Dawn Chorus Library: The Great Feminist Denial by Monica Dux & Zora Simic
Posted by Clem Bastow on October 2, 2008
Welcome to what will hopefully be the first in an ongoing Dawn Chorus series of book reviews/author interviews, and what better way to begin than with Monica Dux & Zora Simic’s The Great Feminist Denial (AUD$34.95, MUP), an exciting new addition to the feminist bookshelf:
Feminism, if not dead, is at least seriously ill. It is now common to hear women declare themselves ‘Not Feminists’, whereas in the 1970s it was taken as given that any thinking woman would be proud to wear that label.
What the hell happened?
In The Great Feminist Denial the authors talk with women—feminists and non-feminists, young and old, famous and not famous, child-free and with child—and use their responses as a starting point from which to refocus the key debates.
The book is a compelling read, mixing debate and a potted history of feminism, and rumination on the topic, with key interviews (with a student, a blogger, a magazine editor, and so on) to explore just what condition feminism’s condition is in, essentially with regards to Australian women, but also women in general.
Dux and Simic’s careful melding of personal reflection (I particularly enjoyed their misty watercolour memories of being University feminists making ‘I Love My Cunt’ badges). The authors attempt to dismantle the “straw feminist” myths and stereotypes that have come to populate the general consciousness whenever feminism is discussed – the “HLL – hairy legged lesbian”, the “media slut”, and so on – and, in a move that I think is very important, discuss the media’s influence on people’s interpretation of just what feminism was, is, has done and is doing. Is feminism responsible for “raunch culture”? Do feminists make “better girlfriends”?
The book tackles many of the media’s favourite issues that have arisen in the past decade or so with regards to women – the apparent pornification of sex, the proliferation of Caesarian births and the “too posh to push” debate, motherhood, work, asking whether Muslim women can, in fact, be feminists, and so on. At times this plethora of discussion topics leaves some debate a little underfed, but Dux and Simic’s determination to explore as many facets of their thesis remains compelling throughout.
Unlike, say, Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, The Great Feminist Denial doesn’t baulk at the state of affairs and run scared, whilst waggling its finger at everyone. The finishing moments of the book – which ask why, if women and men are apparently equal, women still get a raw deal on everything from pay to Third World poverty – are, if anything, rather sobering, and should be a good answer to anyone who still bothers to suggest that feminism has done all it can do.
I asked the book’s authors, Monica Dux and Zora Simic, to give The Dawn Chorus an insight into the process of putting together The Great Feminist Denial.
* * *
The Dawn Chorus: What was your formative feminist moment?
Monica Dux: “I had many formative feminist moments, but growing up I didn’t have the word “feminism” to pin them onto. I have two older brothers, and their toys always seemed more fun, boys in general seemed to have access to so much more of the world than I did. I was meant to like dolls, to be cute, to not run, to wear dresses, and it felt very restrictive. I remember at a Christmas all the boys were given these ace cars by a family friend, and I was given pink underpants. When I tried to join in with the car games the family friend’s son told me to go play with my underwear, and I thought ‘that’s just not fair’. It wasn’t until I went to university that I called myself a feminist. Up until that time it was something I’d read about, but wasn’t sure I could claim. But from the moment I did, my feminism was constantly reconfirmed. When I was 19 I bought a motorbike, and if you want some lessons in extreme sexism try being a girl on a 600cc touring bike.”
Zora Simic: “Watching the Kate Bush video to Babooshka on Sounds when I was a little girl. It had nothing to do with feminism per se, but it got me excited about being female. Generally I’d say my feminism was formed in the context of a mostly female household – I’ve got two sisters and no brothers. I got mixed messages about being a girl from my parents – my mum still loves to tell me that she was a virgin when she got married and that sex is only ever suffering, but both my parents were delighted whenever I did well at school or sports. It took going to a rough co-ed public school to make me angry about sexism.”
Along those lines, was there a particular woman – teacher, family member, character of fiction – who was a big influence on you?
M: “There were lots of teachers that impressed me – not so much through being overt feminists, but as strong women who seemed to stand up for themselves. But in terms of heroes, other than Karen Carpenter, Katie from the What Katie Did series, and Cat Woman, all the people in the spot light seemed to be men. I actually aped their lives – they were the real action heroes, they were the ones in the doctor’s coat, they were the ones who were clever and brilliant, without having to be sexy at the same time. I suppose that this in itself is an indication of how sexist Australian society was in the late ’70s and ’80s. When I was a teenager my mother gave me a book about the British suffragettes. That made a huge impression, how they were imprisoned, force fed and Emily Davison who threw herself under the King’s horse – it was all so tragic, and yet ultimately so noble and heroic. They were my first feminist heroes.”
Z: “Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, though not so much anymore – she’s a bit too long-suffering for me now. My mum was obviously a big influence, but I think I am more aware of that now than when I was growing up. She was just my mum. And the school teachers that encouraged me most were male. The women who inspired me tended to be pop-stars – after Kate Bush came Madonna and then Liz Phair. As for writing, I loved Lisa Alther who wrote the feminist classic Kinflicks which is my ultimate comfort book. I re-read it annually. And I loved Helen Garner, especially Monkey Grip. So I’m one of those third-wave types whose feminism was formed through cultural consumption. I did write a thesis on feminist activists though; the neglected ones. My favourite is Jessie Street, who was rich and privileged, but feminists of all types seemed to admire her energy and commitment – except some of the other rich and privileged types. She went to Russia, almost won the classic Liberal seat of Wentworth as a Labor candidate, campaigned for Aboriginal rights – she’s very lovable.
When did the light-bulb go off, so to speak, for you in terms of deciding to write this book?
M: “When I was pregnant I was standing in the shower, unable to see my feet, feeling like an elephant on steroids, and I thought, ‘Where’s feminism now?’ I felt so vulnerable, like no matter what I wanted to do with my life, my biology was dictating the terms. After years of living independently, I found this incredibly confronting. Feminism had seemed so clear to me when I was in my 20s, the battles so defined, but when I started looking at feminism again, thinking about it again, it seemed more complex, not least because there was this overwhelming negativity in so much of the popular commentary. I started to look back at my own feminism in the 1990s, trying to understand not just what was going on today, but also to see how many of my early ideas still resonated. More than anything it was that process, of looking back to the past to understand the present that inspired the book.”
Z: “It all happened so quickly that it’s hard to remember. Monica and I had wanted to write something together for a while. She’d just had a baby, and I wanted to write something less academic. If I remember correctly, we had coffee, started talking about feminism which we’d both worked on as PhD students and we decided no-one had written anything about in Australia for a while – and half an hour later we were at the computer writing a proposal.”
Where did the title – The Great Feminist Denial – spring from?
M: “The title was discussed over coffee with our publisher. I liked the bold statement that we’re living in an age in which feminism is being denied as a viable, healthy, ongoing politics. It’s all so much about ‘pin the blame on the feminist’. I’ve been told by other feminist authors that a lot of publishers are averse to putting the word ‘feminist’ on the cover, thinking it will turn people off. Which is a bit like saying ‘okay, the book is actually about feminism, but we’re hoping that people won’t realise that when they buy it.’ Happily MUP weren’t interested in selling the book by stealth, and were willing to come right out and use the dreaded F word.”
Z: “The book was originally called The Straw Woman, but we were worried the message was a bit muted. I was less enthusiastic about The Great Feminist Denial, but it’s grown on me. I thought we’d get asked lots of questions about it – it seems we are the ones in denial – but we haven’t really. I think it’s an attention grabber.”
You talk extensively about the misconception that feminism is finished (“where the feminists have ‘won'”); were you surprised by how many younger women feel that feminism is no longer relevant to them?
M: “This has been ramped up in recent years with the bad press feminism has been getting, and all the misinformation about what feminism and feminists stand for. But even without this distorting influence, I think we’d still find that many young women wouldn’t see the need for feminism. So many of the challenges that will sharpen their sense of gender injustice still lie ahead in their lives. When it came to researching our book, I was more surprised to find how many women actually want to be feminists, but are unsure how to claim the label. This really struck me – women who would talk about feminism and feminist issues in a positive way, but were reluctant to say they are a feminist, as if it’s a dangerous thing to call yourself. I found this rather exciting, because it’s an indication of feminism’s real potential. We’ve just got to start claiming back the label, and I think standing up and arguing against all the misconceptions about feminists and feminism is one of the keys to achieving this.”
Z: “No, I wasn’t surprised. I teach university students and most of them – especially the women – profess to hate feminism. But I also know that some of them don’t, they’re just a bit embarrassed about it. I think now the book is out it’s given some of them permission to approach me and talk about feminism without feeling anxious. What was more surprising was how many of our respondents want to claim feminism, but they don’t feel they have the expertise to qualify. It’s not the media bad image that turns them off, but a feeling they haven’t been activists or feminist academics. I shouldn’t be too surprised though – I sometimes feel myself that it is hard declaring yourself a feminist, not because it’s embarrassing or passé, but because you are asked a lot of very difficult questions, some of which you may still not have definitive answers for.”
Similarly, you tackle the concept of “post-feminism”; I was always a fan of the t-shirt slogan “I’ll be a post-feminist in a post-patriarchy”, but to what extent do you think people genuinely do think we’ve moved beyond feminism?
M: “When you look at all the systemic problems that women still face you realise how ridiculous this idea is. Yet it’s one of the most powerful anti-feminist myths, and it has seeped into many women’s consciousness. Of course the relevance of feminism to a particular woman’s life will vary from time to time. At different times in our lives we are confronted with different gender related problems, and so our focus may change, as will the solutions and support that feminism can offer. But even if you are doing well, and don’t feel you have any problems, it’s vital to remember that there are many, many women who aren’t so lucky. That’s why it’s so important to keep talking about feminism and, more importantly, about feminist issues. Awareness is the first step toward finding solutions, and the claim that feminism is irrelevant is just another way of silencing feminists and suppressing awareness.”
Z: “Obviously a lot of the rejection of the label has to do with the perception that feminism is no longer necessary and in a western, democratic country it’s easy enough to muster up some evidence to support that view – so some people will think feminism is finished *here*, but will concede it is necessary over *there* – in some country far away that has little to do with them. It’s interesting that the same people may make exceptions for the necessity of feminism in Australia or the United States for instance when it comes to ‘protecting’ girls and young women. Or for Sarah Palin!”
It’s always concerned me that the media so often co-opts and shoehorns feminism back into very conservative causes (‘feminists are better lovers!’ etc). Did you set out to shine a light on the media’s influence on how feminism is perceived?
M: “Absolutely. Feminism’s dumbing-down in the media has made a big impact. Some will argue that it’s simplistic to blame parts of the media, but when you consider that the majority of women and men get their ideas about feminism in these popular forums, I think it is important that we take it seriously. Researching the book we did notice a change in the way that the media has discussed feminism in the past 15 years. The tone of the debates has changed, as has their calibre. Sometimes I think it comes down to laziness, not to mention the inherent limitations of the form; the need to offer the reader a simple diagnosis of an incredibly complex problem, all in 1500 words. The way that single, childless women are discussed in our media is a perfect example. The logic is so simplistic, yet so compelling.”
Z: “Yes, that was one of our starting points. Sometimes the way sections of the media employ feminism is so silly that critique isn’t really even necessary – you just put the example out there. What interested us was the volume and variety of the use and abuse of feminism. It’s very easy to over-state or under-state the influence of the media – it seems to be an issue that even (or perhaps especially) feminists with expertise in media studies struggle with. We didn’t want to go too hard with the ‘mainstream media is bad!’ mantra, because we obviously consume it and even contribute to it. We wanted to use specific examples – eg. how the media picked up on raunch culture – and see where they took us. A lot of the time it led back to a conservative agenda, which did not necessarily originate with the media – eg. the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan using the liberation of women as a selling point – though some parts of the media obviously assisted in framing the issues in particular ways.”
Did you seek to temper that by also highlighting the feminist blogosphere?
M: “Definitely. Blogs are a forum where feminism is thankfully being given voice. The danger is that they can become too rarefied and so frighten away women who didn’t major in gender studies at uni. I think there can also be a ‘preaching to the converted’ effect, where groups of like minded women simply re-affirm their preexisting dogma. I am interested in ways of broadening the dialogue, of including women who aren’t yet committed feminists (but might be thinking about the issues), and of welcoming women haven’t had the privilege of a university education. It’s important that feminists are mindful of how they talk of other feminists, and to other women.”
Z: “The feminist blogosphere is obviously a very exciting alternative to much of the mainstream media. The internet was a really important in terms of the development of my own feminism. I’ve been lurking and posting in various parts of the feminist blogosphere for over a decade, and find a lot of it both inspiring and informative. Feminists have always been good at creating their own media. I think the blogosphere is also a good place to find some genuine community feeling among feminists, though it is by no means guaranteed, and some of the traditional divisions that have existed across feminisms can be amplified in the feminist blogosphere. Any person seeking to investigate the notion that feminists think with one mind should just go on-line – there’s a lot of debate, some of it fruitful, some of it not. Obviously not all feminists or feminists-to-be have access to the net, but it has created some connections where they did not previously exist. And the blogosphere isn’t just about discussing and debating issues, there’s a strong activist component in parts of it too.”
When you discuss the “Hairy Legged Lesbian”, you explore how radical feminism, in Australia at least, is to the rest of the movement as eccentric opposition backbenchers are to parliament – why then, do you think, the HLL/radical feminist stereotype seemingly looms so large in so many people’s minds?
M: “I hate to keep pointing the finger in one direction, but media depictions are an important factor here. It’s also partly due to the fact that many people are quite socially conservative, and when they see radicalism of any kind it leaves a vivid impression. Of course there’s also an element of straight forward homophobia. But the complete picture is incredibly complex. I’ve been selectively quoted on this subject, in a way that distorted my views, so I’d like to be perfectly clear about this – lesbian women and radical feminists are not responsible for the way stereotypes and caricatures have been exploited, misused and entrenched. They shouldn’t have to answer for the process of feminist stereotyping any more than a black person should have to answer for racist stereotyping. But neither should we be forbidden from discussing the fact that these stereotypes exist, and the fact that they do have an impact on many women – often less privileged women who grew up in an environment where these stereotypes were not automatically challenged. Some feminists say that we should simply refuse to engage with caricaturing and stereotyping, but to remain silent means that a large number of women will continue to be alienated from feminism. If we put ideological purity before the interests of these women, then us confirmed feminists really do have our heads up our own arses.”
Z: “The HLL has been the standard arsenal of anti-feminists for decades. Having said that, we were still shocked by how much the HLL was invoked in the surveys we distributed as one of the main reasons women do not want to identify as feminists – usually without much self-reflection about the misogyny and homophobia that animates the stereotype and gives it ongoing power and currency. It’s important to emphasise that the HLL as a stereotype belongs to an ongoing history of homophobia and misogyny – rather than reflecting some ‘truth’ about feminism’s own history. Read alongside the other feminist our survey respondents referenced most often – Germaine Greer – repeated references to HLL also indicate that women who do not conform to standard definitions of feminine beauty or behaviour are still shocking to many people. Feminists can still be shocking. This is both a depressing and an exciting fact. I’m reminded of this every time my own hairy legs cop a disapproving look on the bus – I get depressed that the sight of a female leg in its natural state is still so shocking, but I like that I can subvert the dominant paradigm just by refusing to shave. ”
“Sexualisation” and “raunch culture” – not to mention “pornification” and so on – have become increasingly used buzzwords in the last few years, but there is, of course, a sense that there is something more at play than lazy sub-editing (in other words, that there are girls who think they want to grow up and be porn stars, etc). Was that area – the fallout of the ‘sexual revolution’ – something of a minefield to wade into?
M: “Talking about sex and politics is, I think, a daunting task. It’s so easy to fall into cliché, to assume that one’s own experience is the definitive experience. One fundamental point about the sexual revolution is that it is ongoing – it didn’t start in the 1960s and end in the 1980s. At one level you can date it all the way back to the 19th century when sex became a topic of scientific research. Sex is, and probably always will be, a topic of fascination as much as one of anxiety and confusion in our society. It’s the nature of the beast – fundamental to human relations, yet impossible to control or even define. I think that raunch and pornification analyses do tap into a real anxiety, but we’ve got to be careful about how we frame the ensuing debates. It’s too easy to gloss over the underlying complexities using convenient buzzwords such as ‘raunch’. I mean, what are we really worried about when it comes to raunch? Does anyone really know what that term means? It’s so broad and so reductive as to be almost meaningless.”
Z: “Absolutely. These are issues that are very much in your face so to speak, and people have a strong visceral reaction to them. I’m reminded about this all the time. I get annoyed personally, for instance, about all the tits and arse I have to watch when I get my Saturday morning music video fix and I’m convinced there’s a lot more homogenous, naked, not my-sort-of-sexy flesh on display than there used to be (though I also get excited about the young Australian bands that seem to be dominated by females). Then again I worry what happened to the public conversations about sexual pleasure – or even sexual responsibility – that were happening when I was a teenager. What struck us most in doing the research for this topic was how quickly conversations about these issues dissolved into debates ‘for’ and ‘against’. And following from that, we also noticed how the history of relevant conversations has been recently obliterated to make way for a narrative that the sexual revolution succeeded and the feminist one failed.”
Was pitching the book a hard sell, so to speak?
M: “MUP were really sympathetic to the idea of a book about contemporary depictions of feminism. I think they, like a lot of people, saw that it was an issue that hadn’t gotten enough air time. In fact, the very day we contacted them our publisher had been lamenting the dearth of recent publications on feminism. The fact that a number of books about feminism have come out since them shows that the tide is turning, that people want to discuss these issues again.”
One thing that always bothers me is when major papers and magazines run “is feminism dead?” features; why do you suppose they’d rather pose that question than shine a light on the feminism (grassroots, online, new wave, Muslim, whatever) that is very much alive and kicking?
M: “People love a shock-horror story, the grand, dramatic narrative. The supposed death of feminism fits that bill. Many core feminist issues are not sexy: the poverty trap facing a lot of older single women, for example, domestic violence, poverty in the developing world etc. That’s why burquas and the Taliban are so much more newsworthy than (for example) the epidemic of women suffering from fistula in sub-Saharan Africa; why young girls pole-dancing get waxed lyrical when we should be talking about poverty rates among older women. Real feminist issues take time and hard work, but they don’t make great fodder for the Sunday supplement.”
The book’s epilogue is particularly powerful; what do you feel about where Australian feminism has to go from here?
M: “Firstly, I don’t think there’s any crisis that needs averting. To me, moving forward is more about shrugging off complacency. We’ve become accustomed to thinking that this new world we’ve found ourselves in is just the way it’s got to be, but we must maintain an awareness that the gains we take for granted can be taken away again. The ascendance of neo-liberalism over the past 15 years and the changes that this has wrought in our society should be a warning about just how easily this can happen. Feminism’s on-going health is crucially dependent on women being able to define, articulate and demand. And we need to hear from all women – not just those who are eloquent and confident. The pluralism of ideas is essential here. I’ve enjoyed all the feminist books that have recently been published. I don’t agree with all their ideas, but it’s exciting that they can co-exist. Not all feminism suits all women at all times. That’s a fundamental fact that so many have forgotten. It really struck me when I was researching the book, the number of women who seemed reluctant to call themselves feminists because they thought they were unqualified. Many women who did not have access to gender studies educations are wary and scared off by dogmatic, highly theorised feminism. Even women who do study feminism are often turned off by what seems like gate-keeping and dogmatism. One of the problems here is a prevalent assumption that feminism is prescriptive, and that it’s something we have to constantly live up to, like being in a cult or going to gender boot-camp. Women live with their feminist politics in many and varied ways, and we should all respect that. We need to keep talking, keep looking for women we can draw strength from, keep arguing and standing up when things are not fair and equal and just. We’ve got to stop being afraid of the feminist label, or even afraid of feminists, as I think a lot of women are. Feminists aren’t necessarily to blame for the misconceptions, but if we don’t try to correct them, who will?”
Z: “I think feminism in whatever form has tended to be most effective at local or international or transnational level. To speak of ‘Australian feminism’ has in the past meant talking about the state, which is still an important context in which to make feminist demands – it was hard not to be a little excited about the maternity leave advances that have been flagged in the last week – but that sort of state-focussed feminism has always been too narrow. I don’t subscribe to a happy-clappy ‘we-are-all-women-of-the-world’ internationalist feminism either, but I do think that generally feminists, as a diverse group, are dynamic and evolving, they’ve had to be – they learn from their mistakes, come up with new strategies, set new agendas, form new coalitions of feminisms etc. Around the world, there’s been a lot of activism around specific issues, and I can see that has the potential to be more productive than campaigning around more broadly defined ‘women’s rights’. The funny thing about researching and writing the book has been that I know feel less qualified rather than more qualified to speak on behalf of the feminist future. Not because I’m pessimistic about it – I’m not, quite the contrary. We met so many wonderful feminists researching the book. I just feel there is still so much more to do on so many levels – social, cultural, political, legislative – that I couldn’t possibly do much more in an interview than gesture to both the vitality of feminism and its absolute necessity. Hopefully our small contribution so far has been to hit pause for a moment on some particular debates in order to ponder them in more detail. I’m thinking a lot at the moment about the question you just asked. I’ll get back to you!”