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Feminist Until Graduation

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(Liya Rechtman)– Last year after presenting at the Hampshire College Queer Gender and Sexuality Conference I felt activated against systemic oppression, infuriated by the gendered constraints imposed on us by language, the Internet, and bathrooms. The list goes on, of course. I had attended lectures on queer consent, deconstructing Tel Aviv, and ageism in the LGBT+ community. Over the course of the day I had 1) been rejected by an asexual woman 2) watched most of the people in a crowded room state that they were survivors of assault and 3) been made to question my presentation, gender identity, sexual identity, nomenclature and, most of all, my privilege.

I felt incredibly lucky to have been able to attend and present at the conference. And yet I also felt exhausted. I did not immediately set to work enacting the take-aways from the conference. Instead, I got under the covers with my Pride Alliance co-chair to watch Step Up 2.

I could have watched the Itty Bitty Titty Committee or Paris is Burning, but all I really wanted was to see Briana Evigan and Robert Hoffman breakdance in the rain and make out with each other. Was the movie body positive? Definitely not. Heteronormative? Fuck yes. Did it question norms of gender identity, representation, race or class? Not so much.

Privilege is the ability to walk away from the conversation. I can talk about race until I’m blue in the face, but I can walk away from the MRC still passing as white and treated better for it. My status as a person with racial privilege has not changed. I have the option to walk away from a conversation that people of color live all the time, whether they are talking about it or silent.

Does my moment of weakness need to be a shameful secret up there with artificially sweetened gummi worms and drunk cigarettes? Is this the difference between a Real Feminist – the kind that doesn’t own a TV because of capitalism – and a collegiate pop feminist? Does watching Step Up 2 at the end of a long day of queer activist dialogue make me a FUG (Feminist Until Graduation), akin to the mythical Lesbian Until Graduation of New York Times fame and speculation?

It’s not just Step Up that one time. I watch The Mindy Project pretty religiously. You may think that The Mindy Project, a show about a plus-sized, independently successful woman of color, is exactly the kind of sitcom, like Girls, that is acceptable to the feminist consumer. I thought that too, at first. And then I made the horrible mistake of watching an episode of Mindy Kaling’s show critically, and I couldn’t go back. As Crunk Feminist Collective points out, while the Mindy Show may appear body positive and racially representative, Mindy is constantly running after and being dumped by white men, thus replicating traditional white images of masculinity and sexiness. There are screeds against, carefully reading and analyzing the assumptions and images of (almost any) show, destroying my ability to watch and eat gummis in peace.

There was a recent Onion article that parodied exactly to this scenario entitled “Woman Takes Short Half Hour Break from Being Feminist to Watch TV.” The caption under a photo of a woman watching TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress reads: “Natalie Jenkins says she just wants to enjoy a little TV without thinking about how our culture repeatedly perpetuates gender stereotypes in a damaging way.” Watching the link resurface on my Facebook page passed between multiple media-consuming activist women I know makes me feel comforted at least to realize that I am not alone in chafing against my feminist conscience.

We need time to take stock of the mountains of bureaucratic, social, and personal roadblocks we’ve overcome so far and the battles yet to be fought. But more than that, we need moments to sleep. If we are not for ourselves, how can we be for others? Even activism, the emotional sport of throwing our bodies into our ideology at every step and turn, requires the ability to step back. Taking a break isn’t giving up. When we turn the TV off, when we wake up from our mid-day naps, we can return to the good fight.

So maybe “taking a break from being feminist” if only for a “short half hour” isn’t so bad. Yet I have this nagging worry about The Great Beyond (i.e. graduation) and my capacity to maintain idealistic positions in the face of real-life ethical decisions. If fatigue is already a reasonable justification for putting aside my critical feminist perspective momentarily, I worry about the choices I will make when I am confronted with the reality of the job search. Will I be able to live the feminism I’ve preached throughout my time in college? While at Amherst I have risked a certain amount of social ostracization and retaliation from peers unhappy with my outspoken feminist activism. But those instances have luckily been finite and limited in their scope.

Outside of college, the stakes are that much higher. The choices I make affect my ability to support myself on a much more fundamental level. From where I stand, beginning the second semester of my senior year, a capitalist, cut-throat job gets me a gym membership, healthy food, and maybe money for travel in exchange for my moral compass and capacity to speak out on certain issues. Alternatively, the labor-intensive lobbying and activist positions I am looking at are often unpaid or include a small stipend, significantly cutting down my access to resources while growing and stimulating my activist tendencies.

Perhaps it’s as simple as a paradigm shift. I don’t have anything against the vegan, socialist, jargon-wielding, Bulter-and-Sedgwick-reading feminist ideal, there are people who have the resources/personal balance and diligence to live that life. There are people for whom absolute priorities are possible. I just don’t think I’m one of those people. Maybe the Onion article feminist isn’t abandoning her ideals to watch TLC, but putting her work in perspective. Is there a space for a more moderate, livable feminism than the Ivory Tower model that requires the privilege of free time, energy and economic stability in order to be at all sustainable?

Mindy Kaling the comedian/Mindy Lahiri the comic isn’t perfect, but she is (as she puts it) “a chubby Indian woman with her own TV show,” and that is pretty remarkable in a world full of the Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus-shaped women portrayed in the mainstream media. Maybe there is time for an episode while I ready myself the newest Amherst protest/“scandal”, or my next headline AC Voice post. To echo James Hildebrand’s most recent post: in just the same way that there has to be room for every kind of activist in college, the post-graduation world also consists of activism on a spectrum and in increments. Maybe there will be room for me.

Photo Cred: Antenna

About Liya Rechtman

Liya Rechtman is constantLy evolving.

5 comments on “Feminist Until Graduation

  1. Christian
    January 29, 2014

    I like the idea of “FUG.” When I took Parham’s “Girl Power” class last semester, she often talked about former students of hers who learned about systemic oppression, sexism, racism, discrimination, etc. but who were now either 1) working for such institutions or 2) writing in TV shows or pop culture magazines that more often than not are sexist, heteronormative, etc (I also love that my browser doesn’t recognize the word heteronormative. Classic. Anyways, in talking about these people, Parham brought up the point that the things we learn at Amherst about these things shouldn’t end at Amherst. This is knowledge that we should keep with us for the rest of our lives, and use it to make the world a better place. But we’ve still got a long way to go to become a more accepting society precisely because we often feel like once we graduate from places like Amherst, we can stop thinking about those things.

    Great post, Liya!

  2. Christina
    January 29, 2014

    I can only speak from my own experience, but as a recently graduated Amherst student, I can say that you might be surprised how the real world changes your perspective on things. I’m not saying you’ll become any less feminist, but for me, things look different on this side of graduation. There’s a whole big world out here with even more cultures and people from even different upbringings than I met at Amherst, and I have really had things put into perspective when it comes to things I cared greatly about at Amherst vs. how important those same things feel out here in the real world.

    All I can say is, keep fighting the good fight. You might find out that the good fight is slightly different on this side of graduation, but keep fighting it just the same.

  3. cherry
    February 1, 2014

    “We need time to take stock of the mountains of bureaucratic, social, and personal roadblocks we’ve overcome so far and the battles yet to be fought. But more than that, we need moments to sleep. If we are not for ourselves, how can we be for others? Even activism, the emotional sport of throwing our bodies into our ideology at every step and turn, requires the ability to step back. Taking a break isn’t giving up. When we turn the TV off, when we wake up from our mid-day naps, we can return to the good fight.”

    You talk about consuming/admitting to the very things that society offers in a thoughtful/concerned manner which I can relate to, that I’m going to paraphrase for sake of easy as things that feel like we’re essentially “selling out” to our ideologies whenever we do things like watch crappy (opinion!) tv shows. But I disagree with this analogy of doing so to “sleeping” and “being for ourselves.” I personally believe that even these small activities/images are powerful influences on the conscious whether or not we are critical and ideologically against it, even if we remain aware and critical (hooray for that though!) when watching a scene in a movie that perpetuates annoying/harmful gender roles etc.

    To call it a necessary time-out sounds like contrived self-justification. It’s hard to escape whats everywhere and i think its okay to admit to yourself that you subscribe to structured oppression at times. if anything, not because its truly OK but its just what HAPPENS. you cant be superwo/man. I think its similar to this simple analogy: I believe in being kind to people but sometimes I’m mean. It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in being nice to people or that I’m bad at being nice when I Am being so. The same way just because I watched that show doesnt mean I’m being a bad feminist. That may be your overarching identity and goal, but sadly in that moment, you are not fighting, you have subscribed. But, like being a person with variable moods, thats just what happens and i see that to deal with this confusion by labeling it a much needed break is misleading and harmful.

    Losing that justification, though, does make one anxious because then you’re still not free of the opponent’s influence, you still feel a bit confused about your actions in indulging in being mean, watching super sexist tv shows, listening to rap with lyrics that has you innocently singing “nigger” “bitch” “fuck your mom”, because you know what it is and you know what your ideologies are and you know when you fight, you fight it well. or at least you do fight.

    I believe that to completely challenge everything wrong with the system (or at least everything I think is wrong with the system) through every single personal moment of my life would be so extreme it would isolate me more completely than I can even begin to imagine because what I can imagine is already pretty difficult. And yeah, so thats hard, and thats what makes commitment to any fight worth fighting for difficult. There is always compromise. and those small moments you call breaks are the compromises. But I dont think thats an issue or should those compromises make you question your value and genuinely as an activist. Any fight is a good fight because fighting at all is hard to do. I applaud the work you do when you do fight. I wouldnt say your indulging of what ill call ‘opponents’ goods” makes you a bad activist. But i would support reevaluation and alternative decisions for the small things i can afford to not encourage. Even if i dont, I wouldnt judge myself or others too harshly, (because these personal moments of compromise ARE personal and depends on individual beliefs, etc) but continue to fight, so that I wouldnt have these anxieties in the first place.

  4. cherry
    February 1, 2014

    also kind of ironic that you’d call those moments ‘sleeping’ cuz thats exactly when you r most vulnerable to influence

  5. Pingback: You Think I’m Pretty With My No-Makeup Makeup Look On | AC VOICE

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This entry was posted on January 29, 2014 by in Amherst College Victories, Politics, Travel and tagged , , .
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