The other day, Helen Lewis, editor of the New Statesman magazine criticised an article by Flavia Dzodan announcing that it exemplified “everything that is wrong with a certain strand of feminist blogging”. The piece, on food blogging was perhaps not to everyone’s taste – quite niche, highlighting how heteronormativity is reinforced by food blogging, but nonetheless it was a very good article. It was also a complex article, an intellectual article and a challenging article.
Helen Lewis’ objection was to its complexity. But feminism doesn’t need to be simplified, because feminism isn’t simplifiable. What you have now within feminism is the some of most challenging, interesting and innovative material coming from the marginalised communities within it – particularly trans women and women from Black communities. These communities of women have their own language and understandings which stand in opposition to both normative society and also the commonly understood tropes of feminism. For example, reproductive rights is often framed in terms of access to abortion, but the denial of children to women in marginalised communities is equally a reproductive rights issue. The right of women to control their fertility is the right both to be/come pregnant and not to be/come pregnant, but as pressure on heterosexual cis educated white women goes one way (in general), that is the one which is resisted by the most powerful section of the feminist community.
Feminism is messy and complex, and to clarify that complexity, we need words and concepts and ideas. And not all of those words will be familiar ones, not all the concepts will be immediately obvious and not all the ideas will be easily accessible. When we try to simplify, we get asinine campaigns like “Destroy the Joint“, which is accessible, doable and gives a sense of fighting the patriarchy because it has a nice simple narrative; we get groups such as “Equality for Women” springing up where dissent is deleted in the interests of unity, to provide a nice clean narrative of “feminists say…” (where what “feminists say…” is policed by a man), and we get taking makeup-free selfies promoted as a huge “fuck you” to the patriarchy, ignoring that it still focuses on women’s appearance.
There’s nothing necessarily “wrong” about this kind of bleached feminism, that uses simple words, common experiences and easily grasped concepts to gain a wide audience, but there’s not a great deal right with it either, and there is becoming a massive gulf between this kind of universal, fun, liberal feminism and the complex messy stuff that really pushes boundaries and challenges how the world is structured. Its “lowest common denominator” feminism, and the lowest common denominator of feminism is always the feminism that is unchallenging beyond the most gentle of boundaries, and the hurdles of race, sexuality and ciscentrism are damn hard to break down.
The problem isn’t with complexity, or long words or intellectual ideas. The problem is when these pose barriers to accessibility and others don’t, won’t or can’t help others to overcome them. In the middle of the tweet storm that followed Helen Lewis’ remarks, someone commented that they thought that they agreed with the article, but were having trouble understanding it because of the complexity and unfamiliarity of some of the terms, precisely the objection that Lewis had orginally raised. Its not an easy read, but its not an easy read because its deep and challenging and subversive, but the reaction that she received from several others engaged in the discussion was dismissive, subtly implying that she just too stupid to understand, and if she wasn’t prepared to put the effort into understanding then it was her loss.
And THAT is all that is wrong with feminism
Feminism shouldn’t operate like some kind of exclusive club, where you have to go through a hazing process of being told how stupid and uneducated about these matters you are; struggling to find your own sources and to educate yourself. We should be welcoming those who make enquiries of us about the complexities of feminism, so that we can all grow together. Its not Dzodan’s responsibility to dumb down her writing so that its accessible to everyone, its for others to support people to give them access to it, so that that they too in turn can support others to understand.
As a young Marxist, I lost count of the number of meetings that I sat through, not understanding the long words and complex ideas that were presented, but too embarrassed and ashamed of my ignorance to say anything, sometimes nodding along to things which were popular because I didn’t have the understanding to disagree. This nodding along, because you are too ashamed to admit ignorance, or too scared to disagree in case you have misunderstood and your ignorance will be exposed for all to laugh at, inhibits the development of ideas from an inclusive perspective.
The increased awareness of intersectionality has made this even more important. Thanks to Patricia Collins work we are now much more aware of the ways where women see the world from unique kyriarchial standpoints, but ones which in different ways are bound with others with whom we share an affinity. We are always going to be more knowledgeable about the elements of kyriarchial disadvantage which affect us personally, but we need others who experience other forms of kyriarchial disadvantage to spell out for us how these manifest. Concepts and issues which are obvious to those within the affinative community are not necessarily obvious to those on the outside, but for us to all grow together we need to share that understanding.
Yes, it can certainly be annoying and frustrating to continually do “101”s with people when you discover something deep, interesting and challenging and someone comes along with very basic questions, but ignoring them, marginalising them or worse shaming them for their lack of understanding is a form of elitism. The call of “I am not here to educate you” is useful when people continually demand lengthy explanations for things which have been covered a million times before is a useful one, but a quick link or simple explanation for someone who is floundering is not onerous, and is part of our responsibility as feminists, not necessarily the responsibility of the writer or of those from within the marginalised community, but primarily a responsibility of allies who have insight into the issues under discussion and can take the burden of educating others freeing the affinative community to develop their ideas further.
If we ignore these pleas for understanding and insist that those who are struggling must pull themselves up by their bootstraps, accessing what is at times some very challenging and complex ideas by their own efforts in the great sea of the internet, we risk them turning away in frustration. And it is that alienation which leads to calls from people like Helen Lewis to dumb down feminism and for make-up less selfies to be seen as a major patriarchal challenge, because everything else is just too hard.