I was having a little chit-chat last weekend on teh twitterz (the same conversation wherein I was introduced to the epic awesomeness that is Fuck Yeah Disingenuous Liberal) in which somehow or another I ended up being reminded of the fact that throughout my life, some of the most macho, sexist, patronizing, gender-binarist, insecure men I ever knew were poets, artists and hipsters.
Thinking about that, and looking back on all of it I was exposed to (with no small amount of guilt at recognition that I’d participated in a good deal of hipster sexism myself), I found myself getting increasingly angry. I’m not entirely sure why… I guess perhaps because of how limited our conceptions of the danger of these concepts and attitudes can be. It seems like we’re so eager to rest sexism at the feet of “them”- the republicans, the religious, the frat boys, the sciences- that we end up allowing it to thrive relatively unabated in those corners of our culture that maintain an adequate veneer of “enlightened” principles. Like liberals, artists, poets, musicians, the humanities, writers, anarchists, marxists, and so on. And kids who shop at Urban Outfitters.
Certainly a lot of those areas have levels of internal debate on matters of gender, or other issues pertinent to identity and social justice, but on the outside, collectively, we sort of shrug them off as “not the problem” and not “the sexists”. Trouble is, as I’ve said a squizillion times, there really isn’t any such thing as “sexists”, “transphobes”, “racists”, etc. There are only actions, statements and beliefs that are sexist, transphobic, racist, etc. And we’re all susceptible to them.
Likewise, sexism is not a social problem that can be located, isolated, quarantined and then eliminated. It is an emergent system of attitudes about sex and gender that derives its power from the bottom up, from all corners of our culture. And it is enacted in the poetry reading every bit as much as it is enacted in the halls of parliament (and lord is it ever enacted in the poetry reading… I will die a happy woman if I never hear another statement about “female poetics” being “rooted in the body”).
Skepticism has of late finally begun the process of confronting the issue of sexism in STEM fields. But being scientifically tilted as we are, we’ve somewhat neglected looking at how similar processes play out in the humanities. For one thing, the student population in the humanities is generally primarily female. This leads us to the (correct) conclusion that more women enter the humanities than STEM, but what it can distract from is that academic positions in the humanities are still disproportionately controlled by men (especially true the higher up the chain you go- department chairs, deans, etc.), and that processes of subconscious bias and stereotype threat and harassment and all the other issues do run through those disciplines and enact their costs all the same. Shitty as it may be to be a woman entering mathematics, it is also shitty to be a woman attempting to be taken seriously in philosophy, literary theory, visual art, and the rest. I’ve got many lovely stories from friends having men steal and take credit for their work and theories, students being coerced into sexual relationships with professors, rampant sexual harassment in classrooms, sexist and essentializing theories about “female nature” tossed casually around as factual certainties during lectures on female poets, and many many more.
The important thing about recognizing how sexism emerges in these kinds of situations just as it does in STEM is that sexism isn’t somehow emergent from STEM being a more “objective” or “rationalist” field, or being more about “male” ways of thinking. Even in the most stereotypically “feminine”, “sensitive”, “creative” and “emotional” academic disciplines, sexism emerges. The point being: trying to explain sexism by looking to sexist and essentialist dichotomies won’t get us very far. We need to look at the actual cognitive processes, social processes, power dynamics and cultural attitudes in play. You know, real world things rather than make-believe “maleness” and “femaleness”. And that grouping that world into “sexist” fields or groups or whatever and “not sexist” ones doesn’t quite work. No one is exempt from those processes. Thinking anyone or anything is somehow inherently not sexist, or even just inherently less sexist, is dangerous and allows for the cognitive distortions that allow it.
Examining the issue of sexism in the entirety of the humanities and arts is NOT something I can do in a single post. That is something it takes a whole sub-movement to accomplish. But the issue of nobody being exempt and the illusion of non-sexist “types” of people brings me around to what I really want to look at in this post, being what I’ll tentatively call “Hipster Misogyny”.
Hipster Misogyny is connected strongly to Hipster Racism. What is hipster racism? I can’t believe you don’t know! You’re dumb as an overheated negro! LOLZ! That was ironic. See, like, I’m so obviously not racist (I mean, how can I be? I have a ODB tattoo and totally love James Brown, Brenda Holloway and Mos Def! And I, like, totally have read Langston Hughes, bell hooks and Angela Davis ), and so obviously I didn’t really mean it. See I’m not making fun of black people, I’m making fun of racism. Who even says “negro” anymore? It’s old-timey, so it’s funny. I mean, c’mon, you must be really retarded to not realize all that! What? Retarded isn’t able-ist, yeesh! God, I’m totally not against retards. I’m just making fun of the fact that making fun of retards is funny. Wow, you’re lame. I’m going to go listen to Bad Brains to show how non-racist I am. What, you’re mad that they’re violent homophobes?! Yeah, but I enjoy their raging hatred of gay men ironically. Obviously I’m cool with gay people. I mean, I totally love The Scissor Sisters and I read Savage Love every week. And I kissed a dude once at a party when I was drunk, and I even go to gay bars like, all the time. And remember how much I love Langston Hughes? And yeah, I’m down with trannies, too. I’ve seen two whole seasons of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and I own that album by Antony & The Johnsons! And I love Joy Division’s cover of “Sister Ray”. Wait, you’re mad that I said “trannies”? But I’m reclaiming it, just like Ru Paul does. *eyeroll*
That is hipster racism. I mean, it’s more than that, and so is hipster misogyny, but that’s a good place to start. Basically the supposition is that because you’re not “a racist”, not one of the bad guys, that you’ve divorced from yourself and shirked responsibility onto (in this magical world racism is something bad only done by the racists, who are bad people who live off in scary red states, and vote republican… the rest of us are “not racists”), you are therefore exempt from racism. The pseudo-logic goes like this: Racism is bad things done by racists who totally hate different races, and I don’t hate different races, therefore I’m not a racist, therefore whatever I do isn’t racism. Presto! It’s “ironic” or “reclaiming” or “making fun of racism”, and anyone who can’t tell that, and are accusing me of racism, must obviously be wrong or hyper-sensitive or something, because as logic totally proves, I’m not a racist and don’t hate any races, therefore nothing I do can be racist.
You find the same sort of thing happening all the time in regards to sexism and misogyny. Amongst hipsters, indie rockers, punks, metalheads, etc. you’ll hear all kinds of “ironic” horrendously sexist shit (“bitches be crazy”, “stop being such a pussy bitch”, “haha Cheryl is such a cunt”, “what are you, on your period or something?”, “how about I shut you up by shoving my dick in your mouth”, “make me a sandwich LOL”, “man, Ellen Page is hot! I would totally rape her in a bathroom!”, “Ann Coulter looks like a fucking tranny”) or see all kinds of horrendously sexist behaviour, (“hold my jacket while I mosh”, blatant sexual harassment, sexual objectification of any and all female musicians or artists or members of a scene, evaluating them all on the basis of appearance first, implying that women can’t possibly do certain things right like audio engineering or DJing a party, sexual assault and date rape, talking over and interrupting women, repeating a woman’s idea and taking credit for it, talking down to women, gender segregating conversational spaces, paying lip service to feminism while only actively supporting ideologies that allow them to get away with not directly confronting any actual issues of gender, allowing the “leaders” of a scene or movement to be completely dominated by men without noticing or questioning it, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.)
And if you really want to see how incredibly deep this goes? Read any indie-zine’s review of Joanna Newsom, ever. Her music is always described as “fey”, “precious”, “wild”, “ethereal”, “otherworldly”, “fairy-tale”, “intuitive”, “child-like” and 133 other code-words for “female” or “feminine”. The intellectual intricacy, maturity and careful composition behind it is NEVER acknowledged, instead imagining it emerged as supernatural “inspiration” which she picked up by using her women’s intuition to tune her uterus into a magical antenna. Then, of course, credit for all the “fine-tuning” and production and engineering and structuring of her wild female energies, and actually bottling her strange, ethereal magic to be fit for consumption goes to her male collaborators and partners, like Jim O’Rourke, Devendra Banhart, Bill Callahan, Andy Samberg, etc. And the reviews will always find time to speculate about her as some kind of fae-folk pixie wild woman from the ramshackle house of dreams.
Honestly, I have never, ever, EVER encountered sexism and gender-essentialism as thick and blissfully hapless as what I’ve found in reviews of female musicians by sophomoric male would-be Lester Bangses.
… but the men involved “aren’t sexists”. They’re cool. They’re totally down with feminism. That stuff about Newsom? That because they “respect her as a female artist”. And when they say things like wanting to rape Ellen Page, they mean it “ironically”. They’re “making fun of sexism”. They can do, say, believe or think all the sexist shit they want, because as long as they’re not “them”, “the sexists” (who vote republican and stuff), they’re exempt from criticism. And if you do criticize them? Well that’s because you’re hypersensitive, or sex-negative, or have no sense of humour, or don’t understand nuance, or are just being a drama queen, or a petty bitch, or you’re on your period, or you have some kind of personal issue, or you’re trying to co-opt the conversation, or you’re disrespecting cultural differences, or you just don’t “get” the issue or what someone meant and what’s really going on, or it’s “art” and you’re trying to “censor” it, or you’re being too politically didactic / too politically correct, or there’s a worse problem somewhere else which makes this complaint irrelevant, or “first world problems!”, or blah blah blah. Because if sexism is only done by sexists, who explicitly think men and women shouldn’t be equal, and I don’t explicitly think that, then I’m not a sexist, so I can’t be being sexist, so therefore whatever stupid cunt is saying I’m being sexist MUST be wrong. QED, bitch!
This is further complicated by the superficial lip-service paid to feminism. One of the definitive features of “hipster” culture is the appropriation of various de-toothed versions of minority cultural artifacts and styles. Some black culture here, a bit of gay culture there. A dash of trans and genderfuck (little mustache tattoo on your index finger). A sprinkle of addiction (“junkie” style skinny jeans). Garnish with some working class (cheap cans of beer) and rural Americana (t-shirt with Johnny Cash giving the finger). All the outward semblance of marginalization and outcast identities, the superficial approximation of cultural identities born in oppression and the need to survive, but all without the actual threat to status quo, without the anger or depth, without the actual meaning, without the underlying critique of our culture itself (rather than just a lethargic critique of some abstracted “mainstream culture”).
Meanwhile they themselves are operating as the advance, front-line shock-troops in gentrification processes and the assimilation of challenging identities and cultural rebellion into “safe” marketable, consumable versions for the privileged (like your “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” version of gay men).
Feminism is not exempt from this process of picking the superficial pieces of legitimate cultural critique and assembling a safe “outsider” costume from it. You’ll have people adopt the pose of feminism, the ability to drop the right names, know the right terms, know how to talk the talk… but without walking the walk, without actually engaging in the reading and intellectual heavy lifting, without committing to the ongoing lifetime’s worth of questioning and thinking and rethinking and examining your biases and working against them and perpetually always being willing to shut the fuck up and listen, learn. Not at all dissimilar from the skeptics and atheists who correctly figure out the basics (there’s no God or Bigfoot and homeopathy doesn’t do anything), then declare themselves “rational” and “skeptics” and don’t bother going beyond that, or challenging any of the beliefs they find most comfortable, or developing the skills to question their biases and assumptions, or recognize their own cognitive distortions. A hipster misogynist can read one or two feminist texts, buy a pin, declare themselves feminist, and then excuse themselves from ever again having to accept the fact that they might be influenced by prejudicial attitudes and assumptions about gender.
In this collage of de-toothed cultural critique, self-congratulatory poses of social awareness, “ironic” whatever, “reclamation”, faux-solidarity, appropriation, “not giving a fuck what other people think” and mock-up “marginalization”, something truly terrifying is born. A human being who has given hirself permission to do, say or think whatever they want, on any basis, regardless of thought, consequences or external perceptions, and have an excuse or rationalization (or two or three) for every possible criticism. A situation where critical inquiry into one’s views or actions is rendered unimportant and unnecessary, and able to be completely turned off at a whim. No thought needed, because the conclusion has already been reached: “I’m an ally!”
After all, I have the uniform.
And pushing it from terrifying into painful to endure, you have good ol’ Dunning-Kruger playing its role, where they aren’t actually conscious of the fact that the superficial trappings of social awareness are only superficial, and believe they really are able to expertly opine on matters of gender, race, queer theory, and so on. Not only will they hold themselves as being immune to sexism, they’ll actually tell you all about how actually, what they’re doing is feminist! You know… “I don’t want to be condescending”, “I’m reclaiming”, “Gender is not big deal really, it’s just a social construct”, “Infighting over minor issues like this is only hurting the larger cause”, “I don’t see why we have to get so hung up on labels”, “well I think it’s harmful to offer special treatment to women”, “I think we need to break down gender roles, not enforce them by treating women differently”, “But I’m a nice guy… I think you’re hurting yourself dating those other jerks”, “I think embracing sexuality is important”, “Lots of other women I know are fine with that, and I think it’s sort of messed up for you to be speaking for all women”, “I think you’ve got an oversimplified view of this”, “really, the whole world operates on masculine and feminine dialectics”, “I object to the word ‘cis’. I find it offensive and othering” etc. (always, of course, not in the contexts where these would be even remotely justifiable statements).
Sadly, Dunning-Kruger operates just as well in terms of social awareness as it does in terms of anything else. The more socially aware we become, the more we understand how bigoted we’re capable of being, and how far we have to go to be able to consider ourselves anywhere near past it. But when you know just enough to fancy yourself more aware than others, and fancy yourself incapable of fucking up, but not enough to understand just how incredibly capable you actually are of fucking up, you become even more of a problem than the totally ignorant.
The fight towards genuine cultural change begins with recognition of the problem. In order to do that, we can’t shuffle it aside or say it’s someone else’s problem. We can’t let ourselves get away with just adopting the exterior trappings of awareness and advocacy. We can’t just learn the bare bones and use that to extrapolate the sense of ourselves being one of the “good guys”. We can’t pretend that intent is a magic bullet, or that “ironic” and “self-aware” sexism (or any other form of discrimination) is functionally any different than the “real” kind.
Instead, we need to be able to accept our capacity for sexism. We need to be able to recognize our capacity to fall into the same cognitive traps. We need to recognize our own role in helping foster the system of sexism, misogyny and gendered privilege. We need to be able to admit that under the right circumstances, something we do, say or think can be every bit as sexist as something a right wing religious fundie does, says or thinks. We need to be able to drop the flattering postures, and allow ourselves to look like an idiot every now and then. That’s the only way we can learn not to be.