Every once in a while, something like this will percolate through my Twitter feed, a blog post like this one by Patrick Rothfuss where he tries to square up his notions of feminism with some stuff that he’s said in the past. And because I’m interested in the subject, I read it, and because I’m an insufferable know-it-all, I’m about to sound off on it.
The truth is, I’ve got a little bit of sympathy for Rothfuss, here.
Not sympathy, I guess, not exactly. More like understanding. I get where he’s coming from, because he’s exactly the kind of feminist that I used to be. That whole, “people shouldn’t have to give a shit about outdated gender roles” as the beginning and end of feminism, a sort of enlightened, holier-than-my-culture attitude that was definitely feminist theoretically, but somehow glossed over any relationship to actual women. That was the philosophy that got me through high school and college, and even a little bit into adulthood. It started to break apart when I started to hang around on Jezebel, back in the Golden Age of Gawker; it was a long and painful process, the transition that I suffered, knocking my head around on the internet because, as I mentioned before, even when I’m best-intentioned, I’m still pretty insufferable.
The thing about Patrick Rothfuss’s weirdly convoluted definition of feminism isn’t that it’s wrong, per se. I don’t think that per se he’s wrong at all. It is true that there are a lot of different kinds of feminism, as many as there are feminists; and it’s equally true that people shouldn’t give a shit about outdated gender roles, and if a woman doesn’t want to be a stay at home mom, she shouldn’t have to be, and if she does want to be a stay at home mom, she should be able to. Sure, sure, all true. The problem that we get into is that “should” inevitably deviates from “is”, and it leads to this weird bifurcation of social justice, a kind of difference between the principle and the practical.
Let me digress a little here to clarify how I think this plays out. You know all those voter ID laws, and how half of everyone says that they’re racist, and half of everyone says that they’re not? Well, congratulations, everybody’s right. It’s true that, principally, they’re not racist since the law treats all races equally. Black, white, Latino, Asian, everyone needs an ID card. The problem is that the implementation of the law, the law in practice, vastly disproportionately affects some races over others. So they are practically racist, not because they’re founded on racist principles – in fact, the people behind them may not even be personally racist at all – but because they have fundamentally racist consequences.
Well, we get the same kind of thing with feminism, you know? You get a lot of guys – and it’s almost always guys – who think that Principle Feminism is the thing. It’s a lot of, “Well, if we would all just stop giving a shit about gender normativity then it would all just go away,” and you see it play out in a lot of other social justice fields. “Why should we make laws giving gay people extra marriage rights? Shouldn’t we just let gay and straight people be subject to all the same laws?” “Why should do anything about predatory lending practices in black neighborhoods, isn’t that treating races differently? If we all just stopped thinking about race, racism would disappear!” Et cetera, et cetera. I’m not saying that everyone who’s got this attitude towards one or more groups is necessarily going to have it to another, but it’s a pretty prevalent attitude all around town. And…yeah, I guess if we all just stopped being misogynist then the patriarchy would disappear. But this all seems a little like, if we imagine a world in which the star-bellied Sneetches are all getting kicked in the face every day, and then we started saying, “Look, let’s all just calm down here. If we all just think that it’s wrong to kick each other in the face then it will stop.”
I guess, sure. The thing about this view is that it’s always a lot easier to hold when you’re not the one getting kicked in the face.
Now I’m going to say the two words that will lose probably half the readers here, the two words that no one wants to read at all, and those two words are systemic oppression. Principle Feminists hate those words, because they imply an actual, physical, consequential difference in the lives of women in the real world that we live in, and if there are actual, real, consequential differences – if the patriarchy is an actual thing, as opposed to just a theory, then being a feminist just in principle isn’t good enough. What was nice about being a Principle Feminist, you see, is that I didn’t ever really have to do anything. Oh, sure, I had to maybe be a little politer in terms of my blog comments, but ultimately my life was completely unchanged – I held some feminist theories in my head, said to myself, “Well, I don’t care about that ‘50s horseshit that women should be housewives” and otherwise did exactly the same sorts of things that I always did. By thinking feminist thoughts, we’re all going to be lifted up like the assorted Peters Pan of Equality, to Never-Neverland or something.
The thing about this is that principles are about beliefs, but practice is about responsibility. When I say I was a Principle Feminist, what I mean is that I had accepted feminist beliefs, broadly defined in much the same way Rothfuss defines them (though better, because I didn’t need to resort to corollaries). When I say that I became a Practical Feminist, what I mean is that I accepted feminist responsibilities. That the notion of feminism – as I came to understand it, just a regular old extension of moral virtue – is that it’s not about me, and what I think. It’s about how I treat other people, in the real world, right now, all the time. And the measure of that action is made not in how the action squares with my principles, but by how the consequences for that person square with those principles.
(Before we start getting into this, too, let me say that I think that the responsibility we have to other people is a tricky thing to figure, it needs to be negotiated uniquely after careful thought every time — if a person stands up and starts sounding off about how he doesn’t have a responsibility to anyone…well, so far as I can tell, that fellow’s saying a lot more about the responsibility that he wants than the responsibility that he’s got.)
So one of the responsibilities that you accept if you want to be a Practical Feminist is that you’ve got to call guys out when you think that they’re just being feminists in principle – when a cat is maybe talking a good game, but has a lot of very witty and elaborate reasons for not putting his money where his mouth is.
So, Patrick Rothfuss, here’s the thing:
Obviously, we know why you wanted to bring two ladies who would grope you up and cower against you in terror when you went to see Cabin in the Woods. That is because it gives you a boner, and boners are inherently pleasurable experience. And hey, you know what? A guy can’t control what gives him a boner, you’ve got to do what it takes. And if the women that you intend to use to stimulate your boners are there willingly, with full knowledge of why you’ve brought them, then cool. Good for you, you guys all have a strong relationship, you and your quivering boner-causers.
But it’s obviously the case that there’s not one action in question here, but two: the first is going to the movies with some ladies who you plan to use for boners. The second is writing on your website that this is what you plan to do. And obviously, these two actions have nothing to do with each other – you can very easily do one without the other. Human beings are the animals with imagination, we can write about things that never have or never will happen! (I don’t know if you were aware of this!)
The question then is not “why are you using ladies for boners?”; if the three of you are all into it, that’s your business. The question is, why are you going onto the internet and making a big deal about it? Surely it doesn’t give you another boner (or maybe a different kind of boner?) to have people know that you can bring to the movies ladies to clutch at your beard when they’re scared. Well, maybe you do, maybe that is a thing that you like – to know that other people know that you could have a veritable harem of boner-stroking ladies at a moment’s notice, if you wanted.
But I don’t think that’s true, I think you seem like a pretty thoughtful guy. I think that maybe the problem is that you think there’s no difference between thinking feminist and being feminist, that maybe you don’t realize that your words have real, practical, consequential effects on both the men and women who read them, and that maybe you don’t realize how talking about your relationship with two women entirely according to how they make you feel, and according to how your feelings square with your philosophy, maybe you don’t realize how that contributes broadly to a cultural pressure that systematically dehumanizes women by rhetorically defining their value solely according to how effectively they are able to precipitate boners.
I’d like to think that you just don’t realize that, but I’ve got to admit, my experience has taught me that the more proudly and profoundly a person claims to be a feminist in Principle, the less effectively he’s going to behave like a feminist in Practice.
(All of this is completely unrelated, by the way, to my increasing resentment over the adulation that Cabin in the Woods has been receiving – a consequence of that movie not being nearly as smart as everyone seems to think it is, and really just an example of how readily “wit” can replace “intelligence” in popular culture, salvaged by some fairly slick direction and decent performances, come on you guys.)