Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Unbearable Weight of Feminism

Yeah, I ripped off Milan Kundera with my title.  It was intentional, because he's a good example of what I'm talking about.  Once upon a time, I considered him my favorite writer.  I read a whole bunch of his books.  I spent a lot of time contemplating his postmodernist style, his integration of so many different elements, his unique voice.  Then one day I happened to mention all of this to a male professor of mine, who said, "But he's a terrible misogynist.  Haven't you noticed?"

I shrugged uncomfortably.  I guess I had noticed a little.  I'd just been...overlooking it.

My professor then lent me a book of essays by Joan Smith, called "Misogynies."  (It's out of print, but if you can find a copy, I highly recommend it.)  It includes an essay specifically about the misogyny of Milan Kundera titled "Czech Mate."  My professor assured me it would ruin Kundera for me, and to my horror, it did.  Once someone had pointed out how he denigrates women, how he reduces them to unflattering physical descriptions and the various ways in which they can be used by men, it was impossible to read him the same way.  How could I not have seen the violence, the bitter vitriol, the fear and even hatred he directs at his female characters?

And thus was something I'd treasured destroyed for me.  It was the beginning of a process of which I'm still in the early stages: digging through everything that's ever given my life meaning and weeding out the things I realize I can no longer live with.  Books, music, movies...so many things I've somehow missed all my life and now I suddenly see.  Ilsa in Casablanca: how could I have failed to notice her absolute lack of sovereign purpose?  She exists first as a plaything for Rick, who is himself terribly misogynistic, and who ultimately altruistically gives her up, as Victor needs her more.  Where is Ilsa in all of this?  And why did I never think to ask this question before?

Worst of all, does this mean I can't like Casablanca anymore?

It's as if Pandora has opened her box, only instead of evil coming out, as the Greeks claimed, it's awareness of evil, of all the harm and injustice committed by one half of humankind against the other since at least as far back as the beginning of recorded history.

It's overwhelming, to say the least.

I always thought I was a feminist.  I grew up with a mother who not only worked, she worked in a male-dominated industry with almost exclusively male colleagues.  She brought me to pro-choice marches when I was just a kid.  She taught me never to believe that my gender should hold me back from anything I wanted to do.  And yeah, I knew that women are still paid less than men for the same jobs.  I'd observed that violence between the sexes is disproportionately committed against women.  I heard the names whispered about girls at my high school (bitch, slut, whore) and noticed that there didn't seem to be equivalents for boys.  But I'd just pop in my Ani DiFranco CD's and think, it can't really be all that bad, can it?

It's only now, in my late 20's, that I've begun to understand the scope of what I'm dealing with, and at times I feel paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of this thing.  It's everywhere: in TV commercials, on the magazines I see in the check-out line declaring brightly that they've got the secret to snaring a man.  It's in the lyrics of songs that practically jump-started my adolescence and taught me to love rock and roll ("Soul of a woman was created below"... really, Robert Plant?)  It's in the crappy selection of uncomfortable, impractical shoes I find when I go looking for a new pair of flip-flops.  It's in jokes told in movies or at a bar, the ones whose punchlines are women, or violence against women, or the stupidity of women.  It's the names men use to put one another down (pussy, pansy, gay, bitch).  It's in offices and courtrooms and news articles.

In short, it's everywhere.

And what's even worse than that startling realization is how, once you start talking about it, men and women both rally to shoot you down, to tell you you're irrational, melodramatic, vindictive, crazy, all of the epithets that have been used since Eve to keep us silent and complacent.

Some days, that's just more than I want to deal with.  The thing I've been wondering lately is how to strike a balance between being the feminist I've started to become and living my life.  The two shouldn't be mutually exclusive, but if I spoke up or acted every time I saw or heard something misogynist, if I considered every possible effect on women everywhere of every action I take on a daily basis, I wouldn't have time to do anything else at all.

And what about when I get backed into a corner?  Do I write my mid-term paper on misogyny in Shakespeare like I want to, even after my professor has completely shot down my ideas and it's pretty clear that I'll get a bad grade if do, and knowing that I need an A so I don't injure my chances of acceptance into grad school?

When is it time to act and when is it okay to let things slide?  When is it time to speak up and risk ruining everyone's good time, including mine, and when should I grit my teeth against the bitter taste in my mouth and keep quiet?  How much of who I've been and what I've loved do I have to let go of now that my eyes are opened and I can no longer gloss over the glaring sexism in blissful ignorance?

I'm still shifting these questions through the corridors of my mind, looking for answers that sometimes seem impossible.  There are so many factors working against women who might otherwise embrace feminism, and I'm beginning to realize that the plain heavy weight of it all is one of them.

Still, I wouldn't go back for anything.  I would rather be sitting here asking myself impossible questions than go back to that uncomfortable, shitty feeling I used to get every time some guy made a rape joke and everyone else laughed and I was left wondering why I was the only who didn't really see the humor, not even sure why I had a vague feeling that somehow they were all laughing at my expense.  No, the only way I can ever hope for change is first to know what's wrong.

It's a start.
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