Feminism, Activism and Criticism: Boobquake, Redux
Well. It’s been quite an interesting 24 hours. Yesterday I wrote a little piece suggesting that Boobquake was not the best way of going about feminist activism, and the internet exploded on us. Not at actual Boobquake levels, of course, but a flood of traffic, and the things that come with it: many people writing to tell us how much we suck, are miserable human beings, and generally awful humorless bitches who ruin everything for everyone. It was also suggested that I was sex-negative and slut-shaming, both in the comments to my original post and in another blog, which was approvingly retweeted by a senior member of the feminist blogosphere. And while I am not, in general, particularly concerned with the opinions of privileged men who want to tell me why I’m doing feminism wrong (by taking everything so seriously), I do take notice when such aforementioned senior feminists likewise accuse me of engaging in “more-feminist-than-thou-nonsense.” With that in mind, there are a few things I think I need to be clearer about than I was in the previous Boobquake post, in addition to some things I want to reiterate, and others that I just want to plain call bullshit on.
The post I wrote was not supposed to be about boobs. It wasn’t supposed to be about whether it was ok to post pictures of your boobs online for strangers to peruse or get off on. It became about that in part because of some phrasing choices I made that, in retrospect, weren’t the best. In my effort to get across the point that the act of displaying one’s body for an audience wasn’t inherently feminist—and I maintain that it is not inherently feminist—I wasn’t careful to explain that displaying one’s body for an audience also is not inherently bad, or Patriarchy-affirming, or slutty, or whatever. It wasn’t my intention to suggest any of those things, and I’ll even grant that there might be latent slut-shaming tendencies still clinging to my formerly-fundamentalist subconscious that I need to take better care to work against. I’ll own that mistake, and that’s fine. But what I won’t own is the idea that my criticism of this kind of ‘activism’ is or was thus shitty or being more-feminist-than-thou. Because, as I tried (apparently unsuccessfully, at least for many readers, the majority of whom were dudes concerned to impress upon me the need for me to lighten up) to show, it’s REALLY worth wondering what movements like Boobquake say about what feminism is or who it represents. And if we (feminists) actually take what we’re doing seriously, it seems to me that we absolutely have to take the trouble to be critical about our activism.* Not because we need to prove that we’re better than everyone else, but because the shit we do actually does matter. And when we’re in a position of privilege—as many Western feminists are, to varying degrees—it really fucking matters, because our words and actions have the capacity to harm and silence others in a way that others’ don’t.
I’ve mentioned before that while I grew up in the U.S., I live in Canada. Now, I know, as a U.S.-ian, that following Canadian politics is not typically high on the list of U.S. pastimes, and since our readership is mostly U.S.-ian, I don’t expect everyone to know the gory details of life in Canada. But there was also something going on here on Monday, and it was unavoidably contextualizing of the Boobquake scenario for me (which is why I linked to in the original post): a protest against Quebec’s Bill 94, an Islamophobic/sexist/generally ridiculous piece of legislation that will most likely pass and will punish women for wearing the niqab—all in the name of liberation. So ironically, the point here is to police women’s bodies and the clothes that they wear, only instead of telling them (all 25 of them) to cover up, like the cleric Sedighi, the Provincial government of Quebec is trying to make a law to force them to accept the supposedly liberated Canadian standards of female dress.
It is, then, disheartening to me to see Western women uncritically embracing the idea that “immodesty” (whatever that means) is necessarily synonymous with “liberated”—a sentiment that both sets up the kind of Western-arbiter-of-goodness thinking I tried to highlight in the last post, and leaves us with the sense that we can do activism just by wearing a low-cut top.
Because the thing is, just wearing a low-cut top to work, or posting pictures of your boobs online isn’t, by itself, feminist activism. It might make you feel good, and it might be gratifying (sexually or satirically), and those are real things that can be valuable for you as an individual. And of course it’s true that feminism is, in part, interested in making it ok for you to value your own gratification. But here’s the thing: conceiving feminism as just about personal gratification is a problem. It’s a problem because it suggests that if I get off (or get to make a funny/satirical joke, or get equal pay, or health insurance, or the right to vote), that’s all that matters, no matter whose subordination it’s built on. That might be Liz Lemonist, but it’s definitely not feminist.
And it appears to me that, in this case, whatever the upshot of Boobquake was, it was built precisely on the other-ing of people who are already disenfranchised in the West—a fact that is attested to as much in the celebration of immodesty-as-liberation as in the comparative disinterest in protests of Bill 94 (which again, took place on the same day as the Boobquake event). Fellow Canada-based blogger Switchintoglide puts it well:
Therefore I ask: why is it so easy for feminists to organise around a chance to show off some cleavage in order to belittle one man overseas who would police the lives of Muslim women, whereas it is so difficult to get feminists to organise around a chance to protest a powerful provincial government who would police the lives of Muslim women?
To quote the above statement from the Simone de Beauvoir Institute about Bill 94:
“As feminists, we are committed to supporting bodily and personal autonomy for all women, as well as all women’s capacity to understand and articulate their experiences of oppression on their own terms.”
Or at least we SHOULD BE committed to doing so, but we are really just paying intersectionality lip service when we pull stunts like these Boob-, Brain-, and Fem- quakes. I am sure there is a good idea there, but the cause around which we’ve rallied — the “othering” and demeaning of Islam as backward and oppressive — fuels wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, racist immigration laws, racial profiling in airports, and legislation like Bill 94. My feminism won’t be complicit in that.
So I have to tell you that I’ve wondered quite a bit about what “my feminism” looks like in the past 24 hours. I’ve asked myself some hard questions about internalized misogyny—and also whether I’m going to just agree with the idea that anything someone wants to do, whether out of a desire to produce activism or satire, is a good thing for feminist causes. I’ve wondered about what “our” feminism looks like, and whether it’s really just paying lip service to intersectionality. And frankly, in some ways it’s difficult to avoid that conclusion. I don’t, for example, think it’s an accident that when we write about trans health, or immigration, or racism, that no one gives a shit, while the mere mention of the fucking Boobquake brings everyone out of the woodwork. And I don’t think that this is a trend we’re alone in, as I’ve noticed it a bit throughout the feminist blogosphere.
This is a problem. It’s not a problem because I’m soooo much more awesome at being intersectional than you. I’m not trying to hold myself up as an example here; I agreed that I made a mistake by not being clearer in my last post. But I am saying that there’s something legitimate to worry about in the Boobquake situation—not in the pearl-clutching way, but in the “hey, this maybe isn’t doing the thing that it’s supposed to be doing” way, or even the “hey, what you’re doing right now is patronizing and demeaning of a bunch of people” way. And I think that if we can’t fucking say that, if we can’t wonder about whether our words and actions have (even unforeseen) effects that are actually counter-productive to feminist or anti-oppressive goals…well, then, I’m not sure what we’re doing here.
*I am aware that the Boobquake founder does not explicitly conceive this as an activist project. I am interested in responding to this as it has been cited as an event within the feminist blogosphere.