Yes, Activists Have Doubts Too, And Also Criticism Is A Process (A Rant About Two Kinda Different Things)

I was avoiding my statistics homework today and found this comic on Tumblr, by an art student named Alyssa Korea:

tumblr_mnw7hdhPfg1r715rxo2_500

tumblr_mnw7hdhPfg1r715rxo3_500

This really resonated with me, for various reasons. First of all, it really captures that feeling of Am I doing it wrong am I saying something problematic am I exactly what I’m fighting against that many of us experience as a constant low hum but never talk enough about. Activism of all kinds–not just social justice–has a high barrier to entry because you sort of have to learn a certain language, to talk the talk. You also have to learn to walk the walk and exemplify the ideals you’re fighting for in your everyday life, which is why many feminist women agonize over things like wearing makeup, wanting to be pretty, getting married, and having children–they fear that it makes them “Bad Feminists.”

This is, of course, not unique to activists. Communities define themselves both proactively and also in opposition to those they seek to exclude (and seeking to exclude people isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself). As the furor over “Fake Geek Girls” shows, geek/nerd/fandom communities are struggling with this too. And not just that–perhaps you have reaped the shame of being a Star Wars fan who enjoys the prequel trilogy, or a Harry Potter fan who prefers the movies to the books. (Only one of these two applies to me; I’ll let you guess which.)

But the stakes are higher with social justice. If you say the wrong thing, you risk more than just annoying people who think the prequel trilogy is totally the stupidest shit ever. You risk seriously hurting someone you’re trying to work with and exposing your own unexamined prejudice–which all of us have, believe me–to people you respect and want to gain the respect of.

It’s not just a social thing, though. We want to be right, not just for selfish egotistical reasons but also because we’re invested in the concept of being able to change things. If you’re wrong about what causes X Problem or how to fix it, then, at least in this particular instance, you’re not helping. And you really want to help. We all do.

That’s the other reason the particular sort of angst in this comic is something I can really relate to. I have a moment at least once a day when I’m like WHAT IF EVERYTHING I BELIEVE AND THINK I KNOW IS ACTUALLY WRONG. There are probably a few reasons for this: 1) impostor syndrome, 2) having always had plenty of people tell me that everything I believe and think I know is actually wrong, 3) having been raised a skeptic.

That third one is why I ultimately think that, no matter how unpleasant it is to do what the woman in the comic is doing–what I do every day–that is actually a feature, not a bug. Questioning yourself is good. It makes you better. Questioning your beliefs and opinions also doesn’t mean you have to question your worth as a person. You can be wrong about something–many things, even–and still be a decent, worthy human being.

Nonetheless, activism is contingent on getting people’s attention and making strong statements. I wish it weren’t, but it is. If I wrote a blog post like this comic, it probably wouldn’t have much of an influence because I’d sound wishy-washy and uncertain of my own positions. People wouldn’t feel compelled to think about what I wrote and to take action on it.

On the other hand, maybe it would do some good. Opinionated people are often accused of being “dogmatic” or “intolerant” of other opinions, but that’s partially because nobody hears or reads all the inner monologues and debates we have. There have been times when I’ve written entire blog posts, realized I disagreed with them, and deleted them without publishing. You’ve never read those blog posts. There are huge swaths of fascinating subjects that I’ve never written about–racial preferences in dating, whether or not religious belief is a choice, why boys are falling behind in schools, the usefulness of the DSM, whether or not we should abandon the label “feminist”–because I just haven’t made up my mind!

By the time I do write something, I’ve generally read a ton of articles about it (or even books in some cases), pushed it around in my mind like a picky eater pushes food around on a plate, discussed it with a few people, and debated myself extensively. Sure, sometimes I change my mind later, but by the time a blog post appears, hours and hours of preparation have gone into it. So you can imagine it’s a little annoying to be told that perhaps I just haven’t “considered” other opinions.

I like this method. It works for me. But I sometimes worry that if I reveal it to people, they will lose respect for me as an activist because they’ll see that I’m not always as firm in my convictions as I appear to me. I struggle with doubt. I wonder sometimes if we’re not just making mountains out of molehills or being “too sensitive.” (I wonder, of course, but you know how I really feel about that.) Maybe that’s an irrational fear. Maybe all of you feel the same way as the woman in the comic.

And that’s why I think the comic is so important, especially when it comes to feminist media criticism. People often try to play “Gotcha!” with feminists who criticize media, hoping to catch them in an act of hypocrisy. For instance, if a feminist says something like, “It’s kinda fucked up that all the female characters on this show are always dressed so revealingly,” a decidedly-not-feminist will be like “OH SO ARE YOU SAYING THAT WOMEN SHOULDN’T DRESS REVEALINGLY? HUH?”

Of course, these arguments are usually made in bad faith. I have been accused of “perpetuating patriarchy” by people who previously commented that they refuse to believe that patriarchy even exists. So when conversations like this happen, it’s generally pretty clear that the person isn’t actually super concerned with women’s right to wear as much or as little as they want; they’re just trying to force me into a corner in which I look like a hypocrite.

But this comic shows that 1) we do not have easy answers to this, and 2) criticism is a process, not a product. One doesn’t produce criticism and then go “Alright here’s my criticism! Here’s my Ultimate Answer To The Problem of Objectification of Women In The Media!” Feminist criticism is, rather, a process in which we think critically about the images and scripts with which we are constantly presented, picking them apart and figuring out why they’re so common and compelling, trying to design slightly better (but still wildly imperfect) ones instead.

And that, really, is what all activism is.

The Role of Feminist Criticism

In one of my recent pieces, I criticized a particular aspect of the love stories often found in popular books and movies. Whenever someone critiques pop culture–especially from a feminist perspective–it raises a lot of questions for many people. Questions such as:

  • Does it really matter that this work is “problematic”?
  • Can you even have media that isn’t problematic in any way?
  • Am I a racist/sexist/etc. if I find a racist/sexist/etc. joke funny?
  • Would people really take this seriously?
  • What’s the point of talking about this?
  • Am I a bad person if I enjoy this book/movie/show?

Of course, people rarely come right out and ask these questions; they usually couch them in objections instead: “You’re just looking for flaws,” “It’s just a movie,” “There’s nothing that would make you feminists happy.”

But if you read between the lines you’ll usually find questions like the ones above, and all of them eventually condense into the same question: What is the role of feminist criticism? In other words, what’s the point of picking cultural artifacts apart and finding their flaws and analyzing them?

In my view, the role of feminist criticism is not to prescribe what you should and should not read, watch, listen to, wear, or otherwise consume. It is not to say which things are “bad” and which are “good,” since, as some detractors have pointed out, everything seems to have flaws. It is not to create some list of 100%-feminist-approved media and boycott everything else.

Rather, it is to use cultural artifacts as a way to analyze our prevailing norms and values and see how they might be harmful. For instance, in my earlier post, I used the romance genre to show how people are encouraged to maintain abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationships because that’s the “romantic” thing to do.

In this situation, I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t consume those books, films, and TV shows, because then you wouldn’t be able to criticize them. I’m not even saying you shouldn’t enjoy them, because ultimately I don’t care what you enjoy and what you don’t. That’s up to you.

Sometimes, though, it might be more ethical to avoid something “problematic” entirely. The role of feminist criticism is also to remain aware of what we consume so that we’re able to draw the line when it’s gone too far. For instance, I don’t eat at Chick-Fil-A and I don’t purchase any music from Chris Brown. Others may draw their personal lines differently, which is okay. But I wouldn’t have been able to decide that this business and this musician do not deserve my money had I not kept myself informed of what they do and what the criticisms of them are.

For me, the most important insight that feminism has given me is that we do not live, love, consume, and decide in a vacuum; we do so under the influence of society. That doesn’t mean we don’t have “free will” (and I do hate to get into that debate), but it does mean that we might not always be aware of all of the reasons for which we want (or don’t want) to do something. We will probably never be able to disentangle ourselves from the influence of society, and that’s fine. What’s important to me is to be aware of what some of those influences might be.

To use an example that’s slightly off-topic: makeup. Many women like to wear it, and many women are, unfortunately, under the impression that feminism opposes the use of makeup unilaterally. Hence the “I’m not a feminist, I wear makeup and dresses” thing that you get sometimes. (Maybe second-wave feminism did oppose makeup, but no feminist person or piece of writing that I’ve ever come across has said that.)

Again, in my view, feminism doesn’t prescribe whether or not women should wear makeup. What it does is ask questions:

  • Why does makeup exist?
  • Why are women expected to wear it and considered lazy, ugly, or unprofessional if they don’t?
  • Why aren’t men expected to wear makeup?
  • Come to think of it, why are men shamed if they do choose to wear it?
  • Why do some professions require women to wear makeup to keep their jobs?
  • Does wearing makeup ever actually make a woman better at her job?
  • Why do makeup ads show women who are considerably more flawless than any foundation or cream could actually make you look?

And so on. Answering those questions for yourself is enlightening, a bit disturbing, but also (in my opinion) kind of fun.

In my own case, becoming a feminist and learning about feminist criticism of makeup and the beauty industry didn’t change my makeup-wearing habits at all. I still do exactly what I did back when I wasn’t a feminist: sometimes I feel like wearing it so I do, and sometimes I don’t feel like wearing it, so I don’t.

What feminism has done for me, though, is to silence that petulant voice I get in my  head on days when I choose not to wear makeup–the one that tells me I’m being lazy, that I’m not a real woman, that people are going to judge me, that I look bad. Before I’d stubbornly choose not to wear makeup on days when I didn’t want to but then have to deal with that voice in my head all day. Nowadays it’s gone. Maybe people do judge me for not wearing makeup sometimes, but I no longer give a fuck.

So feminist criticism hasn’t kept me from doing things i want to do or forced me to do things I don’t; it’s merely given me a framework for understanding some of my own desires, fears, triggers, values, and so on.

The same sort of thing applies to feminist criticism of pop culture. I still enjoy popular movies and TV shows (except How I Met Your Mother, perhaps), but I understand how some of the assumptions they contain are inaccurate and harmful. Thinking through these things helps me think about our culture as a whole and how it might be improved. It also helps me construct a blueprint for how I want to live my own life, raise my future kids, and so on. (For instance, I will never tell a daughter of mine that if a boy treats her like crap “it’s just because he likes you.” That’s the most dangerous bullshit I’ve ever heard, and He’s Just Not That Into You is with me on that.)

And on that note, feminist criticism has one more role–showing us ways to improve the stories we tell. It reminds us that casts should not be all-white, that the Bechdel Test should be passed with flying colors, that glorifying violence against women (or anyone, really) is not okay. We can’t produce better books, movies, and shows unless we criticize the ones we have thoroughly.

In summary, feminist criticism is important because:

  1. It allows us to analyze problematic aspects of our culture.
  2. It lets us know when we should consider avoiding something entirely.
  3. It helps us understand how culture influences our behavior.
  4. It points the way to better media in the future.

It’s unfortunate that some people think that feminist criticism “ruins” everything or that feminists are here to take all the stuff you love away. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are ethical ways to consume problematic media, and I’d say it’s easier to enjoy something when you understand exactly why you sometimes get uncomfortable feelings about it.

I’m sure many feminists would disagree with a lot of what I’ve said, but I’d probably respect their views nonetheless. The view I definitely do not respect is that we should just ignore critiques of the stuff we like because it’s boring and not fun and who cares that the stuff we read, watch, and listen to is selling us a version of reality that we might despise if we actually thought about it.

Writing A Better Love Story: On Pop Culture That Romanticizes Unhealthy Relationships

Imagine this story.

You meet someone you really like and fall for them immediately. They’re attracted to you too and the sex is great. But you want something more serious and they drag their feet. They’re emotionally detached, they forget to call, they make you do all the work of moving the new relationship along. It becomes tumultuous. You fight, you break up, you make up and get back together. They cheat. They lie. They promise to change every time but they never do.

And then, finally, the story reaches its climax–perhaps because you’ve finally walked out, or maybe because of some dreadful accident or because their best friend got married or something else that leads to a Big Realization. And they finally decide that it was you they wanted all along, and one of you proposes to the other, and you get married.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because that story weaves its way through too many novels, movies, and TV shows to count. It’s in Sex and the CityTwilight, 50 Shades of Grey, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Gossip Girl. 

These stories suggest that this relationship script is somehow supposed to be romantic. That that moment when they Finally Realize how wrong they’ve been makes it all worth it and that after that moment everything becomes healthy and happy. That a relationship built on detachment, betrayal, manipulation, or even abuse can survive and become some great love story.

There are two misconceptions that one can get from these kinds of stories. One concerns how to actually conduct your relationships, and the second concerns what we value in our relationships and what types of relationships we consider romantic.

The first misconception is that it makes sense to stay in a relationship with someone you love even though they are clearly unable to give you what you’re looking for. In pop culture, women are often portrayed as refusing physical intimacy and men are often portrayed as refusing emotional intimacy, although some stories flip this around (such as (500) Days of Summer). What’s to stop the other partner from just leaving and finding someone who’s able to be as intimate as they need?

Part of it is the false belief that you can make someone change by the sheer force of your love, and that you have enough patience to remain in a relationship that’s not satisfying to you until your partner changes.

Of course, sometimes people do change. They become more empathic, better listeners, less self-centered, more attentive, better at managing their time and money. But they generally don’t just flip-flop personality-wise. Going from a noncommittal, dishonest, and/or abusive jerk to a loving and affirming partner doesn’t just happen; it probably requires years of therapy. Yet in these stories, it does just happen.

And even if that ever happens in real life, would you really want to spend years in an unhealthy relationship in the hopes that it will?

The second misconception is that stories like this are Romantic. They are Love Stories. They’re the kinds of stories you would want to tell at your wedding and then to your children and grandchildren. They’re something to aspire to. They’re something to make movies and write books about.

Really, though? I’d never want to tell my future kids that I took crap from their other parent for years and years until they finally Came Around after some supposedly romantic moment and started loving me back. I would want to tell them that I knew my partner was a good person from the very beginning, and that while we’ve had our disagreements, we always managed to learn from each other and compromise.

Now, I get that that doesn’t make as flashy of a movie. Conflict does make stories interesting (although I still don’t see why the type of conflict that gets written about has to romanticize unhealthy relationships and abuse). It’s difficult to criticize cultural scripts like these without people suggesting that I’m somehow saying that these books and movies shouldn’t exist.

The point of feminist criticism, in my mind, isn’t to say what should and shouldn’t exist. It’s to remind people that these stories are written from a particular perspective, one that we don’t necessarily have to agree with or accept. People who make movies and write books are operating under their own assumptions of what the world is or what it should be. It’s up to us to present alternative views.

Media affects us in ways that are too nuanced for easy fixes. As it is with eating disorders, it’s not like anybody would read Twilight or watch Gossip Girl and immediately conclude, “Gee, it sure is hot when Edward/Chuck treats Bella/Blair like that. I’m glad my boyfriend’s the same way.”

But these scripts can change what we value in our relationships: is it mutual respect and open communication, or is it that hot, passionate, tumultuous “love” that’s being sold?

These scripts embed themselves in our minds and start to seem normal. It’s easy to start telling our own stories through those lenses. For instance, a survey done at Twilight screenings in Idaho showed that 68% of the teens seeing the movie thought that Edward’s treatment of Bella is a “sign of true love.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that watching and enjoying Twilight literally causes people to interpret Edward’s abusive behavior as evidence of a loving, healthy relationship. Perhaps people who already view relationships that way gravitate towards films like Twilight.

That’s why the solution isn’t to boycott them or vilify them unilaterally; it’s to use them to examine the assumptions we hold about love, relationships, and all sorts of other stuff. It’s also to write our own stories–ones that portray manipulation, lopsided relationships, and abuse as antithetical to the lives we want, rather than as stepping stones to the healthy love that supposedly follows.

Why I Criticize Liberals and Not Conservatives

For someone who identifies as liberal and progressive, I certainly spend an odd amount of time criticizing fellow liberals and progressives. Unlike other bloggers of my general type, I don’t do all those muckraking-type posts detailing the latest scandalous Fox News segment or hypocritical Republican politician’s speech. Instead, I prefer to rip on people that I mostly agree with. Why is this?

Several reasons. First of all, getting my panties in a wad over some stupid conservative comment takes very little intelligence, and I prefer to utilize my intelligence as much as I can. The typical liberal kvetch-post usually goes something like this: “Well surprise surprise! [Insert Republican candidate here] gave a speech in [insert small conservative town here] yesterday and claimed that ‘good Christians’ should not allow gay couples to go to prom! It never ceases to amaze me how vile these Republicans are!” Or: “Last night [insert Fox News talk show host here] claimed on his show that people on welfare are ‘dirty rats pilfering our hard-earned money.’ Perhaps he should try living on welfare for a while!”

Okay, I exaggerate, but hopefully you see my point. It’s just that it takes no mental energy whatsoever to criticize people and ideas that are so ludicrous. For instance, today in Salon: talk show host Sean Hannity thinks Sesame Street is an attack on “family values” (whatever the hell that means these days), and Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) apparently thinks that the US should support Israel so that the Jews can rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and Christ can return. Um, okay.

Now, what Salon (and the liberal blogosphere in general) does with their time and webspace is their own business, but one has to wonder why so many intelligent writers would would want to waste their energy railing against the likes of Hannity and Bachmann and the rest of that entire cadre of shockingly brainless people. Because, really, what is there to actually say about the two links I just mentioned, aside from the fact that they are really stupid?

Meanwhile, most of the intelligent conservative perspectives that I’ve encountered unfortunately involve economics. For instance, Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, refuses to implement a living wage for workers in dining halls, housekeeping, and etc. because he thinks this idea is economically unsound–and he’s a well-known, respected economist. No matter how much I’d love to see a living wage on campus, I can respect his opinion.

However, one little problem–I know absolutely nothing about economics, and I am prevented from learning more by the fact that I find it insufferably boring. So not only am I completely unqualified to even try to argue with the likes of Dr. Shapiro, I also have little desire to do so. (Likewise, it seems, with most liberals. The Living Wage Campaign at Northwestern, for instance, has insisted on using passion and emotion to fuel its arguments, even though President Shapiro, when asked what would convince him to implement a living wage, answered, “Good arguments.” Meaning, of course, arguments that are evidence-based and rational.)

As for why criticizing liberals is a good idea, that should be self-evident. I care deeply about seeing the causes I care about succeed. Sometimes, however, I feel that people are going about them in the wrong ways. For instance:

Incidentally, there are just so many types of privilege now. White privilege, male privilege, class privilege, heterosexual privilege, cis privilege, abled privilege, thin privilege, even vanilla privilege! A veritable buffet of privileges. For the record, I do believe privilege exists, in a way. But I don’t think it’s worth talking about, because bitching and moaning about it and yelling at people you disagree with about how they can’t “see past their privilege” contributes nothing useful to the larger discourse on social justice. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t. All it does is alienate people that you might have otherwise persuaded.

I’m getting really off-topic now, but another quick comment about privilege–although this is a matter of semantics, I think it’s much more useful to view non-privileged people as disadvantaged rather than viewing privileged people as “privileged.” After all, we don’t want everyone to lose privileges like not being accused of stealing, being paid fair wages, and being able to easily find the right hair care products. Rather, we want everyone to have these privileges. So rather than implying that it’s somehow “bad” that I, as a white woman rather than a black one, can walk into a store and not be followed by a salesperson, we should be implying that it’s completely wrong that a black woman would be followed while a white one would not. Different emphasis entirely. I know any progressive would agree with me on this, and yet they persist on using language that problematizes the privileges that some of us have rather than the disadvantages that others face. The privileges I have as a middle-class, cisgender white person are privileges everyone should have. The privileges that heterosexual men have are privileges that I should have. And so on.

Back to the point. This is why, in most of the posts where I’m explicitly criticizing something, I generally propose some alternatives–organizing a protest rather than personally boycotting a store, finding a healthy balance between work and love rather than sacrificing one for the other, and so on. I hope that by doing this I have shown that I do actually care about finding solutions rather than simply criticizing things. I get a lot of satisfaction from identifying ways that things are being done wrong and suggesting ways to do them better.

But bloggers who endlessly chronicle the bon mots of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh are doing absolutely nothing productive. I’ve always believed that a “good blog” is one that contributes something meaningful to the world rather than simply chronicling things that piss off its author.