Katy Perry Does Critical Theory

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Illuminati realness, or reference to Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’? You decide.

There is little doubt now that we are living in a strange time, a time where Teen Vogue talks Black Lives Matter, Elle Magazine quotes Russian revolutionaries, and the dictionary trolls the President of the United States. Activist politics is filtering into mainstream spaces in strange and uneven ways. This week one such event was the release of Katy Perry’s video for her new song ‘Chained to the Rhythm‘, which is, in fact, a hilariously direct engagement with Critical Theory.

Critical Theory emerged in the mid twentieth century, and involved theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer taking up strands of Marxist and Psychoanalytic thought, to provide a critique of society and mass culture. In particular, Adorno was very concerned with what he called the “culture industry“, that is, entertainment consumed by the masses that works to keep people controlled and complicit under capitalism. Adorno believed that popular culture numbs people so that they are not able to fully realise the conditions of their own oppression.

This is exactly the critique of society that Perry presents in her new video.

With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Perry’s video is set in an amusement park called “Oblivia”, where everyone is either viewing the world through their iPads or shuffling behind others toward mundane rides such as a literal hampster wheel. The setting notably connects up with Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous claim that “amusement has become an extension of labor under late capitalism”.

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Gosh KP, what on earth does it mean?!

But with increasing nuance throughout the clip, Perry manages to address some of the most pressing political issues of our time. These include:

1. The financial crisis and the American dream

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The first ride Perry visits is a reference to the financial crisis of 2008 that saw the mortgage market in the USA bottom-out. It’s not a fun ride—you sit in a tiny house and get jolted in the air once you’re locked in the house. It’s almost like Perry read Lauren Berlant’s book ‘Cruel Optimism‘ which talks about how people invest in dreams of a better future (i.e. the American dream) but that this belief is actually a cruel and toxic attachment.

2. Heteronormativity

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The dream drop ride shows heterosexual couples enter, surrounded by a white picket fence. Perry comes along and smells the roses on the fence, only to prick her finger, realising that the roses have stems of barbed wire. In a reverse-Sleeping-Beauty move, this finger prick helps to wake Perry up, and we realise that the deep sleep represented in fairytales is in fact about succumbing to a heteronormative life. Here, Perry functions as a queer character who can’t quite meet the normative standards that allow her to fully enjoy the park. As Perry is also the star of the piece, we are called to rethink the “barbed” reality of heterosexually “normal” life.

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On this note, we should pause here to consider how Perry’s partner on the love-rollercoaster is an incredibly camp man in a glitter shirt.

3. Racism and the Trump Travel Ban 

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One of the next rides that Perry stumbles across involves black couples and single people getting flung over a fence/wall. Here Perry is offering a direct critique of the Trump administration’s white heterosexist rulings.

4. War and nuclear holocaust

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Park-goers walk around carrying fairyfloss that looks like broccoli, that we later realise are actually mushroom clouds. Also this ride:

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Bleak.

5. Climate change and environmental degradation 

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“Fire Water” is Perry’s most obscure reference—or, perhaps her most literal. Perry visits a gas station where the petrol is actually water but that water is on fire. There are also sailors. It’s pretty great. It appears to be a reference to climate change (the world is heating up) but also fracking (which can cause river fires!), and on that note, it is also clearly about Standing Rock.

6. The nuclear family and false appearances

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Toward the end of the song Perry sits in a crowd wearing 3D glasses, watching a family perform in front of a TV screen. Here Perry challenges the charade of the perfect nuclear family, and the societal focus on the heterosexual couple. The retro styling of the entire clip also gains greater meaning here, as we see that this world is also one where women are cast back into the stereotype of the 1950s housewife. But in Perry also adopting this dress (reminiscent of the Jetsons) she is entertaining a form of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag“. That is, a way of embodying the past in order to displace the “present”, to help us question our own progress narratives.

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The imagery of this scene also, remarkably, directly references Guy Debord’s 1967 work ‘Society of the Spectacle‘, which laments the way everything in society has become about consumption and appearances. One of Debord’s proposed tactics for interrupting such a society is called “detournement“—basically hijacking cultural products and subverting their meaning, also known as culture jamming. That Perry would reference (or perhaps recuperate) Debord would, I imagine, have him rolling in his grave.

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The cover of Debord’s classic

During the same scene, Skip Marley emerges out of the television screen, and in a direct critique of imperialism, the ruling class and capitalist society, sings: “Time is ticking for the empire/The truth they feed is feeble/As so many times before/They greed over the people/They stumbling and fumbling and we’re about to riot”.

After this Perry dances around confusedly for a bit, before running and then stopping on a treadmill, giving us a completely alarmed stare down the camera.

When I first heard the song—which includes lyrics such as “So comfortable, we live in a bubble, a bubble” and “Stumbling around like a wasted zombie”—I was annoyed that Perry would take a swipe at ordinary people, as if everyone is just stupid and thoughtless. This seemed perfectly in line with the desperately elitist condemnation by Clinton of Trump supporters as “deplorables” in 2016, which only served to alienate rather than mobilise people. The original critical theory work from Adorno and others is similarly irksome in its extreme disdain for “low culture” enjoyed by the many, versus more intellectual “high culture”. As I see it, to condemn mass culture and in turn the “cultural dupes” who consume it, is to be radically ungenerous to the circumstances and experiences of the people involved.

But here’s where Perry manages to one-up Adorno. What makes Perry’s engagement more dynamic, is the way she places herself in the world of Oblivia. Rather than being a snobby outsider, she constantly refers to herself in the lyrics (through the use of “we”), and depicts herself in the video, as being caught up in oblivion similarly to everyone else. While she gradually becomes more “woke” than the other inhabitants of the theme park, she is consistently shown in a state of ignorant bliss just as unaware as everyone else. Here Perry manages to resolve the philosophical problem posed by Slavoj Zizek who suggests that it is false to think one can be authentically “outside” of a relation to culture. Perry doesn’t pretend to be outside of popular culture in an elitist way because she just physically can’t be…because this is a pop music video! That Marley emerges out of the television at the end also perhaps hints that Perry thinks critical ideas can come out of popular culture as much as you can also be “chained to the rhythm”. Presumably she’s hoping her work will woke you too.

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Marley climbs out of the TV

While the irony of all of this should give you a lot of LOLs it does also beg the question as to whether this is really culture-jamming or merely the selling-back to us of critiques of culture. My sense is that it is almost certainly both (Perry is making money out of this after all), and that it certainly won’t be a Katy Perry video that starts the revolution (unless she keeps up her Brit Awards antics of course).

But I also don’t think it’s bad—in fact, it should be taken as an overwhelmingly positive sign that there is a current mood in daily life that is about being wildly vocal and “about to riot”. As Perry and Marley suggest, “they woke up the lions”. Sure, some of those lions are totally bizarre pop stars, but it also means it’s a jungle out there…

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.

Extraordinary Ordinariness: Cultural Imagination and the Australian Dream

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In America you don’t just aim for a home, you aim for the ultimate: The White House

The widely discussed “American Dream” is the belief that anyone is free to climb up the ladder of success and be extraordinary. In contrast, the lesser known “Australian Dream” – so the story goes – is the dream of owning a house in the suburbs. As a 30-year-old woman who has grown up in public housing and precarious rentals I feel a strong affinity with this latter dream, even though it seems on the unreachable horizon (as it does for many in my generation). But whether the accessibility of home ownership  is truly as bleak as it seems, the concept of the Australian Dream warrants fleshing out. And, what better place to begin an examination of the heart of Australian consciousness, than the Olympic Games.

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The American Dream: anyone can climb the ladder of success

On the surface of things, the Australian coverage (so far) of the Rio Olympics seems to suggest that the Australian Dream is very close to the American one. For example, Australia’s initial lead in the medal tally was strongly emphasised by Australian news broadcasters (to the detriment of hearing about what was happening elsewhere at the Games). This focus on success, domination, and being number one, seemingly echoes the obsession with being on top à la the American Dream. But the whole point of the American Dream, as historian James Truslow Adams first defined, is specifically about anyone being able to succeed despite their early circumstances. The American Dream is about everyone having the capacity to be an extraordinary individual, as he states:

“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”

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American Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps hints at the bottomless aspirational quality of the American Dream

US media coverage of individual Olympic athletes exemplifies this narrative. For example, this discussion of wrestler Jordan Burroughs from USA Today highlights his innate ability (apparently visible at a young age), his hardworking attitude, and the importance of holding very high aspirations. The article states: “Though his parents stressed the importance of hard work and being true to his word, dreaming beyond their horizons wasn’t something a lot of people did in his hometown of Sicklerville, N.J. No one had shown them how”. The stress here is on aiming up and ever up. This means not just being number one, but always striving to do better and to work hard to be the best, not just of now, but of all time. As discussed previously, this kind of aspirational attitude has been critiqued by cultural theorists such as Lauren Berlant, who denounce the American Dream as a kind of toxic promise that always fails to deliver but that nonetheless keeps people enrolled in the idea that things might get better. So we might wonder, how different is the Australian Dream from this toxic attitude?

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Australian Olympic champion swimmer Ian Thorpe (who competed at the same time as Phelps) emphasises staying normal

Looking at Australian media coverage of the Olympics, we see the expected focus on stories of success (the Olympics are about competition after all), however, a slightly different dream is visible. While there is a similar story about the importance of hard work, there is an emphasis on ordinariness rather than extra-ordinariness. For example, in this discussion of recent gold medalist shooter Catherine Skinner from the Sydney Morning Herald, the story follows Skinner’s tribulations trying to balance school and shooting practice. While there is a clear message here that you should keep trying and stick to your guns (literally in this instance), there is also sympathy for Skinner wanting to be a normal university student doing assignments and partying with friends. The article labours on Skinner’s hard work ethic, but doesn’t allocate her success to something innate. Rather, there is a sense of luck, as the article quotes her: “I was really lucky to come into the sport at the right time. There were a lot of development programs coming in. It’s really nice to see them all pay off”.

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From Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig

In comparison to the American Dream then, the Australian narrative isn’t just about anyone being able to nurture their unique natural talents to reach stardom, but rather, anyone being able to achieve anything through a blend of hard work and luck. It is useful to remember here that Australia is often culturally defined as “the lucky country” after all.  The best thing you can be in Australia is extraordinarily ordinary, as you don’t want to risk being a “tall poppy” (someone who is too far above everyone else). A great example of this is Stephen Bradbury, who won a gold medal in speed skating in 2002 after everyone else in the field fell over. With his mix of persistence and sheer luck, Bradbury came to epitomise the Australian spirit.

c_13181_234_234_true_trueLooking at these examples, we can see that the Australian Dream is different from the American one, but presents perhaps another version of cruel optimism. Rather than highlighting one’s difference and unique abilities that one can harness for success, there is an emphasis on the importance of sameness and chance. Of course, Australia is also marked out as a land of the “fair go“, that being the idea that anyone should have a chance to make it, to get lucky. Interestingly, in the recent federal election opposition leader Bill Shorten made an appeal to the need for a fair go for all central to his economic plan, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull emphasised the fantastic opportunities already available to Australians. In other words, Turnbull turned up the volume on the myth of the lucky country, and quietly side-stepped the notion of the fair go that might call for some recognition of deeper inequalities.

Perpetuating this particular narrative covers over the social constitution of “luck”, that is, the structural privileges that  contribute to success. The toxic promise here is the lie that anyone can be a champion, if they keep working hard and are in the right place at the right time. There is no mention that as part of this you have to win the lottery of life, that is, be born into the best class position, race, gender and so on, that will guarantee a leg up. The perpetuation of this myth ignores the numerous indications that inequality and structural disadvantage is on the increase in Australia.

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Australia’s Next Top Model, where difference is played down

We also see this myth play out in Australian reality television. Anyone can be a Masterchef, and in fact, anyone can be as good as the superstar chefs. Never mind that if you’re not white or not emphasising your Aussie-ness rather than your complex ethnicity, you don’t stand much chance of winning. Similarly, anyone can be Australia’s Next Top Model, as long as you’re white and have that girl-next-door look exactly like everyone else. There is very little labouring on the unique talents, or features, or traumatic backgrounds of the contestants in any of these shows (which is surprising, given how much we still see the contestants cry). If anything the emphasis is always on how very normal the contestants are, and how normal they will continue to be despite their successes.

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The Australian Dream: work hard, get lucky

As I was watching the coverage of Rio last night, I was struck by the frequent remarks by the Channel 7 commentators that “anyone can be an Olympic champion”. Not only does this seem patently false in a way that papers over important advantages and disadvantages that people experience, it seems to diverge so much from the American narrative of everyone being special individuals. In Australia the best you can be is extraordinarily ordinary. The Australian Dream says: rather than wasting your time fighting for equality or better conditions or more affordable housing, your best bet is to put your head down, work hard, and be grateful for what you get in life. If you play by the rules, you too might get a home to live in one day, heck, you might even win a gold medal in speed skating! After all, this is the lucky country, isn’t it?

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.

How (Not) to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Australian model Jennifer Hawkins posing with the cup

Australian model Jennifer Hawkins posing with the cup

This Tuesday Australia was again witness to the “race that stops a nation”  – the annual Melbourne Cup. Amid the gaudy headpieces, peacocking men and drunken stumbling, another common tragedy struck: two of the horses died, one in its stall from a heart attack after the race, and the other put down for a broken leg after being spooked by the crowd. While horses often die because of racing (or are put down when they are no longer winning) this year’s events seemed to strike a chord with people, and there was an outpouring of grief on both social media and a huge amount of coverage in the press. This was not without backlash – some people reacted by highlighting the other human tragedies that happen every day, arguing with people along the lines of “why should we care about two racehorses when there are so many other things to worry about”. Indeed on the same day – and getting very little news coverage – it was reported that an Iranian refugee sent to the island nation of Nauru by the Australian Government, was stoned and then beaten, as tensions on the island escalated between locals and the refugees being forced to stay there.

A picture from Animals Australia shared on Facebook

A picture from Animals Australia, shared on Facebook

But with horror happening all around us, what are we to do? Can we really ask people to stop caring about horses being tortured while refugees are too, as if caring about one thing is a callous distraction? I thought about this for some time.

I decided that it is a bit of a dick move to call people out for caring about another creature’s pain. What the outpouring of grief for the racehorses says to me is that people are capable of a great deal of compassion and that caring about one thing is not mutually exclusive to another. What we may even be seeing is a critical point where people are actually feeling emotional about the current state of affairs generally, 978-0-8223-4107-9-frontcoverwhich gets crystallised around strange and unexpected events such as this year’s Melbourne Cup.

American theorist Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects explores this very idea – that in daily life we are subject to an overarching and low-burning trauma, as we are subject to all kinds of pressures and misfortunes. We can get by most of the time without noticing these negative daily “affects”- sensations felt in the body – but sometimes they boil over into big and unfortunate events, like a pressure valve momentarily releasing everyone’s pain and struggle.

An image of the march for Jill Meagher in Melbourne

An image of the march for Jill Meagher in Melbourne

Another example of the kind of debate over “what matters more” happened after the murder of Australian journalist Jill Meagher in 2012. In an unusual case, Meagher was subject to sexual violence and was killed by a stranger, after walking home alone at night in the busy streets of Brunswick. With her last moments eerily captured on CCTV, many Australians were deeply moved by the case, and a week after her death 30,000 people marched down Sydney Road in her memory. While some responded by criticising the march for not focusing on the “real” issues of violence facing women (such as the fact that being subject to stranger violence is much less common than domestic violence), this kind of critique only served to alienate people who were experiencing grief and concern. I imagine for many people it was precisely the low-lying “ordinary affect” of fear that many women experience on a daily basis (especially walking home alone) that was being expressed in the march. The Meagher case was a nightmare made real within a broader context where women experience violence and sexism every day.

another_world_is_possibleThe lesson to take away from all of this is that when people demonstrate that they care about an issue, getting angry at them for not caring about something else isn’t going to work. Instead, it can be a good time to raise awareness of broader issues and how these connect up. After all, it is the same world that allows horses to be tortured for the benefit of billionaires, while refugees are used as political pawns. We don’t need to choose to have feelings about one thing and not the other. Perhaps we do need to think about the kind of world we want to live in, a world where neither of these things are possible – and how in fact we might get there.

Best Lesbian Date Movie Ever

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A shot from ‘Pride’: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM)

Seeing as I usually only cover depressing Adam Sandler movies here at binarythis, I thought that it was high time I do a review of something more uplifting. Yesterday my girlfriend and I went to see Pridethe true story of how a gay and lesbian activist group joined forces with a mining town to fight the Thatcher government’s attacks on miners in 1984 -1985.

We assumed that it might be emotion-making – seeing as we both cried watching the trailer. But we didn’t expect quite the workout that our tear ducts got, and we laughed at our own sentimentality as our eyes welled up in pretty much every scene (to be fair to us, beforehand we accidentally primed ourselves for an afternoon of happy tears by watching Ellen Page’s coming out speech).

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Ben Schnetzer as LGSM leader Mark Ashton

Particular tear-jerkers for us were every time:
– someone mentioned the importance of solidarity
– people spontaneously sang union songs
– there was the shaking of hands/friendship between the gays and lesbians and the miners
– someone stood up for what they believe in, even though it was really tough
So yeah, pretty much the whole film.

As someone who has been involved in political struggles, particularly around students and education as well as refugees here in Australia (#HeyAsio), the movie struck a chord with me because it showed the way in which activism can fundamentally transform people’s views and bring them together to fight for a better world. This is summed up in my favourite quote from the film, from one of the miners who visits a gay club to thank Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) for raising money:

When you’re in a battle with an enemy that’s so much bigger, so much stronger than you, to find out you had a friend you never knew existed, well that’s the best feeling in the world. Can you see what we’ve done here, by coming together all of us? We made history!

Real-life Pride March, 1985

Real-life Pride March, 1985

Though I really wanted to know more about the struggle on the picket lines (and how they managed to maintain such an extremely long strike), the focus of the film was really the journey of the gay and lesbian group who supported the miners. It was so refreshing to see a film where intimacy between same-sex couples was the norm and where it was not made into a plot spectacle or reduced to a joke. Overall the film managed to cover a great range of struggles encountered in queer life (homophobia, parental relations, AIDS, coming out, and finding pride) as well as political organising (building coalitions, schisms forming, the difficulty of leadership, and the challenge of those who argue for “partying not politics”).

When we got home we listened to Bread and Roses as we made dinner, elated with a sense that history reveals human beings are capable of remarkable solidarity.

In Defence of Anger: Taking a Break from the Rational Thinking Man

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An image from the rally at ANU where students took over part of the Chancelry

Recently, I’ve been getting angry. In May this year, the Australian Government announced a federal budget that will see the abolition of free health care, the elimination of the financial safety net for the unemployed and radical changes to the way in which education is funded. Unsurprisingly (since these changes will affect a majority of the population), people have been responding. At my own university campus, there have been a number of actions including a rally on May 21 that saw over 500 students descend on the Chancelry and occupy part of the building. People at the rally were angry – they banged on doors, chanted and held a speak-out where students could express their rage and frustration at the university administration who are in full support of the proposed changes. Since the rally however, there has been a huge negative backlash with students being portrayed in the media as violent, irrational and dangerous. In response, students have been taking to more pacifist actions to demonstrate that their concern is legitimate and debates are being held that request students to engage in “polite and respectful discussion”. It seems anger has lost its currency.

But what might the value of anger be in these circumstances and why should we be wary of the delegitimisation of this form of expression?

1. Anger, if seemingly uncontrolled, is coded as dangerous man or irrational woman.
There is an idea prevalent in society that anger must be controlled – those who don’t effectively control their anger are an unknown quantity, to be feared. This is also seen as something we ourselves should fear, lest we lose control. For example, Roman philosopher Seneca believed that “Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it”. Unfortunately this assumption is heavily coded along gender lines and often equates to one of these two options:
incredible_hulk71The dangerous man: i.e. the Hulk. The Hulk represents the threat of a mild-mannered man losing control and become savage to all those around him. He is a destroyer of all that is in his path, sometimes for good, but often for bad – you cannot trust this man to do the right thing as he lacks self-discipline.
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The irrational woman: i.e. the Crazy Cat Lady. The Crazy Cat Lady is a figure of the terrifying and inevitable evolution of a woman who expresses her anger. Alone, she is isolated from society, treats other creatures with both love and disregard and has lost touch with reality to the point that her speech is unintelligible. The Crazy Cat Lady serves as a warning.

2. Anger’s polar opposite is coded as rational thinking man or passive woman
The corollary to all this is that if we see anger as the ultimate negative, we end up heralding cool-headed, calm and collected as the modes of being par excellence. This avenue cannot escape the clutches of gendered expectations, where sensible debate and discussion is overwhelmingly dominated by men, while women are expected to listen from the sidelines. After all, who is more cool and calm than the rational thinking man?

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“The representation of gender is its construction- and in the simplest sense it can be said that all of Western Art and high culture is the engraving of the history of that construction” Teresa de Lauretis

So thoughtful

So thoughtful

The rational thinking man: i.e. man.  Since Ancient Greece, men have been seen as the ones up for considered debate, nutting out the problems of the world. They are thoughtful, pensive, rational. Anne Cranny-Francis has described the figure of the male thinker as, “self-defining and self-sufficient. Coded as male, he is fully conscious to himself, in control of his actions, thoughts and meanings”. The rational thinking man has evolved from philosopher king to suave and well-dressed man of the year; always well presented, he is James Bond without a gun. Strategic, charming, independent, and not afraid to sit down and play poker with the bad guys.

So sexy

So sexy

 

The passive woman: i.e. woman. In contrast to rational thinking man is the woman underneath him – coded as passive, she listens to the rational man. Entrapped by her own bodily limitations (as she is more body than mind), she must take the role of the quiet seductress as she finds her own power to control rational thinking man through the only thing she has – her body. She learns the difficulty of sharing her own views – being told to be quiet, being talked over, being ignored. If she speaks up she is marked as overbearing – and well on her way to Crazy Cat Lady land, a lonely spinster life.

Of course, that is not to say that women cannot aspire to be philosophical thinkers (I did my honours in philosophy), but the gender coding in this realm is strong and women are certainly not expected to be part of this. Indeed, the discipline of philosophy itself has an awkwardly long history of marginalising women.

The fifteen year old student is carried away by police

The fifteen year old student is carried away by police

We can easily see these codings playing out in the media’s depictions of students. Following the May 21 protests in Melbourne, images emerged of a fifteen year old woman being carried away by police (obviously an attempt to save her from the ill-fate of the Crazy Cat Lady she seems destined to become). Unsurprisingly, those in power responded by stating that “if only” the young girl had tried a more sensible route, none of this would have happened. For example, the Herald Sun reported Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s remarks following the young girl’s protest: “If that young woman had sat down and from her honest perspective written directly to the PM to say ‘here’s what I think about your Budget, here’s why I don’t like it’, I would be much more inclined attention to pay attention to that to see her being dragged away from a protest”. In effect the young woman was told to quietly participate and join in a sensible discussion with those that hold the ultimate power over the fate of her education, within a system where she does not even have the minimum access to democratic expression – the vote.

10286872_10152023438317143_6114163734565687914_oCloser to home, The Canberra Times ran with an image of one of the female students who was leading the rally, screaming as a security guard attempted to stop students entering the Chancelry. The headline below read: “Students hole up vice-chancellor in day of anger”. Through the use of this image, the student was used as the “face” of anger. She spoke directly to the media afterwards, but remained marked as unintelligible and was not quoted in the article. Discussions circulated that students should avoid violence and this front-page image hovered in the subtext of these conversations. Anger we were told, was a violent response.

An image from the read-in

An image from the read-in

In stark contrast in the week following the rally, another student started up an imaginative and radically different form of protest outside of the Chancelry – a read-in – where people could come and study in front of the doors, to highlight exactly what was being threatened in these cuts. Men and women alike gathered every day, united in their vigil for education, sharing political philosophy texts and ideas with each other. However, when power (i.e. the vice-chancellor) entered this realm of debate on the three occasions he visited the read-in, he unsurprisingly promoted discussion that was on his own terms. Students attempted to engage him in their utopian vision of thoughtful debate, but an obstacle remained. He had no stake in actually listening to students apart from appearance, and he brought down his PR person who took photos to make sure it was successful. It quickly became apparent that the VC benefitted from the image of rational thinking man, where we all appear to figure it out together when in fact we don’t (as the CCTV they immediately installed above the read-in demonstrated).

This is not an argument against philosophy or considered thought (or men!). However, we need to be very careful about championing rational thinking man as the figure of success, as this becomes deeply problematic once we enter the realm of rational debate with those already in power. Though reasonable discussion might sound great in theory, issues arise when a minority hold power over the majority, and it is left to the powerful to dictate discourse and discussion.

IMG_1030Obviously there are huge benefits to students having discussions with each other about the ethics of how to tackle issues. But when those in charge come to play, it does students no service to accept the terms of their debate. Students should not accept their idea that anger = worst possible reaction. Why wouldn’t students be angry at being marginalised? Is that not anger-making? As I have outlined, we need to remain radically skeptical about the way in which these emotions are coded along gender lines. We also need to be extremely careful that in our encounters with authority we do not give more power to power, when we accept the figure of the rational man.

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Feminist Hulk has been smashing stuff for years

As for the utility of anger, it seems to me that the Hulk and the Crazy Cat Lady have a lot of potential – after all, things will need to be radically destroyed and a new language created before we can really get on with sensible debate.