October 21: On Feminist Discourse

Feminism cannot be Zionist, just as it cannot be neo-Nazi—feminism that doesn’t have an understanding of how it intersects with racial and ethnic oppression is simply a diversification of white supremacy.
–Jaime Omar Yassin, “Intersectional Feminism” (June 2017)

I first encountered Yassin’s passage in Susan Abulhawa’s June 2017 Al Jazeera editorial, “The Wonder of Imperial Feminism” . It was significant enough at the time for illustrating Abulhawa’s (and Yassin’s) critique that the character designated by the United Nations in 2016 as its “Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls” would be portrayed by Gal Gadot, an actress with a militaristic past. It is significant again, now, for illustrating the fraught politics that cause feminist groups to divide along ideological lines, making it even more difficult to know what defines the feminist space.

Easy enough to agree that empowered woman and feminist are not necessarily synonymous concepts? Perhaps. More difficult to critique a privileged woman director for making empowerment choices? Undoubtedly. Even more difficult to speak against public displays of empowerment that actually undermine discursive transformation, in spite of their posing as transformative feminist behavior? Absolutely.

In the 16 months since Yassin’s and Abulhawa’s editorials, I have seen more concretely the importance of discovering alternatives to those empowerment mindsets that reify what Keya Maitra calls a “monolithic view of [rhetorical] agency” where oppressed “sisters” are given objectified status (2013, p. 366), and to overcome models of representation that are unidimensional, unidirectional discursive phenomena “located purely in the Western feminist experience, subjectivity, and consciousness” (p. 366). There has always been value in turning feminist attention from what we think we know about women’s political identifications toward how we make certain identifications possible (or impossible) for ourselves and for one other. Today, this isn’t just valuable: it’s imperative.

Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman‘s director, has gone on record stating auteurist motives that nobly and consistently align — ensuring that female filmmakers are able to direct projects at the same scale as their peers without drawing undue attention to the fact of their gender (“12 Questions” 2017, p. 56); recreating a character whose “genesis was based on Artemis,” and who stood “for truth and love”; aiming for greatness “day and night”; and ultimately promoting a “new kind[s] of heroics … like love, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, diplomacy” (“12 Questions” 2017, p. 56). On the one hand these are inarguable goals; on the other hand (once we get past the irony that the actress Jenkins cast precludes such a diplomatic characterization), their inarguability may cloak the need for feminists to spend more time interrogating our own epistemologies.

I think what we need even more than empowerment discourse in our current zeitgeist is an awareness of how we and others “formulate [discursive] choices” (Maitra, 2013, p. 361) whether or not we are empathetic to those choices. We also need a stronger desire to achieve a “feminist self-consciousness that provides the location of feminist consciousness” (p. 361). This double-consciousness is difficult for me to recognize in contemporary discursive spaces.

If only feminist critique could act more like feminist historiography: demanding that we consider who or what might be harmed through certain empowerment discourses, and at what point in whose histories the harming has occurred. For Abulhawa, a Palestinian journalist who came of age during Marvel’s empowered depictions of Wonder Woman, thoughtless critique of disempowerment is almost as as harmful as no critique at all. To notice the slayers of “others” requires more than an ideological statement of what is empowering in a certain moment; it requires a willingness to recognize that “othering” has its lineage as much in our inability to accommodate one another’s philosophical differences today as in the actions of gendered oppressors yesterday or tomorrow.

Insofar as feminist historiography is oriented toward making the “other” possible, it is incumbent upon feminist historiographers to develop ways of thinking — and not merely ways of knowing — about those subjects who remain beyond our representational grasp. If we do not interrogate our own notions of what feminism is and does in our professional discursive spaces, if we do not put globalized politics at the intersection of our conscious awareness and our subconscious circulation, then we might continue to promote notions of feminist activism, rhetorical agency, and disciplinary identity in these spaces that are incompatible with the systems in which women actually need to increase their discursive standing in the field and in the world.