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pet peeve: “reduced” to feminism

Posted by pocochina on August 16, 2010

Since I’ve been having some more time to read reviews, discussion, and meta of shows I love, and since I nearly exclusively enjoy shows that have strong, interesting female characters and at least some awareness of feminist politics as a part of their high-quality storytelling, this has naturally resulted in my reading discussions of shows wherein dude reviewers talk about female characters and feminism.

Which is cool.  I have no issue with that – in fact, it’s at least as important for men to see shows which feature feminist politics and characters as it is for women.  Stories, perhaps fictional more than biographical, are the way we learn how to empathize with people who aren’t like us, and can help us examine our own privilege in a way that’s far more accessible than academic texts.  And I’ve actually largely been quite pleasantly surprised by the intelligence on feminist issues shown by these reviewers.

But sometimes, and this is the exact wording I keep seeing, is praise of a character or character’s storyline which recognizes that a female character has expressed a feminist thought within the context of her greater storyline by saying that said character isn’t “reduced to being solely feminist” or “just about feminism” or other minimizing language.  And this is really problematic.  It is an incorrect interpretation of what feminism is.  On a philosophical level, this is a misunderstanding of feminist storytelling.  And when this language is used by men, even men who seem to be explicitly politically feminist, it comes across as an exercise of privilege which trivializes women’s lives and concerns.

There’s no such thing as a story that is “just” a feminist story – a story which is ONLY about a particular inequality faced by women – and has no other redeeming characteristics.  A feminist person can tell a story about a female charcter badly, for sure.  Such a story is the province of after-school specials.  But a female character who is informed by feminist creators must be more than a vehicle for telling a simple Aesop, because it is a crucial goal of feminist media to create female characters who are interesting, well-rounded, relatable people.

Even if you were, hypothetically, to say that you were going to fictionalize the struggle for, say, equal pay, and do so with two-dimensional characters, but tell the story honestly, you’re still exploring some very deep themes which are more than enough to support a story.  The thousand and one times you bite your lip and don’t say anything about the tiny indignities as well as the utter bravery it takes to say something just once, the times you doubt yourself; the cruel indifference or just plain cruelty of people making the discriminatory decision; the folks you’re fighting with and for turning against you; the very real conflict that hasn’t ended yet – these are compelling things.  In a story about a man, they’d be universal human truths.  In a story about a woman, they’re “reduced” to feminism.  That is straight-up sexism.

But more often, when someone says they don’t want to see a character “reduced” to feminism, they mean that the deliberate espousal of a feminist viewpoint is so strange, it overpowers the rest of a character’s story and presentation.  And that’s an interesting phenomenon on its own, but if reviewers are to be intellectually thorough, they should note that this is not because of poor characterization or some debasement of the feminist character, but rather, but the unfortunate fact that feminist ideals are rare in media overall, and outright taboo in some ouvres.  When I hear a character state my own personal philosophical convictions, which I have held for years, which are a huge part of my life, I still experience a jolt of surprise, no matter what else is going on in the narrative, because it is just so rare.  Unfortunately, this rarity means that characters who are feminists, or whose storylines are informed by feminism, stand out as exceptions, and feminism sticks out as the characters’ or storylines’ sole defining trait, and then because women and feminism are devalued, this is somehow a “debasement” of the character, something for her to overcome, to prove that she’s still worth our time, even if she’s a *gulp* feminist.

But that’s not how feminism works.  Feminism is the means by which female characters become three-dimensional, rather than being requisite sex object hetero-proving trophies.  When a character is explicitly a feminist, even if that is one of the most important things about her (CJ Cregg; Will in Huge), it tells the viewer things about her – she is willing to espouse an unpopular philosophy out loud; she is probably on some level critically examining her relationships to male characters; she has some philosophical scale by which to weigh the power inequalities we’re watching play out on the screen.

And a character doesn’t have to identify as a feminist to be telling a feminist story.  Take Betty Draper.  Betty Draper would not call herself a feminist, nor do contemporary feminists claim her as one of our own.  But feminism is the intellectual means by which her creators took a two-dimensional Donna Reed type character and respected her personal dignity and agency enough to interrogate what her life was really like, how she really felt.  Betty is The Feminine Mystique, distilled into one three-dimensional character whose actions and feelings – admirable and otherwise – are respected as that of an individual.  Feminist philosophy adds to a character.  Without feminism, even the best writers create at least a few of their characters (women) as flat, stereotype-laden plot devices.

Gender imbalances, whether or not they are called out by characters on the screen, or even recognized at all by the creators behind the scenes, are always present.  You cannot “reduce” a character or a storyline to feminism, any more than you can “reduce” a cup of tea to Assam leaves.  If they were there during the making, the water is changed forever.  And if not…it’s just dull.

Similarly, a story can be feminist even if it shows women in bad circumstances caused by patriarchy, as long as it acknowledges that those circumstances are structural inequalities.  Dollhouse, for example, is about the least empowered women imaginable, and in a couple dozen episodes it explored themes like rape culture, domestic violence, forced institutionalization, motherhood, body image, and reproductive choice, and came down firmly on the side of collective action for freedom for the disempowered every time.  Is Echo a feminist character?  It doesn’t matter.  Feminism was in the Dollhouse water.

And I don’t blame male reviewers for not getting these intellectual distinctions – they’re big ones, and well, dudes don’t have a whole lot of self-interested reason to put the time into learning them (even if they are honest to Bronte good guys who care and want to know).  But to use trivializing language about feminism – to imply that a character whose feminism is front and center – is to trivialize real life feminists, specifically because we are vocal about the oppression of women.  And that while that is not ever okay, it especially makes me wince coming from a guy, because then it’s not just an insult to an issue at the core my sense of morality and justice, but it’s also a reminder of how easily, still, even while discussing those comparatively few bits of art and culture explicitly containing reminders that women are people, folks are willing to dismiss a value system that fights back against those core injustices.

It isn’t “just” feminism.  If you can say that, you’ve proven my point.

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