Saturday, September 23, 2006

This-ism, that-ism, -ism -ism -ism

I don't call myself a feminist. I've been rethinking this position lately, but I just can't seem to make myself take the plunge. I think women ought to be treated equally, and I think all of society benefits from equality, not just the minority. I've read Tekanji's How to be a Real Nice Guy, and while I have some contentions with the finer points of the "reverse -ism" argument, it's a nice combination of "things I ought to be more aware of" and "things that make me feel a little less guilty and worried." It underscores a lot of things (like privilege) that I've had a gut feeling about for years, and it's nice to see them put into words. It really helps me understand why I feel so torn over Politically Correct language (English major/editor anxieties about language vs. "liberal guilt" and respect for minorities). Despite all this, I have a hard time thinking of myself as a feminist. I tell people that I don't feel like I've earned the right, and every time I think about privilege, I feel even less certain of that.'s at this point that I'm going to invoke the "Read More" link. Things get personal below the fold, folks. If you don't care, just come back tomorrow and enjoy a Civil War rant.

See, part of my problem is that I've always had an overactive sense of guilt. I've always tended toward being "the good kid," and I think a large part of that is due to a youth spent with an overactive imagination that would tend to pick out the worst possible consequences to any action, and frequently replay them. That, and I always identified with the good guys; I wanted to be Superman and He-Man and Optimus Prime (and yes, I credit cartoons and comic books with a significant part of building a strong moral fiber).
Though not humility, apparently. In case the general lack of personal info on my blog hasn't clued you in, I really don't like writing about myself. My feelings? Sure. My reactions to this week's Batman or whatever? You betcha. But who gives a damn about my past and my life? Whatever, I'm knee-deep in it now, might as well take the plunge.

So, due to a variety of little quirks in my upbringing, I'm always a little worried about being a racist, homophobic, bigoted jerk. I've said some horrendously homophobic things, and it was only around the end of my Junior year of High School that I got the bigot's epiphany. I've done whatever I could since then to promote equal rights and acceptance for the GLBTQ community--going to rallies, joining the Gay-Straight Alliance--mostly because I've felt so passionately about the subject, but also in hopes of atoning for the things I said in the past, so that I might clear my own conscience.

So I think that my personal history of prejudice has a major effect on my feelings about considering myself, with the privilege smorgasbord of being a young white middle-class heterosexual male, ideologically equal to someone who actually has to deal with discrimination and bigotry on a daily basis. The most I've done is attend a rally or two and watch The Vagina Monologues for V-Day. The last time I felt discrimination was when I was thirteen and old clerks followed me through the drugstore (well...unless you count religious discrimination, but even that's pretty minor). How does that measure up to people who have to fight every day to be recognized as people?

And then there's the little matter that I tend to play apologist/Devil's Advocate for some of the various majority groups to which I belong. As much as I can imagine myself into another person's shoes, the only perspective I can offer is that of a young white heterosexual middle-class male. It only reinforces the barriers between us to see that perspective dismissed or unconsidered, and sometimes I can't resist the impulse to say "well, look at it this way." It's only through understanding each other that we'll even be able to discourse equally, let alone treat each other equally. Good fences don't make good neighbors, they just make it harder to see the other side.

Yes, I believe women are people. I believe homosexuals ought to have the same rights as heterosexuals. I believe that everyone should be treated equally regardless of gender, skin color, religious affiliation, or sexual preference. I believe that comics aren't "meant for" any one audience, and that everyone should be able to pick up an issue of Justice League and find something that appeals to them. I believe that overt sexualization and stereotyping hurt comics' appeal far more than the occasional late book or fill-in artist. I want to see developed, defined, well-rounded characters of every sort, not characters who are defined by how developed and well-rounded their breasts are. I'd like to see equality, in comics and the real world, because I think equality ultimately benefits everyone. It's not a zero-sum game; you don't appeal to female readers at the expense of the male ones. You broaden the scope, you don't just shift the narrow focus. You open it up to everyone, and allow everyone to find something that includes them.

I believe that people ought to be treated with respect, whether they're real or four-color. I do what I can to treat real people with respect; I could do more, I'm sure, and I'll keep trying. I'd like to be in a position to treat four-color folks with respect, but that's really up to DC Comics, at this point (hint hint). I don't think that's enough for me to take up a label associated with people who have to fight to receive that sort of respect. Maybe I'm way off-base, here, and I wouldn't mind being told so. But it seems to me that calling myself a feminist would be the height of presumptuousness.

At this point, I'd usually go back and make sure this all makes sense, but I know that nothing I do to it will eliminate the rambling incoherence of it. This is going to be the Finnegan's Wake of comic blog posts. Sorry 'bout that, folks.

Give post a chance!


Amy Reads said...

Hi Tom,
You've said a few things I'd like to comment on, so here goes.

You said, (and yes, I credit cartoons and comic books with a significant part of building a strong moral fiber).

And I completely agree. It's the flip side of the "oh no video games and rock music are corrupting the children's souls!" argument, no? I watched Wonder Woman as a young girl, and I wanted to be her, fighting for truth and justice (just not in satin pants). I read Crime and Punishment at a young age, too, but it didn't make me want to kill anyone. Rather, it expanded my rather closed thoughts about poverty (and for the upper-middle-class white girl that I was growing up, that's saying a lot!).

Then you said, Maybe I'm way off-base, here, and I wouldn't mind being told so. But it seems to me that calling myself a feminist would be the height of presumptuousness.
even after you said this:
Yes, I believe women are people. I believe homosexuals ought to have the same rights as heterosexuals. I believe that everyone should be treated equally regardless of gender, skin color, religious affiliation, or sexual preference.

And here's where I might be playing Devil's Advocate myself, but what do labels matter? If you believe that everyone should have access to equal rights, regardless of gender, sex, race, sexual orientation, preference for oranges or apples, then do you need to compartmentalize yourself?

I've started to think about this as I've seen myself and others begin to suffer from over-specialization, particularly in the field of literary criticism (i.e. the continuing "are you a new historicist deconstructionist Marxist feminist? or are you perhaps an eco-feminist autobiographical cultural critic?" debate). The names and tags begin to get in the way of the fight, in my opinion. I call myself a feminist because I fight for women's rights, and because it's easier to say "I am a feminist" than to sit someone down and explain exactly what that means, for me. But then, am I doing myself a disservice by *not* explaining what feminism means, to me, as you so eloquently do in this post? Am I perpetuating a negative stereotype that most people seem to have of feminists instead of trying to explain to people that yes, the media/their fathers/the whatever is wrong about its image of x, y, or z, and here's what I think, as you so eloquently do in this post?

All of this to say, if you actively are working to make the world a better place, does it really matter if I/you/Joe Blogger label you a certain way?
Thanks for a well-said and thoughtful post. Something great to chew on on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Anonymous said...

I think I already mentioned this, but if you find "feminist" to be presumptuous (and I can see why; there are plenty of people -- women and men alike -- who are uncomfortable with men taking up the title), you could call yourself "pro-feminist" or a "feminist ally". Both mean the same thing as feminist, but are designed to specifically not come across as appropriating a movement that needs to be spearheaded by women.

Anonymous said...

wait, so if Tom's allowed to be a feminist (or a pro-feminist etc) even though he's a white mddle class straight guy, that means I'm allowed (straight white middle-class woman) too, right?

I'm only being partially facetious. I was just planning on writing about this same issue about 6 hours ago, about how, being who I am, it's inappropriate for me to have opinions on, well, anything, because - as I've been told - my very existence is oppressive. How dare some white chick have feelings about racism, for example, even if it's that it's bad and we should stop it?

I don't have the right to have an opinion. Hell, I barely have the right to have an opinion on feminist issues because my race, class, and orientation (and I'm sure many other things) outweigh my femaleness. I've always assumed that whatever it is, I'm a bad person and not worthy, and realizing all the privelege I have just makes it worse - I haven't actually done anything wrong, but I exist, and since I'm a member of priveleged classes, that's enough, or so I'm told.

But if Tom is allowed to have an opinion without being considered a priveleged asshole, then I guess I get to as well.

Point being, Tom, quit stealing my thoughts.

Seth T. Hahne said...

It sounds, Tom, that more than a feminist, you're just straight-up egalitarian - which is, I think, better than feminist. It carries less a notion of elevation than it does equality - and really, that's what we're striving for, right?

Tom Foss said...

I am an egalitarian, I suppose. Although I don't think feminism entails a notion of elevation; I think it entails a recognition of the fact that women have farther to go to achieve that equality.