by Rebecca Whisnant
[Article appeared in online journal Said it -- saidit.org --, Vol. 2, Issue #9; March/April 2001]
Radical feminism is not pretty. Although it's not reducible to "atrocity feminism" (to borrow Robin Morgan's phrase), radical feminist analysis and action do require us to face down the really ugly stuff on a regular basis -- and in our current cultural wasteland of little-boy killers and "surrendered wives," there's plenty to face down.
This puts those of us teaching radical feminist theory in universities in a morally ambiguous position. For one thing, we inevitably use atrocities against women and children as a kind of pedagogical fodder, sometimes drawing uncomfortably close to the very objectification we criticize. For another thing, we're showing our students a view of the world that is likely to depress them, to alienate them from much of the culture around them, and to introduce strife into their personal relationships. (Many women students have told me about breaking up with their boyfriends during or soon after the course. Talk about being a homewrecker!)
For several years now, I've been doing a feminist slide presentation about pornography for classes, dorms, campus groups, conferences -- pretty much whoever asks me. I do it because I think it's crucial for women, especially young women, to know the truth about this massive industry that saturates their society, pollutes many of their intimate relationships, and makes their daily lives more dangerous and alienating. But I don't always feel good about doing it. As the slide show goes on, some women duck their heads, while others slink down into their seats; a few leave abruptly in the middle. Those who stay look shell-shocked afterwards. Some ask questions, but most are silent. And sometimes I wonder if I'm doing the right thing here. Am I doing them more harm than good?
But then, at least two or three women come up to me afterwards and tell me about their fights with their boyfriends about pornography, or how they felt as a kid when they found their dad's Penthouse collection, and how seeing the slide show and hearing me talk about it made them feel like they're not crazy, not just prudish and uptight. And I keep doing the slide show because I believe that understanding pornography -- like understanding radical feminist analysis in general -- ultimately makes them stronger, not weaker.
The slide show gives them a glimpse of what radical feminists have spent decades understanding more deeply: that they live under the rule of a dominant class -- men -- that gets off on power and control, that gets off on turning people into fetishized objects that can be bought, sold, and left for dead. And just for that hour, they see through the big lie of liberal feminism: that you as an individual woman can liberate yourself by being good enough, savvy enough, enlightened enough (and of course, by dressing for success). After the slide show, I can see in their faces that they know otherwise.
To hear some people tell it, young women today are just so over all those boring, second-wave, "victim feminist" issues like rape, harassment, and battering: they've been there, done that, and are chomping at the bit for new, exciting, post-modern analyses. Have radical feminists become bitter, obsolete old curmudgeons, sitting on the campus quad and railing pointlessly at the carefree, post-feminist, non-victim young women passing by?
On the contrary. For one thing, I'm only 31 -- technically part of Generation X, and certainly closer in age to my students than to the graying second-wave feminists whose writings are supposedly so irrelevant to them and me both.
More importantly, it is monumentally naive to think that most students already "get" basic feminist analysis. They're not "over it"; they're not even within shouting distance of it. Young women in most areas of the country wouldn't know a "riot grrrl" if they fell over one, let alone an analysis of rape as a weapon of patriarchy.
And finally, I've found that students -- at least the ones in my classes -- are starved for something other than the feel-good, it's-all-about-choice model of pseudo-feminism that they're exposed to elsewhere in the culture. The advertising industry tells them that a new lipstick shade will give them "power," while "freedom" can be theirs with a new variety of tampon. Meanwhile, the rest of the mainstream media assures them that feminism means climbing the corporate ladder, being free to pose for pornography if they want to, doing whatever makes them feel good and not being answerable to anyone for it. (In fact, some of them have dutifully identified this point of view as feminism and concluded -- wisely -- that it's bullshit.)
Sadly, women's studies classes too often convey this same point of view, thinly disguised. Whether it's the queer-theory, gender-performativity folks bringing on the revolution via drag parties; or the third-wave crowd confessing that they like nail polish and missionary-position sex and what of it (what, indeed?); or the "sex-positive," whips-and-leather crew selling dominance as hot and radical. . . well, sometimes I just don't recognize this movement as what I signed on for, even as recently as the late 80's. (I can't imagine what the second-wavers must be thinking.) I guess it's a lot easier to display your rebellious spirit when you're not being asked to think about (let alone do) anything particularly demanding. It's probably even easier when you can believe that whatever you're already doing is itself positively revolutionary -- or, more chillingly, that doing to others as you've been done to is really what liberation is all about.
My students, for the most part, aren't buying it. They are hungry for distinctions of value, for something besides "anything goes." They sense that their culture is seriously deranged at some pretty deep levels, and they want some way to understand and navigate the (mostly crappy) choices that this culture offers them.
What do they find if they look to more media-savvy versions of feminism for clues? Well, there's the issue of Bust magazine (media venue of the "new girl order") wherein a young woman reports on the acceptance and "empowerment" she found in high school by becoming really super-good at blow jobs. She goes on to offer a handy bit of advice: "Girls: the gag reflex is your friend. It brings up saliva and is handy for replenishing moisture for the duration." Excuse me? I guess I'm still hanging onto that staid, old-fashioned feminist idea that it's wise to opt out of sexual activities that cause one discomfort, and even wiser to be suspicious of the "popularity" that comes from providing indiscriminate sexual service to slobbering boys in parked cars.
I teach a generation of young women who are under psychic siege from a viciously woman-hating popular culture, and who are often under physical attack in their own lives. (Check out the latest numbers on teen dating violence and rape on campuses. So much for that falling crime rate.) And when some of these young women turn to self-described feminists for some relief or an alternative, they're told that the gag reflex is their friend -- not, you understand, because the reflex sparks their awareness that something gag-worthy is happening to them, but because, well, it just helps it all go down better.
From what I've seen in my teaching, most young women know what's gag-worthy when they see it, and it mostly just weirds them out to be told "swallow and look happy -- that's liberation, girls!" The good news is that radical feminism offers them something much friendlier to their well-being, their integrity, and their self-respect. But radical feminism also asks a whole lot more of them. It asks them to recognize that their choices do more than make them feel either empowered (good) or like a victim (bad). It shows them that they're located within a cultural and political system that gives their choices meanings beyond what they may intend, not to mention consequences for other people, many of whom are even less powerful than they are. And that's something that's really hard for them to swallow.
Empowerment is not just a feeling. To get power, you have to take it, and that means you need to try to understand where it is and who has it and how they use it; and you would also do well to have some positive vision of what you would do with power if you had it. This is heady and complicated stuff. It can't be glossed over in a chatroom or on a talk show. It takes time, and effort, and dedication to doing something difficult. That's why it is so important to keep teaching radical feminism -- real feminism -- in universities.
Being a college teacher is the best job in the world. I get to gather a bunch of people together for 30-plus hours over the course of a few months and expose them to radical theories they don't hear anywhere else, in a context where we can actually have some sustained discussion and analysis. Where are there opportunities for that outside the academy? I don't see many. The university is one of the few places left in America where people are still expected to pay attention to something for more than 20 minutes without a commercial break. And it makes all the difference in the world -- come December, my students calmly and cogently discuss radical feminist claims that would have made their hair stand on end in September.
This opportunity is especially precious, given that access to "speech" via media outlets requires enormous piles of money that your typical radical feminist doesn't have.
As academics, we also have to bear in mind that we have a kind of privilege that most others don't. When we say things, we're taken to be experts. Case in point: the topic on which I'm most often asked to speak publicly, pornography, is one I've learned about completely on my own -- my years of higher education had nothing to do with it. But because I have some letters after my name (well, okay, I soon will), I'm considered qualified to speak about it. Well, good -- I'm glad. But as a radical feminist, I have to make extra sure that I'm accountable, in what I say and do, to women (and men) who also have important things to say but who aren't accorded the same authority and opportunity.
Which brings me to another huge limitation of teaching and talking about feminism in the university setting: restricted access. News flash: not everyone can go to college (or even wants to, for that matter). But this is a limitation we can do something about. For instance, there could be a national network of radical feminists teaching in universities to share strategies for bringing these ideas outside the classroom and beyond the campus. (Any takers?)
I'm finishing up my Ph.D. right now, and heading out into the wild blue academic yonder in search of gainful employment. I'm hoping that I can find a place to work that will be as tolerant of my politics as my graduate department has been, and that the pressure of "publish or perish" won't wreak too much havoc with my commitments to teaching in general and to radical feminist teaching in particular. It better not, because if that commitment goes, my whole sense of who I am and what I'm about in this business will go with it.
Granted, what I do feels like spitting into a hurricane a lot of the time, but it's still way better than nothing. It means everything to me to be able to talk seriously with people -- especially with young women -- about the radical understanding of feminism as (in Andrea Dworkin's words) "a single absolute standard of human freedom and dignity." It's this simple truth -- and not the gag reflex -- that has some chance of setting us all free.
Rebecca Whisnant is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton, where she also teaches in women's studies. She is co-editor, with Christine Stark, of Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography (Spinifex 2004) and, with Peggy DesAutels, of Global Concerns: Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield).