Feminism a la carte

Amy R Peloff

September 21, 2016

It feels like these are end times that we are living in. Black men are being murdered by police with impunity. Nationalist movements reminiscent of pre-WWII era fascism are cropping up all over the world. And we have somehow all become willing participants in a surveillance state, happily carrying around devices that track our every movement, and enable us to share intimate details for the state and corporations to monitor and mine. The dystopian futures imagined by George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Suzanne Collins, and hundreds of other writers of science fiction and fantasy feel more and more familiar with each passing day.

The role of speculative fiction, argues Hugo Award-winning author Kameron Hurley in her new essay collection Geek Feminist Revolution, is to act as a powerful tool for shaking us out of our mindless acceptance of our current iteration of reality — because, to quote Dr. Horrible, “the status is not quo.” Science fiction and fantasy stories give authors and readers the opportunity to imagine new ways of thinking about governance, society, religion, and so on — to play with thought experiments in which the hierarchies are flipped or eliminated, new issues are introduced as familiar ones are resolved, and everything that we have believed to be immutable suddenly become negotiable.

Not all science fiction and fantasy writing does this. For every Gene Roddenberry who wants to use his work to help people understand that diversity improves humanity, there’s a Piers Anthony who uses his writing to revel in his misogyny and indulge his rape fantasies. That, Hurley points out, is a choice. The call to action that her geek feminist revolution requires is about choosing to rewrite the stories that define our reality, from tired old gender roles to cliché deaths of gay characters, and recognizing that what we send out into the world has the power to either strengthen that status quo or to challenge it.

Because stories matter.1 Language shapes how we see the world, even limits what we know to be true. Psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan points out that only newborn babies have access to a truly unmediated view of the world because they “know” nothing. (Douglas Adams offers a funny and bittersweet view into this perspective in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the passage describing the thought process of a sperm whale who improbably and spontaneously popped into existence several miles above the ground.) But we can’t stay in this unfiltered existence — it’s too overwhelming. Think about how time-consuming it would be to have to figure out the purpose of a chair every time you saw one. So we invent shortcuts — concepts and stories that we carry around with us that keep us from being stumped every time we see a chair. But the point is, a chair isn’t just a chair. It can be an ottoman, a step stool, a key component of a child’s fort, a piece of art, and so on. In fact, it turns out, the concept of chair is really quite limiting.

And, as Hurley argues, the concept of woman is, too. Stories are so powerful in shaping how we understand the world that they can lead us to “forget” our experiences that contradict them, while reinforcing the incidents that confirm them. All too often, the stories that are told about women emphasize their relationships to men (or children), rather than addressing the infinite range of other activities women engage in. While that’s not generally a malicious act on the part of the author, it is a lazy one.

The question of how to combat writers’ tendencies to fall back onto familiar narrative patterns is at the heart of Hurley’s geek feminist revolution, which fights for a world in which diverse representations of women not only exist, but actually push larger social change by modeling an understanding of what it means to be human unfettered by dominant gender norms. This is not a problem that is confined to science fiction and fantasy novels, but one that saturates our culture from religion to history to entertainment and beyond. Hurley’s book, with its argument that popular culture has a tremendous amount of power over how we think about the world and our roles in it, is part of a larger conversation happening around the reciprocal impacts of feminism and popular culture. And while Hurley is very clear that with this power comes great responsibility on the part of the storytellers, she is also very optimistic about the potential for conscientious use of this power to transform the world.

One of the tensions that exists in the essays that make up this book is a common one — the success of Hurley’s geek feminist revolution is contingent not just on writers being able to imagine stories that deviate from the familiar, but also on publishers being willing to publish those stories, and readers being willing to read them (or at least spend money on them). The low number of women actually involved in media production exacerbates the problematic nature of the representation of women in popular media — the lack of diversity represented in the bodies and minds of the people deciding which books get published, what television shows get bought, and which films get made and distributed translates into a lack of diversity in the stories that make it into our entertainment.

A good chunk of the intended audience of this book are aspiring writers, which leads to her offering the occasional inspirational speech on how to make a career out of writing. One path that she champions is a little jarring — her day job, which she loves and writes about in this collection as a great field for writers — is in advertising and marketing. That’s right, she is an active participant in an industry that is in no small part responsible for maintaining the status quo she is reacting to.

Hurley’s odd straddling of the line between a critique of capitalism and its commitment to maintaining existing structural inequalities and her endorsement of one of its most noxious industries makes sense when viewed through her embrace of the power of storytelling. Marketing for her, like fiction writing, is neither inherently good nor evil. Instead, the potential for provoking positive social change exists in both mediums. Advertising becomes less about convincing you to spend money on something you may or may not need, and more about telling a meaningful story that explains how a service or good will enhance your life. That’s a compelling story she tells, as long as it’s about campaigns against drunk driving or for seat belts. It’s less persuasive when the campaigns are about potato chips and makeup.

A more compelling feminist critique of capitalism is offered by Bitch magazine co-founder Andi Zeisler in her new book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to CoverGirl™, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. In contrast to Hurley, Zeisler has less hope that the entertainment industry will be changed from within, at least not without a significant amount of external pressure from consumers demanding not only improved content, but also more diverse demographics behind the scenes.

A large part of Zeisler’s cynicism about change stems from her concern about the myriad ways in which feminism has been co-opted by marketing firms and the entertainment industry to sell a vague sense of “empowerment” to women by shifting feminism from collective action fighting systemic oppression in favor of individual “choice” — the choice to post nude selfies, groom body hair, wear high heels, or whatever feels right to the individual. Her goal is to draw attention to the ways in which feminism has been commodified and sold back to women in the form of empowering pop anthems, pink power tools that combat breast cancer, and granny panties emblazoned with the word feminist.

This iteration of feminism (or "marketplace feminism", as Zeisler calls it) is anathema to Hurley, as well. Her goal of achieving a radical shift in the telling of women’s stories isn’t about celebrating women and enshrining every choice as empowered and enlightened, but rather the opposite. She wants stories that treat women as human — flawed and complicated creatures who are actors in their own stories.

Hurley’s book (which I thoroughly enjoyed) could have been even more powerful and revolutionary if she had more closely examined the structural complexities of writing publishable stories. I suspect that stems less from a lack of insight on her part and more from the format of this book. The fact that this is a collection of previously published blog entries and nine new essays means that while there is significant breadth of coverage and each essay is well-crafted and eminently readable and thought-provoking, the individual parts of the book don’t build upon each other into a single coherent argument as well as they might have.

For example, in “Die Hard, Hetaerae, and Problematic Pin-Ups: A Rant,” Hurley breaks down the history of the commodification of women’s bodies and the selling of beauty products, from ancient Greece to today. She even spells out the complicity of the advertising industry in this ongoing issue of objectification, pointing out “…there’s not a lot of money in telling everyone they’re attractive just as they are….” And she concludes the piece with a line that sounds straight out of Zeisler’s book: “For all the back-bending work we do to defend our problematic choices, sometimes we’re not actually working out how to save the world, or stop sexism, or empower women with pole dancing.”

But what’s missing — and this is a critique I have for the book and not for the individual essays — is a discussion of how to enact change in the face of these structural impediments. Her mantra — to write better, to use our pens to “slay monsters” — is addressed to storytellers, and not to the businesses that control their production and distribution.

The different foci of these two books are encapsulated in their responses to Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that both authors admit to enjoying immensely. Zeisler, for whom Fury Road offers a commentary on the damage wrought by patriarchy on men, women, and the environment, argues that the movie itself is almost beside the point. The disturbing part of this film for her was the discussions around it, which focused on establishing its status as feminist or not feminist in order to determine whether it was worthy of consumption by potential moviegoers.

On the other hand, Hurley has nothing but praise for how the film represents a positive movement towards more complex and satisfying storytelling in Hollywood. She celebrates the way in which Fury Road upended action film norms by focusing on the agency of female characters rather than using them simply as plot devices that spur a male hero to action or, worse yet, as rewards for said male heroes. The film highlights all the ways in which post-apocalyptic stories draw attention to the consequences of the political problems of our own times, and can point to ways in which we can make our world better before we reach those extremes — without falling back into familiar gendered tropes to make its story easier to tell.

These different critical approaches to Fury Road illustrate the divergent approaches these books bring to shifting the narratives around what it means to be female. By focusing her analysis on why these stories (even the ones with significant feminist content) exist and whose interests are served by their production (in a nutshell, existing power structures), Zeisler cautions her readers against getting distracted by feel-good feminism in a world in which structural inequality built around the intersections of gender, race, class, sexuality, and so on, remains firmly entrenched. For her, the real stories we need to focus on exist in the discussions around the production and consumption of entertainment media.

Both Zeisler and Hurley agree that stories matter; they just differ on why we should be concerned about them. While Zeisler sees films such as Fury Road as a smokescreen for the real story (which explores the question of whose economic and political interests are served by the production of feminist-friendly entertainment), Hurley remains committed to the proposition that the content of our entertainment media has real material impact on how we view the world, and ultimately carries the potential for causing the kind of structural shifts that both agree are needed in our world.

Both books present powerful and necessary calls to action for U.S. feminists. With Zeisler entreating us to wake up from the consumerist fog we’ve been stuck in and recommit to collective action, and Hurley pushing us to take responsibility for the stories we produce and adhere to, the feminist revolution may just get back on track.

  1. This is actually one of my favorite theories of how the world works, so pardon me while I geek out here for a moment and indulge in a mini-lecture.

Books in this review:
  • The Geek Feminist Revolution
    by Kameron Hurley
    May 30, 2016
    272 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • We Were Feminists Once
    by Andi Zeisler
    May 02, 2016
    304 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Feminist historian/media studies scholar and voracious consumer of female detective stories, sci-fi and fantasy television series, and Hollywood gossip.

Follow Amy R Peloff on Twitter: @AmyRPeloff

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