Thursday, March 08, 2007

By opposing, end them

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 [1]. 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.

[1] 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.


Alok said...

I think you are overestimating the power of individual agency (on which the whole demand and supply is based on) and underestimating that of the corporations and the culture industry. That's the old debate about false consciousness.

What you suggest is definitely the best possible solution though, so what it looks impossibly long winded.

Falstaff said...

Alok: On the contrary - I don't believe in the power of individual agency at all, I believe in the power of collective action as form of opposition to corporations / the culture industry. Which is why we need to define specific solutions when we talk about these issues, to enable individuals to coordinate their actions in a way that makes them more effective than they would be as individuals

Space Bar said...

Falstaff: I'm not entirely sure in my mind what it is about your post that makes me uncomfortable, because there's no one single that stands out as something that I disagree with.

I think a part of my discomfort comes from an unstated assumption in your post that if a certain kind of action is not talked about, it doesn't exist.

I'm sure you're aware that women (and men) do work towards 'doing' something instead of just sitting around wringing their hands. Specifically, with regard to sexual harassment, the Vishakha Guidelines have done much for women everywhere in India. Everywhere, womens groups work to provide shelter for abused women, they conduct workshops in slums, urban poor areas, in colleges.

Perhaps it says something about the power of the media to control flows of information without anyone being aware of it, that you make no mention of these people who have acted, in your post.

The sad truth is that any writing that is important, affects policy, our lives and available recourse in law, make for terrible reading. We'd rather know about Hurley and Nayar, or waste our time in useless debates about Shilpa Shetty and Big Brother; the second gives us a glowing feeling of being involved with the big issues of our times.

If it's not dumbed down, or fun, we don't want to read it. That could be one reason why much of what is happening is not reported.

Falstaff said...

space bar: See footnote. I'm making no such assumption, and am perfectly well aware of a number of organisations doing excellent work on women's rights (though I have to admit I'm not aware of any organisations taking any real action on the specific issue of gender stereotypes being propagated by women's magazines - if they exist, I'd love to hear about them). This post is attacking a specific attitude that I find annoying. It's NOT in any way a comment on the women's movement / feminism in general.

Shirsha said...

For a long time, till I came to your 7th paragh, I sniggerred that this was yet another of those that said 'stop showing me what happened, show instead what I should do' and yet didn't really show what I should do. Thankfully things changed there and as I read on, my snigger got replaced with that half smile I have on for 'what does he know' kinda stuff.
You only doubt that the burning-mags/get-alternate-mags will work, am fully sure that it wont. Simply because women, 90% of them, get entertained by those sorts and will surely prefer a femina-cosmo to the alternate mag the remaining 10% might come up with. I'd love to get regional here and tell you where the ratio is 90:10 and where it might be dangerously, frustratingly, 60:40, but am going to avoid that. The problem is in the pre-conditioned, numbed-forever minds of women, from where I come. Before women change the way they think, it might be of little use thinking monsters of men.
Would a better solution be that of educating kids in school the right way, before there minds start off on the paths of their mom's ways? That again is tough, because only a handful of teachers understand the importance of this deal....

Falstaff said...

shirsha: Oh absolutely - it is a tough problem and I don't pretend to know what the right answer is. My point is simply that discussing what the solution could be, which is what we're now doing, is what's most useful. A hell of a lot more useful, I think you'll agree, than hoping that corporates will change their ways and do the right thing. We can't know for certain, in advance, whether a given change initiative will work or not. We can do our best to make sure that we're going about it in a way that maximises the probability, however small it might be.

I share your sense that very few women understand the issues involved and there's a great deal of awareness about these issues that needs to be generated. That's really the point of the magazine burning / convincing your friends not to buy Femina / Cosmo - to generate awareness and get more women thinking about the issue. The point is that that thinking is more likely to happen when the discussion is linked to a specific action. And yes, targeting schools may be a good idea as well.

Space Bar said...

Falstaff: I don't know about organisations; I know individual people who work with film and do workshops on representation of woman in the media.

But Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and in a more limited way, Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth have done a lot to bring attention to what was buried under the carpet for the longest time.

Of course, the NYT reviewer who wrote about Friedan's book had this to say way back in 1963:

"Writing in The New York Times Book Review in April 1963, Lucy Freeman called "The Feminine Mystique" a "highly readable, provocative book," but went on to question its basic premise, writing, of Ms. Friedan:
"Sweeping generalities, in which this book necessarily abounds, may hold a certain amount of truth but often obscure the deeper issues. It is superficial to blame the 'culture' and its handmaidens, the women's magazines, as she does. What is to stop a woman who is interested in national and international affairs from reading magazines that deal with those subjects? To paraphrase a famous line, 'The fault, dear Mrs. Friedan, is not in our culture, but in ourselves.' "

(the whole review here:

Plus ca change!

Space Bar said...

er..that's 'swept under the carpet'. yikes!

J. Alfred Prufrock said...



Wendelin said...

Falstaff, I'm on board with you and your irritation with the 'oh look how mightly oppressed we are' sentiment, not to mention the ludicrous suggestion of oppression by magazines in the form of (gasp! unheard of anywhere else!) pandering to the LCD.

But I think you do the idea of raising awareness a disservice in your post. That IS an end in itself, which is about getting women to stand up against unfairness rather than hoping corporations have angelic hearts.

Awareness is important, and is not just a first step - in many cases, awareness is all that is necessary, because after all, we mostly interact with individuals and not Evil Firebreathing Dragons. Individuals do have brains, good hearts and the will to change if they realise they're being sexist.

And here's a tip on taking stands and writing controversial posts - try not to be so irritatingly chicken about it. You've given yourself an out for every possible accusation: you're NOT saying awareness is unimportant, you're NOT saying it shouldn't be raised, you're NOT saying things aren't being done...

What ARE you saying, at the end of the day? What can you stand behind in your post?

Falstaff said...

space bar: Ah, Friedan. Isn't it interesting that nearly a half century after FM came out we're still talking about the fact that women's magazines peddle stereotypes and these magazines continue to sell? Look, I don't want to knock Friedan. She wrote an important book that made an important point. But that point having been made, the logical next step is to talk about how we can make the content of these magazines change. What annoys me is the fact that 45 years on we're still making that point as though it were news.

Just to be clear - I'm not saying that social conditioning isn't a powerful thing, and that women can easily choose to look for alternate media. I'm saying that precisely because social conditioning is a powerful thing we need concerted and specific action to try and break it's stranglehold. Friedan isn't wrong, but her arguments are only useful if they get translated into concrete initiatives for change. If all we do with them is attend seminars where we dream about how nice it would be if corporates wouldn't do the bad things they do, then her perspectives are wasted.

It's also interesting that you cite Wolf. Have you read Fire with Fire? In it, Wolf talks about what she calls 'victim feminism' - a stream of thought that sees power as a bad thing and believes that rather than try and gain power and attack the patriarchy directly, women should work towards a truly egalitarian world where no one has power over anyone else. It's not an ideology Wolf has much respect for.


Three things I will stand by:

a) Awareness is not an end in itself - actions that raise awareness are useful, but only if they direct that heightened awareness towards some specific action / initiative. Any discussion / activity that seeks to raise 'awareness' about a problem but is uninterested in discussing what practical solutions to that problem would look like is bogus.

b) Awareness is better achieved by intiatives that combine ideology with action. Real conviction / commitment comes from getting people to make sacrifices / participate in active protests - the kind of 'awareness' that comes from having a lot of people nod along to the appropriate sound-bites isn't meaningful. If you buy Femina / Cosmo, then you are not 'aware' of the problem in any real sense, no matter how many blog posts decrying them you've read / written or how many seminars you've attended.

c) Expecting the powerful to relinquish their power without providing them the motivation to do so or matching their power with our own is a pipe dream. If we want reform to happen, we need to achieve it through coordinated action, not by relying on the benevolence / good nature of those responsible for the problem.

Un-chicken enough for you?

Amodini said...

I agree that corporations won't see the light because of their conscience - that's not how it works. However I do think Annie and BNP write important stuff because it is information. If after hearing about corporations that "censor" so to speak, I get names, will I boycott their products ? Yes, I will. Many other women will too. But we may not be in the majority.

As far as "feminist" talk (as opposed to "feminist" action) is concerned, talk is not where it should end - I agree. We are, with women's issues (in India) still in a nascent stage. And right now what we need is information. Because there are too few women believing in equality or the notion that eve-teasing is, not just boys-being-boys, but a crime. And why do most women go on believing this ? Because we refuse to talk about these issues, we tend to sweep them under the patriarchial carpet as stuff that does not matter - we do not acknowledge crimes against women. We think this is life, and we must lump it, like it or not.

People like Annie and BNP help us think differently.

". . .the idea of her having to be rescued by a knight in shining armour. ."

That's the older version. Here's the modern one.

Amodini said...

Oops, here's that link again :

Aishwarya said...

Good post, but you realise how few of our readers have even gotten to that first step. I often find myself arguing with people for ages before they even accept that women are oppressed (most of them are willing to accept that poor women are, but certainly not educated people with money), so trying to get them to END this oppression is really rather futile. Right now, in this country, at this moment, awareness is the most necessary step. I realise it's not the only step.

Also, I read your comments on those posts and Annie's replies. Interesting discussion, but for myself I'm still struggling to work out where social conditioning ends and individual choice begins. If it does.


Falstaff said...

amodini / aishwarya: See point b) in my reply to wendelin. Awareness without a path forward is meaningless - if people are refusing to acknowledge problems, I suspect it's at least partly because they don't see the point of discussing what there doesn't seem to be a way to solve. So trying to get women to end this oppression isn't futile, it's critical to creating real awareness and fostering a sense of commitment and fellow-feeling.

I'm not saying that initiatives like BNP aren't useful at all, I'm saying they'd be a hell of a lot more useful if they went beyond story swapping and tried to define a consensus on what we could all collectively do to try and make the problem better. Provide people with a common purpose and a tangible goal to work towards and they're more likely to participate. At this point, I've read both the BNP blogathons, and I still don't know what, if anything, to do about sexual harassment. What I'd really like to see is a blogathon that asks the question - how do we stop sexual harassment?

amodini: Nice. Have you read Suniti Namjoshi's work?

aishwarya: Since you reference the discussion on Annie's posts - notice that the discussion there wasn't about social conditioning vs. individual choice at all. Annie claims that women don't want these magazines but buy them only because, given corporate control, they're all that's available. That's very different from saying the majority of women have been socially conditioned to want the kind of content that women's magazines provide them. Her argument isn't about social conditioning - it's about the majority of women not getting things they consciously and actively want. It's one of the key assumptions she makes that I was disagreeing with.

Anonymous said...

The Hamlet quote isn't quite correct. It zhould be: "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?"