Are (some) Feminists Marginalizing Themselves? As civilization advances, it naturally follows that cultural changes are inevitably forthcoming. Although much of perceptible changes in culture take longer time to develop relative to the speed of human progress, it can be healthily assumed that changes in culture will follow. The extent to which these transformations can be felt in a broader historical setting, however, depends on the level of awareness and assertiveness of active subjects that are expected to promote them by virtue of their being at the forefront of these transformations, if not by having found themselves at the most crucial point around which these changes can be set into a more mature course.
Gender equality is one critical social phenomenon around which the changes that the progress of human history has brought on has found a distinct contemporary voice. Women have become more socially engaging and demanding, a far cry from previous historical periods that placed a disquieting emphasis on the role of women, for instance, in procreation and other traditional types according to which women were to act out in society. For strict utilitarian purposes, traditional types (such as women naturally bonded to the procreative task) may serve as a function of culture that employs a naturalistic (though obviously arbitrary) view of women as they somehow exhibit an observable (though weakly reasoned) pattern in nature. It must be stressed that women were heavily considered for procreative tasks in cultures where animal domestication and agriculture were dominant modes of economy. The inference of male ideology that we may achieve from the economically induced gender connotations of husbandry, domestication of animals, breeding, etc., tends to re-enforce a cultural stigmatization of women, say, as ‘breeders’, and other discriminating cultural labels. This rather peculiar utilitarian view, however, can be challenged by more contemporary observations on the role of women in society even under so-called patriarchal structures.
Among several critical features that we can learn from the shifting views on gender issue is that the primary subjects of cultural change in gender discourse, who are expected more to advance their own cause, in different levels of articulation, agitation, or advocacy, tend to be either more curiously pragmatic or radical. These peculiarities can be observed, for instance, in the prevalence of soap operas which obviously accommodate the socially perceived expectations of the majority of the female population, the soap operas’ captive audience. While the trend along which contemporary soap operas have given voice to ‘women’s dissatisfaction with male-female relationships’ (Modleski, p. 38) in society, these TV shows do not dispute nor provoke the ‘unquestioned primacy of traditional relationships’ (Ibid.), most often, prejudicial to women. From a radical feminist point of view, these popular feminine articulations of the tensions that surround relationships are not up to much, for they inherently serve the ends for which, they would claim, patriarchal society consciously re-thinks its strategic aims. As long as male dominance is undisputed, soap operas that valorise the contemporary type of a woman conscious of her rights, self-determined, and possessing of a competitive spirit that has long been denied of her, do not aim to turn the tables on the perpetrators of her so-called false consciousness nor seek to level the social field on which gender roles could be performed without the usual biases enjoyed by males. In short, they fail to question male rationality that has of late adapted well to the equality issue by inflecting itself with still traditional expectations ascribed to males who must give out their share of compassion in these relationships (Millet, 1970, in Selden, 1993, p. 214) However, a careful treatment of the many facets of gender issues will give us a more developed stance vis-à-vis the radical feminist wave in recent history.
For instance, Kate Millet’s assertion that women are effectively marginalized in fiction (such as in those where women are subjects of erotic desires, etc.) does not see the rather compelling subtexts of even these types of fiction. Even in fictions where women are visibly eroticized subjects could be read as possessing ‘deeply deviant and subversive nature” (Selden, 1993, p. 215). That the naked woman’s body and its exposure to masturbatory gaze is a rabid promotion of male sexist ideology is true of deeply pornographic texts, but not of several serious and mature works such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. This view is similar to Jacques Lacan’s careful view of women: they are ‘fluid’, ‘playful’, ‘open’, etc. To a radical feminist, these attributes endorse a male-centering device according to which women are regarded as sexual objects of the male phallus. (Notice the sexual connotation of fluidity, playfulness, and that opening which immediately suggests what you are nearly thinking right now). However, as Selden observes of Lacan’s treatment of the female sex, it endorses a logic of openness that resembles that of poetic productivity, which incidentally, Socrates in his conversation with the young Phaedrus (back in ancient times) had already prefigured in the form of beauty, the Other of reason that is less bounded, and therefore, more aggressive in its internal pursuits, more anti-authority, such as that which could shape poetry. Certainly, the spontaneity suggestive of poetry is freer than reason (the traditional weapon of maleness, aside from the exhibitive wares of the erect penis, tight muscles, etc.). However, it is a far more credible type of feminist resistance than a wholesale rejection of male dominance, for it acknowledges the powerful subversive nature of female openness as against the rigidity of male attributes. Absolutizing the gender struggle may secretly promote that only women can emancipate themselves without, for instance, conscious males who share their cause, which would roughly be equivalent to the closure of their enabling fluid nature. Absolutization, in this light, may also indicate women have become uncanny promoters of another curious type of sexual dominance. (This view, incidentally, is shared by Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous).
This essay proposes that a pragmatic view of gender issue exhibits a more informed stance. Radical feminists may have equally compelling observations that may empower women, but their tendencies are more generative of negative subversions than desirable objective resistance. Jacques Lacan might not have seriously considered a pragmatic view of the female sex, but his careful treatment of sexuality could set in motion an objective framework from which resistance can be tactically achieved. For one thing, the effort of some feminists to defy language itself (as it has been of strategic use to male-centered connotations and dispersions of terms, labels, etc.) would have to see to it that it is possible in principle to operate beyond language, that is, the same language along which feminists decry male dominance. One may suspect a conscious will to be treated as marginal, a rather portentous will which Aristotle (in Nicomachean Ethics) had once observed of the similar desire of the slave vis-à-vis his master to become a master all along, for their interests are the same.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Ross, David. Revised by Ackrill, J.L. and J.O. Urmson. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 1980
Cixous, Helen. Writing Differences: Readings from the Seminar of Helene Cixous. Edited by Susan Sellers. Open University Press: Milton Keynes. 1988.
Kristeva, Julia. The Kristeva Reader. Edited by Toril Moi. Basil Blackwell: Oxford. 1986.
Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. Doubleday: New York. 1970.
Modleski, Tania. The Popularity of Romance Novels in Michael Meyer, The Compact Bedford : Introduction to Literature. Fifth Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s: New York. 2000.
Selden, Raman, et. al. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Third Edition. The University Press of Kentucky: Great Britain. 1993.