Ladyists

Thaddeus Blanchette takes on the “F” word and argues for a post-feminist position in his first post for the MoSex Blog.

Dr. Blanchette is an adjunct professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and the authority on discourses of Brazilian sex tourism, trafficking and prostitution. This guest post is an expansion on Senhoraismo e Boa Mocismo, first published in Portuguese on 3/4/13 in omangue:

 

I have had a tempestuous relationship with the “-isms” I’ve supported during my life.

I was kicked out of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade for my “liberal tendencies”, for example. And, of course, there’s been many an anarchist comrade of mine who has (rightfully) claimed that they are better anarchists than me. Hell, even back when I was a high school student I got 86ed from the Honor Society because its faculty advisor, the basketball coach, was upset that I refused to follow his team to the state playoffs.

In other words, I’ve had a long personal history of not wearing the official t-shirts and getting with the program when it comes to the ideologies and worldviews that I (at least nominally) agree with. So it’s no surprise that over the last few years I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with feminism.

In fact, I have come to question whether unalloyed feminism, in and of itself, serves any useful purpose.

Now don’t get me wrong! Before you call for the revocation of my feminist secret decoder ring, hear me out!

I’m not making one of those republocrat arguments that we no longer need feminism because all the gender-based injustices in the world have been nicely addressed and women are now equal to men, everywhere. Obviously, that’s not the case. Not by a long shot.

I’m also certainly not claiming, as my distaff step-brothers in the Mens’ Rights Movement are wont to do, that “feminism has gone too far” and is now “oppressing men”.

I do believe that something like feminism, or some fourth wave variant of it, highly alloyed in intersectionalist critique with other ideologies, is indeed very necessary (I, personally, subscribe to a queer and anti-racist informed version of anarcho-feminism). The ability to contemplate reality from women’s points of view has never been more important. A critique of gender and the power relations based upon it is still an absolute necessity for anyone attempting to participate in the creation of a more just world.

But what exactly does feminism, qua feminism, stand for these days? Is there any “there” there anymore?

It seems to me that feminism – simple, basic feminism – has become so diluted and simultaneously so fragmented that it, like Christianity, doesn’t have anything coherent left to say. As is the case with Christians, there are plenty of feminists who are doing great work and are fantastic people. But, as is also the case with anyone who says they are a follower of “Our Lord Jesus Christ”, you have to take a step back these days and eye anyone claiming to be a feminist from top to bottom. You need to learn a hell of a lot more about what they believe before you can decide whether or not they’re a potential ally.

It seems to me that there is only one core component left to simple, unalloyed feminism and that’s a heroic vision of women. Note that I’m not saying that this is all there is to all possible feminisms (plural), but it does seem to be the one thing left that links feminists of all stripes.

The problem with this view, of course, is that no social category of human beings, anywhere, anywhen, is uniformly heroic. Women, like men, are creatures that seek power and are often willing to abuse it. And, even in a patriarchal society, there are plenty of power niches reserved for certain kinds of women.

In our rush to proclaim women’s rights and power, we sometimes forget that not everything women say or do is worth applauding. Women, like men, spout a hell of a lot of bullshit and create their share of oppression.

In my work researching prostitution, sexual tourism and trafficking of women, I have come across two kinds of “womenisms” that ascribe to the heroic view of femininity and are thus often well received within basic, vanilla, “one big tent” feminism. I consider these ideological forms to be pernicious and, wherever I see them popping up, I start reaching for my Emma Goldman, Judith Butler, Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza and Kimberlé Crenshaw.

The first of these ideologies might be usefully called “Ladyism”. In a classical patriarchal model, this would be the political/cultural position occupied by the wife of the Patriarch; the Lady of the Manor. This is the ideology of those feminist groups which fight for “decency” and against “obscenity”: it stipulates Big Mother as the final arbiter of all that is decent and decorous in sexuality. It is this sort of ideology which is currently fueling the debate in the Euro Parliament over censoring internet pornography.

“Ladyism” is the worldview of the “madame”, ironized in Brazilian popular music as “not liking samba”, who abuses her domestic employees and seeks a “socially useful” marriage for her daughter while decrying the “shameless sexuality of the youth”. This is the position adopted by the suffragettes of Idaho, among the first American women to achieve the vote and who celebrated that victory by proposing that the franchise be limited to “women of good repute” (whores and single mothers, obviously, didn’t need to apply). It’s the position of Brazilian T.V. mega-star Xuxa who, after three decades of sexualizing young children on her kiddie show, recently “came out” as a “victim of child abuse”, a fact which she claims has prevented her from establishing a stable, monogamous relationship with a man and which presumably led her to perform her first on-screen role in bed with a 12 year old boy.

This is the sort of feminist who thinks that prostitutes should be removed from sex work – forcibly, if necessary – and put to laboring at some sort of productive activity where they’ll be “socially included”: washing clothes, perhaps, or – if they’re Cambodian – making tourist gewgaws for Somaly Mam.

“Ladyism” is, in short, the ideology of the woman who thinks that God and the State is on her side and that all would be well if we could only just imprison, kill or enslave all of those improper deviants, sluts, layabouts and never-do-wells. For the good of their own souls, mind you. Its golden age was probably during slavery in the Americas, but it is rapidly making a comeback, everywhere.

The second heroic womanist ideology that often gets a pass in vanilla feminism is what might be called “Good girlism” (I know: I need to work on my neologisms.)

In a classical patriarchy, this would be the position adopted by the daughter of the house. It is the worldview of the woman (usually young and single) who believes that her sexual/social behavior should logically be translated into political, cultural, or economic privileges for herself. We’re talking the Disney Princesses set here.

This is the stuff Tilly and the Wall sing about in “Pot Kettle Black“. It is expressed in the placards of those women who go to slut marches declaring that they are “neither saints nor whores”,  conveniently forgetting that the entire point of the march is to fight for human rights even for those women who are perceived to be saints or whores. It’s the ideology of those people who feel that it’s necessary to distinguish between eroticism and pornography and who believe that any sexy pose of the female human body inevitably “objectifies” women (the sort of person who will tell you, ad nauseum, how much they hate market-driven “objectification”, even while they’re paying a minimum wage barista for their vente latte and browsing the internet on their Chinese-made iPad).

Increasingly, it appears to be the ideology of FEMEN, or at least of many of that group’s members.

As we march forward into the brave new world of increased state surveillance over sexual and personal behaviors, it would be wise to remember that not all people who claim to be feminists and who believe in the heroic view of women are necessarily the allies of those of us who seek greater liberty for the human soul and equal rights for all. It may be wise, in fact, to take a good, long look at simple, vanilla feminism, qua feminism, and inquire as to its relevance in today’s struggles. The time has come, perhaps, to move beyond feminism.

If you want to hang on to the security blanket the word gives you, however, then you should at least add a couple of qualifiers to it every time you use it. It would help the rest of the world know who they’re dealing with.