Don’t run away! I know it sounds like this will be a boring post with lots of words like “hegemony” and “epistemological,” but I assure you it won’t be. Hear me out.
As eloriane said in her Male Feminist Blogaround, this site is intended to be a kind of Feminism 201, with the assumption that many of our readers will already have some basic understandings of feminist theory. While we’ll link to excellent feminism 101 posts by other authors, we thought we could also have some of our own. For those that are already familiar with these concepts, think of this as a refresher. For those still new to these ideas, hopefully these series of posts will help to clarify things.
I thought that a good place to start would be to talk about feminist theory itself. Now, I know, a lot of you are going to groan and think “how dry!” but I assure you it’s anything but. You see, a lot of theory you might come across in other disciplines may have the tendency to not be very connected to actual practice. Certainly it is a common accusation of theory in general – that it’s just mental masturbation, a set of ideas only, and not anchored in reality. If this is the case, then it’s mighty poor theory. Theory should be descriptive of reality. Theory should follow practice.
What is particularly grand about feminist theory is how much of it is following practice; women think about their lives, talk with other women, and start to formulate descriptions and reasons for why things are the way they are. THAT’s theory. It’s not elite, it’s not “ivory tower,” it’s just the “why” of things. It’s the background dynamics in social situations and the unwritten, often unconscious, reasoning behind these dynamics. Everything we do has a theory behind it. When the Titanic was sinking, why did almost everyone agree that women and children should go into the lifeboats first? And why were the poor literally locked below until the rich could get off? Because of the theory that the rich were superior and the poor would become violent, most likely. As to why “women and children first” – well that gets more complicated. But you get the idea.
Feminist theory might be written using very specific language, such as “epistemological,” but this generally isn’t about sounding smarter. Certainly some people use this kind of terminology to sound smart, but really it’s just useful to use very specific and accurate language to describe something very complex. However, feminist writings can be full of feminist theory without using these rare words. Many of the posts on this blog use theory, or are steeped in theory, regardless if we’re saying “heteronormative” or not. One of feminism’s most respected, and most vilified, writers is Andrea Dworkin. Now she writes theory all the time, but she does so using everyday words. This is much more challenging than it might sound. As well, it might be partly why so many people seem to misunderstand what she’s saying. If she used more theory-sounding words they might more readily see that she’s describing the social world, not advocating for those dynamics, for example.
Dworkin is a great example of a writer that one should read very carefully. Because she’s often writing of horrible things – why so many men sexually assault and harass so many women for example – reading her work can be rather like getting kicked in the stomach. Sometimes a writer will say something that makes the reader rebel against it. It may come off as offensive, or exaggerated, or just plain wrong. This is where the following tips can really help.
How do you read theory?
Firstly, try to read carefully, not quickly. Try to figure out what the writer is trying to say. Sociological theory can be really hard to spell out, and make no mistake, feminism is a sociological theory.
Secondly, when you’re reading something that just doesn’t sound right, or is pissing you off, slow down and think “so what?” So what if what they say is true? Where does that leave us? What comes next? Be willing to follow the thoughts through. This doesn’t mean agreeing with those thoughts. It’s more about helping you to understand what the author may be trying to say.
Thirdly, go back and read it again. I know, I know, this takes time. And I know that there are quite a few people who just skim or don’t read all of what they’re reading. You’re never going to understand difficult theory if you do that. Also, sometimes things need to sit and percolate for a while before they start to become understandable. I’ve noticed this myself on too many occasions to mention. So it’s good to read it, then come back to it later and read it again. You may be surprised how often you’ve misunderstood what they were saying! (Again speaking from experience).
Finally, remember to think in terms of “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Because social constructs are complex, with a large variety of interrelating privileges and oppressions, it is almost never accurate to say that something is either this or that. Usually, there’s a bunch of flavours of different things in that pot. So think of theory as a stew, rather than just one big dish on the plate.
Finally, just a point of clarification. Within feminism you’ll often see a distinction made between sex and gender. This is something that feminist theory has brought to the fore and has been adopted by most of the humanities. But it is important to recognize the difference. Sex refers to the biological sex of the person(s) in question, whereas gender refers to the social roles and expectations connected to that sex. I suspect that this is where Radical feminists (or feminists in general) get called essentialists; there is a misunderstanding around how Radical feminists are almost always talking about the social dynamics that are tied to biology, not that it is held by the biology itself. And it is my belief that the degree to which the social roles/expectations are tied to biology is also the degree to which our trans neighbours freak some people out. And, unfortunately, it’s also the degree to which our own socialization is difficult to overcome. This distinction between sex and gender is held by most feminists, with some exceptions.
Reading challenging writings with the above tips in mind can go a long way to both understanding the intended point as well as to allow yourself room to expand your awareness. I know how challenging this can be – I still struggle with it. But if we keep saying “so what?” it diffuses the emotional reactions and allows us room to play with the ideas and see where they take us. It may be a dead-end street, or it may be freedom.