This blog post is part of the call from Gender Across Borders for blog posts written in response to the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day.
About a month ago, I posted a review of And Then Came Lola, a film that ran as part of my city’s LGBTQ film festival.
In my review, I criticized what I saw as a heteronormative portrayal of lesbian sexuality: to wit, the more traditionally feminine a character was, the more heroic she was; and any character who stood outside of traditional notions of femininity was either a bad guy or played for laughs. I expressed concern that in treating sexual desire as the exclusive right of the traditionally beautiful, this film reinforces negative stereotypes of lesbians and of women more broadly.
Well. As you might imagine (and as I might have expected), I received lots of responses to this post, including a disproportionate number of personal attacks delivered in comments below the review and in personal emails. It was suggested that maybe I have a problem with lesbians, that maybe my own prejudices are clouding my judgment, that maybe I take myself too seriously. In fact, more commenters wanted to talk about what was wrong with me than about the content of my review–about whether I had a point worth discussing.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day with the theme “equal rights, equal opportunity: Progress for all,” I want to call for progress within the communities that comprise the women’s rights movement. We know that one highly effective strategy for doing away with a political point that threatens the status quo is to twist it into a question of personal character: She’s just a man-hater. He’s just a pedophile. She’s a hypocrite, a bitch, a traitor. We know this strategy is effective because it’s been used against us time and again. Yet we’re still so likely to pull out exactly this strategy if a member of our community says something we don’t agree with or don’t want to hear.
In lots of ways, it’s not really our fault. This is a divide-and-conquer tactic built right into the fabric of our culture to maintain the subtle balances of power. It’s also a tactic that has, for many members of minority groups, been highly effective in helping them to gain a voice, position, power. If you’re not an official member of the dominant group (which in America is largely comprised of middle- and upper-class, educated white men) you can always cozy up to the dominant group by acting in ways that show whose side you’re on. This is why we hear that women are so often each other’s worst enemies: If you’re a smart, ambitious, driven woman you can lessen the threat you pose to the status quo by helping to smack down other smart, ambitious, driven women.
But, wow, talk about trading off long-term change for short-term rewards. The Brazilian revolutionary Paulo Freire calls this “horizontal violence”: oppressed peoples “striking out at their own comrades for the pettiest reasons.” If you want a seat at the table, it may very well be faster and less painful to ingratiate yourself instead of shoving your way in; but on the other hand, you have no power to keep yourself at the table once you get there. If the dominant group ever decides you’re not docile or pretty or respectful or interesting enough, they can pull the table away.
On International Women’s Day, I’m calling for more attention to the long revolution, for more attention to the difficult and complicated work of building a movement based on solidarity, mutual respect and support, and making room for a variety of voices, interests, and needs. I’m calling for more attention to the ways in which we hurt each other, diminish the voices of our comrades, use any power we gain individually as a weapon against others who would like a little bit of power too.
I’m not calling for an end to disagreement or conflict within the movement toward equality; disagreement is useful, and conflict is inevitable. But I am calling for more introspection, for more thought put into why and how and where we disagree, into why and how and where we try to silence each other in the exact ways we find so despicable when it comes from outsiders to our communities and movements. I’m calling for all of us to examine our own behavior, our own attitudes, our own understandable struggles with power, beliefs, and attitudes about ourselves and about others who have joined with us to fight for progress and equality. I’m calling for more public generosity and private compassion. I’m calling for it from myself most of all, starting now and henceforth; but I do hope that you’ll join me.