On Feminism: Intersectionality

Sunday, 4 November 2012

I’m savouring the fact that it’s Sunday, and I actually have time to think and read today. So I’m going to use this time wisely and write that post on intersectionality I mentioned in my previous post. I’m writing this partly because I was asked to. I get some crazy-shit emails from people (I had one guy try to convince me that Hitler ‘wasn’t so bad’ once). So when I get the opposite kind of emails from people who read my blog – smart, intelligent and compassionate emails – I can’t say no to them. The other reason I’m writing about this is to keep the conversation going on this issue. There is a tendency online to move from one subject to the next quickly, as if important debates can be resolved in a few posts, from which we can ‘move on’ to the next issue. While I’m aware that many sites have moved on from discussing the whole Moran issue, I’m still getting my head around some of the concerns it has raised. And so this is what this post is about.

But I probably should give some context first. This whole debate about intersectionality began with this Twitter conversation:

(Image from here)

As Clem Bastow summarises in her article: “Riddle me this: if you were a prominent feminist commentator, and had just announced you were interviewing Girls creator Lena Dunham, and someone on Twitter asked, ‘did you address the complete and utter lack of people of colour in girls in your interview?’, how would you respond? If you picked ‘Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit about it’, then congratulations, you are Caitlin Moran.” Whatever your position is about the way Moran responded, this Twitter conversation initiated some pretty strange defences of Moran that highlighted the problem of privilege in feminism.

I personally think it was a valid question: there is something a bit off about a show set in one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse cities in the world being all about white women’s experiences. And I don’t really buy the ‘I’m only writing what I know’ defence, or ‘you wouldn’t ask this of a male writer’. Actually, I would most definitely ask this of a male writer. But considering the fact that feminists are continually addressing the lack of diversity in the representation of women in art, television and film, why shouldn’t we hold ourselves to higher standards and require that we too see beyond our own privileges of race, class and religion? In Kendra James’ words, “why are the only lives that can be mined for ‘universal experiences’ the lives of white women?”

It’s disingenuous to suggest that white women don’t have it easier in the media; they are more likely to be held up as ‘figureheads’, ‘speaking for us all’ as women. But we’re not all the same. Angela Carter hit the nail on the head when she said: “The notion of a universality of human experience is a confidence trick and the notion of a universality of female experience is a clever confidence trick”. I doubt whether a black Caitlin Moran or Lena Dunham could be as immensely popular with both the media and the public alike. This is not an attack on them; in many ways, I like what they do – I may question some of their choices, but this is not an ‘all or nothing’ form of support. But just because I may like aspects of what they do doesn’t mean I should blindly support them when I see them ignoring and dismissing valid concerns raised by other feminists who are also trying to make their marginalised voices heard.

There was one really problematic article written in defence of Moran that I want to talk about here, but before I do, I want raise another issue. I’ve seen various people write that this is ‘infighting’, and that such debates ‘fracture’ the feminist movement. I think this is bullshit. We should be allowed to disagree; we are, after all, human beings with different life experiences and opinions. If the only way for feminists to work together is to constantly agree, that seems rather fascist to me. And also very unrealistic. Besides, I think disagreements can be incredibly useful in highlighting problems that need to be addressed and allowing marginalised voices to be heard. We don’t need ‘leaders’, held up and fawned over by media, to allow debate about equality and gender to flourish. The idea of holding up individual feminists like Moran or Dunham as some ‘figureheads’ of the movement seems counter-productive to me.

But back to the defence article I mentioned, which was written by the Vagenda Magazine editors. I left a comment on this article, and I want to expand on some of the points I raised there. It was, for me, an awful article, displaying some bizarre sweeping generalisations about women and feminism. It was rather sad to see two smart women write such drivel and play straight into the hands of sexism. There are many problematic points in their article, but I guess for me the biggest one was using anti-intellectualism to deflect attention away from what should have been the main issue: privilege in feminism. They basically claimed that the issue of intersectionality was ‘too academic’ and hence, irrelevant. There are so many things wrong with this argument, where do I even begin?

Let’s start by pointing out that intersectionality isn’t such a scary word, and gasp, plenty of people who haven’t been university-educated are capable of looking it up and understanding it. Here’s a good definition. It’s not that hard to understand. It’s essentially a useful way of saying that things like sexuality, race, class, religion and ability overlap. For example, a white woman’s experience of sexism may be vastly different from a black woman’s. Has your brain died from exhaustion yet? It’s so condescending to suggest that non-academics just aren’t smart enough to get this.

But let’s move on to another point. If it does require some effort to learn what intersectionality means and to engage with it as a key feminist issue, so what? Once again, people who haven’t been to university are more than capable of learning new things. We are required, on a daily basis, to confront new words and terminology in news articles about specific issues regarding the economy, the environment and political debate. And we learn them, and nobody goes out of their way to suggest to scientists or economists that by using specific terminology, they are ‘elitist’. So why should feminism be any different?

In using a debate about semantics and about a single word to defend Moran, the Vagenda editors are essentially playing a game of Derailing for Dummies, 101. Who cares what we call it, as long as we actually discuss it and treat it with validity. If intersectionality really bothers them as a word, they can rename it as ‘talking about how things overlap, and about privilege’. There, does that make things better?

I also found it bizarre that they would attack education itself in the name of equality and feminism, suggesting that ‘the masses’ can only handle a form of ‘feminism-lite’: ‘popular’ feminism. Again, condescending and patronising bullshit. Women are different. We talk differently, and express ourselves differently. My way of writing about feminism can be too academic and flowery for some. That’s cool. That’s why there are plenty of other feminists who write differently. We need this diversity. We don’t need, however, people proclaiming which way is ‘better’ and more ‘accessible’. What is more accessible to one person is alienating to another. This is not a game of ‘who’s more popular?’ We should be moving beyond this shit by now, we’re not in high school.

Most disturbing for me is the way that the Vagenda editors co-opted a discussion that should really have put things such as racism and privilege at the heart of the debate into an attack on academic feminists. This old trick has been used by the media so many times, I roll my eyes whenever I read it. It’s like the old bra-burning and hairy legs stereotypes; ‘these nasty academic feminists, who are all elitist and want to keep feminism for themselves!’ Never mind that many of the academic feminists I know come from underprivileged backgrounds and have had to fight their way for an education (and are damn proud of it); never mind that the idea of people who spend most of their life studying, teaching and fighting for equality across race, religion, class and gender, being ‘elitist’ is utter nonsense; never mind that it’s incredibly insulting to suggest that marginalised women are some general stereotype of the uneducated masses. Let’s just generalise and demonise higher education, and ignore the fact that it often gives hope and a better future for many underprivileged women.

Yet, this really isn’t about academics at all. And I’m still wondering why a valid question about the representation of women has been turned into some non-existent academic conspiracy. As Ray Filar points out, intersectionality as a concept is something that was originally written about by black feminists, not some ‘elitist’ academics wishing to colonise the discourse of feminism, and ‘keep it for themselves’. It’s insulting to everybody to suggest that discussing intersectionality is about semantics and language clarity, and most importantly, that intersectionality is somehow alienating or fracturing. What is alienating and fracturing is to ignore it.

EDIT: There are so many good (and clearly written) books on this subject, but I recommend Yours in Struggle by Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt and Barbara Smith. It was my first introduction to the subject, when I read it a few years ago when I turned 21.


Becka said...

I completely agree that to keep feminism alive there need to be multiple voices and opinions. It seems counterproductive to insult "academic" feminism purely for the sake of it. Yes, it's good to have accessible discourse on issues that disproportionately affect women. But that doesn't mean that a more academic, rigorous approach to tackling gender issues is unnecessary.

There are some bloggers/writers at the moment who seem to think it's ok to write opinion pieces without doing thorough research into the history and context of gender struggles. I think it's a sign that writing in general can be quite a lazy and sloppy process now, with people just sprouting an opinion without good solid sources to back up their claims.

Perhaps I am being 'elitist' in my opinion, but I do think some current bloggers need to be more thoughtful in their representation and stop to think for a minute about what they are actually saying in articles like the defence article of Caitlin Moran.

I find it quite disconcerting that Moran's voice is perceived as a ''leading'' voice in current feminism. I am a 20-something- British woman and I don't really identify with her opinions and writing at all. I hope other voices with a more thoughtful approach to these issues will emerge through all the noise.

Danielle P. said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this article, Hila.

Anonymous said...

I love to drink tea and catch up on blogs on Sunday mornings.

I have spent quite a bit of time this morning (and now afternoon) following the rabbit trail of links, and links within links, on this subject. It's been quite informative. Thank you for educating me on this topic.

I choose to stand with all of us who are oppressed--whether because of our gender or race or both--or because of any of the many other things that we use to separate our story from the story of the "other."

Amelia said...

I knew about this issue for a few weeks now and I am glad you decided to cover it. In all honesty, up until recently I have never heard of this Moran lady although I did watch two episodes of Girls before I stopped because I found it... sad.

I also read just now the article that claims to defend Moran. It's a pretty ethnocentric article in my opinion especially when the writer notes that feminism is "a white movement". I don't even want to talk about the whole "academia vs Moran" which is pretty much bull in my opinion.

Hila said...

Becka: I agree, laziness is being touted as 'being accessible', which is bullshit, in my humble opinion. The idea of attacking academics for their rigorous research and terminology is so dumb. I do wish such silly opinion pieces weren't held up as considered journalism about important issues.

Danielle: Thank you for reading it!

Anon: thanks.

Amelia: The Vagenda 'defence' is a breathtakingly ethnocentric article, and a very poorly researched and argued one. I expected better.