Stop Asking “Is It Feminist?”

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While I haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road, I have been following the various non-spoiler discussions worth great interest. It’s rare that one film inspires such active enthusiasm in my female friends, let alone a mainstream big budget studio blockbuster. Of course, there have been dissenting opinions, notably Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian, who declared that Mad Max was not feminist due to its violent content and failure to address structural oppressions.

I must admit that I’ve been tired of Sarkeesian’s often limited scope of pop culture feminist analysis lately, but her Mad Max tweets elicited a particular brand of ire in me thanks to her opening assertion that the film was categorically not feminist, despite many opinions to the contrary. It got me thinking about the nature of that most loaded of questions: “Is it feminist?”

Ultimately, I think it’s time for us to put that question to bed.

This is not just limited to pop culture criticism. The constant questioning of the most basic and seemingly benign elements of life and their feminist status has provided a backbone to modern internet based think-piece culture. You can practically set your watch to the cycle of concern-trolling articles asking if you can be a feminist and shave your legs (spoiler alert: Yes), wear make-up (yup), enjoy porn (still yes) or even take your husband’s surname (dear lord yes). While some of these articles present salient points and open up a wider contextual discussion, too often the end result is nothing but the continued guilt tripping of women for daring to live their lives.

Something that is key here is the unpacking of the concept of feminism. When someone asks “is it feminist”, your immediate response should be “what kind of feminism?” Feminism is not a stagnant state; it’s an evolving movement that grows and improves with each generation, and rightly so. Sarkeesian talks of structural oppression but the truth is there’s no such thing as one big mould of oppression that works on the same level for every woman everywhere. This notion of the amoeba of oppression we all face whitewashes over the various intersections of race, gender, sexuality, age, class, health, education, geography, and more. What may not be empowering for cishet white woman may have a deeper impact on a trans woman or woman of colour because they have differing experiences. Assuming we all face the same structures assumes we all have the same tools and opportunities to tackle them.

The most important tool of a critic is knowledge, and with that comes context. To view a piece of pop culture completely separate of its place in its genre, its industry, its creative intent and its history does a huge disservice to the art, to its audience and to those who read your criticism. For example, people like me spent years arguing whether Twilight was feminist. Reading the book and coming to a conclusion is fine, but the conversation is so much richer and interesting when you take into account its place as a genre influencer, its status as a YA pioneer, the author’s own discussions and history, the fanbase, and so on. Ignoring a sizeable chunk of opinions, like the myriad of women who loved that book and found true empowerment in it, is an act of erasure (one I have been guilty of, which I greatly apologise and hope to rectify in the future).

Asserting that something is or is not feminist can put off a lot of people from truly embracing something or from participating in the general conversation. Instead of asking such a black and white question as the be all and end all of discourse, let us ask more questions and listen to the wider context. Instead, we should ask “Why do people find this empowering, or why not?” “Who is this who could this potentially be empowering to, and why?” “What is this film doing or saying?” “Does it succeed in those terms?” “Where does this sit in terms of this genre and its history?”

At the end of the day, as Tumblr says, your fave is probably problematic so the least you can do is actually talk about it. You’re still allowed to enjoy it.

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