The Poster Girls of Feminism

Preface

“…the other day, I heard they were honouring the Canadian men and women who fought at the frontline during the world wars. How can you explain that since women were not authorized to go to the frontline??? Will we hear of Caesar’s female legions and female galley slaves who of course took up 50% of the ranks of history, though they never existed. A real Casus Belli.”     – Marc Lépine

The Montreal Massacre (1989), dramatized in film in the critically acclaimed David Villeneuve feature, Polytechnique, traces the events of a fateful day in December, when 25-year-old Marc Lépine, an unstable misogynist (a description coined by IMDb), walked into Montreal’s École Polytechnique and shot 28 women, killing 14 of them and injuring another 14, culminating a seven year old plan with his own death. One of the striking features of this incident might lie in the manner in which he carried out these killings, segregating the girls from the 50 odd boys, whom he ordered to leave the class, before opening fire or even in the supposed utterance of the phrase, “I hate feminists.

Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, narrated from three different perspectives, wishes to highlight some aspects/opinions surrounding feminism, without attempting to judge or put a tag on it but rather leaving it up to the viewer to decide. The first perspective is of a man (Lépine) who blames the problems of his life on those he considers feminists, including the female engineering students he targets. The second, of a female student (Valérie) who experiences a devaluation of her work during a job interview scheduled prior to the event, focuses on comparing a relatively common (yet unfortunate) act of male chauvinism to that of the subsequent killings. The third perspective offers a stark contrast, highlighting the misplaced sense of gender (read male privilege) guilt that prompts a male student (Jean-François) to attempt to compensate for the atrocity, helplessly so. Driven to despair by the guilt of complying with the order to leave the classroom, Jean-François desperately tries to help, before committing suicide a few days later.

Almost every article that has narrated this incident conveniently forgets to mention that Lépine also wounded 4 men during the shooting, or that he had a troubled childhood and a violent and abusive man for a father, one who treated women with contempt. But then, this particular detail might spoil the picture perfect anti-feminist narrative. And therein lies the slightly flawed image of feminism portrayed via the means or faces of certain individuals (willingly or otherwise) referred to here as “The Poster Girls.”

Now, before we proceed any further, let us digress from the topic as we add yet another shoddy piece in the chronicles of feminism, a piece which attempts to elaborate upon a slightly superficial yet statutory understanding of ‘feminism’, which as such lies at the core of this piece, albeit shrouded under layers of writing concentrating upon cinema, feminist film theories and the role of social media in addressing this issue, which is at the best of times, misguided. This piece has been written in the hope that the readers shall take a moment to think about this issue before expressing their mirth and that a successful debate shall result from the same. Let’s get started.

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 1. Feminism

What is Feminism? The term “feminism” or “feminist” first appeared in France and the Netherlands in 1872 (as les féministes), before spreading to Great Britain in the 1890s, and the United States in 1910. Wikipedia defines it as, “a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment.” To elaborate further, let us refer to an article from The Indian Express, intriguingly titled, “Why Should You be a Feminist?”; a book review of Nivedita Menon’s 264 page monologue, “Seeing Like a Feminist,” which expounds on the world seen through the gaze of a feminist, from a position of marginality occupied or rather, chosen by the individual. “What do I mean by feminism?” Menon writes, “To be a feminist is to recognize that, apart from gender-based injustice, there are multiple structural inequalities that underlie the social order, and to believe that change is possible, and to work for it at whichever level possible.” While such a description might drastically vary from your perception of the red bandana garbed, overall clad, stereotypical muscular woman (or Rosie the Riveter: a radical feminist), it might be considered adhering more towards the liberal side of feminism. Yes, there does exist, a demarcation that separates feminism into two broad sectors: Liberal and Radical, brought about by groups following varying feminism-based ideologies which developed as a consequence of the beginning of the women’s rights movement in the 1920s. (Brace yourselves, the Socialist/Marxist and Black Feminism are not being ignored but will be explored at a later stage, in favour of maintaining a concise flow.) While some may have you believe that there is a very fine line between the two, if one at all, created to segregate some extremist views with regards to patriarchy and female subordination, both physical and mental, they both aim towards achieving the same goal. Now, what is that goal?

To quote a few resources, obtained from Sociology Central, UK, & Thought Catalog among other blogs and articles, which seek to explain these goals via particularly elementary bullet points and relevant cartoons, Liberal Feminists seek “equal rights” with men and believe individuals should be treated in accordance with their talents and effort, etc. as opposed to characteristics of their sex. Radical Feminism, on the other hand, advocates changing the negative connotation of a woman’s role in society into a more positive and accepting connotation, thus making the roles of men and women “equal in the human mind” and “eliminates dependency on men”, with some extremists extending the idea to even the means of conceiving. Now, if you ignore their methodology, Liberals and Radicals seemingly want the same thing: Equality. While such a source might hardly be considered an authority on feminism, it but seeks to highlight that though they might have the same goal, they have inherently different strategies, which is the point that needs to be kept in mind. So, the next time someone hollers out, “I’m a feminist” or “I hate feminists”, we’d beg him/her to take a moment and decide: Which Type?

2. The Feminist Movement- Suffrage to Sexual Politics   

Over the past hundred years or so, every discussion that has been ever been pervaded by the topic of feminism, be it over a cup of coffee or over the course of a drunken conversation (the latter being more common and decidedly more fun), be it an independent woman attempting to justify her stand or a male chauvinist out to establish his dominance, there are a few questions that are certain to arise in the back of your heads: How? When? Why? First, the When. Well, initial reports reveal that contrary to popular perception this has been going on for a while now. Quite a while. Feminists and scholars generally agree that the origins of the movement can be safely traced back to the 19th century, the documented history divided into three phases or waves.

The First Wave was a culmination of the changing trends of those times, signified by a motto carried outside the White House in 1918, demanding suffrage for women, which compared Germany, who had granted suffrage, to the USA, who refused to do so. The motto ran,

“Germany has established “Equal, universal, secret direct franchise,” the senate has denied equal universal suffrage to America. Which is more of a Democracy, Germany or America?”

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Now, this was at the time of the First World War, so one can imagine the uproar that it created, resulting in the arrest of the women protesters, who were incidentally dressed in their Sunday best, swiftly followed by public outrage, nationwide protests, rioting and violence, policymakers scurrying from the public eye, finally resulting in women achieving their right to vote. While this particular event was not the first such instance of rebellion against the established gender bias, with earlier protests in France (the 1789 march on Versailles comes to mind), Italy and Britain, it was certainly significant in paving the way for future reforms. What followed next was a dizzying blur of social, economic and political reforms. Women entered the labour market, fought discrimination, published treaties discussing reproductive rights, wrote science fiction novels and with the coming of the 40s, volunteered in support of the National War Effort. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, then there were 460,000 women enrolled in the British Services while a further 820,000 served the Soviet Union, in various capacities such as medics, radio operators and truck drivers among other things, which speaks volumes about the development that occurred over a period of fifty years or so. Whether this development can be attributed to one of the achievements of feminism, is open to debate.

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The Second Wave, set in the period of the 1960s to the 80s, dealt primarily with the political and the cultural inequalities of those times, with special emphasis on understanding the personal lives of women and interpreting them as a subset of a sexist and political power system. The slogan “The Personal is Political,” coined by political activist Carol Hanisch, became synonymous with the second wave. “Women’s Liberation” became another common phrase in this era which was marked not only by an academic shift in interests with the emergence of feminist ideologies in literature, politics, not to mention an increase in the number of women’s studies departments prompting a rise in enrollment of women in higher education but also as a response to events accused of propagating “Women’s Oppression.” The most publicised and controversial example of this issue would lie in the protests associated with the Miss America beauty pageants in 1968 and 69, with protesters branding the event a “Cattle Parade” and going as far as crowning a sheep as “Miss America.” These acts of rebellion coupled with the “Feminist Sex Wars”, a term for the acrimonious debates around the issues of sexuality, sexual representation, pornography, sadomasochism, the role of transgender women in the lesbian community, and other sexual issues which were considered taboo up till now indicated a subtle shift towards the radical aspect of liberal feminism. The debates pitted anti-pornography feminism against sex-positive feminism, and parts of the feminist movement were deeply divided by these debates.

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At this time, Socialist and Black feminism came to the fore in a multitude of ways, choosing to address issues in a manner that at times, made it hard to separate them from radical feminists. Socialist feminists criticised “Capitalism,” claiming that it had led to the amplification of conflict between the sexes. Some others claimed that women, due to their primary social attachment to the family and reproduction, constitute a class and economy of their own, based on the unpaid work in the home, the productivity of motherhood, and their function as a workforce reserve. These socialists demanded equal pay for equal work and a breakdown of the gendered division of the educational system and the labour market and worked to access and influence the institutions of society as opposed to radical feminist who criticised the institutions itself.

Black Feminism, developed as an attempt to highlight the importance of race and ethnicity, chose to distance itself from the other feminist movements, arguing that a racism model existed which remained unaddressed by the white feminists, who were in fact persecutors of black women. They attempted to highlight that submissiveness to male orders differed between ethnic groups.  In the United States, they voiced their concerns in organizations such as Black Women Organized for Action (BWOA) and the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO), addressing issues of poverty, health, and welfare. However, Black feminism also tended to diversify into different standpoints and identities.

As Charlotte Krolokke puts it, “Lipstick feminism, girlie feminism, riot grrl feminism, cybergrrl feminism, transfeminism, or just grrl feminism—feminism is alive and kicking.

The Third Wave which began in the early 1990s, while sharing certain ideologies with the second wave, aimed to address the perceived failures of the second wave while concentrating more on topics of global feminism and sexual politics. Buoyed by the confidence of having more opportunities and less sexism, third wave feminists, who generally saw themselves as strong, confident and assertive women, sought to achieve basic reproductive rights such as the right to contraception and birth control. The movement reclaimed the word ‘girl’ and sought to attract a new generation of feminists with its rebellious attitude. It simultaneously criticized sexist language, appropriated derogatory terms for girls and women, and invented new self-celebrating words and forms of communication.

Empowered by the new grrl rhetoric, which originated among girls-only punk bands such as Bikini Kill and Brat Mobile in the United States in the early 1990s, they celebrated the self-reliance and acting out of prepubescent girls and mixed the feminist strategy of empowerment with the avant-garde or punk strategy of D.I.Y.: “Do It Yourself.” In Russia, “Pussy Riot”, which is an anonymous feminist performance art group, formed in October 2011, through a string of peaceful performances, voiced their opinion on how basic rights are under threat in Russia today, while expressing the values and principles of gender equality, democracy and freedom of expression that are contained in the Russian constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the CEDAW Convention. Subsequently, two of its members were arrested and served time on charges of “hooliganism.” Post their release, they have been spotted touring the streets of London, with reporters from “The Guardian” serving as guides, while they play out their own bit parts in this narrative. Here’s a bit of trivia: Trend Micro InterScan has categorised their website (http://freepussyriot.org/) as pornography (those anti-feminists!).

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While we’ve attempted to explore feminism from a few vantage points, we’ve barely scratched the surface when one considers its influence on cinema, pop culture and our daily lives, as such. So, stay tuned for the next edition!

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