Outward-looking feminism

by lizmckinnell

I should note at the very start that anyone who feels the need to say something like ‘Exactly! This is the problem with feminism’, or to agree with me about the ‘pc nonsense’ is not welcome. You are, in a trivial sense, entitled to your opinion (trivial because all it means is that I should not be allowed to stop you thinking or saying it) but you are not my ally, and if you think that you are in sympathy with this piece you have misunderstood it.

What I want is an outward looking feminism. Not outward looking in the sense of feminine self-sacrifice or self-abnegation, but instead directed to a clearer, less fearful, vision of each other and the world that we cohabit.

As women, we are trained from a very early age to see ourselves as things to be looked at. Many of us find it hard to get away from obsessing about our appearance, our weight, and whether our behaviour is regarded as properly feminine or sexy. This is the triumph of whatever you want to call our target – be it men, patriarchy, systematic oppression – that’s up to you. We are not just policed by legal and pay inequalities, by threats of violence and explicit exclusion from roles and positions, we are, perhaps more than anything, policed by ourselves as a result of how we are raised, trained and shamed. This means that we have ourselves constantly in view – am I up to the mark? Am I projecting the right image?

Under such conditions, it is hard to look outwards. It is hard to enjoy a sunset without thinking about a certain image of oneself enjoying a sunset. It is hard to think about intellectual or political ideas without thinking about the ways in which we are seen to be doing so. Getting away from the panopticon – the all-seeing male gaze that we impose on ourselves – and just looking at what is in front of us, is extremely difficult. Solitude is a project to be achieved, not the simple state of being away from a particular other, because we tend to bring the eyes of others along with us.

Social media doesn’t help with this of course. There is unprecedented scope for us to compare ourselves with others day or night, and to have unprecedented opportunities to project an image of ourselves to others even when we are alone. This may be equalising in a sense, imposing on men (especially young men) many things that had previously been more feminine burdens. But do we want equal self-surveillance and policing for all?

This is a common theme in feminism. Sandra Bartky writes about it very effectively in her book Femininity and Domination (I nicked the image of the panopticon from Bentham via Foucault via her). But what I think we need to see is how this self-obsession has come to infect many areas of feminist discourse themselves.

The most obvious point here is about image. Now of course things like weight, body hair and so on are feminist issues, and they should be discussed in feminist spaces. But a feminism that makes us obsess about our own hairy pits or our own body fat is not a feminism that I can totally get behind. We need to lose that self-consciousness from time to time, and move beyond the particular images that we are projecting to the thoughts and feelings that lie behind them.

But that isn’t enough, because (perhaps another thing ramped up by social media) those thoughts and feelings can become a kind of image branding as well. It is easy to move away from thinking about something important or interesting and start thinking about how we must be seen to be thinking about something important or interesting.

‘The personal is political’ is a great feminist slogan. It reminds us that issues often trivialised or marginalised because they affect us in the private or domestic spheres, in our everyday lives rather than on the global stage, can be matters of serious political concern. But this should not lead us to retreat into an obsessive kind of self-examination, more concerned with how we see ourselves and the way that we are affected by things than we are with the world around us. And I fear that this happens a great deal – we are constantly monitoring ourselves and our feelings for the pernicious effects of patriarchy on our wellbeing.

One thing that I have in mind here is the current feminist concern with safety, which often manifests itself in a heightened sense of danger. There is a need, undoubtedly, for certain safer spaces, for trigger warnings, for all kinds of assurances and provisions to make us more secure. But the proliferation of these and similar things has often had the opposite effect by leading to an exaggerated sense of the danger in situations. Discussions in online forums will rapidly descend into people feeling threatened or hurt by other people’s comments, in a way that moves the discussion away from the topic at hand – we stop looking outward and start looking inward. Meanwhile, the focus on safety vs. danger can make us hesitant in other areas of our lives – afraid to walk the streets alone or speak out in public – we lose sight of our destination, and worry instead about what might happen to us. We need to find a way of acknowledging the real dangers and fears associated with an oppressive system, while finding the strength resilience and good humour to look the world in the face.

Of course, this has always been a peril of developing any kind of political consciousness concerned with domination and oppression – we become aware of threats and slights that might previously have passed us by. But a pernicious inward-looking tendency, itself the product of an oppressive system, can turn an outward-looking positive political movement into an incubator of neurosis. It is an irony that it is the internalised eye of the other that can make us disappear inside ourselves. To overcome this solipsism we need to learn to be properly alone.

I don’t have any easy solutions to this. It is something that we need to arrive at in discussion with each other and through living, campaigning and reflecting. But in order to do so, we need to practice looking – properly looking – rather than looking at ourselves as looked-at. This seems to me the only way that we can be less fearful, less solipsistic and more empathetic.