growing up feminist

Sometimes my childhood seems like some sort of strange social experiment. I wasn’t allowed to draw stick-figures or colour in colouring books. I most definitely wasn’t allowed Barbie dolls. Care Bears and Jem and the Holograms were strictly forbidden. My mother shuddered at anything pink and frilly. I wasn’t allowed to become a gender-stereotype, even when I wanted to be. I was given Lego and blocks to play with. I was told to be creative – to colour in the whole sky in the pictures I drew, rather than just the thin line at the top.

When I was two or three I told my mum the Smurfs were sexist because there was only one girl. She stopped letting me watch it after that (little did I know that Smurfs are actually asexual, and Smurfette was created by Gargamel in one of his failed evil plans). I stopped telling her shows were sexist after that. At primary school, the word “sexist” didn’t go down very well. The other kids thought I was being naughty when I called them on their bigoted behavior: oooh, you said sex!

sexism

I’m allowed to draw stick-figures now

When I was about five I drew a picture of sexism, as I understood it. On one side of the paper I drew a girl wearing shorts and on the other side a girl wearing a skirt. The day I drew it I was at the University with mum because I was too sick to go to school. Mum was so proud she printed the picture onto an OHT and showed her students in class. I had to explain to the class that sexism was saying that girls couldn’t wear shorts and that they had to wear skirts. I was getting the hang of being a good feminist. I went to a talk about violent toys with my mother and grandmother one night and pointed out to the speaker that the Power-Rangers were sexist, because there were only two girls and their costumes were yellow and pink.

There was one situation where my own understanding of symbolic gender ambiguity got me into trouble, however. When I was about six, there was some event on at school. I was desperate to pee so I went into the office block and wandered down the unfamiliar hall-way looking for the toilet. The only one I could see had a picture of someone wearing pants. Women can wear pants too, I reasoned. This would have been fine if I wasn’t interrupted, half-way through, by kids who were outraged that I was in the men’s toilet. The humiliation was devastating. It’s hard to be a good feminist child when other people don’t grasp your sharp social critique.

It wasn’t until I got older that I realised some people didn’t like the word “feminist”, that it made them think of man-hating or other things they didn’t like, or that it is no-longer needed now that women can vote and do other things they couldn’t do before. The negative stereotypes around feminism are evidence that it is still needed. When I was teaching first year sociology I would ask the tutorial class “who here thinks women should be able to vote?” and when everyone raised their hands I would say “Oh good, so we’re all feminists here.” Sociologists like to mess with people’s conceptions of the world and shake things up a bit. Feminism is in the water, in that we take all the things it has worked to achieve for granted, but there is still so much more work to do. The difficult thing is that gender-discrimination is often covert nowadays. It comes out in rape-culture and the sexual objectification of women (and sometimes men), it is hidden behind those sleazy remarks that make us uncomfortable, it is still evident in horizontal and vertical gender segregation in paid work, it is compounded by poverty and racial discrimination, and it is global, in the two-billion women living below the poverty line. Identifying as a feminist is making a statement that things aren’t just fine and dandy. There is still more work to be done.

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The feminism of submission: food, sex and blogging

A friend recently told me that she has been taking a submissive role in her relationship with a man, not just sexually, but in-general. Normally she would want to be in-charge of everything, but lately she has chosen to concentrate on certain things, which happen to be ‘traditionally’ feminine things – cooking etc. On a camping trip she was able to let go of a lot of the decision making. She let him decide where to put the tent and focused instead on what foods they were going to eat on the trip. She sometimes liked to kneel next to him as he sat in a chair and felt comfortable and safe.  She said she felt good but was worried that what she was doing was anti-feminist or that other people might think she was in some kind of abusive relationship. I wasn’t worried. I wouldn’t be phased if the gender roles were reversed in this situation either, although that might be far less common.  Cooking isn’t necessarily submissive, but there is a feeling among some women that we always have to be in control, that we have to do everything and that we have to be responsible: we must be dominant in order to accommodate for the oppression of our gender.  In my friend’s case, letting go was possible because she felt safe and empowered enough to do so.

Perhaps submission is the wrong word here, but I want to acknowledge the power of giving up responsibility in the same way that Hegel’s master-slave dialectic argues that the slave has power because without the slave the master would not be a master. Although, I’m also not talking about slavery, just the power-dynamic of dominance and submission. This Penny Red post is an interesting read, exploring gender sexuality and submission. She makes some good points:

At no point, however, has anyone implied that men who want to be sexually dominated by women also want to be dominated by them socially and economically. Quite the opposite, if the long history of powerful men paying poor women to beat them up in backrooms is anything to go by. Apparently, though, a few smutty books about naughty professors wielding handcuffs are meant to prove that modern ‘working women’ (sic.) aren’t really as into all this liberation schtick as we make out.

She is talking, of course, about the media frenzy around the popularity of Shades of Grey and Twilight – books that have dominant, controlling male characters and female characters who are insatiably, irrevocably in-love with them.  Penny scorns the notion that these books are a reflection of modern woman’s secret desire to surrender the burden of their responsibilities. I’m unconvinced. But then again, I would believe that men with sub kinks are also escaping into a fantasy land where they don’t need to be responsible all the time. Being responsible is hard work.  They don’t really want women to control their lives (and neither do psychologically-healthy women really want a Christian Grey or Edward Cullen to decide what they’re going to wear) but a fantasy is a fantasy. Escape is escape.

Another friend of mine who is into BDSM type stuff argued that kink is something that can and should be relegated to the bedroom. She is particularly freaked out by dom-sub relationships that extend past sex games and into day-to-day relationships, particularly by her ex boyfriend who is in his thirties and has an eighteen year old sub with a learning disability who has to ask permission to leave the house. Ick!

To me the difference seems obvious between healthy relationships with secure attachments where submission in particular areas (from either party) is an active choice, and push-pull manipulative relationships where one partner is clearly in control of the other one.  For the record, I’m not especially kinky (hence having to ask other people about it) but I think woman and men can both healthily express their submission and dominance in various areas of life, taking into account the feelings of the other people they’re affecting and communicating effectively. Maybe I’m naive. I think it’s possible, I believe in a feminism of submission as well as one of dominance because I need to let go sometimes.  Letting go is a luxury and maybe it’s a privilege reserved for those who are already empowered in their lives.

A couple of years ago I was doing my Masters looking at the Weston A. Price Foundation and food blogs. The research sparked interesting discussions on my research blog and Sandra’s blog Letters from Wetville surrounding the gendered politics of food blogging. Almost all food blogs are run by women and there are also countless other craft blogs etc focused on ‘traditionally’ feminine past-times. The question was raised: are we food-blogging because of some underlying socialisation or is it a coincidence that the things we happen to be interested in are girly-type things? It’s a question that we never really could answer but it did raise a whole lot of other questions around social pressures, femininity and blogging.

Despite the first friend I mentioned taking on the ‘traditional’ task of cooking, food isn’t exclusively a feminine domain.  In the higher echelons it’s almost entirely male-dominated. Watching NZ Masterchef last night (my yoga teacher’s husband is in the top two) I noticed that the ten top New Zealand Chefs invited to lunch were all men, as are the three judges of the show, although many contestants are women. There’s an example of vertical gender occupational segregation if ever I saw one – food bloggers are generally unpaid, although some manage to etch out a living through ads or score a cook book deal like our locally raised Emma Galloway of My Darling Lemon Thyme.  It is worse than unfortunate that the kinds of food-work that women do are largely unpaid and it is a clear demonstration of why we still need feminism.

I don’t mean to get Utopian but it would be nice to live in a world where healthy submission was always possible because everyone is equal enough and empowered enough to feel safe in letting go of responsibilities sometimes. It would be nice if we didn’t even have to talk about whether cooking and food-blogging is undermining feminism.  It would be nice to see female sexuality portrayed as belonging to women and not represented almost entirely in relation to men.  To quote Penny again (because she’s so quotable):

Female sexual autonomy itself is what’s really unorthodox today. Agency and self-determination, the right to own our own desire – those are the kind of forbidden fantasies women across the world still pant over in private, unable to pronounce for fear of being slut-shamed. As Rousseau might put it : “Whether the woman shares the man’s desires or not, whether or not she is willing to satisfy them…the appearance of correct behavior must be among women’s duties.”