Julie Bishop, the highest-ranking female minister in the Abbott cabinet, recently explained why the word ‘feminist’ was not in her lexicon, in spite of the fact that she is a powerful woman at the top of her field. In the same week, Antony Loewenstein wrote an article for the Guardian arguing that contemporary feminists were too focused on facelifts and George Clooney to bother talking about the real issues – single parents, war, refugees, etc. The biggest problem with the theory Loewenstein proposed, as many commentators said at the time, was his lack of analysis of the corporate media machine that generates and proliferates feminist writing only under particular conditions and with particular caveats. It’s a strange oversight for someone so familiar with the media industry, but perhaps it is a product of that very same click-bait commission mentality: get a guy to write the article about feminists, and get him to tell them they’re doing it wrong.
Still, the convergence of these incidents highlighted, for me, the unresolved contradiction at the heart of the feminist movement. To suggest, as the broad church philosophy does, that everyone’s feminism is valid, skates very close to saying that everyone’s politics are acceptable. But clearly we don’t think that or we wouldn’t be feminists. Bishop doesn’t, either – in fact, she sees feminism as ‘self-victimisation’. As shirking personal responsibility. As weakness. One might think the reason that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist would be obvious: she doesn’t call herself a feminist because she doesn’t believe in the things feminism stands for. But what if she did call herself a feminist? After all, feminism is a broad church, everyone keeps saying, and a broad definition of feminism allows more people to be feminists, including, presumably, the Julie Bishops of the world.
So I want to know: is feminism is an issues-based tool, or is it a comprehensive political theory? Because we can’t have it both ways. If it is the latter, then it needs to provide a way to interpret, understand and respond not simply to the products of culture but to the structures that underpin them: the market, governance, social services and the state, colonisation, globalisation, and democracy. And taking a position on those things has consequences.
If we’re for the economic equality of all women, for example – not some women at the expense of others – then the Right is actually our opposition in this project. That includes right-wing women – even right-wing women who call themselves feminists. In an article in Private Media’s Women’s Agenda, Paula Matthewson demonstrated this point remarkably well, albeit from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Feminists shouldn’t attempt to change the minds of conservative women, Matthewson argued, unless they can show that feminism is not actually going to substantially change the way the world is organised. ‘Women of the Right think differently because they have different core values,’ she wrote. ‘Feminists who keep trying to change these foundation stones of a person’s philosophy and attitudes, by insisting individualist and conservative women embrace the label, are simply wasting their time.’
It’s tempting, perhaps, in the face of that, to argue that feminism is more flexible, that it has a myriad of applications and potential benefits, even for women on the Right. But if feminism is simply a filter one can put on or take off at will, then it is not and will never be a unifying force. It will split and splinter as culture continues to splinter, as people think of themselves less as a community and more as individuals. It will not revolutionise society, it will not generate solidarity or shared values, but will instead become subject to and co-opted by the already existing power brokers as a means to serve their own ends. It will become a tool of the unequal status quo.
In fact, this is already happening. Feminism is a brand now, and we sell it. We sell ourselves through it. It’s the marketing tool of Jezebel and Daily Life and Elle and Women’s Agenda. It’s the handy new value-proposition of a corporate consensus that sells clicks before it sells politics, but sells sells sells as its first priority. We’re the content providers, not the content shapers, no matter how vehement or radical our personal politics, and our media power is as limited by the 800-word column space as the media monolith is constrained by its advertising budget.
Yes, many feminists do appear to talk publicly about Jennifer Lawrence or Beyoncé more often than they do about, say, the wrack and ruin and brutal repression that a handful of (sometimes female) economists and politicians in the US have unleashed on millions in the developing world in the name of ‘freedom’, and this is because sex sells (and that includes sex crime), because celebrities sell, and because to be a feminist is still sufficiently controversial that our opinions on these things sell, too.
But I also believe that feminism sells precisely because there is no consensus on the politics that underpin our movement. Are we for the success of a handful of female CEOs or are we for emancipation from corporate slavery? Because if it’s the latter, then those women at the top of the business ladder won’t serve our interests, and neither will most of the mainstream media. An article may get hundreds of thousands of hits and retweets and Facebook likes, but the average turnout to a feminist demo is still only a few hundred people. Maybe demos aren’t cool any more, but words sure as shit aren’t enough. And yet we let ourselves sink into debates about our own privilege because we are the product of that very same radical free-market doctrine: we are atomised and isolated with little sense of collective experience.
Even intersectionality – a theory developed at the height of the identity politics movement to deal with the multidimensional nature of oppression, and in particular, the confluence of race and gender – suffers from the same affliction. ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,’ is its rallying cry. One way of understanding this call is to interpret it as a reflection on politics past: that any political movement which doesn’t incorporate an understanding of how differences of the body (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.) translate to different experiences of inequality in the world will be subject to the very same shortcomings and blind spots as its predecessors. If intersectionality is a tool for evaluating my own subject-positioning, it can certainly be useful. But it too folds all too neatly into that ideal market construct of the self: the individualist political entity with individual experiences and individual objectives. No solidarity here. And if it is a comprehensive political theory, I find more holes than I do answers. How does intersectional feminism help us respond to, for example, the relentless war profiteering that is driving invasion after invasion in the Middle East? The privatisation of the public service at home? The systemic incarceration of Indigenous women? Our own government allowing unfettered access to the personal data of the entire country to anyone with a civil service salary? What alternatives does it offer? If we can’t answer questions like that, our theory is inadequate.
So my feminism will be comprehensive or it will be bullshit. It will be anti-corporate or it will be bullshit. It will fight for the poor, for the marginalised, for health care, for welfare, for social services, for democracy and self-determination. It will not allow those women to be represented as lazy, undisciplined, weak or undeserving, as the Right would have it, and it will have no truck with anyone who purports to represent women while simultaneously perpetuating brutality, racism, war, greed, and plain old inequality. Because if those women are feminists, and if we accept that their politics represent a legitimate struggle under the feminist umbrella, then what does that make our movement but one which tolerates sweeping injustice in the pursuit of personal advancement?