Mouse Smash

JC Lau's blog about geekery, gender and other rants

Are you a Feminist? Some notes about Feminism and Equality

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Today, as you’ve probably noticed, is International Women’s Day. It’s a day to celebrate the achievements of women in a whole realm of different sectors, such as economics, science, literature and so on. It’s a day that the United Nations has adopted as a day to promote equality and recognize what has been done, and what still needs to be done to achieve gender justice.

But when rapists can nonchalantly blame their gang-rape victims on film and then have their government ban the documentary because of the controversy that such comments make–or that it even IS controversial in the first place (and not just dismissed as the ramblings of a misogynistic sociopath), then that makes me really wonder how far we’ve even come at all.

When outspoken women are publicly stalked at conventions where people tweet about how they could have killed her, and she’s forced to close her booth at one of the largest gaming expos, then I wonder how long the road to achieving equality really is.

When feminist blogs get DDoS attacks on International Women’s Day, precisely because it is International Women’s Day, then I wonder how exhausting that journey will be.

Ugh. Sometimes I wonder if it’d be better to just burn it all to the ground and rebuild. I’m not sure we can do that though.

I don’t want to focus specifically on the game industry in what I write below, but that’s the sort of where I’m coming from. But I think with a little understanding, some conflicts will be a little easier to understand and resolve. To be clear, these are all very general. Feminism, like any large movement, is nuanced, with a lot of different ideologies. That said, here are a few points to keep in mind when talking about feminism and gender politics:

1. Feminism is about equality.

One thing that I think a lot of people who claim to be anti-feminist don’t understand is simply what feminism entails. Feminism is about equality. I actually think that it has a rather unfortunate name, since the fact that it has the word “feminine” in it implies women, not people as a whole. (There are historical reasons for the name, but I won’t get into that here.)

Consequently, I think some people don’t read past the name and it’s something about women. It’s not. It’s about everyone. Feminism criticizes the idea of gender roles, norms and stereotypes, regardless of who those are about. It may turn out that gender stereotypes or norms are more prevalent, or strongly-held, for women rather than men, or that men also suffer from oppression in certain domains, but the point is that feminism covers all these cases of gender inequality.

2. You can achieve equality without oppressing men.

whatOnce, when I was teaching the philosophy of race and gender, a student asked if he could write a paper about defending men’s rights, because feminism threatened them. I said that he could, provided that he first made an argument for how feminism threatened men’s rights. He ended up going back through the class materials and writing about something else.

But this mentality is what irks me about all this gibberish about “meninism“, which is a thinly veiled parody of feminism as a counter to the feminist movement: the idea that men are somehow threatened by feminism just simply doesn’t make sense, unless you’re already a chauvinist beyond saving.

Points about men having to defend their rights because women are trying to take them away is simply bonkers. Rights are not like cake, where for every piece someone takes there’s less for everyone else. Rights are magical things where increasing the rights of some doesn’t diminish what others have. You can promote the rights of a particular group without taking something away from other groups. You can be a dude and have certain rights, and giving the same rights to women doesn’t harm you.

3. Men benefit from feminism too!

That said, some of the meninist objections about body standards, gender roles and whatnot are relevant. When cultural norms expect you to have a six pack or that you’re supposed to pay for dinner, that’s an issue about gender equality that can be resolved through a cultural shift. When boys are told that they don’t cry, that’s appealing to a gender stereotype which is unfounded and harms masculinity.

So because these are issues where we should criticize the existing gender norms, these are feminist issues too! As Gloria Steinem recently said,

I would say that each of us has only one thing to gain from the feminist movement: Our whole humanity. Because gender has wrongly told us that some things are masculine and some things are feminine… which is bullshit.

Yep. Bullshit.

4. What we are equalizing is important.

In political philosophy, there’s a couple of well-known papers asking Equality of What? What is it that we are trying to equalize? Equalizing actual goods, wealth, happiness, rights or opportunities would result in different outcomes. For example, if we started with everyone equally having $100, people would end up with vastly different amounts of goods, depending on what they liked. If we were to make sure that everyone was equally happy, someone who enjoys simple pleasures would end up with less than the picky jerk who needs champagne and caviar to be satisfied. As a result, strict equality policies don’t always lead to equal outcomes.

Talk about equality is, in a way, putting the cart before the horse. We need to take a step back.

If what we’re trying to equalize is simply rights (which most feminists argue for), then there are a lot of steps which need to be done to remedy past wrongs before we can talk about equality.

equity-vs-equalityInstantly giving everyone the same rights would not give us the result that we’re after. Because of the vast amount of historical injustices leveled against women, we’re not at the same starting point where we can just hand out equal rights. Mechanisms have to be in place so that everyone can equally exercise those rights. (Analogy: there’s no point giving people equal rights to books if we don’t also give them education, libraries, and so on so they can actually use those books.)

This is, in a way, the easiest and hardest aspect of feminism. It’s fine to call out injustices and cases of inequality, but these are all tiny drops in an ocean. Sometimes, the lack of progress after so much work can be disheartening. But these are all parts of a cultural shift: there will be small victories. There will be setbacks. But, like a few pebbles causing an avalanche, once the movement has started, it will gather momentum. Imagining what the end goal is–that we could have a society where people are truly equally respected, and how wonderful that could be–helps with the little steps.

Finally, and most importantly, this is a job not just for women but men as well. Look at historical cases of suffrage. Women wouldn’t have had the right to vote were it not for men in legislatures and public spaces debating on their behalf. Likewise, this is why campaigns like #HeForShe are important. Solidarity goes a long way–not just as a practical way of having more people help to achieve an outcome, but there’s also symbolic value in knowing that those who are historically oppressors will stand with the oppressed.

Just remember: It’s not a war, with sides. We’re in this together with a common goal.

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