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2014 in Review: Feminism

As is evident in Time’s dismissal of the word in November, “feminist” as a label and a movement is the site of contested views over its relatability and utility. While suggesting that 2014 has been noticeably different in the attention given to feminism might be shortsighted, the constant thrum of Twitter hashtags (#YesAllWomen and #WhyIStayed come to mind), Buzzfeed lists, and debate around who is or is not a feminist suggest feminism as a topic as an incessant presence. Year end lists naming “iconic” or “best” “feminist moments” are readily available and are indicative of what I wouldn’t describe so much as a changing conversation but rather varying threads of an embracement of what Roxane Gay might call “bad feminism” and what I am labeling as “Buzzfeed feminism.”

In her book, Bad Feminist, which I strongly suggest everyone read, Roxane Gay refers to herself as a “bad feminist” as a critique of any notion that there could be a proper way of doing feminism or that there can be a “good” feminist. Gay frames feminism as something approachable, accessible, and relevant, which is necessary as there seems to be ongoing dispute over what feminism actually entails. One particular list from Mic – “The 39 Most Iconic Feminist Moments of 2014” – could be read as either proving this point of concern over the disjointed interpretations of feminism or instead that are a myriad of feminisms that can take up that label, or maybe both.

The above list has a smattering of topics ranging from responses to attacks on reproductive health to Laverne Cox’s excellent year to Ferguson protests to Barbie’s changing figure. The list also includes Beyoncé on two separate occasions, Robin Thicke’s failure of an album, and Frozen. Beyoncé’s brand of feminism is the subject of endless critique and is discussed more extensively elsewhere, but the listing of a mediocre music album doing poorly and an inescapable Disney movie do not appear to me as “feminist moments.” In a feminist cultural studies seminar I took this semester, we spent week after week discussing what makes a film, TV show, music, or performer “feminist.” Is it the explicitly assigned label? Is it inherent in a plot? What is the role of intentionality in feminism, especially where popular media is concerned? How are we interpreting feminism? Jack Halberstam, in Gaga Feminism, references a colleague who is working on “Ke$ha feminism”—do Ke$ha’s take on sexual politics and liberatory aesthetic in terms of sex automatically lead us to feminism? What’s feminist about Ke$ha, and who gets to decide Ke$ha’s feminism?

What the list does perhaps unintentionally, and what Roxane Gay does so effectively, is to point out the complexities of doing feminism and that it isn’t quite so cut and dry, which is where what I’m calling “Buzzfeed feminism” comes into play. The list has a few references to Aziz Ansari, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emma Watson promoting inclusive feminism for everyone. While I have difficulty being frustrated with these celebrities for their promotion of feminism, what their various speeches do is to rebrand feminism as primarily concerned with women’s equality, and surprise!, men can be a part of feminism, too. While it’s hard to complain about publicity that might make feminism a little more accessible to their fans, their feminisms are also reductive. Emma Watson’s expansion of feminism to men was treated as a huge development for feminism, but feminism has long been about fighting sexism on all fronts, along with racism, classism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, among all of the forms of inequality these –isms intersect with. The rebranding of feminism via Buzzfeed clickbait and the packaging of feminism in the form of gifs and memes disregard a history of feminist work and instead we are constantly reinventing the wheel. Feminism’s ubiquity in pop culture conversation is important, but I worry if its roots aren’t traced beyond its existence as a buzzword that, according to Time, has already run its course.

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The end of “homosexual”?

The Decline and Fall of the ‘H’ Word – The New York Times

On Friday, the New York Times published an article professing the approaching end of the use of “homosexual,” describing it as a “pejorative” term better left in past decades. According to Jeremy W. Peters, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has “homosexual” listed as an offensive term. Others steer away from it because the location of “sex” in the term itself, where “gay” and “lesbian” do not contain a blatant reference to sex the composition of the words. Further, anthropologist William Leap has indicated that the “clinical baggage” of “homosexual” detracts from its functionality, noting that he does not use it in his courses and redirects students who do.

While I think this turn is not unexpected, I think the implications of this shift might not be as realized, and the academic legacies of the term might not be as flexible as the more general changes Peters discusses. As anthropologists, how do we update our vocabularies and terminologies to reflect the people with whom we work? What about people who actively identify as and use “homosexual” in their day to day lives? I am reminded of David Valentine’s interrogation of “transgender” as it pertains to people who do not relate to or utilize the term.

Further, as researchers, how do we rework our approaches to adapt to such changes? How do we shift our terminologies to be more representative of our interlocutors? For example, what do we say instead of “situational homosexuality”? What do we say to encompass activities that do not fit neatly into “gay” or “lesbian”? Alternatively, should this movement away from “homosexual” prompt us to ask different questions and leave some of these frameworks behind? Is a critique on “homosexual” also necessarily a critique on its contingencies? The future trajectories of the term will undoubtedly be interesting.

Sexuality on Orange Is the New Black

For the last few months, I have been trying to pinpoint what exactly it is about Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black that makes me uncomfortable. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Orange Is the New Black is a show that debuted on Netflix over the summer. It portrays Piper, a white, upper middle class woman who is incarcerated for drug running for a drug ring almost ten years prior to when the show takes place. She enters Litchfield, a women’s correctional facility, learns how prison culture works, and eventually negotiates her relationship with Alex, her ex-girlfriend who convinced her to carry the drugs during their relationship. Before and during imprisonment, Piper is in a relationship with Larry, who does not quite understand the changes Piper undergoes while doing time. Orange Is the New Black also focuses on individual characters who are incarcerated, exploring their backgrounds along with issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality–the show’s inclusion of a transgender character played by a transgender person deserves an entire post on its own. The show has received critical acclaim, though several critiques point to the problematic treatment of class, race, and sexuality. Because class has been covered by other critiques, I think sexuality is a productive location to instigate a discussion. But first, some more contextualization for this post.

At the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting this year, I attended a panel on problems encountered in the field by researchers invested in feminist methodologies. Multiple panel members conducted their research with incarcerated women, and at the end of the panel, one remarked that her interlocutors occasionally engaged in serious relationships with other women, though they did not consider themselves to be lesbians or bisexual. The researchers briefly discussed these relationships as being more meaningful to their interlocutors than their relationships with men, but expressed slight confusion over their interlocutors’ commitments to a heterosexual identity. The women were clearly invested in their relationships with other women. Why weren’t they lesbians?

Orange Is the New Black (spoiler alert!) presents Piper in a similar frame. Piper discusses her sexuality, albeit briefly, at numerous points throughout the season and characterizes her self as bisexual. Her relationship with Alex was and is important to her, as is her relationship with Larry. However, the other characters refuse to accept her fluidity. Nicky, one of the inmates, sympathizes with Alex over Piper being a “straight girl.” Healy, one of the correctional officers, is willing to be somewhat supportive of her so long as she projects a heteronormative persona and maintains her relationship with Larry; however, as soon as she is accused of engaging in homoerotic activity with Alex, he immediately frames her as a lesbian and withdraws his support. Even Larry can’t conceptualize Piper. When he hears of her relationship with Alex in prison, he wonders: “So, what, is she gay now?” Piper can only be one or the other.

While the conversation at the AAA meeting is reminiscent of how sexuality is depicted on Orange Is the New Black and may speak to a broader discussion on sexuality, gender, and incarceration, I think Piper’s representation on Orange Is the New Black is indicative of pervasive biphobia in media portrayals. I appreciate Orange Is the New Black’s inclusion of queer characters, but the problematic erasure of aspects of their identities is concerning. The complicated fluidity so apparent in interlocutors discussed in the AAA session does not translate to television, or at least they do not in Orange Is the New Black. Wentworth, an Australian women’s prison drama, reframes the sexual tension between the female prison governor and a female inmate in terms of power dynamics irrelevant to sexual orientation; the female governor, who is engaged to a man, is not forcefully dichotomized. Why is this an issue in Orange Is the New Black? The show depicts the complicated intersectional aspects of identities in numerous ways. Why doesn’t this complexity extend to sexuality?

Orange Is the New Black presents a number of themes I find to be troubling, from class depictions to sexual assault to its overall treatment of incarceration. The show is not perfect, but it aptly demonstrates that these various flaws are worthwhile points of discussion. For all its issues, Orange Is the New Black has held its viewers’ attention. However, Jenji Kohan would do well to note critiques and take a hard look at how the show considers sexual fluidity in addition to the various social issues that arise throughout the series.

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