Tag Archives: feminism

Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Companions

I’ve been working off and on over the years to create little bits of feminist analysis on the Doctor Who companions and thought I’d share them here. There’s a demand for “strong female characters” in our popular media, and the show has responded to it. Has it succeeded or failed? Both, of course. If there is a Feminist Ideal, and could a character live up to that ideal without being overly perfect, or contradictory, or both? I found myself in the strange position of judging the female characters. (Are they strong? Do they get to be the protagonists? To what extent are they the equal of the Doctor? Which stereotypes do they fit into, and which do they resist?) How catty of me.

So here are my links. None of them represent The Final Word on feminism, the companions, or anything else. They’re what I saw, as I saw it at the time.

Zoe Heriot from the Patrick Troughton years, seasons 5 and 6. I fail to provide any criticisms whatsoever, because she was the first companion I ever saw and I simply adore her. She’s in black and white, she’s a screamer, and she’s the best.

Amy Pond in “The Eleventh Hour.” The Doctor meets the little girl Amelia Pond, and this visit marks her for life and transforms her into his perfect traveling companion. He leaves in his TARDIS, promising to return in five minutes, but instead returns when she is a grown woman. Was this accidental, or deliberate? Whose purposes did it serve?

River Song in “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.”  Fan reaction has been mixed for this character, but I argue that she is powerful throughout. I might be reading more into this character than I should, but hey, it’s fun.

River Song after “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone.” I waffle back and forth between saying she’s a stereotype and saying she isn’t, and between saying she’s powerful and saying she’s not.

Clara Oswin Oswald after “Hide” and again after “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” and again after “The Crimson Horror.” Honestly, I don’t know what to think about her. Clara Who?

Clara Oswin Oswald in Series 8, written immediately afterward and again upon more reflection. She’s both extremely powerful and strangely mired in a bad relationship that depends on her pretending to be something she’s not.

And finally, Clara Oswin Oswald’s departure in Series 9.



zoe at tardis console


Shadow Work by Ivan Illich

In my previous post, “Mothering in the Shadow,” I introduced some concepts from the book Shadow Work by Ivan Illich, published in 1981 and available in full online. Overall, the book is a mixed bag, but it introduces groundbreaking concepts that have serious potential for feminist, environmental, and anti-capitalist movements. So I’ll give a short introduction to Illich and his ideas, briefly touch on their flaws, and then move on to a discussion of how the ideas could be used.

About Ivan Illich

Among other things, Illich is a medieval historian. It gives him a unique perspective on modern life: much we take for granted about the world around us is socially constructed. Although he has a tendency to glamorize past societies, he can see economic systems in ways others don’t.

How he defines work

Most basically, what he’s saying is that wage labor created another kind of labor: unpaid activities that make wage labor possible in the first place, or shadow work. There is also a third kind of labor, subsistence work, which competes with wage labor.

Shadow work includes all kinds of unpaid labor: transportation to and from a job, the maintenance of automobiles, the work of purchasing commodities, the housework and other supporting activities a wife does to enable a husband to do wage labor, and childrearing, which supplies future wage labor.

Subsistence work would be playing a guitar instead of buying a record, growing a backyard garden instead of going to the supermarket, and feeding a baby at the breast instead of from a bottle.

How he defines economies

He sees economies as having three dimensions. The first is a continuum between left and right — communism and capitalism. To him, they’re flawed in the same way. Both do what he calls “welfare” – though meaning something different than our current welfare system. To him, “welfare” means distributing industrialized products that are ultimately inferior to their subsistence counterparts, but which then take the place of those counterparts.

The second is a continuum between hard and soft — that is, most technologically advanced to least. Again, he doesn’t necessarily see a difference in value between the two.

The third is from consumption to production — that is, from market economies to subsistence economies. This one is very important to him. Illich believes people are better off “when a community chooses a subsistence-oriented way of life. There, the inversion of development, the replacement of consumer goods by personal action, of industrial tools by convivial tools is the goal. There, both wage labor and shadow work will decline . . .” (p. 14)

The flaws in his ideas

Don’t take me as an expert on Illich, because I’ve only read one of his books, and only one time through. But as far as I can tell, he’s much too taken by subsistence economies. In his body of work, he disparages modern medicine and universal education in such a way as to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

He is also naively unaware of how power operates. Any attempt to convert a market-based economy to one based on subsistence is going to be opposed by the ruling class, which has military and propaganda on its side. Wage labor and shadow work won’t decline on their own.

Next up, although he says he doesn’t see much difference between capitalism and communism (“the capitalist and the commisar”), most of the book deals with the market economy and wage labor.

Finally, as much as I love his separation of shadow work and subsistence, there’s a relationship between them that he hasn’t parsed. If shadow work is everything that supports a wage laborer, subsistence work like backyard gardening would also support a wage laborer, by making the person cheaper to feed.

The takeaway for feminism

So yes, Illich’s analysis has flaws. At the same time, it was groundbreaking to observe that there is a whole category of work that our economy ignores.

Feminists have been talking about this for a long time but with a slightly different focus. Feminists have complained that men work for pay and women do housework and childcare without pay. But that leads to an easy mistake: the idea that making men and women equal will somehow make this unpaid labor go away. But we’ve found that it doesn’t. Women have entered the workforce and men have stayed at home, and the unpaid labor is still a problem. Because women bear children and are their first caregivers, no matter how much we work toward gender equality, we are still saddled with work without pay.

So what happens if we take a good, hard look at all the shadow work that gets done? Not only childrearing and housework but transportation, volunteer jobs — everything? People of every gender should be outraged at all the free labor we’ve been snookered into doing for the benefit of the one percent, without getting even our basic needs done in return.

The takeaway for anticapitalist work

I’ve spent a lot of time with people who want to abolish capitalism but don’t have the least idea how to go about it. They’ve put a lot of work toward that end, but they’ve still been stuck with myths about how our economy works. Without a clear understanding, how can they know whether what they’re doing is actual resistance, or just shadow work under a new guise?

Meanwhile, the unchecked growth of the economy is continuing to lead toward environmental devastation and the fulfillment of a prophecy made in the 1970s that sometime within the next hundred years we will suffer a collapse of our economy and our population. Capitalism might well abolish itself, in which case we need to be ready to replace it with a workable replacement. And subsistence has to be part of it.

Failures of capitalism to provide for the common good of countries are already happening, of course. What happens then? Does a subsistence economy step in? For example, in 2001 the economy collapsed in Argentina and communities found new ways of coping–the book Horizontalism, ed. Marina Sitrin, tells that story. Where else has the economy failed, and what have communities done to make ends meet? We can look at history all we like, but we won’t understand the answer until we know how subsistence work plays a part.


Worth the read

All in all, this book is well worth the read. Absorb it with a grain of salt, or maybe a teaspoon. And a glossary. (He makes up words, or takes words from contemporary thinkers, and uses them without properly defining them first. He also takes words with commonly accepted meanings and assigns them new meanings, also usually without defining them. )

In keeping with his opposition to the commodification of labor, he doesn’t appear to have copyrighted it, and it is available for free download here.

Picture of a shadow on the floor

from tardis.wikia.com

Mothering in the Shadow

My last post “The Economics of Parenting” touched on the unpaid and unacknowledged labor of parents. Feminism has long seen it as a problem but has entirely failed to produce workable solutions. An early demand of “wages for housework” went nowhere because, under capitalism, there is no answer to the question of who should pay. Meanwhile, Marxist feminists in academia did a good job of defining the problem but otherwise mostly left it alone.

The labor movement also hasn’t been much help. Collective bargaining only makes sense if there is an outside entity invested in whether or not the work gets done, and when it comes to our children, that’s mostly not the case. Other peoples’ kids are usually regarded as “other peoples’ problems” and that’s that. Strikes make no sense, either. What are you going to do, not take care of your kid?

There’s a name for this job: “shadow work.”Australian historian and philosopher Ivan Illich coined the term  in the 1981 book Shadow Work. I’ve only just started the book, but it’s fascinating. Here’s an excerpt.

In a commodity-intensive society, basic needs are met through the products of wage labor – housing no less than education, traffic no less than the delivery of infants. The work ethic which drives such a society legitimates employment for salary or wages and degrades independent coping. But the spread of wage labor accomplishes more – it divides unpaid work into two opposite types of activities. While the loss of unpaid work through the encroachment of wage labor has often been described, the creation of a new kind of work has been consistently ignored: the unpaid complement of industrial labor and services.

That’s parenting and housework right there. They complement wage work because they free somebody else to spend more hours in the workplace.

Feminists have been talking about the concept for some time, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it so tangibly expressed. It’s also part of a coherent theory that directly addresses a question that feminism gave up on: How do you change the system?

I’ll save that enormous question for another blog post, but believe me, I will get to it. In the meantime I’ll just touch on why I personally am in love with the term shadow work.

It’s all about respect, baby. Time and again, as I was staying at home with young children, people asked me “Are you working?” Of course, they meant wage labor. Usually I let it pass. Sometimes I said “Yes, I’m working in the home” and sometimes I said, “No.” What can I say? I was seriously sleep-deprived. My best answer was to the question “I mean, are you working outside the home?” when I said, “No way! I don’t want two jobs.”

But now I can say. “Definitely. I’m performing shadow labor.”

The term fights back against the disrespect I feel whenever I hear I’m “not working” or “not in the real world.” That disrespect gets at the core of me, whenever I perform housework or similar jobs.

Also, the term is beautifully consistent with Jungian philosophy.  The shadow, in Jungian terms, is everything that is a true part of our nature but that we repress, hide, push away, deny, negate. At the same time, the more we repress it, the stronger it gets. There is power in shadow.

I have to end this post now. My shadow labor workday began around seven a.m. and will end at nine p.m. Things to do. People to see. Boats to float.


The Economics of Parenting

Economists study things and make theories, and based on what they say, lawmakers set policy. That’s just one of the things that makes the world go round, and we don’t think about it too terribly much, or at least I didn’t, until I started seeing the phrase “human capital,” but now that I have, I pay attention. And I come up onto statements like this:

While such policies may increase the size of the next generation, their impact on the generation’s total human capital are unclear, since per person human capital may change as well. . . . This paper explores a potential national policy tradeoff, embodied in motherhood timing, between the quantity and quality of children.

This excerpt is from the article “Motherhood Delay and the Human Capital of the Next Generation” by Amalia R. Miller, American Economic Review, 2009. It looks at whether standardized test scores, an indicator of the future economic value of children (a.k.a. “human capital”), are affected by whether or not mothers delay childbearing. The answer to this question is intended to help countries decide whether or not to set “pro-natalist policies” — that is, policies that encourage women to have lots and lots of babies.

(A quick note on human capital, if you’ve never heard the term: it is the set of skills, education, and expertise of a worker or a labor force. Sometimes the term is used to refer to something the worker owns, and other times it means an asset a company owns, or a nation.)

I should mention I’m pretty creeped out by now. First off, I thought my kids were, well, children, not wealth. Next up, it’s disturbing that legislation surrounding childbearing should be affected by the wealth a nation is expected to reap from the children’s future labor. It means that human capital considerations could affect anything from anti-abortion legislation, if a nation is perceived to be running out of human capital, to forced sterilization, if the cost of raising a child is perceived to be higher than the human capital reaped.

But there’s one more thing that stands out when I look at articles regarding mothering and human capital. The unpaid labor mothers do, when we are perceived to be “not working,” has economic value to somebody outside our family, and people in power have measured that value. That’s interesting.

The United Nations is conducting a study called the “Inclusive Wealth Project.” There’s a 2012 report and a 2014 report. It is about the development of a new measure of the wealth of nations, on par with the gross development product (GDP) and human development index (HDI). The new “Inclusive Wealth Index” includes natural resources, produced resources, and human capital.

Here’s a taste of the math, from page 30 of the 2012 report:

Wealth = Pmc * Manufactured Capital (MC) + Phc * Human Capital (HC) + Pnc * Natural Capital (NC)

(Don’t ask me about the Pmc, Phc, and Pnc, because I have no clue. Nor do I have any desire to have a clue.)

The math for calculating human capital is laid out also on page 30 of the 2012 report and is too long to include in this post, but here’s a taste of it:

. . . measuring the population’s educational attainment and the additional compensation over time of this training, which is assumed to be equivalent to the interest rate (8.5 percent in this case) . . .


The shadow price per unit of human capital is obtained by computing the present value of the labor compensation received by workers over an entire working life.


. . . for each nation we computed these shadow prices for every year within the 1990–2008 time period, and then used the average of this rental price of one unit of human capital over time as the representative weight . . .

It must be strange to be an economist. The people who made this report are focused on “social value” — attempting to make capitalism work for the health and well-being of our people and planet, by reducing said health and well-being to dollars and cents. I’m skeptical, but I’m glad at least that somebody is trying to account for the rapid depletion of our natural resources.

Anyway, back to what I said about somebody measuring the economic value of the unpaid work of mothering. That’s not exactly what they’re doing. They’re measuring the value of educating. Here’s a widely-used graph, from a Science Magazine article “Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children” by James D. Heckman (2006).

Graph showing that investing in preschool has great benefit to future earnings. Source: http://jenni.uchicago.edu/papers/Heckman_Science_v312_2006.pdf

Source: Science Magazine


The article has a curious blind spot when it comes to the job of the earliest education, the contribution of the parents. A lot of studies focus on “disadvantaged children” and “children in developing countries.” Here’s a quote:

Research has documented the early (by ages 4 to 6) emergence and persistence of gaps in cognitive and noncognitive skills (3, 4). Environments that do not stimulate the young and fail to cultivate these skills at early ages place children at an early disadvantage. Disadvantage arises more from lack of cognitive and noncognitive stimulation given to young children than simply from the lack of financial resources.

The assumption here is that a normal environment, which somehow appears naturally and out of the blue, provides adequate stimulation to cultivate skills needed later in life. Actually, no. Somebody made it happen. A parent.

And it was a hell of a lot of work.

Here’s an estimate of the unpaid labor value of a mother’s work:

If paid, Stay at Home Moms would earn $134,121 annually (up from 2005’s salary of $131,471). Working Moms would earn $85,876 annually for the “mom job” portion of their work, in addition to their actual “work job” salary.

(From “What is Mom’s Job Worth,” by Salary.com.)

(Note: there’s a serious omission here. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of stay-at-home parents who are dads is up to 16%. I don’t know if anybody’s ever run the numbers for dads.)

Never mind the costs of raising a child. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which says that “a middle-income family with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend about $245,340 ($304,480 adjusted for projected inflation*) for food, housing, childcare and education, and other child-rearing expenses up to age 18. Costs associated with pregnancy or expenses occurred after age 18, such as higher education, are not included.”

By “middle-income family, they mean “the middle third of the income distribution for a two-parent family with children.” This is the “normal environment” referred to in Science Magazine, although the number of single-parent households in the U.S. has jumped from 19.5% to 29.5%.

And the annual income at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is only $15,080.

On a family level, the economics of parenting just makes no sense. Wages are far too low to raise children.

It makes no sense on a societal level either. What happens, I wonder, if you take the cost of raising a child, plus the cost of a formal education, plus the unpaid labor of the parents, and compare it to that person’s “human capital” over a lifetime? You could calculate it. But honestly, I’m afraid to even try.

The problem here isn’t with the children. And it isn’t with the parents. It’s with the way we understand (or don’t) understand our own economy.



Lego People by Joe Shlabotnik from http://www.flickr.com



Women’s Liberation

I’m having a lengthy and deep conversation on feminism with a friend on another blog (will share the link when we’re further along) and found to my surprise that I had used the term “women’s liberation.” I haven’t really heard that since the 1980s. Honestly, I thought feminism was past it. Aren’t we in the fourth wave or something like that?

Women, as a group, have not yet liberated ourselves, and that has much to do with childbearing and childrearing. Start with the very beginning: conception. Our technology gave women the ability to postpone or prevent it – birth control. That was huge. It changed gender. It gave women of childbearing age the ability to function socially, economically, and culturally like men. But from the beginning, legislators passed laws prohibiting this new technology from being used. (See the Comstock Laws.) Women are still fighting for the right to access birth control and this means that some women are prevented from choosing whether or not to have babies. The phenomenon of rape makes this even more true.

So even if we didn’t choose to give birth, we find ourselves suddenly presented with the all-consuming and unpaid job of caring for a baby.

We can give our children up for adoption, but to suddenly lose a human being that has been a part of your body for nine months, not knowing whether that human being will flourish, is a hard choice.  A woman who does this is at risk from suffering long-term physical, psychological, and social repercussions. (Here’s a 1999 review of the research, mostly from the era of closed adoptions. Apparently more recent research, including open adoptions, is scarce.)

For those of us who keep our babies, we are presumed by our current Western patriarchal culture to have primary responsibility for caregiving. Feminism has changed that, to some extent. Men can and do share caregiving responsibilities. Did you know that even men can nurse, by the way? All men can nurse for comfort, and some can lactate. A man can mother every bit as well as a woman. But we don’t call men “mothers,” and why? The overall cultural assumption is that only women can mother.

Meanwhile, feminism didn’t change a more fundamental problem: in an economy that depends on the exchange of labor for a wage, and requires money to carry out normal life activities, the job of caregiving of children doesn’t come with a wage. This set mothers up for economic dependence, or, in other words, a lack of liberation.

The phenomenon of men as primary caregivers doesn’t change this fundamental reality. It only extends this economic dependence to a new group of people. The only way we could really be liberated from caregiving-specific economic exploitation is if the entire community took on the responsibility of bringing up our children. But the U.S. has really gone backward in this area–cutting funding for education, using “stranger danger” to restrict children to the home, and prolonging adolescence. Where are all the kids you used to see playing in the streets?  (There’s a whole movement in opposition to this, BTW.)

Our role as primary caregiver, combined with economic exploitation, means that a woman is left largely alone to take on the multi-year, 24-hour-a-day responsibility to bring up the child. If we have money, we can pay somebody to do it part of the time. But that just means we can use economic privilege as a workaround, to avoid some of the consequences of our exploitation. If we are living in a relationship with equals, our partner can help care for the child. Since one or both partners end up needing to be in the paid workforce, though, that just spreads the exploitation to two people. And for the many women who are still following the model in which the wife obeys the husband, we’re just back to women being economically dependent on men.

All in all, there are plenty of women without access to money or social supports, and for these women, having a baby puts them in a position where all their options are bad. Marry someone who might be abusive and controlling? Give up the baby, abandoning it to who knows what fate? Keep the baby, but work long hours in addition to the 24-hour-a-day job of caring for a baby? Many women will put up with slavery-like conditions to make sure our children are O.K. We are not liberated.

If women require money to be liberated, and not all women have money, women as a group are not liberated. Women’s liberation is an ongoing struggle.

(Don’t get me wrong, by the way–I am not saying women’s liberation is the only struggle. See my post on collective liberation.)

What about women who are not mothers? Let’s divide them into two groups: fertile and infertile. The phenomenon of rape, combined with legislation that prevents women from accessing contraception or abortion, means that a man can convert a fertile woman into a mother without her consent. Any fertile woman at any time, could potentially lose her liberty through no action of her own. In such a case, can any fertile woman be considered free? Our liberation is provisional. Many women can solidify this provisional liberation into real liberation, but again, in society as we have currently set it up, that requires economic privilege.

What about women who are infertile? (Girls, women on reliable birth control, post-menopausal women, male-bodied women, and so forth?) Are they liberated now that women can hold jobs, vote, and generally participate in what used to be considered a man’s domain?  Or does a lack of liberation for fertile women bleed over and affect infertile women too? After all, there’s no clear visible difference between women who are fertile and women who are not. The decreased social status conferred on one group will indeed spill over to another. Social oppression goes hand-in-hand with economic exploitation.

Women’s liberation has yet to be achieved.

So what should we do? Keep on keepin’ on.

womens liberation

image found on libcom.org


Collective Liberation Simplified

Power has a tendency to centralize, and the more it does, the more the working class (the 99 percent) faces economic exploitation, political disenfranchisement, and social inequality–difficulties that can be broadly classified as “oppression.” They’re all linked. Different groups within the working class (men, women, people of color, immigrants, scapegoats-of-the-year) face these issues in different ways, but we all face them.

Some people face multiple forms of oppression at once. They might be at the intersection of racism, sexism, or any number of things. They teach us intersectionality: that is, is the understanding that everybody’s oppression is connected.

Fighting any one thing at the expense of another is bound to fail. That’s why we should never be too busy with our own liberation that we fail to lend a hand in someone else’s. When we do, we are working toward collective liberation.

Any questions? Read these next.

“The Combahee River Collective Statement”


“Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” by Andrea Smith


“Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality” by Deric Shannon and J. Rogue


Politics and art (again)

The topic of politics and art came up recently in a Facebook debate, and I had some perspectives to share. Rather than overwhelming my friend’s Facebook wall, I’ll share them in this post. Here are a few of the assertions made:

“Censorship, even self-censorship to abet a political agenda, is anathema to art.”

“Mixing politics and art doesn’t do art any favors.”

In this post, I’ll start by generally considering the concepts art, politics, and self-censorship. Then I’ll put it in the context of the feminist movement and finish up with a work of political art by Frida Kahlo.


There’s no defining the term art, but as a rough start I’ll say that it is something produced by people that speaks to the soul of those who receive it. (Except that nature makes art, too.) Art is created in a social context. It’s made many times–first by the creator, and then by the person who receives it.

Art is made for art’s sake, as self-expression, as commerce, as politics, or for any number of reasons. What makes it art? That it transcends those conditions of production and becomes something that speaks to the soul.

Art is shaped by culture, and in turn, it shapes culture.


There’s no defining politics either. In the Facebook discussion, everybody was using the term without agreeing on its basic definition, which in my opinion derailed the whole conversation. My own definition of politics is broad and expansive and stems from the feminist movement. That definition is so widely used that ignoring it will inevitably lead to confusion and pointless arguments.

The personal is political. There’s a world of meaning in that statement. When a publicly elected official can pass a law legislating what a woman may or may not do with her womb, the personal is political.

Politics, to me, is everything having to do with the power dynamics of human relationships. And as such, it’s an integral part of art.

Therefore, the assertion “mixing politics and art doesn’t do art any favors” makes no sense to me. It’s like saying “mixing salt and ice cream doesn’t do ice cream any favors.”


Art and social movements

For every broken human institution we’ve ever had, there’s been art to back it up. To justify it, to put it in a positive light. Our culture is the water we swim in, the air we breathe, and it is inevitably reflected in our art.

Then maybe a social movement comes along, intending to change the institution. Struggle ensues, and you’ll see resistance art. This is true for any social movement–feminism, civil rights, communism, or the push for democracy in the late 1700s.

For every social movement against a human institution you’ll have two kinds of art: that which strengthens the institution and that which resists it. They’re both political. There are those who believe in a third kind of art, that which remains neutral. I’m skeptical. Sometimes the people who say that just don’t see the air we breathe.

At the very least, whenever there is a struggle to change our social, cultural, economic, and political circumstances, art situates itself somewhere in the struggle. Maybe it’s actively building a wall against change. Or throwing rocks against a wall, or up in the picket lines fighting and getting tear gassed. It could be standing on the wall trying to simply observe–a risky business. Or sitting down and having a beer with the people who don’t want anything to change, feeling innocent. Perhaps, instead, it’s throwing pies at somebody. No matter what, though, art is somewhere.

And art has power: to change our hearts and minds, to change our culture, to start a revolution or to glorify a king.

Art, politics, and self-censorship

Because art has power, there will always be people making demands of it. Do this! Don’t do that! At some point, those demands rise to the level of censorship. Maybe the artists face execution for their work, or the loss of a job. This is terrible for art (at least until whoever is in power gets deposed).

In that context, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment:

“Censorship, even self-censorship, is anathema to art.”

However, I don’t agree with this one:

“Censorship, even self-censorship to abet a political agenda, is anathema to art.”

To me, it’s only censorship if the artist is at risk of execution or loss of ability to get a job, or if a censor has the power to stop the work from getting out in the world. There’s a high bar, and for good reason. Censorship is terrible. We shouldn’t weaken the term.

By the same token, it’s only self-censorship if the artist limits or changes their work as a result of these kinds of repression.

Anything else is whatever the artist chooses to do with their art, which is their own business. If they want to change or limit their work to abet a political agenda, they can do that. Call it self-regulation, or editing.

People can even demand that an artist change or limit their work, and it’s not self-censorship. People make demands on art all the time. But art’s going to do whatever it does.

Art, censorship, and feminism

Feminist authors are often told their works are “too political.” We’re repeatedly told, by workshop reviewers and editors, that we should change or limit our literature. Or we’re not told that: our work is just dumped into the slush pile, because its political sensibilities offend.

We’re asked to change or limit our work. We are often rejected by fiction markets because we don’t conform to prevailing notions. I could call that censorship, but I’m not going to. I set the bar high, and it applies equally to both sides of the debate.

The feminist movement has gained in power, and people with feminist sensibilities have our own publishers and publications. We’re everywhere: writers, editors, publishers, reviewers, and on awards committees. We’re even approaching 50% representation in some of these areas, though we have a long way to go.

Now that we’re here, we’re making our own demands. We’re saying, “Artists, we want the world to be different, and your art is part of that. We want you to stop perpetuating obnoxious stereotypes. Or even better, could you take our side in this struggle we’re having just now?”

The demand itself–this is not censorship.

Art, feminism, and backlash

In the field of fantasy and science fiction, as in all the other fields of art, feminism has encountered a backlash. No surprise there. Part of the backlash is asserting that feminist fiction has politics, while good fiction does not. A lot of the people who believe that politics and art can be separated are really referring to politics that violate cultural norms. The politics that validate them go unnoticed.

Another part of the backlash is the accusation of “political correctness.” This accusation, ironically, is used to silence a demand. We want our culture to change the way we use language, especially the way members of oppressed groups want people to refer to them. These are not unreasonable demands. If somebody is calling me a b**h or a c**t, I would ask them to stop.

However, I don’t have the power to make anybody stop using words. I don’t have the power to enforce censorship. I don’t want that power, either. I want the power to effect social change as one member of a democratic debate.


The work in question

The work in question was “Five Signs Your Story is Sexist–Against Men.” This article considers five stereotypes: male heroes with no relationships, fathers that are distant or judgemental, men that are divided into winners and losers, male consent that’s disregarded, and feminine men who are mocked. And it offers suggestions for how to fix fiction that has those stereotypes.

I don’t agree with all the advice in there. In some places it overstates its case and makes political statements I don’t agree with. Nobody should take its proscriptions and follow them blindly. At the same time, I was so happy to see a feminist article that talks about how stereotypes hurt men, and to tackle them as an element of craft.

In no way does this article privilege politics over art. Feminist politics are all about the nature of human relationships, which is a proper subject of art.

So I don’t see this work as any less legitimate as another article on the same blog, “Five Characters That Are Too Powerful.”

I have disagreements with both articles, and I’d happily participate in a lively debate about them. But one thing they both do well: they start a fascinating and productive conversation about craft.

Art, revisited

All art is created, distributed, and remade in a social, cultural, economic, and political context. It takes politics as its subject and it makes proscriptions. And if it’s really good art, it transcends politics, proscriptions, and context. Take this painting by Frida Kahlo, “Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick.” It is overtly political, and it leaves us face to face with the unknown, watching and wondering.

frida kahlo marxism-will-give-health-to-the-sick

Frida Kahlo, “Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick” – from fridakahlo.org