Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Some thoughts on the differences between radical and third wave feminism

As far as feminist theory is concerned, I'd consider myself beyond 101 level, but having not taken any women's studies classes or having yet been involved in "real life" feminist organizations or movements, I figure I've got some things to learn. My introduction to feminism came as a result of seeking information about transgender issues, which led me pretty much directly into third wave feminist territory, much more so than radical feminism.

I was mostly interested in what made women and men different biologically, mentally, hormonally, emotionally, and how so-called masculine qualities were routinely privileged over so-called feminine qualities in my everyday life, and why. When I really got into feminism as a more serious pursuit, however, was after reading Inga Muscio's Cunt, and bell hooks' Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. The latter was the most accessible and poignant explanation of how oppression works in our society that I'd read, or had yet to read; the former made me feel angry and defiantly proud.

I found a lot of value in decidedly third-wave material as well; I read a couple of Naomi Wolf's books, and Amanda Marcotte and Jessica Valenti's shorter, more humorous books. But then, happy with what I'd read so far, I got into some newer books by other established feminist authors, and others by the same ones. Like Full Frontal Feminism. And I know it's already been talked to death, but I'm one of the people that felt talked down to and irritated by the book. I also continually remind myself that it was written with people who are a bit younger than myself in mind, and I read it at 24, not 16. So while I hated it, I see the potential value in it. At the same time, I'm offended that we're so willing to let feminism sell out like that, and market itself as some kind of brand to consume instead of philosophy by which to live.

I figure I fall somewhere in the middle of radical feminist belief and third wave feminism, philosophically-speaking. My positions of "the issues" are split in a lot of ways: I fall in line with radical feminism on issues like a hesitance to immediately accept sex work as always being the same as any other job, and critiquing capitalism, for example (although more third-wavers seem to be critical of capitalism lately).  But I also believe "patriarchy" is an outdated and more or less inaccurate way of describing the way that power structures and systemic oppression affect people individually and collectively.  Kyriarchy is a better term for the way things work presently.

This past summer I went to a party called Frocktails with Kissie Catastrophe (everyone wears a dress; men are allowed, but only if they also wear a dress) and met all kinds of fun and interesting people, one of whom is a self-identified radical feminist. Kissie introduced us and mentioned to her that we blog together. She replied that she'd actually read ethecofem, but felt it was "a little too third-wavey" for her tastes. Ever since then, I've been thinking about what that term even means (the aforementioned new friend told me she sees the difference as primarily generational). With my previously noted limited background in the depths of academic feminist theory, I've tried to gather my own perceptions of the differences.  Of course, I encourage constructive criticism of these perceptions in the comments if you have a different understanding of some of the concepts I'm outlining.

Simply put, radical feminist theory focuses on the collective of women as one community, and third wave feminist theory centers itself -- and is reliant upon -- the experience of the individual (also see this list for some common third wave goals). The former is consistent with the anti-capitalist nature of radical and second wave feminism, and also with the third wave philosophies that are consistent with capitalist views (so long as they don't actively oppress anyone, personally... although where to draw that line has been hotly debated). 

An example of this difference is each group's position on sex work. A radical feminist is probably against sex work in all circumstances and believes that sex work is a perpetuation of rape culture and violence against women, and that the act itself is rape; a third wave feminist may or may not be open to sex work herself, but is probably of the opinion that sex work is legitimate work, like any other job, is not inherently good or bad, and should probably definitely be legalized on the federal level for the protection and de-stigmatization of sex workers. Both groups may advocate for the safety and human rights of sex workers, but rarely do they come together on this issue in terms of legalization or validity.

The radical feminist may also be concerned with the ways in which the sex worker herself is putting other women in danger by deliberately engaging in a system where it's perfectly acceptable that women's bodies are bought and sold. To perpetuate that, they say, is to put all women in danger of rape and sexual exploitation.  This is an example of how radical feminism often puts the perceived good of the community (all women, in this case) over the immediate, and sometimes even practical, needs of the individual.  Third-wave feminists would instead typically prioritize the immediate needs of the individual rather than place responsibility on her for the oppressive circumstances in which she is expected to navigate.  That responsibility, third-wavers argue, and most importantly, all blame associated with it, should fall squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator of the oppression the woman faces.

Radical feminism also focuses more on "patriarchy," which is, according to radical feminists, the first oppression, and that which all other forms of oppression are based. Third wave feminism recognizes the individual needs of women and other marginalized groups on a meta level, deeming certain so-called patriarchal traditions (like a woman replacing her surname with her husband's upon marriage, leg-shaving, makeup, etc.) acceptable if they were unavoidable due to a problem caused by another institutionalized disadvantage under which she was oppressed (like familial or job-related pressure, respectively). 

Why do we have "waves," anyway? Every couple decades, a new group of women decides that the best and most effective way to end discrimination against us is [the end of pornography] [separatism] [capitalism] [Marxism] [having babies for Jesus] [IVF] [legalization of all jobs in sex industry]. We get a couple bills passed or change a few things in corporate culture, and new sets of values and ideals emerge, creating a new "wave."  And, for the most part, the "wave" system seems to work well; obviously, as time evolves, so do the issues we face.  Unfortunately, this often causes rifts within the feminist community with generational divides and other ideological differences.

Also unfortunately for radical feminism, many women have appropriated the "radical feminist" label (from here on referred to as "radfems," to differentiate from the more reasonable radical feminists with whom I respectfully disagree on a few points) after falling victim to paranoid delusions that cause them to believe that all trans women are trying to infiltrate and ruin women's liberation movements, co-opt womanhood, and they think that if you don't refuse PIV sex (you can't actually be female-bodied and like PIV sex, because it's always awful no matter what, and if you believe otherwise, you have simply been brainwashed by simple biology men rapists), then you are a male-centric "funfem" trying to earn "cookies" from your oppressors.  (Also, if you're a man, you're a rapist, duh.)  They also tend to believe not only that the decidedly third-wave emphasis on "choice" is invalid, and because they don't care to engage in dialog with anyone not exactly like themselves, they don't understand that no self-identified third-waver actually thinks that every single uncritical choice that a woman makes is "feminist."  Because, you know, that would be completely ridiculous.

Today's radfems also tend to believe that giving one iota of a piece of one's energy being concerned with the issues men face in our society means that we're "what about teh menzzz?!11??!" lost causes who are only interested in being skanks for the doodz.  I have a particular problem with this tenet of RadFemInc, because I understand that in a society in which gender essentialism is the norm, and in which gender is largely socially-constructed, men are also held to unreasonable gender-based expectations and roles that are similarly oppressive, even if "masculine" tendencies and behaviors are often privileged in our society over those deemed "feminine."

Thankfully, not all people who identify as radical feminists hold the views outlines above, but the radfems continue to give the rest of us a bad name by continuing to perpetuate an agenda that condescends to and patronizes other women, proudly and blatantly discriminates against other marginalized individuals, and pretends science is a phallic fairy tale.  But hey, what are ya gonna do?

That said, radical feminist theory seems to me to be a bit... outdated, if not on its way to being outdated.  We don't live in a world where all men dominate all women at all times.  This is an absurd notion with evidence to the contrary in front of our faces every time we engage with real people in the real world.  Circumstances matter, individuals matter, and yes, men matter, too.  Furthermore, radical feminism in practice has a tendency of giving neutral behaviors or institutions a gendered meaning that deems the practice or institution "unfeminist" or even arbitrarily misogynist, like marriage, or shaving, for example.  Marriage is only misogynist if your marriage is misogynist.  Shaving your legs is only unfeminist if you're of the belief that leg-shaving should be required for all women.  If that makes me less of "a feminist" in the eyes of the radfems, that's fine by me; I prefer "feminist" as an adjective rather than a label, anyway.  As soon as a word or movement graduates into "label" territory, you know it's gone for good.  Some fringe group of unreasonable, irrational, and radical assholes always end up taking being louder than everyone else, causing more division and fosters misunderstanding and ignorance.  Evangelicals hold up that end of Christianity, while radfems are in charge of ruining feminism for the rest of us.

Not that radfems hold a monopoly on obnoxious and probably detrimental interpretations of equality-based activism.  Third-wavers, alternately, seem inordinately obsessed with calling one another out (see every thread with more than 50 comments) on not properly owning one's privilege, not speaking or writing in such a way that includes the possibility that every single person the the planet will read it and expect to relate to it, or criticizing anything about anyone ever.  Third-wavers also seem to be primarily focused on finding new and unusual things to call "oppressed," as well, and while it's important to identify oppressive behaviors, much of the dialog that occurs within these feminist spaces tend to focus (mistakenly, in my opinion) on calling people out, rather than constructive dialog.

My conclusion: we all need to agree that everyone experiences negative effects from our capitalist, gender-essentialist, racist, classist societal structure, and move forward from there.  The third-wave philosophy tends to most closely embody this approach, which is why I stick around those parts.

(But seriously, radfems: your phobias and irrational hatred of transgender women [and patronizing attitude toward transgender men] is inconsistent and contradictory to any notion of equality and non-violence, and your misandry is just embarrassing.  And it's obvious that your constant queer-"critical" rants are a result of your own confusion -- when you can't neatly place someone in one box or another, it makes it pretty difficult to tell whether or not you should hate them-- hatred being, of course, one of your priorities. Knock it off, already.)