Life as an Extreme Sport

Inclusion is the Core of My “Radical” Feminist Agenda

I’m tall, I’m a natural blonde, and I have green eyes. I’m also anywhere from “pleasantly plump” to “obese whale” depending on your scale of things, and I’m invisibly disabled. Needless to say, I receive a lot of comments about my body, both directly and indirectly, on a daily basis, and am frequently reminded of how I am–or am not–valued on the basis of what my body looks like and what it can or cannot do. I “should” be thinner, healthier, ignore the people who think I should be thinner, healthier; I “should” embrace who I am, change who I am, be a ‘better’ version of who I am, achieve health at any size-the list goes on, and on, and it often seems and feels like everyone has, and feels comfortable, voicing their opinion on what my body should look like and be capable of.

Would there be any less pressure if I wasn’t fat? After all, some people might want to argue that the comments come because of my weight, and the fact that I am so close to “the ideal” for a woman (tall, blonde, fair) that if I could get get thin, it’d all be fine.

Well, Cassey Ho’s recent “The ‘Perfect’ Body” video should put that idea to rest:

And if I were thin, I think it’s safe to say that the so-called “radical feminists” would simply say that being a thin, tall, blonde, fair woman is merely contorting myself to a body approved by a patriarchal/porn culture, and criticize me for that, as well. I suppose I might get “points back” for being disabled, but who knows.

Are you getting the idea that I can’t win? Because if I can’t win–if I can’t be my normal hair colour, my normal eye colour, my normal skin colour, all of which are considered damned near ideal for way too much of the world, and thin or fat or anywhere in between-then how is anyone else supposed to win?

Playboy (yes, really) takes this on in their post on Laverne Cox’s nude photo for Allure and the frankly ugly response from “radical feminist” Megan Murphy. To quote Noah Berlatsky, author of the Playboy piece,

Murphy reacted to the photo just as Cox suggests that people often react to black and trans women — with disgust, prejudice and horror. In a short but impressively cruel post, Murphy sneers at Cox for attempting to achieve a “‘perfect’ body as defined by a patriarchal/porn culture, through plastic surgery, and then presenting it as a sexualized object for public consumption.”

She scoffs at the idea that trans women who take hormones or have surgery are accepting themselves. Murphy suggests that trans women are “spending thousands and thousands of dollars sculpting their bodies in order to look like some cartoonish version of ‘woman,’ as defined by the porn industry and pop culture.

My first thought, reading both Berlatsky and Murphy, is that this comes down to a question of how we define self. Berlatsky, along with most who support trans folks, seems to accept the idea that “who we are” can be a mismatch; your internal notion of self doesn’t match your external representation. For Murphy, it appears that you’re supposed to merely integrate the internal and external, and that if your internal notion of self doesn’t match your external being, that’s the fault of society for placing unrealistic notions on the external being.

Now, this notion of social expectation shaping external being is definitely accurate–if the mismatch you experience is what society tells you your external self should be and what your external self actually is. But where Murphy and most “radical feminists” seem to fall down is comprehending that there’s another option here, the one that trans folk fall in to, where your internal notion of self doesn’t match the assigned external self. When that happens, it’s not enough to say “ignore society” because the dissonance isn’t coming from society; there can, after all, be strong, physical differences between genders that have nothing to do with society and everything to do with biology.[note]Please feel free to let me know if I got anything wrong re: trans experience of self. I’m trying to keep this simple, but I might have over-simplified in the attempt.[/note] emp_v_obj-finalSociety might embrace fashion that emphasizes child-bearing hips, for example, but society doesn’t create those child-bearing hips. That’s biology.

But my first thought was a bit too shallow, on reflection. While this is all certainly true-Murphy and her ilk are simply not capable of dealing with the nuance of what it means on a base level to be trans-what it actually comes down to isn’t that, at all. What it comes down to is “radical feminists” not understanding the difference between sexual empowerment and sexual objectification. Which, to be fair, is a difficult concept to understand–but I don’t think I’m totally out of line to say “if you’re going to write critiques about bodies and empowerment, you’d best know what you’re talking about, first.”

I find that the cartoon by Ronnie Ritchie, posted by Everyday Feminism, really nicely captures the necessary nuance of power dichotomies (see right).

My problem with the “radical feminists” is pretty simple, and it’s neatly illustrated by the above response to Cox and a lack of understanding agency and consent: they’re drawing such a tiny, tight boundary around what it means to be feminist, that most people fail. Perhaps even more damning, that tight boundary contains body policing–something that most feminists, one hopes, would tell you is decidedly anti-feminist.

I place “radical feminist” in quotation marks because I don’t actually think they’re radical or feminist. I think that, for the most part, they’re scared women who are trying to define themselves in a way that maximizes their own power, and they do that by trying to keep it to themselves rather than share it liberally–another hallmark of what I think feminism should be about. In fact, I think that along with trusting adults to their own agency, about the most radical thing any feminist can do is include everyone.


3 comments

  1. Nice post!

    I largely agree with your critique of radical feminism as summarized in your quote:

    > they’re drawing such a tiny, tight boundary around what it means to be feminist, that most people fail.

    However, I think you are unfair to Meghan Murphy. You (and I) might disagree with her, but she does not speak from a lack of understanding. She has been thinking, writing, and debating “about bodies and empowerment” for a long time.

    It isn’t that she doesn’t understand the feminist arguments surrounding choice and empowerment, it is that she disagrees with them. Her goal as a feminist is collective liberation, not individual empowerment, and she speaks from that perspective. She has been doing so for years. Her arguments are cohesive, clear, and powerful.

    She believes that personal empowerment and choice are not the same thing as liberation, which she believes to be the goal of feminism.

    I tend to err on the side of empathy, as opposed to judgement. Meghan errs on the side of judgement, but it isn’t because she doesn’t know what she is talking about. It is because she thinks the stakes are too high, collective liberation of women is too important, and she views objectification of women as devastating to the cause. Even if it the objectification is done with open eyes, agency, and the goal of empowerment.

    You are free to disagree with her (and you do so eloquently in this post!) but you actually are a touch out of line to say “if you’re going to write critiques about bodies and empowerment, you’d best know what you’re talking about, first.”

    1. While I can understand your perspective, Anonymous, I do actually disagree with it. I think that Katherine Cross’s recent post on “choice feminism” is a pretty good example of why Murphy isn’t actually spouting anything re: collective feminist liberation. She is still focused on the individual; in particular, in negating individuals who don’t perform gender in a way she approves of. Her only response to the systemic structural inequity we live in is to attack others. I’ve never been fond of Murphy for this reason (and her lack of self-awareness of the inherently performative nature of the society we live in, and willingness to ignore that to her own benefit).

      And, to be clear, I’m being generous here: I think it’s better to believe that Murphy doesn’t understand what she’s trying to talk about than to draw the other conclusion, which is that she’s an intentionally hateful person. Your mileage may vary.

      1. That Cross piece was an excellent article, thank you for the link. I tend not to be fond of articles that use too many academic words when they aren’t needed, but Cross was a joy to read in spite of that. I particularly liked her phrase “pointillist politics.”

        On the substance, I agree with Cross. Murphy does not. Murphy, like a lot of radical feminists, is a bundle of passion and anger, which easily turns into hate. You might think you are being kind to her by assuming ignorance on her part. If you read her response to critiques in the comments, Murphy does not find that kind to her. She honestly believes what she wrote and defended it passionately.

        I mostly agree with Cross, but I do disagree slightly one point: I don’t think Murphy is uniquely attacking trans women or women of color. She attacks a lot of women using almost the exact same arguments and terminology.

        Here she is attacking Madonna, for example:

        http://feministcurrent.com/11510/madonnas-sexuality-should-be-more-advanced-than-a-20-year-olds/

        However, diving into the comments on the Cox piece I found many commenters (apparently regulars on the site) attacking trans women in every possible way, including denials that they were women at all. Not once did Murphy respond, which speaks volumes. So, perhaps Cross is correct.

        In conclusion, Murphy does attack. A lot. It is kinda what radical feminists do.

        Thanks again for a great piece!

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