Making Feminism Up

Debbie says:

I had an interesting conversation with a stranger this weekend; I heard that she had to get off the phone with her mother to help me make a purchase, so I said something about mothers. She told me a long story about her mother, focusing in large part on how her mother had never taken care of herself or treated herself well in any way until moving into an elder care facility, “and now she gets manicures, and pedicures, and uses nail polish!” The daughter was really excited and happy for her mother, and told me lots of details.

I was torn: this was clearly a loving story of an elderly woman who is exercising a kind of self-care for the first time, and a doting daughter who loves to see it, while at the same time I would wish other kinds of self-care for both of them. Of course, I said nothing but encouraging things.

Back in the blog world, Ampersand is responding to a recent round of criticism of his Male Privilege Checklist. (Be patient; it all connects.) The current case in point begins with his explanation of why he chose to answer yet another man who doesn’t understand or appreciate the (excellent) original essay.

Ampersand does his own fine job of responding to a wide-ranging set of naive criticisms from one reader, including acknowledging the ways in which that reader is correct, including the question of makeup, and in doing so, he reassures me in my discomforts, saying:

“A feminist movement that considers day-to-day sexism too petty to ever discuss would be ivory-tower and snobby. A well-rounded feminism – like a well-rounded life – should include many concerns and many approaches. The demand that we ignore “petty” local issues is a demand that we stop acting like human beings.”

So, thanks!

Meanwhile, his whole post is excellent. He chose not to use the term “straw feminism,” which we blogged about a few months back. I’m disturbed to see the particular straw feminist argument coming up more and more: how can you complain when things are so bad for women in the Middle East? Since no one in her right mind would deny the urgent problems women in that part of the world face (and children, and men, and everyone else), this nasty rhetorical trope works on two levels.

First, as Ampersand discusses, we have “Your problems don’t matter as long as someone else’s problems are worse.” This, of course, if anyone followed it, would guarantee that nothing ever got better, because we can only do so much to other people’s problems, while we can sometimes actually solve–or minimize–our own.

Second, we have the subtly divisive way in which this argument pits women against each other. If I want to focus on my problems, I’m a bad person because other people are suffering more than I am (which is certainly true). If, on the other hand, I focus on problems half a globe away, my life doesn’t get any better, and I’m likely to build up some resentments against the women I am theoretically helping. While it might be an oversimplification to say, “It’s all one big problem,” it is all echoes and reflections of the same kinds of problems, all over the world, being acted out at various levels of violence. For my money, anyone who is working to combat any aspect of these issues is doing good work.

And anybody who is using lipstick and nail polish to improve their self-esteem and feel better about themselves is also doing their own kind of good work, even if it’s not my kind.

2 thoughts on “Making Feminism Up

  1. I’ve never heard the term straw lesbian. I reminds me of having to eat because children were starving in China. So I ate. Are they still starving? Are they now expected to diet because children are obese in America? Does it all have that butterfly-monsoon effect?

  2. Re the “make up as evidence of, or a contributor to self-esteem” I just read an article by neurologist Oliver Sacks (The New Yorker, Oct 31, 2005) entitled “Recalled to Life: When patients suffer a loss of language, must they also lose their sense of self?”

    Sacks discusses a woman who suffered a severe stroke and ended up with permanent paralysis on the right side, and loss of most of her spoken language. With intensive help from her extended family and friends, and her own extremely outgoing nature, she managed to get along brilliantly, using mime, and a kind of picto-dictionary compiled with a therapist.

    Sacks met her several times and points out perhaps 3 times in the article her nail polish! E.g., “She was at pains to show me that her fingernails were manicured and painted.” It occurs to me that small details like this demonstrated to her and to others that she was valued enough to have someone manicure her nails–which she could not do herself. Also, the physical act of fussing over her and touching her, whether performed by a family member or a paid professional might have some therapeutic value aside from the aesthetic and cultural meaning to her and others. (Sacks seems to have been impressed–if you remember the Beth Abraham hospital, as depicted in the film or book Awakenings, this kind of decorative attention to the body must have been rare!)

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