In the wake of Jemma O’Leary’s interesting column ‘Ultra-Feminism is Eroding Our Values’ on the university times website, a lot of people asked the question just what is an Ultra-feminist? Well I’d like to take up this mantel and proudly declare myself an ultra feminist. I claim it not because I think all the lowly men-folk in this world ought to be made slaves that carry me around like Cleopatra and feed me grapes for the rest of my life, but because I am a screaming, raving, hardcore fan of feminist theory. I’d just like in the spirit of sisterly debate to rebut a few points Ms. O’Leary made in her piece. I promise that I’ll try not to oppress anyone too hard under the hard sole of my Doc Martens and sexual liberation.
I just really like critical theories that point at the world we live in and go ‘hey, here’s some stuff that seems RIDDLED with problems. Can we get some maintenance guys in to look at this? There’s a light bulb gone in the gender relations department.’ Feminism is essentially a strand of critical theory- It was created, generally, by people looking around, seeing that there is a whole world of stuff to examine through the prism of gender (or class, or race, or whatever) and went with it. That’s all. Much as I would love to think that feminism has become so influential in the corridors of power that it could even approach being an oppressive force, I don’t think that’s true sadly. In a country that doesn’t even have free right to choice for it’s citizens and less than 10% of the parliament is represented by women, I don’t think Ms O’Leary has a strong case.
Ms O’Leary also talks about how she, in her personal opinion, thinks feminism has gone ‘far enough.’ Well, I think I can agree with her in so far as it’s done wonders for women like us- both university students, both from presumably comfortable backgrounds. She’s right that generally speaking, we’re doing okay. We get to sit around in seminar rooms and read about all this stuff and decide for ourselves what we’d like. We have protection in employment, pretty good maternity leave ahead of us and anything that we need that our country doesn’t offer to us, we can pay to travel out of Ireland to get it (we also have the freedom to travel wherever we like without suspicion, as western ladies) Yeah, We white middle class western ladies have it pretty sweet.
It’s like Lucinda Creighton when she spoke of how proud she was to be an Irish woman, and how she thinks it’s a grand county to be a lady in. Well, it’s great if you’re university educated, middle class, in a well paying job and don’t have to look beyond your own experiences for things. If my and Jemma’s experiences were the sole barometer by which we measured how all 3.5 billion odd women in the world were getting on, I might agree that we ought to tone the feminism down a tad. Perhaps.
But it’s not. We live in a world where class, gender, sexuality and race all intersect in fascinating ways to create the accepted structures of power. That’s how you get cases like Slanegirl- Variously described by the delightfuls on twitter as a ‘skanger’, a ‘knacker’, a ‘dirtbird’ and a good old fashioned slut. It’s not that all the feminists were crowding around to defend this girl to the hilt; it’s that in the face of a torrent of online abuse and mirth at the picture of a public sex act, it was the girl getting all these names thrown at her. The man in this story was ‘a pure lad’ a ‘lucky bastard’ or a ‘dirty fucker’- but there was still a sort of shrugging ‘eh… fair play’ reaction to his part in the act. The girl was the dirt bird. It goes back to all these double standards we have about sexuality, and the roles we give people in sex. Which while we’re at it, sucks for everyone.
Women are told by society that sex is a chore and something that needs to be endured to please men. Men are also told this and that reinforces the idea that women need to be sort of coaxed into the act. Like they’re an easily spooked pony, you must always approach a lady from the side. I’ll also point out that the entire field of masculinities is a feminist critique of the expectations placed on men by a gender binary and how deeply screwed up it is. Just look at the absolute goldmine of essays on breaking bad and masculinities recently. The expectations placed on dude by the patriarchy are crushing for the men who don’t easily fit into them. Personally, I strive for a feminism that allows us all to shag without shame and with respect for each other.
I just question what ‘values’ Ultra Feminism is eroding and why they’re such a great idea anyway. Why is that value that sex is basically dirty and gross and people are gross for doing it something that needs to be protected from erosion by the sea walls of patriarchy? Why does the value that women ought not to criticise or speak up but rather elegantly and gracefully take it on the chin something that ought to be preserved? Ms. O’Leary doesn’t make a decent case for this at all. The entire idea of Critical theory is that it challenges these norms and forces us to examine them. It’s the similar to Marxist critique of capitalism- just because you have a few problems with the way the world works doesn’t mean every single Marxist is out there tearing it down. Feminists simply point out inconsistencies in our social world. That can be uncomfortable for us all- being forced to acknowledge our own privileges and biases- but it’s important work and it certainly doesn’t need to tone it down.
Let’s call a spade a spade here- O’Leary isn’t talking about the erosion of ‘values.’ She’s talking about the erosion of norms, and not making such a hot case for why they’re so great in the first place.
Really at the end of the day, Ms. O’Leary is saying people are ‘ultra fems’ (I do love this term, and hope that she won’t mind me nicking it for my own purposes in future) are out of control because they dare to criticise. ‘Critical’ is a very loaded word when it comes to women. All their lives women are cautioned against being a shrew or a nag, or being too loud. Being ‘Critical’ is kind of code for ‘being a bitch’ or ‘thinking too much into these things.’ But when you really examine feminist theory- And I mean get a cup of tea, a pack of biscuits and really sit down to get to grips with it- you’ll find a multitude of voices.
It’s not a monolithic structure with ONE opinion, that opinion being CRUSH THE MEN. There are actually lots of ideas and opinions about lots of things- about body image and policing, about gender roles, about Trans women, about race, about class- and yes, some of these theses don’t include a disclaimer that says ‘by the way we recognise that men aren’t all pigs, some of them are rad.’ That goes without saying. You’re not going to get much out of feminism if you just read The Second Sex and How to be a woman then dust off your hands and declare it all a bit of a faff (although I do recommend reading both as an excellent articulation of basic theory and a silly but enjoyable memoir respectively). If you look at the wealth of feminist literature out there- From the big guns of the 70s like Greer and Dworkin right through to the bloggers and activists of today, you’ll see a lot of variety and lot of discussion.
So yeah, I don’t think Ms O’Leary is, as she so elegantly put it ‘a cold-hearted bitch.’ I think she’s a little blinkered, possibly a bit sheltered to the wider field of feminist theory and activism. I think she probably forgets that she, like me, grew up in the age immediately prior to camera phones being carried by every person in Ireland connected constantly to twitter and Facebook. We both had our teens played out in relative, blissful privacy and all our moments of ill judgement or drunken revelry were carried out away from social media and only the stuff of mere rumour. I think in short that she’s being a little judgemental in writing a piece that writes off an entire field of critical thought as going ‘a bit too far’.
Sorry if you were expecting me to smash a table or scream ‘INTERNALIZED MISOGYNY’ at you for a few paragraphs. That’s not how the Ultra Femmo rolls.
Niamh ‘Battle cry of the Ultra Femmo’ Keoghan