Thursday, July 30, 2009

Third Wave of Feminism

I just finished reading Heather Tirado Gilligan's article "Drowning in the Shallow End: Third Wave Feminism." The article provides a great analysis of the failings of third wave feminism. The biggest insight of the piece is, in my opinion, the following: "The third wave channeled what was left of the women's movement into mainstream banality." Even though the article itself collapses into banality right after this statement, I think it still offers a right step towards understanding why less women every day find feminism relevant.

When I first came to Canada and started attending university, I remember one of my professors asking a largely female class who among the students considered themselves feminists. I was shocked to see that nobody raised their hands. Now that I teach, I sometimes ask my students the same question. The best response I get is embarrassed giggling. The worst is a loud denial.

The most popular reason for this and one that we all have heard a billion times is that feminism has lost its relevance since it failed to address the interests and concerns of underprivileged social and racial groups. Tirado Gilligan talks about this too and immediately proceeds to lament the chauvinism encountered by Hillary Clinton in her presidential campaign. Apparently, Clinton is the only example of a socially and racially marginalized woman that Tirado Giligan could think of.

Nobody argues with the obvious reality of a horrible chauvinism that followed Clinton throughout her public career. Nobody disagrees that feminism has to learn to address the concerns of underprivileged groups. Still, the idea that my students (who until now have been preponderantly white and middle class) reject feminism because they are upset over feminism's incapacity to address the issues of marginalized group is nothing other than inane. This explanation is comforting in its political correctness. But it is inadequate if we want to understand what is really going on.

Tirado Gilligan is right when she says that "choice feminism" that is willing to "accept" and celebrate pretty much anything if it can be presented as a woman's choice is largely (although not exclusively) to blame for this: "To make feminism more appealing and less dogmatic, "choice feminism" arose as a defining element of the third wave, defined by Linda Hirschman in The American Prospect as: 'Abandon[ing] the judgmental starting point of the movement in favor of offering women 'choices'… A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as 'feminist' as long as she chose it.' Choice feminism, also called lifestyle feminism, marked a transition from addressing social inequity to a celebration of the individual, focusing so much on personal choices that first-person narrative defines much of third wave writing." As a result of this attitude, it has become a feminist cause to defend women's "right" to fake an orgasm and women's "right" to wear a burqa. Instead of having the courage to analyze the reasons why these and other things take place, we hide behind the empty slogans of tolerance and inclusion.

It is so easy to dismiss the complex reality of a woman who "chooses" not to work, "chooses" to be economically and socially dependent on a man, "chooses" to cover her face, "chooses" to not have sexual fulfillment. Who cares why she chose all these things? We can just dismiss her by celebrating her choice and congratulate ourselves for our tolerance. Thank God, women's suffrage movement didn't decide that women simply "chose" the right not to have a vote, so nobody should contest that right.

Along with the vapid "choice feminism", there is another variety of feminism that survived as a legacy of previous generations of feminists. Its main interest resides in coming up with lists of grievances women can address to men. Once again, nobody argues that men have historically and still do oppress women. At a certain point in the movement's history it was, indeed, important to understand all of the instances of oppression. Still, this brand of feminism cannot be practiced indefinitely. The movement needs to evolve, otherwise it dies. This desire to see women as constant miserable pathetic victims of bad horrible men serves no useful purpose today. The time has come to accept that patriarchy hurts both men and women. It is not a system that benefits all men all the time while hurting all women all the time. It is much more complex than that. Until we are ready to acknodwledge and analyze this complexity, we will retain our one-dimensional view of this system and this is what will prevent us from destroying it.

In my opinion, in order to revive feminism we need to abandon our blind respect for anything that can be called "a choice." We need to stop being afraid of analyzing these choices, we need to start asking ourselves and others hard painful questions, we need to learn to face the answers. We also need to leave behind this "men are bad, women are good" rhetoric and look at ways patriarchy hurts men and women.


Natalee said...

I applaud you for having the guts to write this great post. Great job!!

Clarissa said...

Thank you! I appreciate the support.

Greenconsciousness said...

this is the most interesting piece i found on 3 wave

I wish I could find more on this Rebecca Whisnant she talks about.

"The day started with Rebecca Whisnant’s paper on the challenges pro-pornography 3rd wave feminism poses for a feminist anti-pornography movement. But rather than just lament the problems with 3rd wave feminism, Whisnant uses this opportunity to articulate a clear distinction between 2nd and 3rd wave feminism. She argues that viewing the difference as solely generational is a mistake. There is a fundamental difference between the 2 waves that isn’t reflected in current literature.
In 3rd wave feminism, she argues, there is a reluctance to speak for other women, and thus, most of the arguments about what counts as feminist revolve around the choice of the women directly involved. Therefore, if a woman chooses to appear in pornographic material, that choice is necessarily feminist.
Members of the 2nd wave believed that women shared a common condition, and as they began to uncover the political implications of their private lives, they felt very strongly that their personal decisions had much broader implications for women everywhere.
Because of these divergent views about what constitutes feminist action, 2nd and 3rd wave feminists developed very different reactions to pornography. In fact, it seems like the 3rd wave arguments are less about pornography and more about personal freedom and autonomy. But those concepts are not uncomplicated. To say that something was autonomously chosen is so complex and contingent that it becomes a meaningless statement. These accounts rarely take into account the full weight of coercion, adaptive preferences, economic and social inequality, and a whole host of other factors that constrain one’s autonomy.
We’ve been talking a lot in one of my classes about feminism being similar to membership in a union. In certain situations, you may be asked to give up something that is personally beneficial because your rejection of it works to the advantage of the entire group. This example was offered in our discussion of marriage, but I think fits somewhat into the pornography debate.
However, this argument assumes that participation in the porn industry is beneficial to some women, and that’s a dicey claim I don’t really agree with. It can be economically beneficial, but to the extent that much participation in pornography is fueled by one’s own experiences with child sexual abuse I’m inclined to say that it isn’t beneficial. Regardless, the fact remains that the existence of pornography and the porn industry impact the lives of all women, and taking that into consideration is something that distinguishes 2nd wave feminism from 3rd wave feminism.
She points to the distinction between liberal and radical feminism as another way to understand the difference, arguing that 3rd wave feminists favor liberal feminism while the second wave is radical.
This is a problem, though, because a lot of the members of the 3rd wave identify as radical feminist while promoting and advocating a liberal feminist agenda (is anyone else uncomfortable about the cover of Feministing blogger Jessica Valenti’s new book, Full Frontal Feminism?)."

Greenconsciousness said...

victim feminism has evolved into a bizarre merger with choice feminism that resulted in a whatever a woman chooses is to be supported by feminists. So we are urged to drop abortion as a priority in order to support women like Palin -- we are urged to support women like Prejean. We are told not to criticize women who breed when the father does not want a child. We are told men have no right to refuse reproduction. Whatever the woman wants is her right. Also shut up about the women who stands by while her children and animals are abused because she is a victim. and say nothing when she is pregnant again because she is the victim.

Clarissa said...

"So we are urged to drop abortion as a priority in order to support women like Palin -- we are urged to support women like Prejean. We are told not to criticize women who breed when the father does not want a child. We are told men have no right to refuse reproduction. Whatever the woman wants is her right. Also shut up about the women who stands by while her children and animals are abused because she is a victim. and say nothing when she is pregnant again because she is the victim."

-I couldn't agree more. The kind of feminism that appears as a result of this attitude is toothless, vapid and politically insignificant. There is no criticism, no action, and in general nothing new it can contribute. It's like it doesn't even exist.