Feminism in Plain English

I just finished reading Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks, and while the book didn’t exactly provide me with any great new insight into feminist theory or practice (it is, after all, written as a primer on the subject), I was very enamored with hooks’ concept of a feminism that is, truly, for everybody.  Before I go into further detail on this, I would like to say that while hooks’ book was an enjoyable read, I think that it has some flaws that make it not quite as useful as it could be to the uninitiated individual or the newly initiated feminist.  The history of feminism is presented in a somewhat decontextualized, disjointed, and vague manner, some of the sentence structures are awkward, and hooks’ makes some claims about feminism and its goals that seem, at times, contradictory or just plain wrong; additionally (and extremely disconcertingly) the book lacks any discussion of trans* issues at all, and conflates the words female and woman, preferring the former to a disturbing extent.  That said, a deeper analysis of this book would take all day, and since I am far from qualified for such a discussion, and I don’t want to knock hooks as this is the only book of hers which I have read thus far, I will leave my opinion of the book as “has potential, but is problematic.”

Now, onto hooks’ suggestion of a “feminism for everybody”: several times throughout the book, hooks suggests that feminism and feminist theory have been locked in the academy, written in indecipherable language, and have consequently become thoroughly depoliticized and removed from the feminist movement on the ground.  This is a concern that has been on my mind since I tried (and failed) to read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble on my own.  This is not to suggest that what comes out of the academy is without merit, or that the academic field of women’s/feminist/gender studies has nothing to offer; quite to the contrary, I believe, as does hooks, that many great and visionary concepts emerge from this discipline (after all, hooks is an academic herself).  But, having seen something of the inside of the academy, I can safely say that access to such a space is a very privileged affair, and most people do not have the access, time, resources, or, unfortunately, interest to read dense, near-indecipherable works of feminist theory.

There are certainly arguments to be made in favor of using an academic register; I, for one, am not about to denigrate an entire field of vibrant, rich study because of its partial dependance on technical prose.  Indeed, the reliance on such jargon serves many purposes, one of which is resistance against specious counter-arguments.  Judith Butler, in fact, has even written on this very subject.  However, I am not suggesting that scholars must abandon their use of such language if we are to acknowledge them; rather, I think that we have to critically evaluate the usefulness of a body of feminist theory that is only intelligible to those who have the time and resources to be able to sit and analyze it.  Additionally, and I hate to be banal, but if feminism cannot be communicated in common speech, our views are liable to lose out to more easily communicated (and countervailing) ideologies.  This is not to imply that people are so stupid, ignorant, or lazy that they would not even consider feminism if it were not handed to them on a platter; indeed, such an assumption unfairly burdens already marginalized groups with the job of educating the privileged.  Clearly, it is the job of the privileged to educate themselves, but this cannot be done without introductory feminist materials and accessible feminist theory.

Academic feminism and publicly-oriented feminism do not have to be diametrically opposed; they could easily run parallel to each other.  The former can and should be translated into the latter so that everyone has access to the ideas contained therein, and so that feminism can reach as wide an audience as possible.  In her book, hooks proposes the idea of a feminist mass media, with feminist primers, children’s books, books on tape, TV shows, songs, and other forms of communication to spread feminist thought and theory.  This I think is an admirable goal.

I had a conversation with one of my professors at the end of last semester about this very topic (though this was before I had read hooks’ book).  She suggested that feminist theory (specifically in reference to Butler’s Gender Trouble) was “not ours to share”.  Perhaps there was a breakdown in communication, perhaps I implied that I want to preach feminism to the “uneducated masses”, or worse that I would deign to explain oppression to the oppressed, but something about that conversation rubbed me the wrong way.  Feminism is a liberatory ideology, a theory and practice that originally emerged out of the discussions amongst ordinary people about their everyday lives; only later, after much work by these same individuals, was it subsumed into the academy and made into the discipline of women’s studies.  S0 there is obviously a space and a need for an academic feminism.  However, if that feminism is not tied to a living, evolving, political mass movement; if it is not responsive to the critiques provided by the lived experience of real people; if it is so vague, abstract, and/or technical that it cannot be put to any practical use, then what purpose does it serve?

Feminism must be intersectional it is not feminism; this we have learned from many amazing, insightful feminist theorists who wrote for a general audience about their own lived experiences.  So why can’t feminism be for everybody more generally? Certainly there are problems with defining “general public”, and I am not suggesting that it is the job of the oppressed to educate their oppressors, but an overly academic feminism that is unintelligible and reeks of privilege serves little purpose to feminist activism and praxis.  Maybe we should begin to consider a feminism that is not accessible to everybody not to really be feminism at all.

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