Who are You Calling a Feminist?Sometimes, my son's mistaken for gay. Where his friends are concerned, this could relate to his gay parents. But there's something more. He is open-faced, affable and he dresses nicely. These aren't gay traits of course, but they're not fully manly-man traits. After all, most of what passes for "looking gay" is not about sexuality at all - it's about conforming to popular ideas of gender. The same thing is at work when people think I don't "look like" a lesbian. To some, I look too much like "a lady" - to be called a dyke.
When asked if he's gay, my son will reply, "No, I'm not gay. I'm just a feminist." I'm sure he has other responses, but this one causes me particular pleasure. It's not just because I've helped put another feminist into the world, it's because the mere assertion that a man is feminist can ALSO be seen as non-gender conforming. He's answering a question based on a mis-guided idea with a paradox. It does his activist-
academic mother's heart good.
Last week, in Sydney Australia, I had the pleasure of taking part in a panel discussion event called Women Say Something (sponsored by Sydney Mardi Gras). The event was unlike anything I've experienced in the U.S. in that it brought together a panel of interesting people - scholars, performers, social activists - to discuss a theme of interest to all. And this was no university function - it took place in a nightclub, accompanied by wonderful dinner and drinks and the event was packed! This is the third such event on different issues and our topic was "The Real F Word: Feminism." The audience was as diverse as the panel and the emcee posed thought provoking questions - then audience members asked questions as well.
The panel was quite civil, despite minor disagreements. I am always astonished at how people who work to end oppression based on gender become so impassioned about the word "feminism." We all know women who will say "I'm not a feminist, but..." and then they go on to say how they believe in fair pay laws or ending gender-based assault, etc. And yet, they won't claim the word.
And furthermore, why does it seem so strange when a man claims to be a feminist, as my son does? I will continue using the word feminism because it states concisely (and carries a history of) the desire and action to end oppression and unfairness based on sex and gender. That's not about men or women - it's about systems of oppression. That is to say, feminism benefits men too, in a variety of ways. I will continue to use the word, because it makes sense to me. And too, I think feminism has been pretty wrecked by bad press. I'm not willing to make the word my main focus. We have to keep finding new ways to talk about the work of feminism, to DO the work of feminism. We have to be flexible and innovate. Otherwise, we'll use all our energy defending this tattered flag. We'll be operating in opposition, rather than in creation.
Apparently Lady Gaga recently stated that she's not a feminist because she likes men. Well, that's the stereotype, isn't it? Feminists are man-haters? What a foolish and harmful idea. Sadly, when someone with Gaga's following says something like that, it really muddles important issues. Of course she espouses feminist beliefs -- and I wish she knew what feminism actually is. For many, like me, it's a deep expression of love for both men and women -- along with those of other sexes and genders. I will continue to assert and demonstrate that, rather than fight about the word. I accept that Lady Gaga has a bigger platform and audience than I do. She has the floor and the rest of us will have to innovate. More men claiming the word "feminist" is one such innovation. They have the traction of gender privilege and the element of surprise on their side. Creative messages are innovation.
In my work, I look for ways to reveal the moments where both privilege and oppression are evident in our daily lives. I point out how we can address unfairness in small quotidian ways, how we can reinvent ourselves as changers and change agents. And now that the zeitgeist of the Occupy movement is here - I also urge audiences toward collective action. I'm not as strident as some in insisting on words like feminism - and that's a strategic choice.
On the evening following the panel, I attended a performance in Sydney where one of the Dykes on Bikes contingent recognized me from the event the night before. She said she didn't fully enjoy the panel because it got too academic. Fair enough, I thought. Dr. Cox set a certain tone, and dominated a bit, and being that she and I share a language, I'm sure I contributed to the rarified jargon at times. It's a fine line to tread - I hope never to dumb things down, but to offer vibrant, illuminating examples. I adored the beauty of her points - and not everyone caught them. The dyke with the bike clarified, lest I felt insulted, I'm sure. She said, "Hey, YOU were lovely, really lady-like, I enjoyed looking at you and listening to you. And then that older lesbian (Eva Cox) just made me want to poke my eyes out when she started talking all academic!"
And so it is - for now. I will continue to be the fierce feminist who's easier to hear (and look at) for as long as it takes (and as long as I'm able). And I'm pleased that my son's out mixing appearances and ideologies too. May we all innovate, inspire and organize for positive change as we go - no matter what language we use.
Bio: Kimberly Dark is a mother, professor and an award-winning writer and performer. Her favorite son is a senior at UC Berkeley and she’s grateful that traveling to perform allows her to spend time with him often. Learn more about her performances and publications at www.kimberlydark.com.
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