Monday, December 27, 2004

Why Does Everybody Hate Feminists?
Susan Gubar’s “What Ails Feminist Criticism?”

Here’s why everybody hates feminists: they’re so divisive. We’ve come to know them for dividing the genders, but in this article, Susan Gubar demonstrates the way feminists have come to be divisive even among themselves, in the groupings within feminists, so the Latina feminists protest that when feminists say “we,” they can’t possibly be speaking for ALL feministas (889), or (as Gayatri Spivak says) when privileged first-world feminists publish their treatises, they should hide under the shame that they are typed by “cheap labor” of third-world women (890). I don’t know where Spivak works, but academics I know can’t afford to pay third-world typists to work on their books.

Nonetheless, I understand her point. I understand tenets of feminism, and I do agree with a number of things that Gubar says here, particularly when she talks about some of the more modern applications of feminist criticism, pretty interesting stuff (that seems to be more linguistics than anything else). However, I don’t know that it’s helped the marginalized groups that much to fight the good fight, the way the feminists have done it since the 1960s.

Anyway, Gubar’s idea in her essay “What Ails Feminist Criticism?” is to remind us that feminism is alive and well. If I were her, I would be concerned if I had to do that. In fact, I think Gubar is aware of the fact that her discipline is troubled. The way she ends the essay is the giveaway. Quoting Braidotti, Gubar says she wishes that “feminism would shed its saddening, dogmatic mode to rediscover the merrymaking of a movement that aims to change life” (902). Does anyone remember any “merrymaking”? She suggests that the best thing to do would be to “heal feminist discourse of the infirmities that made us cranky with one another” (902). Frankly, it’s refreshing to hear a realistic discussion of the “infirmities.”

Gubar first analyzes the stages of feminist criticism. Early critics, in the stage called “critique,” examined male writers’ treatments of women characters’ actions and imagery related to women (882). This method still remains an important one, but a second stage followed, called “gynocritics,” in which women critics tried to find “previously neglected” women writers. In the third phase (in the 1980s), which Gubar calls “the engendering of differences,” critics began to pay attention “to images not only of femininity but also of masculinity” as well as of homosexuality in a way they had not before (884). The idea of deconstructing gender and sexuality is important to feminism, I think. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, as soon as feminists started to be aware of the fluidity of gender and sexuality, they opened up so many more philosophical possibilities. That change in beliefs wasn’t a weakening of the philosophy—it was a strengthening, because it wasn’t a foolish and divisive dichotomy anymore.

But also in this part, Gubar discusses bell hooks in the context of her discussion of the word woman as referring only to the white kind (886) as well as the race and ethnicity issues discussed above. I want to say that I fully support these ideas—and they were radical and fascinating at the time. But now? I think that they make the field of feminism too divisive rather than practical as a twenty-first century ideology. Somehow that undoes the interesting growth potential that the reconsideration of gender and sexuality had opened.

Near the end of the article Gubar discusses some of the criticism of women writers, explaining the way rhetorical strategies of women writers are different than men writers. I find that kind of analysis fascinating, but as I write this, I wonder about the value of that kind of analysis. What good does it do us to know how different men are from women (and the reverse)? It seems to me that it just throws another log on the fire of disagreement. I suppose ignoring differences doesn’t make it any better. I just find that other forms of criticism can be so much more fruitful. I don’t hate feminists, but I’d rather be in a room full of people that don’t have so many beefs with each other.

How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?

No comments: