I’ve written previously of Adelin Gasana. Gasana is an undergraduate student at the University of West Florida, where I teach, and quickly developing his skills as a budding documentary video artist. A couple weeks ago, at the annual meeting of the Semiotic Society of America in New Orleans, he presented part of his most recent video, “The F Word.” This video and others can be found online at his website.
“The F Word” is about feminism, stereotypes of feminists and feminism, and attitudes towards feminism. One thing that particularly struck me when viewing the documentary was that much feminist discourse has become reactionary, responding to backlash and stereotype to emphasize what feminism and feminists are not rather than what they are. (Note that I’m not saying that Gasana’s video is reactionary, but that it depicts a discourse that has often become reactionary.) Speaker after speaker, in responding to questions about what feminism is replied in the negative first – essentially feminism is not a bunch of bra-burning, granola-eating, hairy-legged, clog dancing lesbians on a commune.
I realize that the speakers on the video are not representative of feminism in general. Gasana spoke mainly, though by no means exclusively, with feminists and/or local scholars in Pensacola, Florida. The South in general is one of the more socially conservative regions of the U.S., and Pensacola is arguably located in one of the more conservative portions of the South. This no doubt shapes the experience of feminists and other varieties of progressives. At times, it’s hard not to feel besieged as a progressive in Pensacola.
Still, the speakers on Gasana’s video are not completely unrepresentative of contemporary feminism in general either. There is a variety of contemporary feminism that works primarily in the negative – call it backlash-backlash, or something like that. I’ve not done any sort of systematic survey of the feminist literature, so I can’t say exactly how prevalent it is, but I’ve read enough feminist theory and scholarship that I’ve encountered this form of defining feminism by what it isn’t well beyond Pensacola and the South. In fact, some of the clips featured in Gasana’s documentary feature feminist writers speaking on national news talk shows.
There are two things that disturb me about this reactionary variety of feminism. First, it’s inherently self-limiting. It’s become defined by a conservative opposition’s stereotypes. Second, it’s marginalizing. It reminds me of the sort of gay scholar or activist who, in aiming for middle of the road respectability (and I think Texans might have it right when they claim that there are only dead armadillos in the middle of the road), emphasizes that flamboyant drag queens in pride parades don’t represent the gay community. While drag queens are perhaps not representative, they are important members of the gay community. While I can’t vouch for the bra-burning or clog dancing, I’ve met a number of granola-eating, hairy-legged, lesbians who live on communes who are staunch feminists not deserving to be marginalized in some game of respectability. Conservatives who would deny women or gay males equality are the opposition, not women or gay men who don’t happen to meet middle of the road standards of respectability that are in fact the standards and expectations of that conservative opposition.