Kirsten Powers Might Be Right About “Illiberal” Feminist Rhetoric

Columnist and FOX News contributor Kirsten Powers has an essay up on The Daily Beast today calling out “illiberal” feminists for bearing down so hard on anyone who doesn’t agree with them that they’re effectively silencing other, non-feminist perspectives. I would normally be happy to sit back with a glass of wine and watch the online Feminist vs. Anti-Feminist shitstorm ensue in thinkpieces and in the comments section, but you know, the woman has a point.

I’ll say from the get-go that that point takes some damage from this outrageous assertion: “Strangely, while illiberal feminists treat conservative women as men in drag, men who identify as women are treated as women.” I call it “outrageous” because I consider it an outrage to classify trans women as “men who identify as women.” They are women who identify as women. Period. There’s a difference between sex (male/female/intersex) and gender (man/woman/trans* person/genderqueer/etc.), and gender doesn’t always correlate with sex. Powers has worked in liberal politics for quite a long time, but it seems pretty clear that if she considers it an insult to be called a man in drag and if she considers trans* identities invalid, she’s not progressive when it comes to gender identity. And that’s her prerogative, just like it’s anyone’s prerogative, but it’s unfortunate given the fact that trans* individuals face employment, housing, and health care discrimination on top of suffering a tremendous amount of physical and verbal violence of a type and intensity that Kirsten Powers will never have to face – all for the desire to be treated as the people they are.

There are also some false equivalences in the essay. Powers cites the rabidity of pro-choice rhetoric in liberal media and politics that claims that women politicians who oppose abortion rights aren’t feminists, then says, “Never mind that many of the Suffragettes, the first American feminists, were anti-abortion.” I mean, never mind that a hundred years has passed since the time of the Suffragettes, either, I guess, and that our norms and mores change with time, too. She goes on: “…Or that feminism is supposed to be about women making ‘choices’ which should include the choice to decide their own beliefs.” Right! But there’s a difference between having your own beliefs and trying to institutionalize your beliefs through the legislative system, thereby depriving other people of the ability to act on their beliefs. The only way for abortion to be truly “live and let live” is for abortion to be legal, and for people who don’t think abortions are moral or whatever to just not get abortions. But it’s not pro-choice people who have been on the offensive lately, is it? What with waiting period laws becoming more conservative, abortion laws closing clinics where women can get safe and accessible abortions, and anti-abortion laws putting pregnant women who have no intention of aborting their fetuses in custody?

That all being said, Powers’ essay is compelling inasmuch as it compiles the really and truly horrible things that feminist thinkers have said in the name of feminism. She points out that liberal media writers and talking heads claim that women who disagree with their politics aren’t actually women – like that Ann Coulter is called “Mann Coulter” on blogs, Patricia Ireland has talked about “authentic” female candidates (that’s some dangerous language, there), and Gloria Steinem called former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison a “female impersonator” (more extremely dangerous language!) as recently as 2012. Which goes against progressive values inasmuch as we’re not supposed to tell other people what “makes” them a man or a woman or whatever they identify as, right?

And Powers goes on to recount myriad instances in which women – conservative and otherwise – have been reduced to their bodies or looks after offering opinions or political stances that weren’t in line with feminist politics or norms. Sarah Palin was subjected to this objectification and reduction in various memorable ways, but Powers also refers to instances in which Joni Ernst and Michele Bachmann have also been called “just pretty faces” or had their looks analyzed on liberal media shows rather than their politics. Even Kirsten Dunst, who publicly supported Barack Obama and has done fundraisers for pediatric AIDS, was attacked by Jezebel as an “actress and blonde who looks good in clothes” who’s “not paid to write gender theory so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that she’s kind of dumb about it.” I mean, yikes, guys. Yikes.

Seeing it all in one place sort of crystallizes something I’ve personally been feeling more and more lately – that feminism has stooped too low. I got an e-mail a few weeks ago regarding a satirical photoset I did on my own blog in response to last year’s Women Against Feminism fiasco, specifically regarding a photo with a sign that reads, “I don’t need feminism because I have poor reasoning skills and have failed to see aggressive or defensive feminist rhetoric within the context of centuries of ongoing violence against women.” In other words, my excuse for feminist rhetoric that’s just plain mean is that women are often scared, and justifiably so, and when you’re scared you say mean things.

Except we’re not really scared of Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Joni Ernst, or Kirsten Dunst as people, are we? The logic applies when the little voice in the back of my head says, “Hell yes, I would love it if my rapist was dead.” It doesn’t apply when Keith Olbermann is saying that S.E. Cupp should have been aborted, or when we’re hate-campaigning all over social media to get Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting to back down from saying she’s not a feminist, which she did. We’re not scared when we’re getting paid to write articles pouncing on people who don’t agree with us, because we’re getting paid, which means that whatever venue is publishing our essay is tacitly lending us support.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what George R. R. Martin said about the Tone Argument in regards to the Hugo Award takeover a few weeks ago: “I am against punching and kicking. Up, down, or sideways. No punching here, please.” The idea that we should “punch up” becomes less and less appealing the more we classify as “up,” the more we classify as “power” to which we need to “speak truth,” and the more hatred and vitriol we excuse as “truth-speaking.” I know for a fact that I’m going to be archiving my blog and starting fresh, because I regret some of the sentiments I’ve employed in order to make a point (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t regret some of the sentiments I’ve employed on The Frisky, too). And I’ve been fiddling with ceasing to call myself a feminist, too, because I really don’t want to be associated with the loud minority who tend to be cruel, censorial, and proscriptive. And there’s this, too, from Joss Whedon, just last week:

“I’ve said before, when you declare yourself politically, you destroy yourself artistically, because suddenly that’s the litmus test for everything you do — for example, in my case, feminism. If you don’t live up to the litmus test of feminism in this one instance, then you’re a misogynist. It circles directly back upon you.”

And, man, that’s just not the creative or intellectual space in which I want to live. None of this – not my ruminations on labeling myself a “feminist” or not, and not Powers’ essay – is taking into account, of course, the wide field of feminist writers and thinkers who write nuanced, thoughtful work. Or, for that matter, the nuanced and thoughtful work that the writers whose cruelty Powers cites have also written. It doesn’t take into account the copious hate speech feminist writers also face all the time. It doesn’t account for the fact that when it comes down to nuts-and-bolts political arguments, many feminist agendas would genuinely be good for the American economy, American health care, the American justice system, and for the environment if enacted. It doesn’t account for the fact that what we claim to be the baseline feminist modus operandi, that everyone should be respected for the autonomous, individual people they are, is a wonderful ideal, and it just seems like common sense to espouse it.

So, I guess, the question at heart here isn’t about the words we apply to or by which we identify ourselves. The question is, are we espousing that ideal as consistently as we should be?

[The Daily Beast]

[Citizen Times]

[Bustle]

[New York Times]

[Flare & Fade]

[Buzzfeed]

[Image via Amazon]


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