The recent public stoush between Helen Razer and Jenna Price is of a kind that quite regularly erupts in feminist circles. Such eruptions are not peculiar to feminism: they occur in any ideological movement, but for some reason seem to be treated as more of a spectacle when women are involved. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer, George and Jerry reach a state of ironic hysterical excitability at the prospect of a “Cat fight! Cat fight!”
Briefly, Razer accuses Price’s Destroy the Joint movement of overly concerning itself with “everyday sexism” and likens this concern to a “cultural studies tute from 1991.” Price responds by pointing out that Destroy the Joint is involved in practically assisting women, as well as calling out media sexism. One immediate practical achievement that seems to me amazing, is that of persuading Telstra to agree to provide silent phone numbers at no cost to women who are in hiding from abusers.
Price also objects to Razer’s instruction on what feminism is, or should be. The overall impression I gained from reading both women is that they are coming from different perspectives that can, to my mind, be complementary.
Thinking about difference and complementarity put me in mind of my doctoral thesis. I wrote what’s known as a composite thesis, that is, it’s comprised of a creative work, and an exegesis. A short extract from the introduction by way of explanation:
The Practice of Goodness is a work of creative non-fiction, a memoir of some of the significant events in the protagonist’s life, written in reaction to a diagnosis of terminal illness. In the theoretical perspective offered here I discuss the central themes of the memoir. These are those of violence, both domestic and political; the role of language in cultural constructions of death and dying; and the possibility of a secular ethics centred round responsibility, forgiveness and respect for our common vulnerability.
The overarching argument of the thesis is for the embodiment of theory in practice, an argument that is symbolised both by its composite form, and the decision to theoretically interrogate the themes of the creative piece. In the creative piece, these themes are explored experientially. The actual effects of violence, of cultural representations of death and dying through the use of figurative language, and of acts of forgiveness on human life, are noted in their practice. In the exegesis, I engage with various theoretical perspectives on these practices with the goal of demonstrating that extraordinary events may be more fully understood, and finally come to terms with, if the experiential is supported and informed by a theory that lends itself to practical application in life.
To suggest that either Razer or Price confines herself to such a sharply defined position, one theoretical, one practical, would be to insultingly reduce both women. It is never that clear. Reading Price’s account of her life’s activities, I’m left with the impression of a very hands-on feminist practice, of the kind from which I have benefited enormously at times in my life, when women have offered me assistance and support without which I think I might have died.
Reading Razer, I’m delighted and nourished by her wit, and her intellectual passion, a passion expressed by many feminist thinkers and writers over decades, without which I would also have died, in this instance an intellectual death. Razer’s hilarious account of Anne Summer’s ill-informed “misogyny” call in the matter of the mouth-shaped urinals is a cautionary tale: it’s easy when seeking out sexism in media to think, based on a cursory inspection, that you’ve found it, so always check the context and the facts.
I share Razer’s passion for theory. I’m invigorated by the challenge of doing a close reading of really difficult stuff, and have been ridiculed many times for selecting something of Foucault’s as my bedtime book. At one point my passion for Michel was so great that my students trawled the Internet trying to find me a Foucault doll.
But I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’ve learned much from Butler, Kristeva, Derrida, Levinas and so many more from whom I’ve borrowed a framework, or a lens, through which to consider my life and the culture in which I find myself. Not everybody shares this passion, and why should they?
I share Price’s passion for educating women to recognise sexism wherever it appears. I know there are many women who have not undertaken cultural studies, women’s studies, or gender studies, or who do not have the tools of high feminist theory with which to decode the world around us. There are women who do not have the time to equip themselves thus, and there are women who do not have the interest. The immediate success of a movement such as Destroy the Joint indicates to me that there are women hungry for an accessible feminism that has application to the lives they lead, and offers the possibility of naming and articulating the sexism and misogyny that surrounds us. Are they middle class women? Quite likely, but so what? Middle class women are also subjected to domestic violence, rape and childhood abuse, though it is often extremely difficult for them to reveal this. The imperative to conceal such things is strong in the middle class. Who can say that beginning with “everyday sexism” won’t pave the way for the harder discussions?
I also share Price’s passion for the hands-on feminism to which I owe so much, the practical expression of the ideology Razer defines thus: “Feminism is the struggle against masculinised violence and feminised poverty.”
Although my definition inclines more towards that espoused by bell hooks:
Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.
I have very little interest in the number of female CEOs in Australia. I find the outrage at so-called “sexualisation” dangerously silly. But I do think it’s important that women continue to learn to read the signals sent to us about us, by the society in which we live. I know it all so well by now that I don’t even have to think about it. However, I wasn’t born knowing. I didn’t know how to read the signs until feminists taught me. They didn’t teach me initially through high feminist theory. That came later for me. I needed something far more accessible to get me started.
Destroy the Joint can fulfill this educative role for women, and much more.
At the same time, I frequently feel a frustration of the kind that emerges in Razer’s critique. Why are we concerning ourselves with this banal twaddle when women are still subjected to appalling violence, and unforgivable poverty? Who cares if there’s a sexist ad somewhere while at the same time a woman is being brutalised or murdered, or thrown out onto the streets? What is feminism for, if not primarily to address these most grave matters?
I don’t know the answers. I do know that not every woman can undertake the hard yards in refuges and rape crisis centres, or is in any way less for not doing so. I couldn’t do it, because it’s far too close to my bones and I would be useless in those environments. I worked for years with women who wanted to address the aftermath of their abused and lost childhoods. I think I was useful, and I know I learned much from the encounters we shared. I’ve taught feminist theory, I think usefully, but I do know that not every woman can or wants to undertake those hard intellectual yards, and I can see no reason to expect that every woman should, or is in any way less for not doing so.
I’m pleased when young women I know remark on the everyday sexism they’ve learned to identify. I consider it part of my feminist task to remember the days when I too knew nothing, was avid to learn, and sought and found women who would teach me, taking me patiently through what they already knew so well.
It doesn’t surprise me when there are eruptions among feminists. As Razer points out, we are no nicer than any other human group and there’s no reason why we should be. It annoys me that all too often a dispute among women is taken as evidence that we are back biting bitches who can’t agree on anything, and that’s good enough reason to patronize and dismiss us. Last time I checked, it wasn’t women who were starting the majority of the world’s wars, for purposes far more deadly and self-interested than ideological spats.
I want women of Price and Razer’s calibre to continue to give voice to their interests and concerns. I don’t want a world in which either of them is silenced or disparaged. Neither do I want a world in which feminist theory and practice are falsely framed as adversarial, and pitted against one another in a struggle for dominance and acclaim. When that happens, the patriarchy wins.