You know that nagging feeling you get when you know you should have said something but you didn’t?
The other evening, a few friends and I encountered an affable young man who engaged us in conversation. Somehow we got onto the topic of some popular film or other. I mentioned that I had found it incredibly boring and a good example of Hollywood-style masculine self-indulgence. Apparently this touched a nerve. Getting animated, he declared that *this* was the problem with feminism. For too long feminists had been teaching young men that they had to be ashamed of their masculinity. No more. That is why he now defines himself as a MISOGYNIST.
I’m not kidding – exact words. “What the WHAT????? Do you even know what a misogynist is? I don’t think you are saying what you think you are saying,” we challenged. And yet he pressed on. He was not going to let a group of “girls” (a good ten years older than him at least) tell him he had completely misconstrued not only feminism but also the meaning of this term he was going to so boldly RE-APPROPRIATE (his words). We went back and forth a bit, but I could feel some tension in the room and backed off, giving one of those “it’s all good, no harm done,” smiles. No one wants to be accused of ruining the mood.
In her book, The Promise of Happiness, and essay “Creating Disturbances,” Sara Ahmed explores the consequences of our cultural obsession with happiness as a marker of life-worth. She brilliantly exposes that way in which the pursuit of happiness becomes an imperative that “demands that others live according to a wish” (“Creating Disturbances,” 31). In other words, when we make the state of happiness the primary goal of our own lives as well as others (particularly children, partners, friends, and those who live in close proximity to us), we push upon them an emotional state this is contingent on the acceptance of socially constructed practices, behaviors, and conditions as if they are universally agreed upon (for example, the cliche that only “true love” can bring happiness). Furthermore, we (often unintentionally) police those who question or choose not to abide by these norms when we attempt to cajole them out of other emotions they may be feeling or admonish them for bringing everyone else down (I realize I do this with my own children, against my best intentions).
Those who choose to feel differently than their communities risk being alienated from them; “we become alienated – out of line with an affective community – when we do not experience happiness in proximity to objects that are attributed as being good” (34). Feminists have long been the target of this type of social policing and Ahmed remarks on the long history of the figure of the “feminist killjoy.”
You know, the one who audibly sighs when “Mr. and Mrs. [man’s full name]” is announced at the beginning of a wedding reception, or critiques the rampant Orientalism of The Mummy while you are sitting with her in the movie theater, or points out the man-obsessed through line of every SATC episode, who embarrasses you by staring down “mansplainers” at coffee shops, or who takes the bait of the belligerent uncle when he vociferously declares that Obama is a Muslim? Alright, clearly all those examples are my own, but you get the point. While I may have not been called a “killjoy,” the rolling eyes, and warnings “not go there,” and admonishments after the fact taught me – at a young age – that it’s best to hold your tongue to keep the peace. Ahmed relates much of the same personal story, and then – on a more general level – gives the example of a young bride who is pressured to smile on her wedding day even as she negotiates the irrational and oppressive demands of family members and participates in social rituals that offend her sensibilities, because after all, the happiness and enjoyment of all the guests depends on her emotional state. So she pushes back all the fears, the questions, and the concerns, reapplies her lipstick and smiles.
(I wonder if perhaps there was a similar calculation happening in President Obama’s mind as Governor Romney accused him of pushing the health care bill through Congress in a dictatorial fashion in relation to Romney’s own “glowing” record of bipartisan cooperation. Did he bite his tongue and swallow back “that’s because your party has decided to completely refuse to do the work of governance in a childish bid to take back power at the expense of not only the American people, but your OWN POLICIES?” because he knew that if he forthrightly challenged Romney on that stage he would be labeled an “Angry Black Man” and accused of being divisive?)
One response to the bad rep that feminism has gotten is to propose that the new feminism is “about letting everyone live however they want.” I hear this well-intentioned notion at least once every time I ask “what does feminism mean to you?” at the beginning of introductory courses. While this idea fits nicely into our politically correct culture (it offends no one – how could it?) it also doesn’t really accomplish anything. By making the question into one of personal choice, it sidesteps the issue of structural injustice and allows the status quo to simply maintain. “Oh, you say you’re a misogynist? Well, that’s your prerogative [insert smiley face emoticon]!”
Instead, Ahmed offers a provocative (re)definition of feminism: the introduction of disturbance into this moral and gendered economy (38-9). In other words, what if instead of smiling and moving on at those moments when condescension and offense rear their ugly heads to patrol the borders of someone’s privilege, we reign in our ingrained tendency to smile, nod, and wave it off, and instead get up and shout, “YOU ARE TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY OUT OF YOUR MIND IF YOU THINK I’M GOING TO LET YOU GET AWAY WITH THIS OFFENSIVE BULLSH*T!!!!!”? Maybe it would have ruined the mood. Or maybe it would have led us all to question the normative expectations that have been hoisted upon us. And then maybe if I would be catching up on “Parks and Recreation” rather than writing this post.
Ahmed, S. (2010). “Creating disturbance: Feminism, happiness and affective differences”. Working with Affect in Feminist Readings: Disturbing Differences. M. L. a. S. Paasonen. London, Routledge: 31-44.