On Monday night, I watched the ‘special edition’ of ABC’s Q&A titled “The F Word”. I don’t really know what I was expecting with this show, but I can tell you what my reactions were to the majority of the discussion around feminism, which were basically encapsulated by Helen Razer’s tweets throughout the show. It was a limited discussion. There were a few bright moments and good points raised by panellists, but I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable and resentful that feminist debate was defined by questions of whether Margaret Thatcher was a ‘feminist’ (seriously, this is the woman who called feminism a “poison”. This is not a hard question to answer: no, she wasn’t), men opening doors and chivalry (such a key and significant problem in our current societies – for fuck’s sake), whether sex workers can be classified as ‘feminists’ (sigh, really?), “is feminism obsolete?” (again, really?), Julia Gillard’s jackets (just kill me now), and so on. The more I listened to this, the more I felt like something sharp was gleefully and repeatedly stabbing my brain.
But let me focus on the interesting parts, and to me those were mainly two comments made by Germaine Greer and by Brooke Magnanti. Magnanti made a number of good points, not least of which was challenging Mia Freedman when Freedman claimed that no little girl wants to grow up to be a sex worker. In an industry where women are heavily exploited, commodified and trafficked, I understand where Freedman is coming from. However Magnanti pointed out that she has met sex workers who do view it as a desired career and if that makes Freedman uncomfortable, then tough. I thought this was a very interesting point. But it was one, like many others, which was lost in the haze of the word ‘choice’ and the statement ‘feminism is about choice’ which cropped up repeatedly throughout the show. I have to admit to rolling my eyes each time I heard both. I would have turned it into a drinking game if it wasn’t so irritating. I’ve written about choice politics on my blog, so I won’t go through my points again. But it’s safe to say that I think reducing feminism to individual choice is a cop-out. It’s a safe tactic that doesn’t address the real problems of economic, ideological and cultural inequalities that affect and disenfranchise women worldwide. You can’t fix these problems with personal choice because your personal choices are defined, dictated and limited by the society and culture in which you live. It seems astounding to me that we are still debating feminism through choice.
On to Greer. The comment that ultimately stuck with me from the show was Greer’s statement that “We’re not even there yet”. Meaning, how the hell can we talk about feminism being “obsolete” when we haven’t even achieved basic equality? But then she went on to discuss the need to also delve beyond equality. Equality is a necessary but very modest goal. Because what women are seeking now is equality with men in institutions and cultural practices that have historically been largely defined by men and that privilege men. Greer pointed out that we haven’t even begun to think about whether we want to shape a different world from the one we have inherited from history, with all its biases. This is part of what she said: “When we talk about equality, we’re actually enunciating a profoundly conservative aim. We just want to have what somebody else has got. We don’t really want to change the whole system. Now, it’s important that we do that stuff ... We’re not even there yet. Until we’ve actually worked out how the world, as we’ve inherited it works ... we cannot even see a way forward.”
I guess here, I agree with Greer: it’s necessary to keep fighting for equality in the world as we know it, flawed as it is. At the same it, it’s necessary to consider that perhaps part of the way forward is to reconsider what “the whole system” means to both women and men. This reminded me of Angela Carter’s words in The Sadeian Woman, where she writes: “Pornographers are the enemies of women only because our contemporary ideology of pornography does not encompass the possibility of change, as if we were the slaves of history and not its makers, as if sexual relations were not necessarily an expression of social relations”. This applies to every other social, cultural and economic practice in our modern world. I’d like to hope that at some stage we won’t simply be aiming for the conservative goal of equality, but actually question the assumption that we’re “the slaves of history” when we are in fact its makers.
Image credit: 28 Daria quotes for any situation; by the end of the show, I re-fashioned this Daria quote in my head along the lines of: ‘Feminism is about CHOICE! I choose coffee, coffee for everyone!!’ This probably only makes sense in my head, but whatever.