I wanted my first proper blog to have a title that manages to be provocative and boring, all at once! Let me know if I succeeded in the comments.
I decided to listen to an iconic 80s french song, “Femme Libérée” by Cookie Dingler recently. It was a massive hit when it came out in 1984, and despite being born after that, I could still sing the chorus without remembering where I’d ever heard it. I hadn’t ever seen the artist’s name before. The chorus will make any supporter of gender equality bristle (especially considering that it’s sung by a man) and roughly translates to:
“Don’t let her fall / She’s so fragile / Being a liberated woman / Isn’t easy”
On the surface, this is incredibly patronising. The idea that this “liberated woman” particularly needs the support of “her man”, because the poor thing’s trying so hard, is easy to call out as being sexist. In this blog, I’d like to suggest that the song is more nuanced than that, that things have only gotten more complicated in the past thirty years.
The verses of the song aren’t much easier to hear, and paint the picture of a woman who revolts against her traditional gender role in completely superficial ways, by occasionally reading sports magazines, smoking and boasting that she can change a car’s wheel. So far, so good: more pseudo-art produced by the patriarchy, perfect fodder for a feminism that feeds on criticising anything old and new that might betray the all-important overarching system of oppression.
I’ll identify two different kinds of feminism now. The first one is older, and deals with obvious civil inequalities between the genders (voting or property ownership rights, inheritance etc). The second, modern one is what’s needed once the basic equality laws have passed, and deals with sexism in culture. Traditionally, scholarly “second wave” feminism (and most study of societal inequalities ingrained in culture) has a process of taking one reoccurring example or experience and using it to sketch a structural cause. The stereotypical housewife is an easy target for feminist critique, for example. As an individual, there’s nothing wrong with going through school, working entry-level jobs for a few years, meeting a man and deciding to make a family together. This faceless example-lady’s experience and choices are as valid as anyone else’s. On a larger scale, feminism is here to compare a man’s experience to a woman’s and ask if there are cultural messages that curb a girl’s professional ambition, or encourage young women to devote themselves to family in the caretaker role etc. Feminists have often been accused (sometimes rightfully so) of denigrating the housewife experience. A feminism that is all-inclusive must denounce cultural messages while defending the experience of individual women, and that’s a tricky balance.
I needed to discuss this process, of extracting general truths from experience, because I see self-proclaimed feminist blogs and news websites enact it automatically. My go-to website for feeling smarter and justified in my beliefs is everydayfeminism.com, and finding an example didn’t take long. This article illustrates my point quite well: several situations are displayed, in comic form, to show general behaviours and their analysis. The problem is that the article directly attacks the individuals acting these things out. This is the lazy feminism that graces the blog’s title: people do things which are identified as “sexist microaggressions”. The actions are analysed, explained and criticised, and the moral of the story goes: these actions are wrong. However, wanting to be seen well by the opposite sex isn’t a wrongful act. What makes it problematic is the narrative in which in inscribes itself. A man holding a door open for a woman doesn’t expect her to fling her clothes off and give him the night of his life. Perhaps, a man might live in a certain way in order for women (or people in general) to see him in a better light. The most broken part of everydayfeminism’s mechanism is accountability. Feminism must defend the man’s experience and choice in doing nice things for women, while fighting the underlying concepts (e.g. women being dependant on men) that might make those actions problematic.
Now, we can backtrack to “Femme Libérée”, and we have the tools to identify lazy feminism. The woman being sung about may represent a certain stereotype, but let’s imagine she’s an individual. Criticising the song for being obviously sexist is lazy feminism. It’s not just a criticism of the singer who paints this out-dated, scornful image of a straw-feminist. It’s also looking down on this potentially real person, her life, her anxieties and coping mechanisms.
Serious modern feminism rises to the challenge that most obvious inequalities have been rectified somewhat, and what progress lies before us is far harder than the work done in the past 150 years. It’s okay to be fragile, and it’s okay to need a man. Less controversially: it’s okay to need a woman, too, for straight men. The necessary disclaimer: It’s okay to need one’s same sex partner, or an a-romantic friend, or family, and it’s okay to be human. When I see an article or blog post that automatically calls for individuals to change their innocent (as differentiated from “harmless”) behaviours in the name of feminism, I read it as a form of self-expression, and perhaps a form of revolt, even if it’s within a larger cocoon of culture populated by like-minded people. In some ways, it’s as misguided as the Liberated Woman feeling the thrill of smoking a joint once in a while. It’s lazy feminism. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think that this difference is an important one. We still need feminism to do its job, just like we need a push for equality from many disadvantaged groups. I’m not the first to muse out loud that some internet feminism is going to make that job harder.
Artwork for the heading from Paula Wright.