Thursday, January 6, 2011

Feminist Winter Term: Literature, Inclusion, and Privilege

Sorry, readers! Blogger's been acting up, but we can post now!

In which Molly and Colleen blog via Gchat a la Sexist Beatdown...even though they are sitting next to each other. (And listening to Destiny's Child.)

Colleen: So yesterday at Feminist Winter Term, we headed to the Feminist Press, where we heard from the publishers and interns who work there. They publish obscure or out-of-print works and current work relating to women's issues. One question they asked us was, "What do you read?" I think we were both feeling like we had to respond with a bunch of feminist titles, and a lot of Winter Termers did.

Molly: Talking about the literature I love with other feminists is always scary for me. I'm painfully aware of the fact that I enjoy and value a lot of literature that does not necessarily enjoy or value female characters. When one of the Feminist Press staff members asked what we were currently reading, I stopped myself before I told the group my current "affair" (one of the staffers made the brilliant observation that beginning a new book is like starting a new love affair). Bright Lights, Big City is an exceptionally written book featuring dynamic, complex male characters and exceptionally flat, one-dimensional women. Not too many feminist nutrients in this one.

Colleen: I do recall you saying that you were into the Beats and that you could be frustrated with their misogyny but still really like them. And yeah, I totally wrote a similar blog a few posts ago, but we had a really fabulous conversation following this discussion at Feminist Press.

Also I'm so glad we're listening to Destiny's Child right now.

Molly: The clothes I'm wearing? I bought 'em. No really, I did. But seriously, the intersection of the WGS department and the English department this past semester forced me to acknowledge the fact that I read a lot of literature written by the very dead white guys I get angry at in the political part of my brain. Yes, I have relegated politics and fiction (including poetry) to separate areas of my brain. An act of force and desperation. Not to be dramatic.

Colleen: No, it makes sense. And it's entirely possible, as I said before, to critically engage with something that is politically troubling and still find it very wonderful literature. And all of that is in more detail in the older post, and in even better detail on Tiger Beatdown. But I think what we were talking about before, and what we oughta be talking about now, is what we're expected, if that's the right word, to be reading.

Molly: all my independent women throw your hands up at me

Colleen: Hands up. And anyway, like when they asked us what we were reading, everyone was like, "THIS SUPER RADICAL FEMINIST BOOK BY A SUPER RADICAL QUEER THEORIST" which is totally fine, but I was like, um, well, right now I'm reading Pride and Prejudice, but after that I'm going to read The Corrections. And probably some more books by men. OOPS.

Molly: I've read a lot of feminist literature as of late, including both the pop-feminism type books that Jessica Valenti and Courtney Martin write, and some more heady, academic stuff. And I think what I struggle most with is reconciling what I believe I "should" be reading with what I really crave. Sometimes it's just not as fun for me to read books that upset me or make me think long and hard about things that need to be change; I'd rather get wrapped up in a great story, and carried away from everything for a while. Which is not to say that literature doesn't have political and social implications - it totally does! Everyone knows it does! But sometimes it's really hard for me to balance reading books that I know are IMPORTANT to read with books that I think are delicious.

I also read a lot of feminist blogs every day, and I often feel like that's my "medicine" or my "required" feminist reading.

Even though I love reading them.

Colleen: SO true. And that is particularly relevant after our visit to Bust Magazine. I know some Winter Termers found that visit frustrating because, yeah, Bust doesn't exactly cover all issues, it can be heteronormative and doesn't really consider class and race all that much. For the most part, it seems like a magazine for young straight ladies. And sure, I can say, "That's not fully feminist, there are so many things they're not covering," and I do say that, I recognize it, but at the same time...I'm a young feminist lady who likes pop culture and crafts, and liking those things (and also boys) and reading a magazine that caters to those interests doesn't disqualify me from Feminism(s) at Large. And Bust has never claimed to be a magazine for Feminism(s) at Large...they simply saw a gap in the media and decided to fill it with things they thought were awesome. They started out by making things that they and their friends enjoyed. And they can still have an impact on media and how readers and advertisers think about the ladies without necessarily approaching it on a really broad, completely inclusive scale.

And there were Winter Termers who were like, "That was so weird when they were like, 'Ooh, yeah, there's more flirting when there are men in the office,'" and I can see why they felt iffy about that, but also maybe that is true and that is how they talk and I think there is a balance one may find between running around going FUCK THE KYRIARCHY and also going LET'S BE LIGHTHEARTED. 

And I do feel awkward saying that because I know so many people who go, "You have no sense of humor/fun" when I get mad at them for making jokes, so I feel like I'm doing the same thing when I defend Bust, but...yes.

Molly: I read Bust and love it and know exactly what you're talking about. But I still struggle with the fact that the magazine seems to appeal to a very very particular kind of feminist. Although, Amy said some really interesting things after our visit about how Bust was always this way and has never tried to be anything else. Which can be okay.

Colleen: Yeah! Like no one ever said fishing magazines really oughta be covering trapping and bow hunting too.

 Actually, I have no facts to support that...nor do I think that fishing holds some kind of privilege over trapping and bow hunting OH COLLEEN THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A SIMPLE ANALOGY, SHUT UP

Molly: I think the theme here is that it's really easy to feel inadequate. Which sounds really whiney and privileged. Which makes me feel further inadequate. But I think that can be a reality in any sort of activist community - you're never critical enough of the culture, and you're always leaving someone out. Which is why I loved what Latoya Peterson said about how dangerous it is to think like or act like your feminism is the only feminism.

Or as Beyonce eloquently says, "I'm a survivor, keep on survivin"

"out of all the darkness and sadness, still comes happiness"

Colleen: Exactly! Like, engage in feminism, often in ways that are good for you, but constantly remind yourself that there is so much more to be done, and that people like us, who are privileged in every way except in our ladyness (i.e. we are white, hetero, cis, college-educated, etc, and yes, this is very much inspired by the Tiger Beatdown post "13 Ways of Looking at Liz Lemon" which remains one of my elementary feminist texts), are obligated to use our privilege to influence things beyond our white/hetero/etc sphere.

Molly: wow you are sure typing a lot

Colleen: But also, to get back to a point about literature that we started out on...whoa tangent whole blog post whoa...I don't think that being a feminist means that you must read explicitly feminist books all the damn time, which I think was the vibe we were getting sometimes. I was afraid that if I said to some of these folks that I read Philip Roth and John Updike and sometimes--gasp--I like their stuff, they'd be like "SHUN THE BAD FEMINIST." Of course I do not think this would actually have happened, like I'm sure all of these fine ladies and gentlemen read a variety of books, and the work done at Feminist Press to publish things that aren't by misogynist old white dudes (Great American Novelists to everyone else) is really important because it brings variety to the literary table. 

And today at Bluestockings, the radical bookstore where I did my internship, I thought about that a lot. Like, it's great that Bluestockings shelves really great books by ladies and about ladies and about queer theory and sex and social movements that wouldn't be so highlighted elsewhere, and also that Bluestockings provides a space for feminist people to come in and talk about feminist issues and anarchy and menstruation. But if I only read the books at Bluestockings I'd feel like my reading was one-sided. So what I'm trying to say is, it's a great place, but it shouldn't be your only source--and to expand that, feminism is awesome, and it should color everything that you do, but it shouldn't take over everything that you do, if that makes sense. Unless you want it to, in which case that's great. But for now I'll keep bell hooks next to John Updike if I want to.


Email: Colleen to Molly, 12:58 am:

Also a lot of things I thought about in the shower that I want to add in:

I don't think I can confidently say that I know a lot of things about literature, but if there is one thing I know for sure it is that we all have something to learn from each other. And I think that is probably also true of humanity. This made me think especially about debates in educational circles about what to teach the kiddies.

There are a lot of people saying that canonical works aren't exactly relevant to, say, black students at impoverished schools. And there are the people who say that many canonical works, even if they're by dead white men, are still about the human condition and can be quite universal--they say this especially about Shakespeare, and I agree. But basically this argument comes down to, "The dead white men, well, they're fine for those kids in the suburbs, but what do we teach poor kids in urban schools?" And I'm like...who says dead white men are fine for the kids in the suburbs? We should ALL be reading works by a variety of authors.

If we're going to put every writer into categories of race/sex/gender/class/sexual orientation, let's face it, every writer is going to be in a particular subset. Obviously no one is going to transcend them, everyone's going to be in some kind of permutation of categories. And to suggest that a person in one permutation can't be relevant to a reader who fits into another permutation is rather absurd. To suggest that Shakespeare and Twain can't be relevant to someone who is, unlike them, nonwhite or queer is ridiculous, and to suggest that, say, Toni Morrison isn't relevant to me just because I'm white is also ridiculous.

I know that there's a different dynamic of privilege there, but my point is that writers are generally trying to talk to everybody. I think we all recognize that despite differences in circumstance, people DO share some universal emotions and experiences, and that means that writers of all circumstances have universal experiences, stemming out of particular circumstances, to talk about with everybody else.


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