Feminism: On Identifying as Feminist (Part 1)

On Identifying as a Feminist (Part 1):
The Label of Feminist versus the Practice of Feminism

Colorful Barcode by Dejan Josifov
[Content Note: Religious Oppression, Classism, Racism, Marginalization]

Melissa McEwan has kindly made me aware of two articles which are related to one another as well as to what we do here:

Via Jessica Salter at The Telegraph -- Game of Thrones's George RR Martin: 'I'm a feminist at heart':
But Bellafonte's comments still rankle with Martin a year later because he is, at heart, a feminist, despite being cautious about admitting it.

‘There was a period in my life when I would have called myself a feminist, back in the seventies, when the feminist movement was really getting going and growing out of the counter culture of the sixties,’ he says. ‘But the feminist movement has changed. Sometime in the 80s and 90s I read some pieces by women saying that no man can ever be a feminist and you shouldn't call yourself that because it's hypocritical, so I backed off. I thought if the current crop of feminists believes that no man can be a feminist, then I guess I’m not one.’

I tell him men are allowed to be feminists again – that he can have Ryan Gosling, the 21st century’s thinking woman’s crumpet, as his mentor. He chuckles behind his candyfloss beard. ‘To me being a feminist is about treating men and women the same,’ he said. ‘I regard men and women as all human - yes there are differences, but many of those differences are created by the culture that we live in, whether it's the medieval culture of Westeros, or 21st century western culture.’

And via Kira Cochrane at The Guardian -- Stephenie Meyer on Twilight, feminism and true love:
Despite all the criticism of her work, Meyer says she is a feminist, and that this is really important to her. "I think there are many feminists who would say that I am not a feminist. But, to me ... I love women, I have a lot of girlfriends, I admire them, they make so much more sense to me than men, and I feel like the world is a better place when women are in charge. So that kind of by default makes me a feminist. I love working in a female world." She was thrilled when Catherine Hardwicke's adaptation of Twilight made her one of the most commercially successful directors in Hollywood, and says of working on Austenland: "It was almost an entirely female production, which is so rare, and to be able to work with female writers and female directors and even our co-producer was a woman – it was a totally different feel than you would have on a more traditional, male-centric set."

So George R.R. Martin (GRRM) and Stephenie Meyer (S. Meyer) self-identify, both privately and publicly enough that they feel comfortable speaking about that identity in a public interview, as feminists. And while this may surprise some readers here, I will not dispute their self-identification with the label of "Feminist".

I've talked about identification under an ideological label before, and it hasn't always been the clearest subject for me to parse. I recognize my perspective isn't shared by everyone, and I recognize that the question of how to respond to others' self-identification is a complex one. I also recognize that there are fine differences that can sometimes be elided in these conversations when it comes to the divide between good faith vs bad faith identification and between label vs practice identification. I think those differences are important and should not be elided, so I will do my best to bring nuance to the table here.

But for whatever it is worth, here is why I do not dispute the label Feminist as claimed by GRRM and S. Meyer while I simultaneously feel free to dispute aspects of their practice of Feminism.

First, I do not dispute self-identified ideological labels as a general rule. I feel like there are good reasons for me to accept a self-identified ideological label at face value, when it is made in apparent good faith and not in an attempt to deliberately discredit or carelessly appropriate.

When it comes to self-identified ideological labels, my brain usually leaps to religious identification over political identification for examples. If, to pick an example, a person tells me she is a Christian Wiccan, I feel it is appropriate to accept the label she has chosen to express her identity. I would not tell her that she's not a Christian based on my views on Christianity, nor would I tell her she's not a Wiccan based on my views on Wicca, nor would I tell her that she cannot be a Christian Wiccan based on my views on the intersectional compatibility between the two religions. I respect her right to label herself as she feels comfortable regardless of my own views on the terms and ideologies involved.

(And note that the above is a real example that I have observed; I have met many Christian Wiccans and while I am completely comfortable with their self-identified label, I have seen others vocally dispute their right to claim this label. I am not okay with this behavior.)

And when it comes to huge and complex ideologies like "Christianity" or "Feminism", very few of these labels are "owned" by a defining body. There are, for example, whole swaths of Christian thought and experience and discipline and study -- both ancient and modern -- that I would not have recognized as familiar to my own brand of Christianity when I was a Christian, yet my failure to recognize those things as similar to my own experiences does not make them Objectively Illegitimate to everyone. It just means they didn't resonate for me.

It's okay that those things don't resonate for me; other people don't get to push their definitions onto me anymore than I can push mine onto them. No one is allowed to tell me that I'm "really a Christian" if I reject that self-identity, or that I'm "not really a Christian" if I embrace it for myself. And I have been told these very things, both by people who insist that the fact that I was a Christian once means that I am a Christian forever, and by people who insist that the fact that I am no longer a Christian means that I was never a Christian. I reject both those framings and will not accept having them imposed on me. 

Note that I reject those frameworks for myself but not for them: I cannot and would not control how others think of me, but if people are going to converse with me, they will respect me enough to use the self-identity labels I have chosen for myself. I label myself as once-a-Christian-but-no-longer; and anyone thinking I am always-a-Christian or never-a-Christian can think of me as such in their own head, but should not represent to others that I identify that way, nor should they push that identity onto me if they want to maintain a respectful dialogue with me.

And note that none of the above means that people aren't free to criticize my choice of identity label or to criticize my practice within that identity.

The label of an identity is very different from the practice of that identity. (Related reading for this post: Melissa McEwan's On The Fixed State Ally Model vs. The Process Model Ally Work.) If a public figure embraces the label of Feminist yet doesn't appear to incorporate that label into a helpful and meaningful practice of Feminism, then I think it's perfectly valid for people to question their practices. And I additionally think it's more valuable to critique their practices rather than to try to strip away a label.

Example: I can (and frequently do) say that S. Meyer's works contain heaps and heaps of problematic implications from my feminist perspective, regardless of whether or not she claims a label of feminist for herself.

 • I can point out that her practice of feminism (as she appears to understand it, both for herself and implicitly for her readers) as expressed through her literary works is not an expression of feminism that is welcoming or safe for many women of color, and that this is highly problematic.

 • I can point out that her practice of feminism largely invisibles the existence of QUILTBAG people, and portrays cis-gender and heterosexual marriage not only as a default but additionally as an ideal, and that this is highly problematic.

 • I can point out that her practice of feminism persistently romanticizes and excuses abusive behavior on the part of male lovers, male friends, and male family members, and additionally romanticizes and minimizes disability issues while romanticizing disordered eating, and that this is highly problematic.

 • I can also (and have) point out that sometimes her practice of feminism does provide positive portrayals for a very specific kind of woman living in a very specific kind of environment.

I point out all these things because I think it is valuable to talk about the practice of S. Meyer's feminism and where it is harmful and where it is helpful. What I will not say is "S. Meyer is not a feminist" because I do not think it is valuable to dispute labels when I think practices are more important. 

Second, I recognize that the ability to de-identify people -- both directly and indirectly -- is a tool in the toolbox of oppression. De-identifying people directly can be used to exclude marginalized people from a privileged class. "You are not a Wiccan because you don't use colored candles in ritual" is a means by which people of different monetary means are excluded from an exclusive club. "You are not a Star Wars fan if you didn't see the movies live when they first aired" is a means by which people of different ages and different opportunities are excluded from an exclusive club.

The construction "you are not really X if you don't meet the minimum standard of Y" can be used to critique a disconnect between a label and a practice: one might reasonably ask how someone can claim the label of feminist without having once promoted a single woman within their company, for example. But the construction has also been historically misused in order to bar marginalized people from participation and that context is important; even when "Y" is a behavior rather than a characteristic, it's important to understand whether "Y" is achievable by all persons or merely privileged ones.

De-identifying people indirectly can also be used to deflect responsibility for marginalization within a group. If a marginalized person complains that a leader within an ideological group, like Richard Dawkins within movement atheism, behaves in a misogynist manner, then it is highly unhelpful and a deflection of criticism for someone to pull a No True Scotsman and say, "oh, Richard Dawkins isn't really an atheist, he's just in the movement for the attention." By making the label the thing under dispute, the choice has been made to deflect responsibility and focus from the practice -- and the privileged people have managed (intentionally or not) to dodge any need to criticize the practice of the person under discussion because, according to them, that person doesn't really count since the person doesn't belong under the label with them.

If someone were to point out that S. Meyer's books are hostile to women of color and therefore deeply unhelpful from a feminist perspective, it is harmful for me to dismiss that criticism with an airy, "oh, S. Meyer. What did you expect? She's no feminist, no matter what she claims otherwise."

S. Meyer is an enormously popular public figure, who is read by a huge audience. If she claims the label of Feminist, then many people are going to view her words and practices and actions through that lens. On the one hand, this may have at least one good side-effect if it helps make the identity of "feminist" more accessible for some of her audience; yet it would be wrong to ignore the fact that her identification with the term "feminist" will result in at least some people identifying feminism with the more problematic aspects of her work.

When a marginalized person points that out, and the problems inherent in S. Meyer's work, I have two possible responses: I can either argue the validity of the label or I can criticize her actual practice. 

When I argue the validity of the label, I am arguing against the marginalized person pointing out problems. I am telling them to ignore their lived experience, and to ignore anything S. Meyer says and does, and the effect her literature has on society, simply because -- according to me -- she doesn't "count". She's not "really" a feminist. I am booting S. Meyer from my in-group, and telling a marginalized person that they must do the same. That decision comes from a position of privilege, since I am unlikely to be harmed by anything S. Meyer says or does. And it is a decision that deflects responsibility from me: S. Meyer doesn't belong in my identity group, and therefore I am safe both from criticism and from having to criticize.

None of the above is helpful.

When I criticize her actual practices, I am acknowledging the concerns that the marginalized person has raised. I am saying, yes, S. Meyer has claimed the identity of feminist and, yes, her practice of feminism as she defines it is harmful and wrong. I am no longer arguing that S. Meyer doesn't "count" in order to protect me from guilt-by-association or to shield myself from the expectation that I say something to or about the harmful behavior of a member of my in-group. I am acknowledging that a public figure who calls herself a feminist and, whether I like it or not, is shaping social perception of a movement I belong to with her actions, is practicing feminism is a way that is intensely harmful to women Not Like Her. And that this is a big problem, both in the specific of S. Meyer, and in the larger context of feminist women who are (intentionally or not) harming women Not Like Them.

That is helpful activism.

And it's a conversation that I can only have when I focus on the practice of self-identified public feminists rather than derailing in order to argue semantics over labels and the theoretical "right" to claim something that has already been de facto claimed in the public perception.

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