With the latest round of thinkpieces about Rihanna’s BBHMM video, it seems like we’ve finally reached peak “Is it feminist?” I mean, it’s been a long road up to this peak, but this question feels like it’s growing stale and exhausting its ability to generate clicks.
“Is it feminist?” has always been a disciplining and normalizing question, one that centers particular kinds of women (privileged women) as the proper subject of feminism, and so on. This is what academic feminist theory learned in the 1900s, right? Anyway, “Is it feminist?” might be a productive question when feminism is itself a minority discourse, but in the era of Branded Post-Feminism(™), “Is it feminist?” it’s more normalizing than not. To be a lot theoretical about it: “Is it feminist?” used to serve as an instance of Rancierian disagreement. The question used to disrupt and at least give a little pause to hegemonic modes of thought and practice. But it’s not disruptive anymore; its disruption has itself been normalized. (Think, for example, of how “disruption” in general is fetishized as a term for innovation.)
But “Is it feminist?” is not the only way to start a feminist analysis or to think critically about gender politics. “What is it?” or “Is X a Y?” is like the oldest question in philosophy; “ti esti…?” (“what is…?”) is Socrates’ whole M.O. Philosophers have developed a lot more types of inquiry since then. We could, for example, ask “What is gendered and how?” or “What are the gendered components of this and how do they interact?” or, as Cynthia Enloe puts it, we can ask “Where are the women?” or “Where are the gender minorities?” or “Where are the nonbinary people?”
All the way back in 1949 Simone de Beauvoir identified the problems with “what is…?” or “is it….” style questions, and offered some alternative types of questions to ask instead. She begins the introduction to The Second Sex with a critique of these questions. Modeling the first part of the introduction after a Platonic dialogue, Beauvoir repeatedly asks “What is a woman?”: Biology? Nope. Metaphysical essence? Nope. Something made up, a false belief we should just get rid of? Nope. “Woman” is, Beauvoir argues, a situation in patriarchal power relations: “She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (26). The “What is/Is it…?” questions get the ontology wrong. (See the “scope of the verb ‘to be’” discussion on p.33 of TSS…from a Beauvoirian perspective “Is it…?” questions are all asking after “serious [that is, predetermined] values” and are thus all grounded in bad faith.) Woman/feminist isn’t a definite thing or feature or set of features; it’s a status in a particular type of gendered social and epistemological structure. So, as Beauvoir concludes:
But what singularly defines the situation of woman is that being, like all humans, an autonomous freedom, she discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as Other: an attempt is made to freeze her as an object and doom her to immanence, since her transcendence will be forever transcended by another essential and sovereign consciousness. Woman’s drama lies in this conflict between the fundamental claim of every subject, which always posits itself as essential, and the demands of a situation that constitutes her as inessential. How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself? What paths are open to her? Which ones lead to dead ends? How can she find independence within dependence? What circumstances limit women’s freedom and can she overcome them? These are the fundamental questions we would like to elucidate. (37).
Following Beauvoir, we could say this: “feminist” is a situation or relational status. Something cannot “be” feminist. It can assist or impede our ongoing reproduction of patriarchy–it can do things. Notice the questions Beauvoir asks at the end of this quote: they’re all action-oriented: What can one do? What does the material situation allow? How might one effectively change the concrete reality of patriarchy so that nobody finds themselves in this contradictory concrete status of feminization? Beauvoir’s questions are also contextually dependent: whether or not something assists or impedes the ongoing reproduction of patriarchy depends on the concrete specifics of that particular situation, how patriarchy manifests itself there and then.
So, those are a few feminist questions you can ask instead of “Is it feminist?” Do y’all have some favorites to add to the list?
Olufemi O. Taiwo — July 22, 2015
Great post. I think the action orientation point at the end makes sense to me as a methodology worth adopting. But would you also say that it or something like it is Beauvoir's view or follows directly from her view, or is it enough that her view provides us motivation to adopt this way of looking at things? If I'm not misreading, it seems like Beauvoir is talking about the ontological status of womanhood in your blockquote as opposed to, directly, about the kind of political strategy that ought to be taken up in support of such a group. I've been thinking a lot these days about the relationship between the interaction between the 'kind' of oppression and marginalization and the resultant range of appropriate practical responses, so if you have thoughts I would be interested.
Andre Brock — July 22, 2015
Just want to say that this came along at the right time for things i'm thinking about. thanks!