Movie Friday: The Straw Feminist

I remember a party at a neighbour’s house where we were discussing dating and ‘red flags’. The hostess, a headstrong and independent young woman who really had her shit together remarked that what she liked was a ‘manly man’ (by which I assume she meant a guy who closely adheres to societal gender norms). I replied that, while she was entitled to her preference, I thought that she might be precluding a lot of decent guys simply because they didn’t meet her standards for ‘macho’. Her reply was “I guess. I just really hate feminists, you know?”

Puzzled, I responded that were that the case, she hated me. The other guy in the room (who would later go on to become her boyfriend) responded in kind. I dare say that I imagine that, had she looked up the definition, she probably would have identified herself as some kind of feminist, just “not one of those feminists”.

Which kind? The kind made of straw:

As I’ve said before, my feminism (like my anti-racism) is simply one expression of my general skepticism. You could call it ‘gender skepticism’ if you wanted to. It’s a philosophical and methodological approach to evaluating claims made about differences between sexes and the social constructs built around them. Are women more nurturing? Are men more naturally assertive? Is gender a binary state? How does biology inform a gender role?

These are questions about which evidence can be gathered and appraised, and in the absence of which it is reasonable to assume the ‘null hypothesis’ (i.e., that women and men are equal). We can reject ‘tradition’ or ‘common sense’ or assurances that “it’s obvious” as persuasive arguments and demand something better. We can observe systematic forces and recognize their influence. We can find reasonable rubrics by which to measure inequality. And when anti-feminists (or simply those who think that the whole exercise is unimportant or ‘overemphasized’) trot out their creationist-like claims, we can reach into our bag of common refutations.

We can do better. All without needing to buy into a caricature of feminism as some kind of reactionary and illogical stance based in anger and/or the desire to camouflage our intentions long enough to get laid.

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  1. karmakin says

    Indeed. Getting past this caricature is going to be quite difficult. The big problem with it is that there are “just” enough examples in the real world to result in enough justification of it to keep it going. The parallel I see is say with the Family Research Council, which is a very small block of influence, but the “caricature” allows it to have much more influence than it would have normally. It’s assumed that they are actually speaking for a much larger block than they are, being all Christians. (Actually, one could say this is behind all the power of the Catholic church)

    People like the “straw-feminists” are going to exist in any movement…it’s unavoidable. They shouldn’t be thought of as the mainstream/majority position however.

  2. says

    The one thing that I have to point out from the vid is that NO “Family Guy” is not an equal landscape where feminism doesn’t need to exist.

    The daughter is constantly treated like crap in incredibly sexist ways and one of the main character’s best friends is a serial rapist.

    I swear the writers just completely lost their faith in humanity and just decided to see what sort of crap they can get away with and still be seen as acceptable; how bad it could get before the people who think it is a satirical social commentary just can’t stand watching it anymore and the unempathetic masses who just like to see depictions of girls and women suffer, and Peter violently assaulted by a bull in a way that mimics sexual battery, finally get to the point where they are uncomfortable laughing about it and finally take a look at themselves.

  3. says

    Yes. Goddammit. Twice in the last month or so I’ve been told, by women, that feminists are crazy after I labeled myself one in a joking context (like, “park wherever you want, girl, I’m a feminist!”). The word put a look of disgust on their face. I think the common view of feminism (one that I held myself once) is that it’s a bunch of loony extremists, angry reactionaries… “others”.

    If I had not used that label and instead said something like “gender norms are pretty whack, hey?” I’m sure they’d agree, because, um, duh? But the word “feminist” is now synonymous with “screaming irrational weirdos” in most people’s minds – sort of like how “atheism” is now synonymous with “hedonistic nihilism”.

  4. scrutationaryarchivist says

    Thanks for sharing some Feminist Frequency!

    While the argument here about sexual harassment policies happened was grinding on, the backlash campaign against Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project exploded. I’m glad that I learned about her work from Lousy Canuck before all that blew up. She has some very interesting videos.

    This was shortly after I learned about the harassment of Miranda Pakozdi. And in the meantime haters have targeted Laci Green, Felicia Day, and many other women involved in computer-based communication and geek entertainment. It has been very, very demoralizing. And I’m not even a woman.

    I wonder how many boys and men ignore feminist issues because when they start to see them, it’s just too overwhelming.

    The culture at large, and these subcultures in particular, need to change. At least some of the different people who are trying to improve it are becoming more aware of each other. So, thanks again for this link.

  5. says

    What people think of as “rad feminism” however IS NOT any such thing. Any push against the status quo is deemed “rad”.

    I think if there were MORE vocal rad feminists, it would actually be a good thing. I swear if some of the people criticizing FtB for talking about sexism too much actually were confronted with rad feminism they would collectively shit themselves.

    Actual radicals in any movement can serve a great purpose – to make the more reasonable, diplomatic members of the movement look downright mundane.

    There can be a frame-shifting effect. For example, Bash Back makes PFLAG look like a family picnic (literally).

    The “straw feminist” trope is NOT good however, for the reasons she pointed out. In most of the examples, there are no other people in the scenarios or even universes using the self-identifier of “feminist” or even doing anything about gender-related injustice – for the actual extremist to be a foil to.

    As far as I know (I have not watched Veronica Mars) you do not have a larger group of feminists doing important things with a small faction going to extremes due to frustration over valid concerns.

    By the way, just out of curiosity, I looked up feminist in Merriam Webster: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”

  6. karmakin says

    I think that’s the problem, that people feel overwhelmed by the concept of changing an entire culture. I think the general framing that we’re talking about entire cultures that need to be changed and not the actions of a number of bad apples.

    There’s also the problem that bad people tend to be louder than good people…

  7. mynameischeese says

    As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once pointed out, the problem with stereotypes isn’t that they’re untrue; it’s that they are incomplete. If you go to Mexico, you can find a guy in a sombrero playing mariachi music. He does exist. But he can’t represent all of Mexico.

  8. says

    I’ve used that very video any number of times to explain to people why the ‘feminism’ they’re railing against isn’t an accurate portrayal of feminism at all. What’s even more frustrating (at least for me) is just how damned common it is to see these kinds of bullshit faux-feminist canards trotted out by otherwise rational and intelligent people. Argh, says I.

  9. says

    How wonderfully fitting to have this particular video (one of my favorites of the Trope vs. Women series) up. I can’t wait for her take on video games despite the nonsense she’s had to deal with.

  10. mythbri says

    It is overwhelming, because once seen, it cannot be unseen. You start to notice how pervasive these harmful attitudes are.

    So what do you do now? You pick your battles. Keep trying to get people to think, on every front: family, friends, co-workers, etc. You don’t have to be aggressive about it, but instead say things like “Well, when you look at what you just said in this way, it actually doesn’t hold up.” And in written interactions, like online, you can be more direct and respond to things in a more thoughtful way, because you have the luxury of time.

    Changing society means changing minds, and that can only happen slowly.

  11. says

    This straw feminism thing has a long pedigree. I’m now 41. As long as 25 years ago, I was rejecting the term “feminist” for myself and naively thought that we were in a post-sexism world (!!! I look at 80s cultural artifacts today and am gobsmacked at how blind I was). I’d bought into it. I remember being so uncomfortable about how women were pushing back at the status quo: What’s wrong with “fireman” and “mailman” and “chairman” if it’s understood that women can be firemen, mailmen, and chairmen too? Why is using naked women to sell stuff sexist, and not just sexy? The word “history” comes from historia so talking about “herstory” is just ignorant stupidity (duh, the idea that it could be just a consciousness-raising pun never crossed my mind). Women are allowed to be MPs and CEOs and doctors and astronauts, so the fight for equality is done, what’s everyone whining about? And I was raised by a (real, not straw) feminist mother! I’d be ashamed, but I was young and have since educated myself.

    I’m guessing that the caricature of feminism as an extremist position goes back a few centuries at least, and it works very, very well to maintain the status quo.

  12. quietmarc says

    As a teenager, I rolled my eyes at my mom when she decided to use “Chair” and “chairperson” instead of “chairman”, but I’m totally on the side of inclusive language now. There’s no good reason why we can’t use one of our greatest tools as a species (language) to include every human.

    Re: straw feminism, the most annoying example I can think of is the Andrea character in the Walking Dead, and fan reaction to her. She’s supposed to be a human rights lawyer, but somehow the writers cannot for the life of them figure out how to put articulate, well-thought out dialogue into the script about the issues she’s concerned about. It seems that when the zombie apocalypse happens, women will “naturally” end up doing laundry and working in the kitchen, because evolution somehow, and anyone who disagrees is selfish and whiny and not pulling their weight. I’m terrified what’s going to happen to Michonne’s character next season.

  13. Jesse says

    As another person who went to college in the 80s (and took a Lesbian Literature class to boot) I’ll throw in that the straw feminist dates from the 1960s and 70s wen women generally were pushing back in ways that really undercut gender norms.

    It wasn’t just being a doctor (hi, mom!) or whatever, it was things like control over reproductive rights. As my mother (an OBGYN) used to say, it’s really all about control issues.

    I also think that some of it comes from people using Andrea Dworkin, or Adrienne Rich, or Catherine McKinnon as an example of feminist thought, and picking a lot of out of context bits. Or rather, caricatures thereof. I have my differences with both of them, but it’s a lot more complicated than the usual ranting about them. I think there was one bit — might have been from Dworkin — where she supposedly said something along the lines of “all heterosexual sex is by definition rape” and people sort of flipped out. IIRC it was a lot more nuanced than that.

    Then there’s ostensibly “feminist” fiction, which has a tendency to reinforce gender norms. This happens a lot on the science fiction genre and is more relevant to the gamer subcultures that Sarkesian talks about.

    (In fact, in the Lesbian Lit class our professor showed us exactly how that works, using Joanna Russ on the one hand, and this writer, whose name escapes me, on the other. The latter had this whole essentializing trope going on about women being nurturing and earth-connected and even having mind-links with cats, f’r chrissake, and somehow reproducing without men).

  14. adelady says

    M.A.M.@7 “I think if there were MORE vocal rad feminists, it would actually be a good thing.”

    Absolutely. Speaking as a veteran of the street marches of 1975, I and a lot of my friends benefited greatly from the vocal, scary, in-your-face radicals. We could go to work or to other meetings in our business suits and pearl earrings and get a polite hearing and start some real changes. How?

    It wasn’t our personal charm or our devastatingly logical arguments, though we couldn’t be careless in presentation. We just weren’t scary like *those* others out there.

    I’d be perfectly happy to see a few more women out there in boiler suits and bovver boots with safety pins in their ears. It’s a cliche, but it’s a really useful one.

  15. Francisco Bacopa says

    Great video. Love that she says “y’all” toward the end. This is the correct 2nd person plural gender neutral pronoun. It should enter all English dialects everywhere.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten into conversations with women friends where they say they are not feminists. Just a few weeks ago I was having a conversation where I brought up the book The Second Shift. She hadn’t heard of it, and I mentioned it was a classic in feminist studies. “Well, I’m not much of a feminist,” she said. What!?! She expects to keep her job late into her pregnancy. She expects to return to a lightened workload pretty quickly after delivering her child. MY mom had to hide the first few months of her first pregnancy to keep her job. Granted, my friend is a licensed therapist who subcontracts for a private corporation, so she has some flexibility, but they could bump her back to the shit office, or just tell her she needs to take her therapy practice elsewhere, and she may not find an elsewhere. And how did she get all these positive expectations? Feminism. And don’t working class women (And sometimes men!) deserve a bit of this same flexibility?

    Not sure all what was going on in the Veronica Mars storyline, but I really don’t like the “safe ride home” thing. Makes it seem like rape culture is an impersonal force of nature, like heavy rainfall. Safe ride home is like an umbrella. Rape culture is not like flooding rainfall. Rapists are responsible autonomous human beings. Give them that respect and hold them accountable. It’s the only way to win. And we men really need to take the lead here. Call other dudes out when they support rape culture, keep an eye on the dudes who seem a bit rapey, spread the word about them. And always point out that by fighting rape culture, the less rape culture infused dudes are more likely to have more sexual opportunities.

  16. karmakin says

    Unfortunately the early stuff that’s come out on the subject has been less than promising. I would even go as far as to call it political objectification. There was a part on an indie game called Bastion that was just awful and undermined the entire argument, even to the point of taking away the characters name.

    It’s probably going to be a disaster, and do a lot to reinforce the stereotypes, unfortunately.

  17. razzlefrog says

    Ashley (Comment #1) has already been concise and perfect, but I thought I’d lay it on: I appreciate you so ridiculously much; you are like one thousand rainbows in one person. 🙂

    I’ve become a constant blog visitor.

    It’s encouraging that atheists have been so receptive to social issues in general. Makes me happy.

  18. smhll says

    Not sure all what was going on in the Veronica Mars storyline, but I really don’t like the “safe ride home” thing. Makes it seem like rape culture is an impersonal force of nature, like heavy rainfall. Safe ride home is like an umbrella.

    I know someone who was raped by her safety escort a few years ago. She filed a complaint; he said it was consensual. Totally enraging! There should be a policy that escorts and escortees may not have sex with each other during the drive home or for 24 hours after to take away this cover story. (If they felt and instaneous thunderclap of love, both of them would be equally deprived for a short time.)

  19. F says

    People do like to invent or take one poor example and generalize from it when it suits them. Sucks.

  20. says

    Both hedonism and philosophical nihilism have gotten undeserved bad reputations that are not justified by the actual meanings behind the words. That analogy is thus somewhat ironic.

  21. says

    The key undercurrent in the mistaken views you’re pointing out from several sources seems to be gender essentialism. In effect, the idea that there is a root biological basis to gender norms, behavior, and expression that can’t be overridden.

    In my view, gender essentialism will always be the “separate but equal” of feminism. Equality does not lie that way.

    This is not, of course, to imply that the polar opposite view of gender being purely socially constructed is correct. Biology and society both have an influence, but neither is insurmountable. Nor are these necessarily the only noteworthy factors; for example, there’s still the question of how individual will plays into a person’s development.

  22. says

    You’re right, I should’ve thought about that a bit more. I suppose I was looking for something more like “amoral”.

  23. alwaysanswerb says

    I know exactly what you’re talking about re: feminist literature and gender essentialism. I was so disappointed to read, for instance, Herland, which is touted as a “feminist utopia,” but instead seems to be a bland and fuzzy society full of maternal caregivers.

  24. ik says

    Unfortunately the straw feminists DO exist. THey are rare and are scorned by most feminists. I’d say that Twisty Faster fits the bill.

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