Non-overt, overt, and assumed feminism in pop culture
The great paradox of social justice movements is that they exist to eradicate themselves. Think, for instance, of the abolitionist movement. Once the goal of ending slavery was achieved, there was no more abolitionist movement. This is what we all want for our movements.
Feminism, in particular, exists for one specific reason: to overturn the patriarchy. Should we achieve that goal, there is no more need for feminism. Feminism—the belief that men and women are equal and that we shouldn't be constrained by stifling gender roles—will simply be accepted as fact. In little ways, we're achieving this bit The belief that women should have the vote used to be radical feminism, and now it's probably not generally considered a "feminist" belief, but just a mainstream idea. That's the goal. I'm not talking about "post-feminism", which is a word that basically has come to mean shoving questions about women's equality into the closet and simply accepting our half-baked patriarchy as it is. Our goal is a post-patriarchy, where feminism isn't needed anymore.
Which is something I thought about reading Lori's piece at Feministing and the piece that inspired it by Lara at f-word on the topic of whether or not non-overt feminism can be more radical than overt feminism, at least in pop culture. Lara mentioned two pieces of pop culture that were feminist by virtue of simply showing women being full human beings in charge of themselves, but in genres where this has rarely, if ever, been a given. Lori added to it by asking questions of Tina Fey's new book Bossypants, and whether or not its light feminism will reach women that overt feminism won't.
I think it's important to separate the two questions here, because what Lara is talking about is pop culture products where women's equality is assumed and doesn't have to be asserted, Tina Fey is actually a feminist but one who approaches it from a non-threatening perspective, and the feminist blogs Lori talks about are overt, threatening feminism. I would say we need all three things. Different approaches, different audiences, different concepts.
I think about this a lot because I'm not only big into music, but big into music in the context of feminism. What is interesting about Tina Fey is that she just admits what is true, which is that a woman can't put herself out there as a public figure without grappling with feminism, even if it has nothing to do with your work. No where does this strike me as more true than when it comes to female rock musicians, at least for me as a fan who is also a feminist. Rock music has traditionally not only been male-dominated but often notoriously misogynist, where women were expected to be sexually compliant fans but not aggressively grab the guitar themselves. Most of rock music history has featured women fighting the man in some way, from Janis Joplin trying to use a vulnerable sexuality to endear people to her to Patti Smith deliberately adopting an androgynous pose to compete with men to the campy aesthetics of punk and New Wave to Riot Grrrl's in-your-face anger and then there's now.
What I find so enthralling and invigorating about a lot of rock music now is that there's a creeping feeling that all this fighting and fussing has started to, well, work. At least in indie rock, we're beginning to see women who get up on stage and do their thing with distinctly less grappling with what it means to be a Woman on Stage. It hasn't gone away, but it's muted. Feminism has become less a weapon for women to assert themselves and more a fact. Women don't have to apologize for themselves in their stage presence or music, nor do they have to scream at The Man in order to earn the right, nor do they have to downplay their femininity or ramp it up in a comical way. I'm just seeing a lot more women simply be themselves in a way that was always something men got to do without question.
Occasionally, the fighting feminist in me gets a little upset. "Why," I will think, "Do I see so many women in bands and pretty much never are they screaming about sexism? I would like some of that." I have a concern, of course, because we still need feminism. There are still a lot of sexist douchenozzles to fight in the rock music world, believe you and me. Is the lack of overt feminism from women a capitulation? I don't think that it is, but I can see that for the audience it might end up functionally being one, because you don't have a soundtrack to the anger that women still very much need.
And yet….and yet I'm so happy when I see women who don't seem to feel pressure from sexist douchenozzles. In a way, having women be able to get up there and do their thing without having to fight sexism while they're at it means that the sexists have lost a whole lot of power. It's true, also, that in the past decade I've seen a distinct shift in the way male audiences react to female musicians. When I was a wee girl going to shows, and there were women on stage who had a dominate presence either in numbers or because they were playing in ways that had been previously owned by men, you would see men just not handling it left and right. It wasn't the comments about fuckability per se—sex appeal is part of being a rock musician—but perhaps that these were the sole comments and were often issued in a highly personal way that gave no credit to the woman for being a conscious performer but instead sounded more like something you'd say about someone standing at the bar.
But it was more than that. It was the tension. You can just tell when a lot of people in the audience suddenly feel lost and put off and suddenly don't know how to conduct themselves graciously, and that was always an element when I saw female-dominated bands playing throughout much of my youth. It was often more exhausting, because you could feel the emotional energy of men trying in vain not to be intimidated and failing, often fueled by alcohol that lowered their inhibitions on saying stupid shit that demonstrated their internal bullshit struggles. And then it seems that the fog started to lift, and I still credit Sleater-Kinney with this, though I never got through their shows without a few uncomfortable encounters with threatened dudes. But the last time I saw them, it was minimal. And when I saw Wild Flag, it was non-existent. Maybe I'm just oblivious now, but I doubt that.
Now I can get through entire shows where women are equal to or outnumber men on stage and no one seems to give a flying fuck. And this is both in New York and in Austin. It's like all of a sudden Dudes Who Like Rock Music realized there wasn't anything scary or intimidating about women having equal access to the stage. Like Wednesday night, I saw Cansei De Ser Sexy and towards the end of the show I realized that while most of the band is female, and they conduct themselves exactly how they want without any overt contending with the strictures of femininity, and they have lyrics that are witty and often irreverent about sex, I didn't hear one threatened comment or see one dude doing the "I'm feeling threatened and that's compromising my ability to appear relaxed or god forbid dance" manuever. And that this is typical of my experiences lately. I think the only reason I thought about it at all was that the lead singer was wearing a very 90s looking outfit and it made me think about how much has changed since then. Men and women in the audience were experiencing the same show. I don't know how else to put it. They saw the band through the same eyes, and they had fun. It was everything I've ever wanted for women who take the stage and rock out, and those of us who are in the audience and just want to enjoy seeing other women be awesome without having to contend with some dudes and their issues over that.
I can see the dangers in this, which is that when you get into spaces or TV shows or books where the world we're fighting for is finally coming into being, that is more of a fantasy than a reality. Rock shows are breaks from the real world, as are TV shows, and there's always a danger that if you think that this fantasy is your reality outside you won't have the gumption to fight. But there's also a flip of it. It can breed entitlement, the good kind. If you're used to women being completely accepted as-is in the way men are, and then suddenly you encounter some sexist bullshit, it sticks out. You are now having something taken away from you, and that can often create a bigger, angrier reaction. The problem with fighting sexism when it's the status quo is that it's hard to imagine what a world without it would be like. Having even fantasy or temporary spaces where equality is closer to a reality gives us a goal to fight for.
Plus, you know, it's our goddamn right. I want my entertainments to be fucking entertaining. I want a break from my realities. I want to go to a show or watch TV without having something or someone piss me off with their sexist bullshit. That alone is an argument for what Lara and Lori are calling non-overt feminism, but I'm going to call assumed feminism. I want someone to be able to sing a love song to me without it being full of fucked up gender assumptions. And I—we all—deserve that.
To be clear, because I know people are going to say this but you are mistaken, I'm not saying there's no sexism in rock music. As noted, there are so many sexist pigs, it's not even funny. Hipsters and dudebro bullshit continues to go strong. But the quick assumption that women on stage in dominant roles is not normal and therefore threatening and must be reacted to in some intimidated way? It's not like it was, by a long stretch. "Women can play rock music" is getting closer to where "women can vote" is right now. Doesn't mean there aren't other forms of sexism that need to be addressed, but just that this one strain is finally fading.