Not a work of feminism

Not a work of feminism

Not a work of feminism: Can we separate women's stories from feminism?

By the third day of this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, I needed a break.

The crowds were thick. Heaving. I sought out a smaller panel.

In The Female Gaze in Interactive Documentary. Harmke Heezen and Mike Robbins discussed women’s voices in documentary film. They talked about diversity, imposter syndrome and the disparity of women in tech.

On the topic of one film — the name and details of which I can’t for the life of me remember — they described it as “not a work of feminism”. This caught me off guard. I mean, what could a women in storytelling panel be about, if not feminism?

I thought about women’s works, their stories and their voices; are they not inextricably linked to feminism?

I contemplated the fact that by virtue of being female, women’s stories are considered in a certain way.

Women are not the majority in storytelling spaces.

Society fails to take women seriously when they communicate their experiences.

We negate their experiences. We dismiss their voices as trivial.

So when a woman gets a chance to tell her story, I think of that as a win.

But we can’t conflate women and feminists.

I put the question to writers at NWP. They reminded me that not all women are feminists and vice versa i.e. the two circles in a Venn diagram only intersect in the middle.

Many women choose not to identify as feminists. They wouldn’t consider their stories within a feminist discourse.

Some folks distance themselves from the ‘feminist’ label because of the negative images associated with it.

© S. Hails 2017, for Nasty Women's Press

© S. Hails 2017, for Nasty Women's Press

But these assertions are incorrect.

Feminism isn’t about hating men. It’s about choice.

Feminism has flaws — just not the ones listed above. Intersectional feminism is about equity.

There are legitimate reasons for women to reject the feminist stamp. When any Tom, Dick and Harry — or should I say Taylor, Lena and Amy — describe themselves as feminists, it’s understandable that one might hesitate to align herself with their brand.

From its inception in the suffragette movement to present day politics, #whitefeminism (aka feminism) has been … exclusive.

White feminists have relied on the support of women of colour, queer women, trans women and women with disabilities and has refused to support them in return.

Sarah Jackson told Vox that feminists have “unabashedly borrowed from strategies and language developed by members of the civil rights movement before them.”

Intersectionality requires action and introspection on the part of white cisgender women; or it’s just an ideal.

Feminists need to sit with their discomfort about their own privilege, set it aside and find out what folks need from them.

For feminism to count in 2017, it has to consider Black, Brown, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian women, queer and trans women of colour, folks with disabilities, sex workers, single moms and all the folks we’ve left behind — in everything it does.

Many well-meaning feminists see the problem as not being with themselves but with society. If women have historically been oppressed, then women’s behaviour can’t be problematic, right?

Not exactly.

Back in January, Black blogger ShiShi Rose posted a message for everyone planning to mobilize:

Today's #ActivistAday features myself, ShiShi Rose (@shishi.rose) and I am one of the admins here. . For some people, their outlook of this country deeply changed on November 9th. For the rest of us, this is how it has always looked. I want to remind you that that is a privilege. It's a privilege that white supremacy wasn't at the forefront of your reality, because you benefit from it. I want to remind you that no ally ever got very far, in any movement, without acknowledgement of their own privilege daily. You do not just get to join the efforts that people of color have been working for their entire lives to both teach and survive, without doing work, too. You don't just get to join because now you're scared, too. I was born scared. Now is the time for you to be listening more, talking less, spend time observing, taking in media and art created by people of color, researching, and unlearning the things you have been taught about this country. You should be reading our books and understanding the roots of racism and white supremacy. Listening to our speeches. You should be drowning yourselves in our poetry. Now is the time that you should be exposed to more than just the horrors of this country, but also the beauty that has always existed within communities of color. Beauty that was covered over because the need to see white faces depicted was more important. Now is the time to teach your children, to call out your family, to finally speak up. You have been silent for long enough. Now is the time to realize that you should have joined us sooner. But since you're here now, it's time to get to work. #WhyIMarch

According to Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR, some white women were so offended by Rose’s post that they cancelled their travel plans.

Grigsby Bates also writes that having been shut out of feminism, prominent Black figures such as Alice Walker and bell hooks marched under the banner of womanist — a term that’s gaining steam among millenials today, some of them white.

In a 2014 article for the New Statesman, Frances Ryan describes how as a disabled feminist, she often felt like her own identity was split in two: a woman, and a person with a disability.

She writes:

When we see feminism and disability rights as separate campaigns and separate lives – we split a person down the middle, we make political movements that cancel out the lives of certain women.

It stands to reason that a lot of women would not want their works and experiences to be considered in a feminist contingency when there are movements that highlight their more prominent struggles.

That said, we can examine any story through a feminist lens. When women tell their stories themselves and control the narrative, we call that “the Female Gaze”.

Whether in film or photography, in front of or behind the lens, it’s a step forward as long as we leave room for multiple gazes within that.

It’s 2017. If we’re creating art that isn’t intersectional, it’s not a work of feminism.

Lauren has considered herself a feminist for many moons; and like a lot of us, she strives to be a better intersectional feminist — starting with putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard as it were.

Lauren can usually be found chilling out with a coffee and a good book or shouting into the abyss that is the internet. Follow her on Twitter.