May 30, 2013

Here's some basic "reality" for ya

In a week when a British feminist took on & defeated Facebook, Louise Mensch writes disparagingly of the supposed flaccid ineffectiveness of non-US activists, compared to such feminist luminaries as Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg.

This, per La Mensch, is a "reality based" approach to feminism.

It's boring and stupid arguing with Louise Mensch. She is one of those people in whom an early aptitude for conventional education had instilled the unfortunate belief that they possess a comparable level of native intellect. This is unfortunately not the case. The ability to identify the commonplace achievements that carry the most desirable incentives (school grades, mediocre fiction) is useful, but it doesn't follow that to have it is to possess the skills to analyse complex phenomena or comment on serious issues.

So I'm not going to do a close reading of Mensch's piece, but instead highlight the risibility of her "reality" through the example above and one more telling throwaway line. Men, per Mensch, "have been the primary breadwinners in all cultures at all times in history".


Well I don't know that Louise Mensch is a student of history, especially, but OK - she can make such sweeping claims if she substantiates them. Unfortunately this is not the case here. Having made this jaw droppingly bold assertion, she moves swiftly on to argue that given that men have always been the primary sustenance providers, in all societies, for all of human existence, then they must like it. Like, you know, people have always suffered from bouts of malaria, which is how come it's such a hoot.

But it bothers me, this small bit of abysmal reasoning, because it ties in to a hobby of Mensch's that is also a central problem in the public understanding of feminism and gender roles, and that is biological (or in this case historic) determinism.

The standard evo-psych story goes something like this: women are weak and vulnerable, especially when pregnant or breasfeeding. They depend on men to provide them with food and protection. This is why women have "evolved" feminine wiles to attract and retain male partners, and men have "evolved" strength and aggression to compete for and then defend the best female partners. Men then gradually used this aggressive instinct to amass possessions and compete with one another, eventually "inventing" agriculture and thus civilisation.

Never mind for a moment that this is a kindergarten-level understanding of evolution; it's just not true.

In observed hunter gatherer societies, gathering (usually but not always done mostly by women) provides the majority of the group's calories and all its staples. Hunting is an intermittent and risky activity and cannot be relied upon to sustain a group or family unit reliable, especially around vulnerable times of infant rearing.

In existing and historical pre-industrail agrarian societies, women do 90% of the labour and produce almost all of the staples the family or village depend upon. When men engage in agriculture it is more often a) separate from women's growing activities and b) concentrated on production of cash crops, the proceeds of which are not reinvested in the community but are used to purchase personal luxuries such as tobacco, alcohol and clothing for the man.

Chances are that if I say the word "farmer" to you, your brain will supply the image of a man to fit that role. But the crushing majority of farmers in human history have been and still are women. In fact, given that farming probably developed from a kind of enhanced-husbandry model of seasonal gathering, it's perfectly reasonable to suppose that it was invented and perfected by women, too. Even in Europe, up until the modern period women participated in all aspects of cultivation, from walking behind the plough to rearing domestic animals. Men, meanwhile, never took part in the refining and useful application of the resulting products through spinning, weaving, cooking, preserving and so on.

The second shift is not, as we are so often told, the fault of feminists "telling" women to go out and work (never of men for not stepping up to plug the gap). Women have always worked twice as hard as men, and mostly the work they did won and baked the bread. Men have never been and are not today universal "breadwinners", or frankly there wouldn't be all this talk of single mums on benefits, now would there.

Yes, Louise Mensch is blinkered by privilege and yes, that makes her say some really stupid things about how black people should and shouldn't react to racism. But quite apart from that, this woman who's taken it upon herself to lecture us about reality is ignorant and disdainful of the facts. She's just a bit... Full of shit, really.

May 25, 2013

Feminist theory and the blue sweater

In the movie "The Devil Wears Prada", which is otherwise a pretty uninspiring non-exposé of the underbelly of the fashion magazine industry, there is one scene of transcendent importance that has stuck with me through the years, and that I am often reminded of when people tell me that some subject of philosophical, political, scientific or sociological inquiry is "academic", "ivory tower", "has no relevance to people's lives" and so on.

I think of it as "the blue sweater speech":

In context of course, the scene give us a glimpse (not enough of a glimpse, and it;s a shame the film didn't explore that subject further) into how what we think of as our personal choices are really determined by executives, advertisers, buyers, magazine editors and so on. The relationship between fashion designers - the creative people who actually conceive the patterns and shapes of the clothes that we by necessity must choose among - is mediated by an enormous chain of other, often extraneous relationships that mean that at the point of purchase (or even closer to home, at the point of dressing), we can't really be said to make an informed choice between neutral options.

This is true everywhere in the consumer society; in food, in literature, in leisure activities and holiday destinations, in the jobs we go for and the degrees we choose etc. it's not really the amorphous concept of "society" that shapes the limits of our choice, it's groups of specific individuals whose job it is to do that, in various forms. On a side note, the vagueness of "society" and "culture" is a deliberate neoliberal ruse, and no wonder that it was set up for Thatcher to attack - of course there is no such independent, sentient agent called society. Making it sound ridiculous made it easier to nudge the choices people - individuals - to disengage from it and stop believing in it.

So much for Miranda Priestly and her unintentional critique of capitalism; but how is the blue sweater relevant to feminism? Well, the blue sweater is "lived experience".

I've been seeing that term about much more lately, almost always juxtaposed with, and opposed to, the idea of "theory". Feminism, the critique goes, is too detached, too academic, too theoretical. what it needs to be relevant to women's lives is an injection of lived experience. And example would be a woman who says "I have a basic belief that my (any) theories aren't as compelling as lived experiences."[1] the implication is that "theories", lower case T

it is now seen as an insult, as an affront to intersectionality, for example, to talk of queer theory. Transgender, the riposte invariably goes, is not a theory. It is real, and by claiming that it's "only a theory" you are insulting and erasing transwomen's experience. The saying goes: "your analysis doesn't trump our existence." This attitude often crops up in other controversies within feminism, such as the fight for sex workers' rights, in which the lived experience of individual sex workers is often advanced as a rebuttal to policy suggestions or research findings: theory is impersonal, obtuse, out of touch, and at its worst a deliberate bad-faith attempt to avoid taking the lived experience of women into account when it doesn't agree with the desired outcome.

Clearly, that is sometimes the case - "don't confuse me with facts" is a mental attitude that a lot of people wedded to their ideologies adopt rather than rethink their actions (see: Osborne, George). but that is not in and of itself a condemnation of theory, and more importantly it is in no wise a reason to suppose that there isn't a long, varied "supply chain" of sorts, mediating between what we think of as our independent agency and the theorizing of some feminist philosopher somewhere.

I remember sitting on a bench on the island of Santorini once, having a discussion with my best friend about the Spice Girls (yes I am that old!). Her position was that Girl Power was a real force that could be harnessed for women's liberation; mine was that it's a shallow flash in the pan. The conversation stuck in my mind because it was the first time that I heard this argument advanced: that what philosopher and feminists do in their ivory towers is so disconnected from the lives of ordinary women as to be entirely separate from and useless to them.

At the time I instinctively felt that this can't be right, and tried to rebut it with a fairly hand-wavy conception of a "trickle up" effect from academia to the privileged realms of Real Life(tm). I don't know that I did a very good job, because I didn't really know how things like Parliamentary Committees, policy think tanks, UN research reports, charity lobbying campaigns, popular science/politics/psychology/self help book commissions and so on interact with the world of academia and mediate between it and the seemingly independent everyday world of jobs, traffic jams and childcare dilemmas. Possibly even more importantly, I didn't know how very porous that connective tissue between "theory" and "lived experience" is - how directly, in some cases, academic conceptions are imported into the conditions that govern seemingly trivial parts of our lives (if you don't believe me, Google "jamology").

What Miranda Priestly is saying, in her inimitably blood-chilling style[2], isn't just that the Anne Hathaway character is being stupid and naive to think "this stuff" doesn't have anything to do with her; she is also hinting at the fact that without "this stuff", she'd simply have nothing to wear. If it were not for the temper tantrums and drug habits (sorry) over highly strung creatives in the Fashion World, we might not have all those "choices" we like to defend from encroachment, in the first place. We might all still be wearing petticoats.

Now, we might also not - we might discover a hidden wealth of creativity and variety within each of us. That is a somewhat Utopian view, but I don't discount it entirely. Certainly, to come back to feminism, the conception of an ideal post-gender society includes the complete freedom from external influences on individuals' socio-sexual identities. I mist say though, history is against us: one of the things we definitely had less of, before the age of universities (and fashion designers), is variety. People more or less all wore the same thing, even though they had full control of the production process, from flax to handkerchief; and they quite often more or less thought the same, too.

However that future might turn out though, that hypothetical world in which everybody can simply be free to have their own individual theory of identity is still to come; in this world, we're all the products of the same sausage factory, and that sausage factory is built on blueprints that have a lot of theory in them. To imagine that any one individual's lived experience is entirely above or beyond engagement with theory is like thinking that you really did "choose" that blue sweater. And, when we identify beneficial changes that have filtered into women's lives through decades of feminist work, to fail to acknowledge the important contribution of theory to that would be short-sighted and ungrateful.

[1] I'm sorry for the lack of proper attribution; I did think about and decided that depersonalizing the discussion is probably the better choice here.

[2] I'm not advocating being that nasty to anyone (ever!), but isn't it kind of marvelous how Meryl Streep manages to portray absolute power without an ounce, a breath of male patterns of aggression? Masterful! And a bit of a template for would-be non-violent dictators. Er. Don't quote me on that.