I try to keep up with feminist discussions online, whether through articles, opinion pieces, blogs, or social media, though I am less inclined to follow Twitter debates. A few weeks ago, someone pointed me to Dare to Use the F-Word, a podcast from Barnard College. I listened to an episode that featured Debora Spar, Barnard College president and author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, and Jamia A. Wilson, feminist media activist, organizer, and storyteller, discussing young women and perfection.
Spar penned a follow-up on young women and feminism–some college women embrace it while others are reluctant or dismissive and fail to see that their opportunities are feminism’s legacy–and it got me thinking about feminism and perfection. Specifically, if today’s women are driven to perfection, how does this simultaneously motivating and debilitating concept affect their feminism? To answer this question, I’d like to look at digital interaction because I think gadgets make it easier for us to believe in perfection, fake perfection, and maybe even convince ourselves that our carefully curated avatars accurately reflect us.
The more time I spend online, the more frustrated I get with the tone of our conversations. By “our,” I don’t simply mean feminists. I mean everyone. Anyone exposed to US media for two minutes will witness the divisiveness that drives many stories. Even on very reputable and beloved sites, some of the pieces seem designed to trigger furious argument, perhaps for the sake of driving more people to the site. And then there are comment sections, which I inevitably read even though I know I shouldn’t. I go in looking for thoughtful dialogue, which can occasionally be found, but I usually come out feeling the urge to throw my laptop across the room and never touch it again.
I’ve come to believe that sitting behind a computer screen is akin to sitting behind the wheel of a car. We get road rage. We get far angrier at people when there is a physical divider. Someone cuts me off; I yell from the safety of my car, windows closed so they cannot even hear me, heart racing, desire for vengeance taking control. That’s pretty similar to how I feel when I read something online that pisses me off. In person, when someone is rude to me, I feel upset, hurt, angry, confused–a much wider range of emotions. I scan their face and body language for cues that they didn’t realize what they were doing, didn’t mean it, or feel remorse. If I have the guts to take action, I do so in a calm, rational way. If I don’t have the guts, I momentarily feel stupid for not doing anything and then I tell myself not to let it bother me. I think of the Dalai Lama and let it go. (Sometimes that actually works.)
Online we have knock-down, drag-out fights, and I’m not sure they’re very useful. When I participate in one, I don’t feel any better at the end. I think real dialogue, hard dialogue, is best achieved in person. And this is why I don’t really follow Twitter debates. I think it’s silly try to have a meaningful, life-changing exchange through a platform that only allows you so many characters at a time, though I do understand that it’s a place where anyone can have a voice, which is particularly important for people who have been marginalized. But we have this idea now that we have to convince using sound bites or minimalist infographics. Is this a response to our presumably shrinking attention spans, or is it the reason we think our attention cannot be held for very long?
So what does this have to do with feminism? I see feminists waging these battles against each other. I see feminist pieces that seem to be more about driving traffic than taking a thoughtful look at an issue. There’s a lot of misogynistic drivel out there. Why bother responding to all of it? If some sexist loser who is not viewed as an authority writes a blog post that irritates me, why would I waste my breath (or swollen typing fingers and carpal tunnel wrists) on him? There are a lot of mouth-breathers out there that we would do better to ignore. In fact, when we respond, we’re probably given them exactly what they want: the satisfaction of knowing they’ve gotten to us and loads of page hits.
But what does this have to do with perfection? In many of these battles, the outright point is to define what feminism should be. It’s one person or group saying to another: you aren’t feminist enough, you aren’t really a feminist, you aren’t the right kind of feminist, your feminism is not perfect like mine is. (Additionally, our cultural conversation about motherhood boils down to: who is the best mother?) And it is exhausting. I say this as someone who believes wholeheartedly in intersectional feminism; gender must be viewed through the the lenses of race/ethnicity, sexuality, ability, income, and other cultural categories that define our experiences. But if someone else’s feminism isn’t intersectional enough for me, I don’t see how it helps to lash out at them or make them feel like an idiot.
By saying this, I don’t want to undermine the concerns some women of color have about some white feminists; rather, I want to be sure that those concerns get somewhere. When I talk about teaching moments below, I do not believe that women of color have any sort of duty to teach white women about race and ethnicity. As a white woman, I have a duty to educate other white folks on these issues.
Rather than help this person see the error of their ways, an attack or backlash usually puts them in a defensive mode. We end up with some white feminists scrambling to prove that they aren’t racist, for example, when they (and I) should be rooting around their own lives for racism they’ve left unchecked. It also leads people to just leave the fray altogether. I can see that a lot of young woman would be reluctant to call themselves feminists and become a part of this movement when we make it clear that if they aren’t perfect, they will be eaten alive or at least considered a failure. And with conflicting opinions about what makes a perfect feminist, what young woman could have confidence that she’s doing it right? Is Beyonce really a feminist? Is Miley Cyrus really a feminist? Is Lena Dunham really a feminist? Can a man be a feminist? Can a black woman identify as black first and woman second and still be a feminist? Can a trans woman be a feminist? Was it unfeminist of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to criticize Taylor Swift? ZOMG, can they still be feminists?
If I were twenty, I’m not sure I’d be able to find room in there. Thankfully, I haven’t been twenty in a long time. Sometimes I want to stop worrying about every possible inequality and just watch TV, and even when Olivia Pope‘s badassery takes a back seat to her love for President Grant, I’m still digging every minute of Scandal and matching her red wine intake glass for glass (okay, not really because I have to actually get out of bed the next day). But I don’t worry about my feminist credentials even though there are feminists who dislike Scandal because of the love story. Sometimes I think and even say things that aren’t very feminist because I’ve lived my whole life in a patriarchal culture and those biases are deeply imbedded, but then I recognize them and do a little thinking about how that idea didn’t get exorcised before or how that phrase (e.g., “He’s all boy”) slid effortlessly from my mouth even though I don’t like what it means.
What purpose do these online attacks serve but to tear down people who are doing good work, even if they sometimes make mistakes? I wish that instead of calling someone out, we’d look at the incident as a teaching moment. We’d share resources and connect them to people in their community who can work with them. I think we would get a lot further that way. Behind the relative safety of our laptops, we are all (not just feminists) quick to attack, but holding someone accountable does not have to include attacking and shaming.
Increasingly, the reaction I have to this divisiveness and bitterness and spectacle is to stop blogging, shut down my social media accounts, and read only print because I don’t want to contribute to that atmosphere. All I’m left with is negativity, and then I go about my day with discomfort, pessimism, and anger lodged in my chest.
Let me be clear: hate and co-opting should be called out. Rallying women around the feminist pole when you are making policy decisions like defunding Planned Parenthood is co-opting feminism for anti-woman purposes, which should absolutely be called out.
But if you believe in and work toward gender equality, but you’ve made mistakes or had moments where you didn’t fully understand your own privilege or had trouble shaking a patriarchal idea that was so normalized you didn’t realize there was an alternative, you don’t have to lay down your feminist burden and run away. Give a genuine apology and say you want to learn. Then be sure you do learn. It’s on the rest of us to be mature enough to accept your mistake as part of the learning process and support the changes you want to make. There is no perfect feminist. This is no excuse, however, to stop learning and striving.
Part of what youth is about is making mistakes and learning from them. If we demand perfection from our fellow feminists, we are pushing a lot of young people away before they have had the chance to make a difference. If we don’t believe in binary thinking, why do we view feminism in black and white? We know better. We know that, just like everything else, there are multiple forms of feminism. Why isn’t that okay? If we could drop this charade of perfection in every aspect of our lives (a more feminist venture, surely), we’d be a lot happier and we’d get more accomplished. We can have high expectations of each other, but disappointment is no excuse for abuse.
I think our devotion to image fuels the lie of perfection in all facets of life. I think it’s easy to pretend online that we’re perfect in some way because that’s precisely what we perform. We are always choosing what we reveal. I want there to be room for real dialogue in digital culture, but is that possible? Or are we just shouting at each other through closed windows?