Oh, I’m not a feminist…

I recently answered a bunch of questions for the 2012 Australian Spec Fic Snapshot project, a semi-regular interview series that surveys the Australian SF scene and presents the interviews in a week-long flurry. I don’t know if my particular snapshot will be online by the time this post goes up, but it’s coming and in one of my answers I mention the rise in feminist discourse taking place within SF over the last few years and how happy I am to see that happening despite the fact that my engagement with feminism is haphazard at best.

And I’ve been thinking about that phrase, a lot, since I sent off my snapshot response.

My initial intention with that phrase was to acknowledge that I’m basically white, male, university educated, and middle class. I am white male privileged incarnate and get to play life on the lowest possible difficulty setting, and even as someone who tries to be aware of that, even as someone who sometimes gets *seriously fucking angry* about displays of privileged and misogyny, I’m going to have blind-spots a mile wide and a history of not-getting-it as long as any ant-feminist idiot on the internet.

Worse, I’m a geek. I spent my teenage years feeling white, male, middle-class, smarter than the average person,  and utterly dis-empowered by both feminism and conventional notions of masculinity, even if that wasn’t really the case. I was a gamer and a comic-book fan and a reader of trashy fantasy novels, and all of these are mediums that have a spotty history of accepting feminism and equality. Many, indeed, are jealously guarded bastions of privileged where fans are passionately loud and stupid when accusations of sexism are thrown their way.

I like to think I’ve gotten better, and in a lot of ways I have, but if you work through my narrative history there is still a steady stream of female antagonists who serve as manic pixie girls to transform the lives of their male partners, or women rendered voiceless, and even female protagonists who are routinely critiqued as sounding male. The male gaze is terribly prominent in my fiction, and you’d be hard pressed to find anything I write that passes the Bechdel test. On the occasions when I weigh into discussions about gender and feminism on the internet, I’m always surprised when people don’t point that sort of thing out.

I understand feminism. I agree with it. I can engage in discussions about cultural constructions of gender and male privilege and the inherently gendered reading positions we use to judge the quality of fiction, and I can generally do so without looking like a complete idiot. I’ve read a lot, and talked about things a lot, and generally maintained an interest in feminism for the better part of a decade. On an intellectual level, I’m all for it. On an emotional level, a subconscious level, the pace where gut impulses and, apparently, fiction drafts, come from, there’s still a core of privilege and misogyny that I’m still trying to sort out. Intellectually I’m all in. Instinctual, I’m not.

I can still remember the day I realised that Feminism was something I wanted to understand. I was twenty-five, teaching a writing class at university, and if you’d asked me I would have told you that I knew a lot about feminism and considered myself one. In truth, what I understood were the broad strokes. I was running a tutorial about Michael Chabon’s Wonderboys and the topic of gender came up, largely because one of the students had some issues with other students referring to a drag queen as “she.” So we got into discussions about gender discussion, and feminism, and I assembled an explanation based on the bits of feminist theory I’d picked up from literary theory and discussions with other post-graduate students who knew far more than I did.

Then one of the male students busted out an argument familiar to anyone whose had a feminism 101 discussion:

If women wanted to run the world, all they need to do is to stop having sex with men until the men do what they’re told.

It was greeted with the kind of silence you’d expect from the class. I knew what he’d said was wrong, as did every other student there, but I didn’t know enough to articulate why he was being an idiot, and there was no-one around to do it for me. He got to sit there looking smug ’cause I didn’t know enough, and that left me feeling unbelievably pissed off and angry at myself.

So I started reading, started having discussions, started trying to understand feminist issues in a far more complex way than the lip-service I’d paid the concept during my early twenties. And somewhere along the way I realised that my strident belief that I’d been a feminist at twenty-five was largely just bullshit, since my own understanding was only somewhat more advanced than the guy in my class who argued that the sexuality is the only power women need.

There’s this poster-thing that’s going around facebook at the moment that captures my feelings on feminism pretty closely. The tagline goes something like “If someone says, ‘oh, I’m not a feminist,’ I ask, ‘Why? What’s your problem?”

My problem is that I’m white, male, middle class. My problem is years of privilege. My problem is when I thought I was a feminist, it was pretty clear that I did a very shoddy job. That when I did start to understand feminism better, the bits that always interested me were the bits that could be liberated to talk about portrayals of masculinity and theories that could help me understand the confusion and anger I felt growing up.

Oh, I’m not a feminist, but I’m trying to do better, and I never want to be so comfortable discussing issues of gender that I feel certain I know what I’m talking about.

  4 comments for “Oh, I’m not a feminist…

  1. Helen Merrick
    07/06/2012 at 1:35 AM

    For the record, your snapshot is up and its here: http://helenm.posterous.com/snapshot-2012-peter-b

    And trying to do better is so much better than not trying, or silence, or being smug.

    helen

  2. Ben Payne
    07/06/2012 at 7:43 AM

    I tend to think that if you don't look back at yourself ten years ago and think "what the fuck was that idiot thinking", then you're not learning from life, you know?

  3. Liz Carroll
    07/06/2012 at 11:30 PM

    Cool post Peter, with lots of food for thought. I'd agree with Ben that looking back on your past self with disbelief at what that numpty was thinking is part of learning from life, that hopefully we all do.

    I think too, that it's a natural and very understandable reaction for any individual to look at a set of ideas and pick out the things that feel applicable to their interests and experiences – especially a young person. We all want to find a way to relate to knowledge and apply it to what we know and already have experienced. That's not a symptom of male privilege in my book, so much as a human response to something new. The test of adulthood is moving beyond 'how is this about me?' to look at 'how is this about others' as well. 🙂

  4. meg
    08/06/2012 at 9:25 PM

    I was the WORST feminist at uni, and I was pretty fucking determined to be the BEST. Feminism was in my rants but had not yet reached my pants. Tricky.

    PS Makes me feel very good to have an awesome colleague who cares and thinks deeply about this stuff.

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