Okay, so here's the deal. I've been getting complaints from people about how tame 2x3x7 is getting, how it's been a while since I said something controversial or provocative on the blog. This won't do. And since today is the day of the Blank Noise Blogathon (which I recommend you at least read, and ideally contribute to) and since everyone knows the most controversial thing you can do as a guy is criticise just about anything that calls itself 'feminism', because your gender automatically makes you suspect, I figured I might as well give it a shot.
I'm constantly appalled by how much of what passes for feminism seems to focus almost entirely on establishing victimisation, while paying little or no attention to what can be done about it . Discussion after discussion will go to great lengths to discover new ways in which women are being treated unfairly, without coming up with a single suggestion on what they can or should do about it. The general idea seems to be that once we've managed to prove that women are being oppressed, the oppression will somehow automatically go away. Push for solutions and you'll often end up with a lot of utopian idealism about how oppression shouldn't exist in the first place, and how it's up to the oppressor to correct his ways (the old "only men commit rape, so men need to stop it happening" chestnut). Try and have a discussion about practical means by which we can address the issue, and someone is almost certain to tell you that women shouldn't have to struggle to get freedoms and privileges that are rightfully theirs in the first place.
Now of course, none of this is 'wrong' in an ideological sense. Women certainly do get treated unfairly and they certainly shouldn't be. But saying a problem shouldn't exist is not a useful method of making it go away. It's unfair, certainly, but most of us stopped believing in the fairness of the world about the same time we stopped believing in Santa Claus (oops! please tell me that wasn't a spoiler). The real question isn't what we deserve but what we can get, and how. Power is rarely accidental and almost never easily forsaken. The patriarchy isn't going to change out of the goodness of its heart once it sees the error of its ways, no matter how attractive that pipe dream might seem. Any real advance towards gender equality will take considerable effort and sacrifice, and realistically, that effort and sacrifice is going to come mostly from the people who stand to benefit from greater equality. If we're going to make progress on women's rights what we really need is a plan that focuses that effort and sacrifice where it's most likely to be effective.
None of this is to suggest that creating awareness isn't important. Joan Didion, in an essay on Feminism, makes the point that at its heart the feminist movement is a class struggle. As such, creating class consciousness is a vital part of the overall agenda, but it's important to remember that it's only a first step, and in order to be useful needs to be closely tied to concrete action. It's not just that political energy tends to dissipate if left unused, it's also that genuine socio-political commitment / conviction comes from joining abstract ideas to specific initiatives. Mouthing allegiance to a cause is meaningless precisely because it's easy - actually doing something about it not only forces you to take the issue seriously, it also involves the participant in a more fundamental way. It's how political consciousness is created. Making women / society see why a particular rule / condition is an issue may help, but giving them something they can really do about it is much more useful.
The history of socio-political struggle is the history of successful mass movements that have tended to do two things particularly well. First, they have enabled coordinated action, tapping the collective power of the oppressed by aligning dispersed actors and interest groups behind a common front of specific demands. Second, they have carefully studied and understood their opposition, understanding its motivations and weaknesses, as well as their own relative strengths. That's why specifying the problem without clearly defining a solution isn't helpful, because the effort it inspires is usually too scattered to succeed. And that's why arguments that demand that large corporations or temple priesthoods or other partiarchal institutions change their ways because it's the right thing to do make me laugh. It's like the story of the damsel in distress who's being held captive in a high tower by an evil dragon. However much we may dislike the idea of her having to be rescued by a knight in shining armour, expecting the dragon to see the error of his fire-breathing ways and set her free of his own free will is even sillier.
Take these posts over at Known Turf that I've been commenting on for a while. In them, Ms. Zaidi points to the way women's magazines propagate stereotypical images of women and provide meaningless bubble-gum content. One reason for this, Ms. Zaidi claims, is that corporations advertising in these magazines choose to specify that their ads must not appear next to 'negative' content that could, presumably, be bad for their sales, a practice that she (somewhat bizarrely) terms 'censorship'. According to Ms. Zaidi, millions of women consumers desperately want, no, need higher quality content, but are being systematically deprived of this right by evil corporate conspiracies against them. And what, may one ask, is Ms. Zaidi's solution to all this? Should the millions of women who are currently buying these magazines, and funding the marketing campaigns of companies who advertise in them by purchasing their products, simply stop doing so in protest? Should we try to take out an alternate magazine that does provide the kind of content women desire / require and try and compensate for lower advertising revenues by charging customers more for our higher-value content? Not at all. It's hard to tell exactly what Ms. Zaidi is suggesting, since she seems entirely uninterested in actually discussing / debating any solutions to the issue and prefers to restrict herself to wild and completely irrelevant blather about child pornography and the starving masses, but it seems that her preferred solution is to sit back and wait for corporations to change their ways of doing things. Why even bother thinking about anything else, when that's clearly the 'just' / ethical solution? And why will corporations do this, you ask, without any economic motivation whatsoever? Why, because it's the right thing to do.
Anyone think this will actually work?
Now personally, I'm not particularly concerned about magazines like Femina and Cosmo. I see them as the kind of trite pop culture artifacts that I, and all the grown-ups I know, habitually ignore. But let's say you were really concerned about the poor quality of content these magazines were putting out there. Let's say you did want to stop them from propagating one-sided stereotypes. There are a number of things you could do. You could decide to leverage your power as consumers. Stop buying these magazines yourself. Stop all your friends and relatives from buying them. Explain to the women in your neighbourhood (if they haven't figured it out already) why these magazines need to be sent a message and stop them from buying them as well. Convince your dentist / hair dresser / local clinic to stop keeping these magazines in their waiting area. If you really feel strongly about the issue, go further. Organise neighbourhood protest meetings where you invite all the women in the neighbourhood to bring their current / back copies of these magazines and burn them in a public bonfire. Get the press to cover a few of these meetings. Get volunteers from colleges and organise pickets around prominent city book stores demanding that they stop stocking these magazines. Send a signed petition to the publishers of these magazines demanding that they include the kind of stories you want. Put together a list of advertisers who try to control content and spread it around, suggesting that women boycott their products. Do everything you can to make it clear to publishers and corporations that not meeting your needs as a consumer will hurt their bottomline. If you could get readership for one of these magazines to drop by, say, 10% among SEC A households in the top 10 urban centres, that'll go a hell of a lot further towards getting them to change their content than all the noble sentiments in the world.
Or, if you're convinced that the demand and supply of these stories exists, and it's just the stranglehold big business has on the media that's stopping them from getting out there, try coming up with the substitute. Start small. We live in an age where getting your message out there is easier than it's ever been. Start a website. Ask women what they want to read. Get in touch with people who might be interested in writing these stories (or may have already written them) but can't get them published. If it looks like you're getting a good response, try and raise funding from a social venture fund. Remember, you don't actually need to get a full-fledged magazine going. All you need to do is create enough of an impact so that the current publishers realise that there's an opportunity they're missing out on. (Personally, I doubt this will work but it's worth trying, especially before we go around blaming corporations for their reluctance to publish quality content).
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the content of these magazines isn't an issue, or that corporations aren't to blame for propagating it. I'm simply more interested in trying to figure out a way to solve the problem rather than apportioning blame for it. Nor am I suggesting that I know what the answer to the problem is. Only that I'm interested in discussing / debating what it could be. Finally, I'm not suggesting that blogging / talking about these things instead of doing them is a waste of time. Only that a useful discussion focuses on finding ways forward, rather than tracing paths back.
In the end, the question I keep coming back to is the one Hamlet famously posed to himself: "Whether it is nobler in mind to suffer / the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / and by opposing end them". We have a choice between highlighting the causes of our oppression while continuing to suffer it, or finding ways to harness our collective energy into forward-looking solutions that ask 'what can we do about this' rather than 'why is this so'. What is noble and heroic is not always practical or useful. The latest Blank Noise blogathon, we are told, is about fighting back. As we read these stories, let us certainly applaud the courage of the women in them, but let us also, and in my view more importantly, look for stories that provide a blueprint for how we could all agree to respond, for responses that could provide a more generalisable solution to the problem of harassment; let us not forget to debate how the problem could be solved, instead of focussing on what it is and why it exists. Making noise is all well and good, but let's also try to find something in the cacophony that we can say loudly, together and with confidence.
 I'm not suggesting, of course, that this is true of everything 'feminist'. Generalisations about something as broad and unfocussed as feminism are necessarily untrue, and this one isn't even a generalisation. There's plenty in the movement that is specific and actionable and that I heartily agree with. Everything I say in this post applies only to the subset of 'feminist' writing that sees raising an issue without suggesting or looking for a solution as an end in itself.