Recently, I was reading a little post over on Lousy Canuck in which Jason referred to the Fourth Wave concept. He made the assertion that, in his perspective, Fourth Wave is where we, as feminists, now are. Something about this didn’t sit well with me at all.
I don’t claim the right to define what feminism, or trans-feminism, or fourth-wave, or anything, is “supposed” to mean to anyone else. Even whatever ideas I myself present are no longer my own the second I click the publish button. At that point, those ideas belong to whomever may find them, to interpret in whatever ways they find useful. It’s only in allowing things that kind of breathing room to be interpreted and reinterpreted, collectively or individually, that they have the power to move conversations forward, or create new meaningful conversations. However, I feel like the idea of fourth wave as “where we are now”, and the way that feels not-quite-right to me, itself offers an opening for important conversations.
Fourth wave is, for me and for many of my colleagues, very fundamentally a work-in-progress. Something we’re trying to arrive at. It’s also, almost by definition, not where we, as vague or precise a “we” as you’d like, have just naturally ended up. The whole concept of a “fourth wave” is necessitated precisely because feminism has hit certain very difficult, very stubborn stumbling blocks. It’s necessitated because we’re not moving past certain things simply as part of the natural evolution of feminism thought. It’s necessitated because we need to make a very decisive and intentional split with certain concepts that are holding feminism back. If fourth wave were simply where feminism arrived of its own accord, there would be no real need for any such concept or action in the first place.
It is, to me, a somewhat idealistic vision of a feminism we may be able to create. An intensively, rigorously, self-critically intersectional feminism. A feminism that is for all women. A feminism that speaks to the full range of women’s experiences. A feminism that is capable of speaking to the full range of gender and social gender dynamics (including axes of power, privilege and oppression), which includes gender variance, and more so the variance itself rather than just specific iterations. A feminism that is not prescriptive in how it suggests (or much less demands) the lives of women, or anyone else suffering under the current treatment of gender, should meet its politics. A feminism that prioritizes what it can offer to human beings, their lives and experiences, rather than demanding those lives and experiences fit into its theoretical, ethical or political frameworks. A feminism that’s prioritization of agency and bodily autonomy is absolute and consistent. A feminism that is conversational, built on the shared co-existence of diverse backgrounds and perspectives and experiences, and knows the importance of this, and the limitations of any individual perspective. A feminism where the boundaries between theory and praxis, academia and “real life”, wouldn’t be relevant nor act as barriers. A feminism that offers rather than demands, limits or imposes. A feminism that understands rather than explains. A feminism that listens rather than analyzes. A feminism that is okay with being uncomfortable, and getting its hands dirty, that understands we can’t achieve much if we aren’t willing to look at difficult things and work through the things we’d most prefer to leave alone.
A feminism that gets over its constant prioritization, deliberate or inadvertent, of the needs of very particular classes of women.
If we’re really, really lucky, this is something we might be able to make happen, through a lot of work and thought and discussion. And it’s going to be very difficult discussion, where there will be a lot of disagreements and mistakes and stumbling blocks of our own, as we negotiate how to listen to one another and achieve these shared values and goals (though hopefully, we won’t simply cease being conversational once we get past those wobbly baby steps). This is something we can make a reality if we pour ourselves into it and can make those sacrifices, fight those battles, have those disagreements, make those mistakes, be uncomfortable, get our hands dirty.
One thing it absolutely is not, however, is where we are, or where we’re simply going to arrive.
But to be honest, the more I think about it, the more I’m not sure fourth wave should ever be where we are. Maybe it needs to be a work-in-progress. Maybe it should always be a work-in-progress. Or at least understood as a process, or a goal, or a guiding set of principles. Something we work towards rather than be.
I’ve noticed over time that a whole lot of people, from a wide variety of political positions, often think of feminism as the effort to achieve a specific, realizable goal, an attempt to bring about a certain kind of world or political circumstance. I think this has always been a bit of a naive viewpoint, regardless of what goal you’re imagining… maybe something as simple as closing the wage gap and ensuring reproductive rights, or as idealistic as achieving the complete abolition of unequal distributions of power and privilege along lines of gender, or as completely batshit ridiculous as the self-valorizing MRA mythologies in which a totalitarian matriarchy grasps all wealth and power on a global scale and keeps men completely subjugated as breeding stock. My own feminism has never been built on these ideas. I imagine instead that even if we were to achieve some kind of full, utopian gender parity, feminism would still be necessary as a process of “upkeep”, a way to work against the entropic pull towards systems of categorization, marginalization, subjugation and exploitation. A “post-feminist” world can’t ever be achieved, because feminism will always be necessary to compensate for certain aspects of who and what we are.
Maybe my perspective is cynical, but it’s grounded in trying to pay very close attention to what human beings are like. And the sad truth of it is that we don’t categorize, discriminate, marginalize and so on solely because we inherit those systems, but because they’re easy. It’s part of how our brains our wired. Sexism, racism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism… all of those maladaptive social problems emerge from what were originally adaptive, healthy heuristics.
It’s simply impossible for us, as human beings, to evaluate whether or not to trust someone else on a completely individual basis. It’s dangerous, and can lead to us getting killed. A woman, for example, pulled over on the side of the road, can’t be expected to risk her life on trusting any man who happens to pull over and offer her some help. It’s not quite “fair” to the man, whose intentions are more likely genuine and kind than not, but nonetheless his feelings aren’t worth gambling her life for. That kind of decision is healthy, but those same thought processes, those heuristics we employ so that we don’t risk our lives constantly evaluating every single individual situation by its countless individual variables, create a constant tug towards prejudicial attitudes. It’s safer, and easier, to just not trust anyone who isn’t quite like us, anyone who presents with unfamiliar traits, or traits that have been culturally coded as “other”. The unknown and other is scary, because it’s…well…unknown and other. It’s a risk.
The trouble with it is the same as the trouble with every weird, irrational little element of human cognition and behaviour. They never evolved to try to cope with something as complex and multifaceted as our civilization. Like the majority of our instincts, the ways that our brains our designed to work, we need to work to get past it in order to thrive in our world, and to become something a little bit better than what’s easiest to be. But because these kinds of thinking are a fundamental part of who we are, we can’t just “solve” it, learn something like “prejudice is wrong” and suddenly be all better. Because it’s part of how we think, how we process the world around us, it requires constant upkeep, constant attention, constant renewal.
This is where feminism and skepticism become very, very similar concepts for me. Skepticism, broadly speaking, has never for me been about having a little club where a bunch of smug jerks can get together to smugly congratulate each other for not believing in the Loch Ness Monster, but instead was something I valued and believed in as a process, with the intention of helping us cope with and work around all the countless little irrational quirks in how human brains work in order to have a little more agency over our perceptions, our beliefs and, consequently, our choices. Sexism and cissexism and heterosexism… those things are all very, very heavily tied up in our culture and how we’ve structured our society, yes. They’re political in nature. But they’re also human in nature, very much a product of how our quirky, irrational brains deal with the quirky, complex phenomena of gender, sex and sexuality. We could collapse and rebuild our entire civilization a hundred times over and us weird, silly human beings would still end up reacting in problematic ways to the inevitability of gender and the inescapable reality of being a sexual species. Feminism, even if we no longer called it that; a process of trying to see past our immediate perceptions, and act beyond what is the most easy, intuitive or satisfying way to approach gender, and give ourselves the choice to be something better; would still be not only valuable, but necessary.
Skepticism and social justice work like feminism have never felt in any meaningful way distinguishable for me. It was always about the exact same thing, which was not to let our immediate perceptions dominate us. Convincing self-identified skeptics to consider the irrational biases that govern things like sexism a meaningful issue to address has been something I’ve lost almost all faith in. But trying to promote the value of careful, critical examination of our perceptions, beliefs and ways of thinking within feminism is something that doesn’t feel nearly as lost. At least not yet. One of the best ways to accomplish that, and to help steer feminism away from mistakenly building itself around flawed, biased and limited goals and theories that benefit only those who have most control over the discourse, is to work on understanding it as a process. A way of coping with the situation we’re in. A situation we’re in together.
I’ve heard it often said that the main flaw of Third Wave was the lack of a cohesive goal. First Wave had suffrage, while Second Wave had equal pay, the pill and reproductive rights. Maybe the gradually expanding plurality of goals has always been a good thing, one of the primary indications that feminism is evolving into something that may someday become simply a shared common set of values, principles and ways of approaching things. Whenever a movement coalesces around a singular goal, those for whom that goal is not important or applicable are thrown under the bus. Consider, for instance, who has been neglected (or exploited) in the increased primacy of marriage equality and DADT in the movement for “LGBT” rights. Maybe what we need is less cohesion. More range, plurality and adaptability, with which to cope with and be able to address the near infinitely broad range of experiences individuals may have in relation to gender and the social systems surrounding it.
I wouldn’t want a fourth wave to become simply how we regard ourselves, nor would I want it to simply be a slightly adapted set of priorities and goals. I’d want it to be an idea of what feminism could be that we continually work towards, so as to pull against those terribly inevitable human failings that would ultimately lead us to shutting each other out, building heirarchies, prioritizing our own needs, rigidly adhering to our theories, demanding that everything fit and rejecting whatever can’t. The moment it would become something we think we are rather than something we consistently, with constant attention and renewal, struggle against what we are towards, is the moment we begin sliding backwards. What we are is never nearly as beautiful as what we might be.
I’d want a fourth wave to be the values that define a process. I’d want it to be the hard choice we have to make, over and over again, every day, to not just do what feels easiest, see what’s most apparent, or hear what we want to hear. The hard choice to understand one another, and understand this whole “gender” mess, that, for better or worse, we share.