Feminist Until Graduation

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