This post deals with the basic idea that in order to break down systems of oppression, we have to reject them and the tools they use. While this is a valid concern of the feminist movement, it’s hard to escape the tools of the kyriarchy entirely, and there are generally a lot of ways to turn the tools of the oppressor to our own advantage, however imperfect these strategies may be!
"Now Venus, Venus Xtravaganza, she seeks a certain transubstantiation of gender in order to find an imaginary man who will designate a class and race privilege that promises a permanent shelter from racism, homophobia, and poverty…inParis is Burning, becoming real, becoming a real woman, although not everyone’s desire…constitutes the site of the phantasmatic promise of a rescue from poverty, homophobia, and racist delegitimation."
"Venus, and Paris is Burning more generally, calls into question whether parodying the dominant norms is enough to displace them.”
- from”Gender is Burning,” Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler
Judith Butler, as she is wont to do, brings up a lot in her critique of the documentary Paris is Burning (which I highly recommend, along with this multifaceted critical piece). The issue brought up in these passages is the way in which drag performance can, in fact, enforce a nexus of gender assumptions and stereotypes which are tied up with race and class too. The story discussed here is that of Venus, a performer at the drag balls who wishes to, through performance of gender and eventually surgery, become a woman. I use the language of becoming (which is not language I’d generally use for the contemporary Western trans* experience as I understand it) because Venus herself discusses drag, performance, surgery, and life beyond it as a process of becoming.
In Butler’s critical essay, this performative process is problematic particularly because it equates “becoming a woman,” whatever that means, with becoming a woman with racial and economic privilege through a heterosexual relationship. Venus expresses the dream that, when she performs realness as a woman well enough, she will be able to have a man protect her, and she will have money, and she will not have to deal with racism in the same way she has.
These connections among gender, sexuality, class, race, and privilege in general are logical ones to make—rich heterosexual white women certainly exist in droves, and it’s understandable for someone to aspire to that lifestyle. However, the problem arises when drag performance reinscribes the idea that the rich heterosexual white womanhood is the womanhood to aspire to, and that it is better than all other forms of womanhood.
Perhaps rich heterosexual white womanhood still is the most desirable because of the level of privilege involved. However, if we find that drag seeks to perform that norm, reinforcing the idea that it’s superior to other womanhoods, this drag is not especially subversive. To use one of Judith Butler’s terms from “Gender is Burning,” this drag is ambivalent when it comes to gender norms. My previous post also discussed how just because something rejects one norm doesn’t mean it subverts all of them—we have the right and the need to critically examine how we perhaps recreate gender norms even as we try to destabilize them, and drag is a great place to start.
"My sexual semiotics differ from the mainstream. So what? I didn’t join the feminism movement to live inside a Hallmark greeting card.”
-from “Feminism and Sadomasochism,” Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex, Pat Califa [emphasis mine]
It’s easy for many of us to forget how extremely intersectional feminism needs to be in order to succeed. However, we can’t avoid the fact that not everyone within any movement is going to fit into a “mainstream” idea of what it means to be a “good feminist,” a “good queer,” or a “good” anything else. In a movement which has a very radical history (bra burning, anyone?), we can’t settle down, domesticate ourselves (or let ourselves be domesticated by normative pressures), and imagine our part in the revolution is done.
"Is there a single controversial sexual issue that the women’s movement has not reacted to with a conservative, feminine horror of the outrageous and the rebellious? A movement that started out saying biology is not destiny is now trashing transsexuals and celebrating women’s “natural” connection to the earth and living things…A movement whose early literature was often called obscene and was banned from circulation is now campaigning to get rid of pornography. The only sex perverts this movement supports are lesbian mothers, and I suspect that’s because of the current propaganda about women comprising the nurturing, healing force that will save the world from destructive male energy.
Lesbianism is being desexualized as fast as movement dykes can apply the whitewash.”
-“Feminism and Sadomasochism”
Basically, my question is this: what do we lose when we try to blend in with the rest of society? And my answer is that we lose the voices everyone who’s not white or white-appearing, sexually vanilla, mentally healthy, and in a monogamous relationship, preferably with kids. We fight for equal pay and abortion rights and gay marriage because these are vital issues, but we also should not forget that there is always more, and we don’t want to turn around one day and become part of the norm without thinking very seriously about what we’re doing to the rest of the people depending on the intersectional feminist movement.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes on this subject, emphasis mine:
Of course, we too will be fighting to defeat the anti-queer marriage amendments. How can we not? But we resent having to do it, and we will not allow it to distract us from our real needs: equality, justice, self-determination and self-actualization for ALL. Just because you are not someone’s significant other, does not mean you are insignificant.
Women’s experiences and reactions are often written off, even by other women, as being “crazy” if they’re radical, angry, or otherwise difficult for others to deal with. If a woman gets up in arms about something offensive or otherwise problematic, she’s characterized as “overreacting,” “probably on her period,” or something similar.
This is a problem on several levels:
"…the body is a historical situation, as de Beauvoir has claimed, and is a manner of doing, dramatizing and reproducing a historical situation.”
So, let’s start breaking down the systems that are first making us angry and then marginalizing our experiences of oppression. We owe it to all the intersecting parts of feminism to stop calling other women crazy and try to make the rest of the world stop doing it too.
I work at the Women’s Union (WU) at Pomona, and today we had our closing staff retreat for the semester. As one of our thought-provoking/bonding activities, we did an exercise in which we stood on one side of a line together, a statement was read, and if it was true for you, you stepped across the line and made eye contact with the people on the other side. For confidentiality’s sake, I won’t go into the specifics of what the statements were or even what the response trends were. The biggest thing for the purpose of this discussion was the debriefing we did afterwards, in which we all sat down in a circle and had the opportunity to clarify, discuss, and generally share our thoughts about the activity.
This is an activity which, in some other iterations in other contexts on campus, has proved triggering and/or emotionally difficult for a lot of people. However, in this welcoming feminist space, I felt distinctly safe and affirmed by the people around me, people I’ve seen at least once a week all semester and who I know have implicitly and explicitly supported me at many points during my time at the WU. I was comfortable enough to align myself openly with whatever side of a statement I fell on, and I felt very affirmed by the presence of other people who stood on the same side of the line as I did at any given time.
During this debriefing, I talked about how I felt very emotionally connected to the other people in the room after the activity, regardless of whether we had stood on the same side of the line for particular statements or not. I can see why people, in a less safe space, could feel very vulnerable in a negative way after doing this activity. Here, though, I felt like my vulnerability had been respected and I grew from the discussion.
As I see it, this speaks to a key part of feminism: vulnerability and getting emotional. The issues that we deal with as feminists are precisely the issues that already make us vulnerable: sexism, racism, classism, cissexism, heterosexism, and more. It’s natural for us to get emotional about these issues, and this emotional connection can be very powerful. As Audre Lorde reminds us in her “Uses of the Erotic” about not only the erotic but about all things visceral and powerful,
"…once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy that we know ourselves to be capable of."
When we feel strong emotions, we gain a lot of power for self-actualization and empowerment.
However, this emotion and vulnerability absolutely requires a safe space in which to function. We shouldn’t have to shy away from our emotions in order to be strong feminists; in fact, we should draw upon our emotions for strength.
I hope that you all can find a space, whether it is with one friend or with a group of like-minded people or anywhere else, where you can engage with and explore your visceral reactions to oppression, because these emotions are a deep source of power for feminist work. We don’t just share our feelings at the WU to feel better about ourselves. We take emotional journeys together because it makes us better feminists and better people.
This blog, as I’ve said before, is part of a project for my Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies class this semester. Everyone in my class is doing some kind of activism, whether it’s craftsy or educational or provocative or confusing or affirming, as their final project, and something that’s really inspiring me in this process is the collaboration involved.
Even those of us not working in groups are supporting each other—I just participated in a classmate’s photo project, I’m helping someone get the word out about her feminist collage-making event, and I’m emailing with someone else about the responses so far to her deployment of activist material. We’ve spent class time discussing potential problems with our projects and giving one another feedback and advice. I think this reveals, on a small but powerful scale, two of what I see as pillars of feminism: community and collaboration.
When it comes down to it, we depend on one another for success. A really successful project, whether explicitly feminist or not, needs a variety of perspectives, a network of support, and the strength of multiple people.
However, we as feminist activists particularly need one another’s support because when we act, we are always the underdog. We are always creating in the face of a system that has denied women and minorities equal status, credence, and voice in the public space. The now-classic feminist phrase "the personal is political" has multiple layers of meaning, but I’d like to propose here that it may signify how our personal involvement in our feminist communities creates a culture of collaborative political efforts. And collaborative efforts are, by nature, more resilient than those which place the burden of creation and maintenance on a single person.
As feminists, as people who have been told “no,” “you are less than,” “you are wrong,” “you do not deserve this space,” we derive our strength from our collective power. I was never part of a real-life feminist community of action until I came to Pomona College, until I started working at the Women’s Union, until I took a Gender and Women’s Studies class, and this community is something I now cannot imagine functioning without. Community is strength, and collaboration is power as we work to reshape the world around us.
I’m not planning to publish anything that’s not my own written work in the near future of this project, but I’m open to suggestions for topics to cover and questions to answer!
"We must…question whether lesbian separatism is an adequate and progressive political analysis and strategy, even for those who practice it, since it so completely denies any but the sexual sources of women’s oppression, negating the facts of class and race."
- from A Black Feminist Statement, The Combahee River Collective
Non-heterosexual sex, love, and relationship models open up a lot of ways of thinking about sex, gender, and power in ways that are really productive for feminist politics. I’m always finding overlaps between my queer sexual identity and my progressive feminist politics.
However, lesbianism does not automatically erase women’s oppression, as the women of the Combahee River Collective explained. I don’t want every feminist to feel like she has to be a lesbian for political reasons partly because that erases the power of desire and seems like it would make for a lot of messy interactions between desire-based women loving women and politics-based women loving women, in which nobody is happy and people probably get hurt. But I also don’t want anyone to feel like being non-heterosexual means that they’ve figured out everything about rectifying oppression, as I said in this post. There is much more to oppression than sex, and we can’t afford to forget that.