought against.

Strangely this critique of drag comes from two, usually wildly oppositional, directions within discussions of gender.

578579The first is from trans-exclusionary radical feminist types, who conflate gay male culture with drag queens with transgender identity. Such perspectives see gay men, drag queens, and trans women as responsible for propping up fantasies of femininity that only serve to oppress women. Germaine Greer famously stated in The Female Eunuch 1970: “I’m sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate”. Greer’s suggestion here is that there is some form of “natural” womanhood that can be liberated from the dictates of culture. Similarly, and more recently, Sheila Jeffreys has even argued that drag kings distort lesbian culture and the celebration of “natural” womanhood. She writes: “If the suffering and destruction of lesbians is to be halted then we must challenge the cult of masculinity that is evident in such activities as drag king shows”. These views are rife with homophobia and transphobia, as well as massive conflations and wild leaps that see men, masculinity, and femininity, as the true oppressors of women.

license-shutterstock_178095647z-56cddde63df78cfb37a34dedI don’t have much time for these views, which encourage us to believe that the biggest threats to women are trans women, drag queens, and gay men. This view distorts Marxist theory to argues that men in particular are *the* class that oppresses women, and sees the liberation that is to be won as a liberation from “gender”. Luckily the currency of radical feminism in academic spaces seems to be waning. But when overall activist struggle in society is low, it is easy for people to slip into arguing that we are each other’s problem, that if only we could free ourselves from gender we’d be truly liberated. It’s a much easier argument to make than organising to transform the fundamental economic arrangement of society, and it makes space for all kinds of class collaboration between powerful women and poor women alike (even if it means at the end of the day that power doesn’t actually shift).

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I heart Judy B 4eva

Understandably in many queer critical circles, no one has much time for radical feminism. For example Judith Butler—our queer theory queen writ large—has openly critiqued Jeffreys, describing her views on trans women as a “feminist tyranny”. At the end of Gender Trouble (1990) Butler famously held drag queens up as exemplars of gender subversion. There was of course a lot of responses to this, but much of these debates focused on whether drag really was the best example of the theory of gender performativity that Butler was proposing.

herofille2So that’s why it’s kind of surprising to hear people within queer communities suggesting now that drag, in its mainstream formations, is a problem. From this perspective drag, if performed by ostensibly cis males, reproduces misogynistic ideas of femininity and is really just another expression of the “gay-triarchy“. Drag that is seen as more alternative in these scenes is drag performed by faux-queens (women performing as drag queens), or drag that queers gender in some way, like the intense influx of bearded-queens we’ve seen in recent years.

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I love Sasha but I don’t doubt we occupy the same ivory tower

Within the land of RuPaul, this desire for more alternative drag to address the “problems” of drag culture is summed up by Sasha Velour. Now, there is no way that I am not #TeamSasha, obviously I love Sasha. But she also represents an extremely mobile, well-educated subset of drag culture, who can quote Butler and play with the expectations of drag (like, having a bald head) because let’s face it, they’re still going to get by even if they don’t win $100,000.

What the queer critique of drag shares with the radical feminist perspective is the view that we are one another’s oppressors, and that if we manage to transform our individual gendered selves in a particular way, this can contribute to liberation. For the rad fems this might mean rejecting expectations of femininity and trying to embody “natural” womanhood. From the queer perspective this might mean rejecting anything perceived as mainstream and normative. The conclusions are the same: do your politics through your body, and reject those individuals who don’t.

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The cast of Season 9

Let’s pause here to imagine why someone might get into drag (noting that the great thing about Drag Race is that we get to hear some of these reasons). For some, drag offers a space to play around with femininity, after growing up as a “weird” kid who didn’t meet the expectations of masculinity. For others, drag is a way of working through questions of sexual and/or gender identity. For many that have been kicked out of home or found themselves rejected by society at large, drag offers a space for new forms of family to emerge.

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Drag queens can be comrades too

For many, drag is a mode of survival, socially and economically. Drag queens struggle with expectations around femininity too. Drag queens don’t oppress women: the struggle against sexism is a shared one. There is a lot to be learned from RuPaul’s constant reminder that “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag”.

So, let’s celebrate those drag queens that can push boundaries and show us new ways to think about gender, but let’s embrace those “normy” queens too. This doesn’t mean everything in drag culture should be immune from critique, but it does mean we should give drag a chance. After all, the struggle is best won together, not alone, and drag queens are not the enemy.

This Jumpsuit Won’t Save Your Life

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The logo of RDS

Sometime last year I stumbled across the “Rational Dress Society“—a Chicago-based fashion/art duo, whose claim to fame is the production of a jumpsuit that promises to help “reject the signs of class, race and gender that are inscribed onto our daily interactions”. Their successful 2014 Kickstarter sported a Wes-Anderson-ish explainer video of a jumpsuit clad model who asks the audience, “What stands between you and revolution?” and answers, “Nothing.” The video implores viewers to reject other fashion in favour of the jumpsuit (“available in 48 sizes”), as an exercise in counter-fashion designed to unite everyone under the same style.

 

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An image from the Rational Dress Kickstarter page

As an academic in gender studies, naturally I wanted in on this so-called “ungendered monogarment“. I bit the bullet with the American exchange rate and shipping(!), ordered one, and promised myself I’d wear it for a full month to see how liberating wearing a practical, daily uniform could be. I’d record the process, do a study of my experiences. I imagined how I’d explain it at work, to my students. Maybe I really would feel liberated. My girlfriend kept asking me how and when I’d wash it, but I’d just smile. I imagined the Rational Dress Society would say You don’t need to wash clothes when you’re free from all that social malarky.

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Me in the moments prior to trying on the jumpsuit (I was trying to capture the supposed tyranny of “non-rational” dressing)

Twelve weeks later—and after sending in some measurements—my hipster singlesuit arrived in the mail. I feverishly stripped off to jump into it. Despite my extreme skepticism that a single garment could free me from oppression, I was genuinely excited to try something on that was made specifically for my body, that would finally fit, unlike all those sad things I’d previously ordered off the Internet (you know how it is: the too-small shoes, the dress that you have to squeeze into like a sausage, the pants that fall down around your bum).

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Moments later in the sad sad jumpsuit

But alas. I had never been in a more ill-fitting piece of clothing in my life. It was precisely all of the measurements that I didn’t have to record that were the problem—the width of my calves, for example. I was intensely confronted with the fact that my body was “ill-proportioned”, that is, that even with 48 sizes on offer finding something that fit long but thick legs and wide hips but a tiny waist and chest, was impossible.

Ironically it was the one piece of clothing that promised freedom from gender that made me feel the non-conformity of my body on a visceral level. I’d had a sneaking suspicion for some time that clothing wasn’t the key to gender liberation, and this seemed to be some proof in the pudding.

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Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games: femme-ing it up in the revolutionary compound

Cards on the table: my whole PhD was basically an extremely long-winded answer to the question “will feminine styles exist after the revolution?”, and my vehement answer was yes.

Of course we could debate what “feminine styles” means. But my main point was that people have attachments to gendered ways of presenting themselves, and that even though feminine beauty regimes and ways of dressing aren’t biologically-inherent (girls don’t naturally like pink and indeed, norms of gender are social), that doesn’t mean makeup and dresses and glitter and all those things would just wither away if we finally managed to smash capitalism. In the liberated world of gender that I hope for, your biology wouldn’t determine your gender or how you had to present yourself, but, there’d be a hell of a lot of room for experimentation, switching between many genders, and playing with presentation and costumes (much like when you’re a child, and you get to play dress ups).

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Me before I got “schooled”

Part of my attitude on this question, is that I’m just so damn obsessed with and attached to femininity. For me it certainly wasn’t a “natural” inclination—until I went to school, I was pretty androgynous, with a home-made haircut, adorned in skivvies and flannelette. As the child of a radical single mother, I was discouraged against buying into traditional femininity. But once I got to school, it was on. I wanted to fit in as a “girl”.

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I missed the memo that said how big bows were meant to be

So my relationship to femininity started from a difficult place. But as I became obsessed with plastic jewels and wearing tutus over my track pants, god, it was fun. I started dressing by theme—my favourite of which was my “licorice allsorts” outfit, which was just me in all the neon clothes I had from the op shop, punctuated by black socks and a black hair tie. I would also cut the waist ties off my dresses and get my mum to sew them into headbands for me so I could match from head to toe. And, I held not one but three makeup parties, where the aim was to use the eyeshadows and pencils to draw as many cool things on each other’s faces as possible. Sure, I missed the mark on conventional femininity, but it was those elements of feminine style—the campy, glittery, over-the-top aspects of femininity—that won my heart. So, when I think of a liberated future, I tend not to think of monochrome jumpsuits that eliminate difference.

But I’ve had to debate my perspective with a lot of people.

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At the Miss America Protest

Indeed, the history of feminism has been haunted by the conundrum of fashion and self-presentation. Infamously, women in the USA in 1968 protested the Miss America pageant, which included (among other things) throwing items of women’s clothing, makeup and magazines into a “freedom trash can”. Some say that this is where the myth of the “bra-burning” feminist began, though it must be noted that despite the desire of protesters to burn the contents of the bin, the fire department refused a permit. While the stunt was great for getting attention on the burgeoning women’s movement, one of the downsides of the event was that the protestors targeted the Miss America contestants themselves, not just the pageant organising body. They held signs which called the women sheep, and, actually paraded sheep—again, pretty cool, but a bad message.

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Sheep at the Miss America Protest

This focus on the bodily and stylistic pursuits of women themselves reached fever pitch in the 1980s, with radical feminists such as Sheila Jeffreys claiming that wearing makeup was akin to self-harm as per the United Nations guidelines on torture. The story had morphed from the kind of points earlier feminists made about the negative expectations placed on women around social roles and bodily maintenance, to one where women themselves were really the problem, for being such dummies about their oppression. As Ariel Levy’s best-selling book of 2005 argued, in a surprise twist it turned out that women were really the worst sexists of them all, the “female chauvinist pigs”.

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Who could forget the Spice Girls in this story of femininity 

However, in response to these particular strands of feminism, so too was there a concerted effort (mostly in the 1990s, but let’s be real, we’re still living with the aftermath) to argue for the empowering and liberatory effects of “girl power“. The problem with this version of feminism wasn’t just that it was instantly recuperated into a market that sold it back to us, but that it claimed that femininity was empowering. This form of feminism has insidiously morphed into the celebrity feminism that we are pummelled with today, that suggests feminism means basically anything to anyone, as if it’s just another beautiful choice under neoliberal capitalism.

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From the Rational Dress Society Instagram page

I don’t think we have to get into this binary way of thinking about feminine styles, to make such big claims about it being The Worst Thing Since Torture, or flipping right over and saying it is The Best Thing Ever. At the very least, it’s interesting. Gender expectations are painful, but gender, in more general terms, doesn’t have to be.

So I returned the jumpsuit, and felt all the better for having that tyrannical object of sameness out of my life.

The Queer World of Stranger Things

Joyce Byers: He’s a sensitive kid. Lonnie used to say he was queer. Called him a fag.
Jim Hopper: Is he?
Joyce: He’s missing, is what he is!

Judith Butler: Crafting a sexual position…always involves becoming haunted by what’s excluded. And the more rigid the position, the greater the ghost, and the more threatening it is in some way

Eleven: The gate, I opened it. I’m the monster

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It’s almost too good

*SPOILERS (OBVS)*

I watched Stranger Things this week, yes, five months late to the party (just in time for Christmas so I can be creeped out by the lights). I could list a bunch of excuses, but really I just generally avoid anything that has a whiff of scary. But the thing about the horror/supernatural/sci fi genre is that it tends to engage with questions of the strange, the bodily and the abject, and is therefore inescapably relevant to queer theory and feminism. So, when I found myself in that inevitable position of why can I find literally nothing to watch on Netflix?, I gave in (and boy am I glad I did), because it turns out that Stranger Things is the gayest, campest, queerest, most feminist thing out at the moment—perhaps even in spite of its own intentions.

The troubling thing about watching shows later than everyone else is that you’ve missed the cultural discussion. So when I started feverishly googling “queer Stranger Things” and “feminist Stranger Things” after the series ended, I was surprised at arguments that worked hard to demonstrate how the show is anti-feminist, or like, stop making it about feminism already, and how people are stuck on questioning whether Will is gay or not. I was also intrigued by how everyone was obsessed with Barb and the grand injustice of it all. To me, all of these things entirely miss the richness of insight that the show has to offer on questions of gender and sexuality.

*****

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Oppression, comin’ atcha

Let’s get to the feminist themes of the show first. It’s not feminist because it overtly trumpets “political, social and economic equality with men” (it doesn’t), but rather, it engages a feminist lens that magnifies sexism in all its forms and portrays female and genderqueer characters who resist in spite of the oppression that’s bearing down on them from all angles (literally).

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Joyce, holding her ground

That Joyce communicates with Will via lights isn’t just for special effect—it’s a comment on the gaslighting that many women experience in their everyday lives. Gaslighting is when someone is led to believe that they are misperceiving things, and that they are crazy/losing their mind. The term originates from a 1930s play where a man tricks his wife into thinking she’s going mad, which involves him messing with the gas lamps in the house. Many women experience gaslighting as a subtle form of emotional abuse in intimate relationships. Joyce is told by all the men around her (the police, her oldest son, her ex-husband) that she’s crazy and that she’s mis-perceiving (so crazy in fact that she can’t even recognise the body of her own son), YET she persists in her rescue mission. The ultimate lesson is: believe in yourself and grab a f***ing axe while you’re at it.

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Karen Wheeler (note checked shirt for later)

The show also did a kick-ass job at celebrating mothers as at once loving and fierce. For one, there’s Karen Wheeler, Mike and Nancy’s mother, who is constantly reminding her children: I’m here if you need me. And we might wonder, where the hell is the dad most of the time? Their mother is the centre of it all, she’s the one doing the emotional labour. Joyce repeats a similar mantra of support to both Will in the Upside Down, and Eleven when she’s in the sensory deprivation tank: I’m here for you. Of course we could read this as stereotyping motherhood, but in a world where mothers are so frequently represented along a binary of either strong and evil, or caring but passive, I think it’s a celebration of strength in vulnerability. Unlike the mothers of the original 1980s slasher flicks, these women are to be revered, not feared. The lesson is: celebrate the mothers, they’re the ones keeping sh*t together.

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The patriarchy involves women leaders too

Fathers get a rather different wrap in the show, but the complexity of masculinity is also engaged with rather than made one-dimensional. Perhaps the most notable father is Eleven’s “papa” Dr Martin Brenner, who dare I say represents the patriarchy, that is, the “rule of the father”. This character also demonstrates the long history of science and medicine ruling over bodies, particularly female or genderqueer ones. For instance, he tells Eleven that they are “sick” and that he will make them “better”—a reflection of the disciplining of non-conforming bodies that has long been documented (thanks Foucault). There is also the absent father /deadbeat dad (Lonnie), who functions to show us the abuse that occurs in the family home and the perils of single motherhood. And then there is Jim Hopper, the dad who has lost his daughter. With this storyline we are made privy to the vulnerable side of masculinity, and the very few options for expressing these kinds of emotions that men are offered in life. For Jim, his sadness hardness into detached coolness. Similarly, for Jonathan Beyers—who reveals crying after being forced by his father to kill a rabbit as a child, to “make him a man”—his vulnerability hardens into stalkerish reclusiveness. The lesson is: the rule of the father (or whatever you want to call it—patriarchy, gender expectations, etc) is bad for everyone.

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How good is Nancy?! (Note checked shirt underneath)

You know what else is bad for everyone? Slut-shaming. Nancy experiences some pretty heavy slut-shaming not only from her friends at school, but from the police. While Nancy is all, Barb is missing! the cops are all, but did you have SEX? Nancy realises that justice isn’t going to be served through the formal legal channels, and that she’s going to have to take things into her own hands if she wants to get things done. She’ll pick up a gun, say “screw that” to the nuclear family, and unthinkably crawl through goo in a tree in order to rescue her friend. Unlike many rescue stories, the hero here is a woman. When it turns out that the monster has killed her friend, Nancy doesn’t give up, she grows in her resolve. Indeed, after this she’s out for revenge, but the female-rescuing-female trope subverts the normal “revenge” paradigm that usually focuses on rape. You know who cared about Barb in a world that just generally didn’t? Nancy did. That was the entire driver for Nancy, her friend. The lesson is: sh*t, Nancy is awesome.

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Eleven not even messing around one bit

Last but not least on the question of gender, Stranger Things engages with the gender conformity that is thrust upon us in a world of heterosexuality. In order to “pass”, Mike and his friends dress Eleven up in pink, a blonde wig, and makeup. Mike is rather happy about Eleven’s new “pretty”, but Eleven’s not so sure. When Eleven is accused of being too aggressive and too crazy (after hurting Lucas), they cast their wig off and strides into the supermarket to take whatever they like, slamming doors along the way. They’re saying, you don’t own me, you can’t control me. While Joyce teaches us that you can be a mother and a fighter, and Nancy teaches us that you can be feminine and a hero, Eleven shows us that femininity can be restricting and awful when it is thrust upon us.The lesson is: you can be queer in your gender expression and save the world.

*****

This last point brings me to my queer reading of the series. Again, this isn’t to say that the show is queer because there are a bunch of LGBTQ characters in it (this is debated), but rather, we can undertake a queer reading that reveals the show’s underlying themes related to subverting the normal when it comes to gender and sexuality.

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A camp extravaganza

First, the obvious things. The overabundance of christmas lights is super camp. Camp refers to a sensibility seen as linked with homosexuality, a focus on the over-the-top, and the rejection of middle-class taste. Camp is also often associated with Christmas, with its gaudy decorations and glitz and glam. Joyce goes totally OTT with the Christmas lights, and the same time that she’s tearing down the walls of the family home. It’s no wonder that when Lonnie comes home he tries to force “normal” family life by literally patching things up and taking the lights down. But Joyce won’t have it. The Beyers residence is a camp wonderland that does family life differently.

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Misfits abound in Stranger Things

Second, the title Stranger Things, refers to the strange that is so central to queer readings. Queer theory focuses on “queering” the normal, and has often been about celebrating that which is considered “strange”. In the show, all of the heroes are “strange” in some way, they are misfits who reject how things are “supposed to be done”.

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Will (in yet another checked shirt)

Very importantly, there is an overt emphasis on Will’s presumed gayness, with references made to his “queerness” almost every time he comes up in conversation. Whether his character is gay or not is really besides the point, because there is another story bubbling under the surface here (which this article from the Advocate basically hints at—but it’s much more literal than they suggest). When the school bully asserts that Will is “in fairyland now right”, we should take note. If we read this claim in conjunction with Judith Butler’s claim that we are always “haunted” by those sexual subject positions we exclude, we can understand the Upside Down as also implicitly referring to “inversion“, the old way that sexologists in the 19th century used to describe homosexuality. This isn’t to say that the Upside Down is a world of homosexuality, but rather, that it is the shadow world that the bigots project as the opposite normality.

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Mouth breather

It’s also a world that casts queer bodies into what Butler would call the “ungrievable“—where some people’s sexuality and gender cannot be understood to the point that their lives cannot even be mourned in death. That the “real” Will is illegible (he is a shadow, and his “body” is a fake) , that almost no one cares about Barb going missing, that there is barely a blink that several people have disappeared in a matter of days…It all testifies to understanding the Upside Down as that which is cast out of the world, that is not allowed to exist in “normal” life. But what can move between worlds, and what can be identified by those who are critical of normality, is the monster, i.e. homophobia. Here, the monster is the ultimate “mouth breather” (its face is all mouth after all), it is THE bully, the homophobe.

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Barb, another outsider (and checked shirt wearer)

Along these lines we can also note that unlike the old horror movies of yore, it is not the youngsters engaged in hetero sex who get taken by the monster…Barb gets taken specifically because she doesn’t want to engage in that milieu. Who else gets taken? As the police briefly discuss, two men who went out “hunting” that week but their utter lack of concern about this makes us think maybe there’s some subtle homophobia going on there, like, well, we know what goes down in those woods…

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Perhaps Will is reflecting on his internalised homophobia

It is also not surprising that the monster is unleashed in the processes of spying on Russians—as many have documented, fear of communism was often promoted through connecting “commies” to “homos”. As George Chauncey notes, “The spectre of the invisible homosexual, like that of the invisible communist, haunted Cold War America”, which manifested in the USA as the Lavender Scare during the 1950s. In their spying on the Russians, Eleven predictably also spies homophobia. Of course, Eleven gets blamed for unleashing havoc, buying into the notion that it is them who is monstrous, rather than homophobia that is the destructor. We see this play out in life all of the time—when conservative politicians argue that that it is really gender and sexual non-conformity that is the real concern (think of the children!) rather than the bullying and hate-crimes that are committed against those who don’t fit the “normal”. Notably, the monster in Stranger Things forces ingestion on its prey as a way to reproduce, that is, it creates internalised homophobia. By the end Will is literally vomiting up this monstrous self-hatred, and the family home is neatly (too neatly) patched up back to normalcy.

That the monster is attracted by “blood” also calls to mind the AIDS crisis that emerged in the 1980s, and that was a central subtextual theme of many of the horror films that Stranger Things references. At the time AIDS was first called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” or GRID, and again, it was homosexuals who were seen to be the source of death, rather than the victims of homophobic governments who were slow to act on the emerging health crisis.

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The lab, lined by grids

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Steve’s room, so many grids

Interestingly, Stranger Things is dominated by grids. The corridors of the Hawkins National Laboratory that holds the doorway to the Upside Down depict a grid that is also mirrored in Steve Harrington’s bedroom decor (that we see just before Barb is taken). Many of the characters also wear plaid/checked i.e. grid patterns. In fact, the world of Stranger Things is literally littered with grids. The double meaning of this grid obsession is also the “grid of cultural intelligibility” that Butler discusses—the norms of sexuality and gender that constitute the fabric of the social world. Going to the Upside Down means falling off this grid, where you can be the prey of homophobia without cultural recognition.

The lesson of all of this is a reminder that the monster of homophobia needs to be fought, not internalised, in order to keep everyone safe from falling off the grid.

*****

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Stranger Things questions, rather than merely replicates, the dominant paradigm

All of this is not to say that the Duffer Brothers have been reading Judith Butler (though, it’s not that unlikely) or any other queer theory or feminist texts for that matter. Rather, we can see these elements of Stranger Things as testament to the zeitgeist permeating the popular subconscious from the 1980s to today, that involves a mash of ideas about gender, sexism, sexuality, and homophobia. The show manages to tap into these issues and depict the realities of oppression, all the while making its non-conforming characters the heroes. This is really what makes this show stand out in a field of popular representations: it does more than reproduce normative ideas, it offers a challenge to them.

 

Review: Clementine Ford’s Fight Like a Girl

pic1Last night I was lucky enough to see Clementine Ford launch her book Fight Like a Girl at Melbourne’s Athenaeum theatre. I was keen to hear Ford talk, to come down from my ivory tower in the academy and see what mainstream feminism in Australia had to say. I was struck by how much I looked like all the other women there, with my Gorman clothing and my “alternative” haircut, and my not being a man.

Ford was charismatic and had loads of interesting anecdotes about sexism. I was struck by her “giving no fucks” attitude, and deep concern for the lives of women. Interestingly, Ford called for a new version of “radical feminism” for the contemporary world. But when MC Julia Baird asked, “So, how do you fight like a girl?”, I was surprised that Ford had little to say other than along the lines of “‘girl’ has become synonymous with ‘shit’, so we have to own it instead of be ashamed”. The suggestion seemed to be that fighting like a girl, boiled down to just being a girl.

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Reading selfie

I decided to go home and swiftly read the book to see if I was missing something.

Throughout Fighting Like a Girl, Ford documents the sexism she has experienced in her life in meticulous autobiographical detail. She talks for example about the stigma around abortions, the difficulty of having mental health issues as a woman, the mixed emotions of pregnancy, and grappling with body image issues and eating disorders. Ford’s reflections are refreshingly blunt. I particularly liked her point toward the end that, “We should be angry. Because if we aren’t, we aren’t paying enough attention” (271). I have often advocated the value of anger and the way that women’s expression of anger is derided.

But while Ford outlines all of these issues and rallies us for anger, there is a little direction about what to do with it.

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Clementine Ford

Ford’s manifesto reads as a kind of re-vamped consciousness-raising strategy ala 1970’s feminism. Though, unlike the feminist groups of that time (that would meet to talk tactics and plans for actions) Ford’s consciousness-raising (at least in this book) is largely about self-work, undoing negative thoughts and female conditioning, enjoying the virtues of masturbation, and repeating insults thrown at oneself over and over until they loose meaning and force. Ford also advocates for ignoring sexist men, to laugh in their face or just “walk away” (278).

But while some of these options may assist in surviving a sexist world, I am dubious about how effective they are for dismantling sexism. I feel like masturbating in your bathtub just ain’t gonna cut it.

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An excellent slogan from the strike in 1970

It is fruitful here to compare Ford’s strategy to the radical tactics that were also going on in the 1970’s alongside consciousness raising. For example, women gathered at the Miss America protest in 1968 to throw their bras and Cosmopolitan magazines into a “Freedom Trashcan” (where the bra-burning myth comes from), in order to draw attention to the sexism of beauty pageants. There was also the socialist feminist Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), which staged a lot of theatrical protests such as gathering to march down Wall Street and cast hexes on corporations. Even the more conservative so-called “liberal feminists” of the time organised a general strike in New York City in 1970, where more than 20,000 women marched, brandishing signs like “don’t iron while the strike is hot!”. Revolution must have felt like it was around the corner.

tumblr_mkbyo55hdo1s9zzmvo1_1280However, the feminism of the 1970’s was not without its problems. Many women of colour raised important issues about what mainstream feminism was hoping to achieve – the question became: feminism is liberation for whom? Women of colour such as bell hooks highlighted how they faced a double burden of both sexism and racism. As The Combahee River Collective pointed out in 1974:

Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. 

The Collective was fundamentally concerned with building coalitions to fight racism and sexism, because of the shared interests that cut across gendered lines.

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Michaelia Cash and Pauline Hanson

While Ford is happy to pay lip service to difference (she states in the beginning that the book “is not intended to claim itself as a universal experience”), her strategy ignores the old critiques of separatism.

Fundamentally this approach is based in “identity politics”. Identity politics is problematic because it sees identity as a source of both oppression and resistance – politics is founded at the site of identity. This also leads to the problematic idea that all women have shared interests, so for example, at least on some level I am supposed to get on board with feeling my sisterhood with right-wing racist women like Julie Bishop, or Michaelia Cash or Pauline Hanson, i.e. celebrate women in power. Never mind if they’re involved in locking up and torturing refugee women, or advocating for the end of Muslim migration. Identity politics is how we get to the idea that “fighting like a girl” is simply about “being a girl”.

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LOL

Ford’s quasi-essentialist view – that really being a feminist is about being a woman without qualms – became more starkly problematic last night when Ford started suggesting that men were unnecessary in the fight against sexism. In her book Ford nominally invites men to “get on the boat…or drown” (187) but we’re left wondering – what is the boat?

Let me just pause here to say I’ve experienced my fair share of sexism. I’ve been in many a relationship with a man and bore the burden of domestic and emotional labour. I’ve sat through endless philosophy classes with arrogant boys and cried on my walks home over feeling silenced. I’ve experienced sharp sexism on the streets and in the academy, and had grown men scream at me for being a confident woman. My current partner is a woman, and I can see that the way we relate intimately and domestically is affected by the gender scripts we have grown up with.

Sexism is real.

whiteribbonaustralia_campaignribbon2I also definitely take Ford’s point that the whole “male champions of change” thing is a joke. Going to an International Women’s Day breakfast only to be talked at by endless male speakers “standing up for change” is pretty ordinary, as is being part of any space where men are in the minority but feel the need to dominate verbally. But I think what’s wrong with most of these “male champion” ventures (the White Ribbon campaign being one of the cases Ford discusses) is that they’re not actually doing anything.

Let’s imagine for a second that there was a mobilisation against sexism at universities across Australia to stop rapes on campus and let’s say it involved everyone striking – teachers, students, everyone. In this scenario, to be honest, if every guy wanted to be a “champion” by picking up all of the tedious activist organising tasks like arranging email lists, painting banners and setting up information desks at the strike, I would be 100% behind that. Maybe the people who had experienced assault could “carry the flag” as Ford suggests, but the other people could carry the stalls. Bear some burden. Do some boring tasks to educate, agitate, organise. Sounds amazing.

But the theory of “patriarchy” that Ford employs (which the radical feminists of the 1970s certainly also believed in), suggests that there is something fundamentally essentially wrong with masculinity. It locates the cause of sexism in masculinity, rather than seeing masculinity as a symptom of a larger structure that is not only promotes sexism but also racism, and every other “ism” you can think of.

bdb4eaf4df0f6e2e765392ed96032bc8e8a52a8f03d6ec29c51704e4e3ff8ce9In contrast to Ford’s identity politics and patriarchy theory, we could imagine a politics which attends to issues of identity, which recognises that sexism disproportionately affects people of different identities in different ways, but which doesn’t found the political moment in identity itself.

What this alternative to identity politics really boils down to then isn’t identity at all, but a material relation to the world. It’s class politics.

Class isn’t about identity per se but a relationship to production. If you work for a wage, you are a worker (the working class). If you extract profits from other workers, you are a boss (the ruling class). The system of capitalism needs to divide the working class to maintain control. When workers are united, they have a lot of power (hence why the Turnbull ABCC issue, trying to take away worker power, is such a big deal). Ford touches on capitalism in Fighting Like a Girl, but instead of seeing it as structural cause of division and control, she sees it in terms of merely a “market” which sells things to us. Capitalism certainly does sell things to us, but the main point of capitalism isn’t consumption so much as production. As long as we don’t try to seize the means of production, i.e. control over our own labour, capitalism keeps ticking (though it is in perpetual crisis – another story for another time). The more divided we are, the less able we are to seize power.

This perspective is critiqued for being too simple, too crude for describing the world. It’s pretty uncool to use Marxist theory these days. But I wonder why: perhaps precisely because it cuts to the quick of what’s really going on? Unlike feminism and other identity movements, Marxism appears to be the one thing capitalism struggles to reabsorb and sell back to us.

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Hilary Clinton

Men who make this point are often called “brocialists”, which irks me to no end because it suggests that only men care about class, and that the ones who do are inherently sexist. For example, the UK’s progressive Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is constantly being called a brocialist, despite explicitly trying to introduce radical gender equity policies and indeed policies which benefit working class men and women (I’m not saying he’s a full blown revolutionary, but he’s not bad). Commentators like Ford would rather get behind right wing leaders like Hilary Clinton than social progressives ones like Corbyn, because of the “sisterhood”.

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Fact.

Of course, just as feminists grappled with issues of racism, historically there have been issues with the left grappling with sexism. Sexism should always be challenged in activist spaces, and that is not always an easy task.

But all of this really makes me think that fighting like a girl has to mean more than just being a girl (or a cisgender woman, or a gay woman…etc). If we’re really going to put up a fight, we better put our collective heads together real quick, before the ocean rises and the earth melts away, before every black man is shot in America and every Australian indigenous person dies in police custody, before everyone is a refugee, before everyone is squeezed until there is nothing more to give.

Sure, unashamedly orgasming in the bathtub isn’t the worst idea in the world. But I really hope that we don’t wait until death is knocking on our door to get out of the tub and join the collective struggle.

Feminist Utopias and Battling Cruel Optimism in Ghostbusters

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This is not a drill

When I first heard about the new Ghostbusters, I was bursting with anticipation. But when the trailers started coming I quickly tuned out. Like a child who has peeked at their Christmas presents before the big day, I needed to hold the excitement in. It all seemed too good to be true. So when the lights went down at the cinema last night, I turned to my girlfriend and said “holy crap—they really made this film!”

By way of review, the film itself is highly enjoyable but clunky at times.

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Hands up who wants to go get a science degree after seeing this film

Don’t get me wrong, I was still hanging on every word out of Melissa McCarthy’s mouth, but the direction and editing needed some tightening up. It was probably a three star affair. But the film more than makes up for its pacing and logic problems with its sharp ideas and cast who pull it right through.

Whether this was a great filmic success is not really the point. The point is that they made a movie dominated by smart and funny female leads, who explore issues of gender and race inequality, with large hints of queer sexuality. It feels like a miracle in a world otherwise saturated with films epically failing the Bechdel Test.

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Outside of the film however, cruel optimism is arguably still going strong

However, the irony in celebrating this bastion of female representation is that I spend much of my academic time critiquing the idea that we should focus on representational politics. I often argue that our focus on getting diversity in film and television obscures the material inequalities that underlie the lack of diversity in the popular realm in the first place. When we are presented with images of “successful” characters from ordinarily marginalised groups, this can help to present a false sense that “anyone can make it” despite the odds stacked against them. This connects up with cultural theorist Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”, which refers to those fantasies we hold onto (like “The American Dream”) that are actually cruel promises destined to fail. Berlant writes:

“Fantasy is the means by which people hoard idealising theories and tableaux about how they and the world ‘add up to something’. What happens when those fantasies start to fray—depression, dissociation, pragmatism, cynicism, optimism activism, or an incoherent mash?” (2011, 2).

Cruel optimism operates where there is a desire and attachment to a kind of projected future, but where this possibility is either impossible or “toxic”. Berlant warns against investing in these projections, because when they fail, it can lead to serious disaffection and demoralisation (or, an unhelpful continuation of false positivity).

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The film doesn’t hold back about the discrimination women experience

So, I have to admit that I was worried that the all-female Ghostbusters might be doing its part to contribute to a cruel optimism about gender equality, to say “don’t worry, women can make it too!”, despite the real-life discrimination, harassment and assault experienced by a diversity of women on a daily basis (and on that note, the Ghostbusters cast). But the beautiful thing about this film is that it owns this reality, and runs with it. The film is surprisingly open about gender issues, directly representing the ways that women are systematically dismissed and derided.

When the characters are thrown out of their academic institutions, it is biting commentary on the historic sexist assumption that women pursue the “irrational” (here represented by an interest in the paranormal). When they are dismissed by the authorities and the “men in charge” it is a reminder of the fact that when women report abuse (here represented by the violent male mastermind) there is a practice of active disbelief. When they are vilified online and represented by the media as liars, it is a reflection of the abuse that women experience in these realms.

Ghostbusters doesn’t present cruel optimism: it reflects the true cruelty of the present. There is not a sense that this can be easily overcome, rather, a mass-scale battle led by a vanguard of ass-kicking diverse women is partly what is needed to make any ground.

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Kate McKinnon, the openly gay dreamboat, plays Jillian

The other thing that Ghostbusters does so well, is show us glimpses of the revolutionary future on the horizon. This is reminiscent of the late José Esteban Muñoz‘s work on queer utopias. Muñoz argues that there is a queer future that we are able to glimpse even in the darkest of moments, where oppressive norms of gender and sexuality have been undone:

“Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present” (2009, 1).

In Ghostbusters we catch sight of this queer future in the team’s workroom. Here there is no hierarchy (they are all leaders), much empathy (like when Patty cares about Abby’s blood sugar levels), endless patience (even for Kevin who is terrible at answering the phone), and a deep but balanced engagement with questions of science (they make cool stuff) and humanity (like Jillian’s speech to Abby about love). The film is always on the verge of showing us out-and-out queer love, with a complicated triangle between Abby and Erin (past lovers?) and Abby and Jillian (present lovers?), only slightly ameliorated by Erin’s attraction to Kevin. There is also a diversity of bodies, backgrounds, skin colour, and sexuality. Ghostbusters doesn’t shy away from how difficult gender relations are in the present, but it does show us a hint of a future where things could be different.

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They ain’t afraid of no Men’s Rights Activists

There are times of “reverse sexism” within the movie, and I think that kicking a ghost in the groin is probably a bit unnecessary, but largely these moments are used to reflect on the standards that women experience today. The treatment of the assistant Kevin for example, explicitly functions as commentary on the sexual harassment women can expect in most workplaces.

It is no wonder that the MRAs of the Internet are up in arms about this insta feminist-cult-classic. While the sexist and racist hate directed toward the movie serves as a reminder of how far we have to go, it also reveals how challenging this film truly is. As they always say, the feminist proof is in the sexist-reaction pudding.

 

Why “woman” doesn’t equal “feminist”

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Emma Watson, the UN’s “He for She” spokesperson

It seems that every week there’s a new feminist celebrity in town. You definitely know the drill by now: Beyoncé dancing in front of a flashing “FEMINISM” sign, Taylor Swift insisting her girl gang is 100% feminist, or Emma Watson being the poster woman for male feminists. The reaction always falls along the same lines: feminist celebrities are either defended (“hooray at least someone’s talking about it!”) or pilloried (“these women don’t know the first thing about feminism!”). Many commentators also worry that celebrities identify as feminist in order to get attention, or just to appeal to their female audience. However, the key issue for me is not whether they truly and authentically hold feminist ideals, but how the debate fosters a more worrying trend…the idea that if you’re a woman, you’re naturally a feminist.

I’ve been trying to articulate the problem with equating woman with feminist for some time, but it wasn’t until I read an article from feminist theorist Sandra Harding that the heart of the issue became clear for me. Harding says:

“It is an achievement, not a ‘natural property’, of women to develop a feminist standpoint, or a standpoint of women”

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Miley Cyrus has been vocal about desiring “equality”

Harding is talking about something called “feminist standpoint theory”, which is about valuing women’s perspectives as key to understanding women’s marginalisation. At the centre of the theory is that it is important to consider the views of oppressed groups. Because the views of the oppressed are traditionally silenced, attending to their perspectives may spark questions that would never come to the mind of those in power and indeed, questions that those with more power may have an interest in suppressing. According to this theory, if you’re talking about women’s liberation, this should involve listening to women’s experiences (of domestic and workplace expectations, for example) because this helps provide a map of how women are being treated unfairly.

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Beyonce performing in 2014

However, this is not to suggest that women will naturally be able to provide an analysis of why they are being treated poorly, or what ought to be done about it (or, that they will even identify a particular experience as “unfair”). A distinct feminist analysis that says “this is happening because of sexism”, “we should fight back” and “what’s happening is unfair”, is something altogether different from just recounting one’s experience. In this way we see that feminist analysis relies not only on attending to the lived experiences of the marginalised, but stepping back and looking at the whole picture of oppression to see what needs to be overcome.

Of course the difficulty for feminism is that it has historically only provided an analysis that fits the lives of some women. Only in relatively recent times has feminist theory come to grips with the fact that it is important to bring more nuance to analyses of lived experience, to  acknowledge that racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other factors may also be at work.

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A key slogan from the second wave

However, I think the point to take away from this is that political analysis isn’t inherent to identity. The idea that identity is the key to doing politics is termed “identity politics”. This basically just means that identity is seen as inseparable from politics in such a way that the politics flows from the identity in itself. Really this idea is founded in the promotion of the phrase “the personal is political” in feminist activism in the 1960s/70s. The idea in feminist organising at the time was to bring so-called personal issues, such as feeling unhappy as a housewife, to the forefront of feminist consciousness, to show that these “personal” things ought to have “political” ramifications. However over time this idea of the personal as political has collapsed into identity itself, with the idea that identity (rather than specific issues and the analysis of them) = politics.

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People in Sydney rallying to save Safe Schools

We see this belief that politics is inherent to women fail time and time again. This was recently demonstrated with Cate McGregor stating “I am transgender. And I oppose safe schools“. Cate identifies as  a transgender woman, but this doesn’t mean she inherently possesses the best political analysis of transgender women’s liberation. While there are plenty of transgender people speaking out and saying that Safe Schools is utterly important to the LGBT community as a whole, they don’t have the same platform as Cate.

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Former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard

This brings me back to celebrity feminism. The problem with celebrity feminism is that it often involves conflating “woman” with “feminist”. For example, when Leighton Meester says, “I don’t know if anyone would ever deny being a feminist” she is implying that all women are feminists because they have a vested interest in fighting gender inequality. Or when Taylor Swift says, “So many girls out there say ‘I’m not a feminist’ because they think it means something angry or disgruntled or complaining”, she’s suggesting that feminism is not about being critical and assumes that inequality is self-evident. Or when Zooey Deschanel says feminism is just about “being myself”, she’s locating feminism in self-expression as a woman. All of these celebrity feminists do have things to say about inequality, but they all treat this understanding as so obvious that it is basically incomprehensible to see how being a woman does not necessarily mean being a feminist.

It’s a perspective also adopted by some feminists who aren’t celebrities. It’s dangerous not only because it risks condemning women who say they aren’t feminist rather than convincing them why they ought to be, but also because it locates politics in women. There are many negative consequences to this view, but particularly problematic is celebrating female leaders for being female, even if they are materially making conditions worse for many women in society (I’m thinking here of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard cutting the single parent payment, for example).

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Actress Zooey Deschanel

Seeing politics as inherent to women is also bad for feminism. What emerges is the view that feminism can be utterly pluralised, because each individual woman has her own individual feminism. The sum of these fragmented parts is often a feminism that reaches for the lowest common denominator, such as the encouragement of a vague notion of “equality” that we see in celebrity feminism. In Hollywood “equality” might just mean getting paid as many millions as your male costars. While I don’t pretend to have all of the answers for what feminism should be, I do think that a sharper political analysis is needed that calls for liberation in a much much broader sense than rich women gaining equality with rich men.