Elephant in the Room

Just don’t call it feminism

In honor of International Women’s Day, a story:

Sometime in my college years of 1987-1991, I got in a kitchen fight with the Baffler’s Tom Frank about Madonna. I have been fighting in kitchens at parties since way back. I was and am that girl. In high school, I talked politics in the kitchen of Articles of Faith’s big blue house in Chicago, wearing stylish vintage men’s clothes while other kids were having sex in other rooms. I had started to adopt that look in sixth grade in Hermosa Beach when someone from Black Flag said I looked cool when I showed up to rescue my friend from her big brother’s party, and I was wearing my southern private school uniform, (button down shirt and loafers) because that’s all I had. Most people thought I was more weird than cool but that kept me going. When preppy became fashionable I started wearing more black and sparkles. I danced all night to sexy but sometimes sexist house music and fancied myself more a gay male British pop star than what society called a “girl.” I went to prom in drag in a shiny tux, more to be incognito than making any sort of point. But I knew gender was a fluid and societal construct before I knew what those words meant.

But that night in college, I was defending Madonna because—and it’s hard to overstate what a new phenomenon she represented–I found it refreshing to see a woman being powerful, controlling her career and sexuality, wearing, doing, saying, what she wanted. All of my female heroes had been out of view: intellectuals, musicians, scientists, who like me mostly just grooved along in a man’s world wearing mostly men’s clothes doing man things. Or they did their own thing so therefore were regarded as insane and they were my heroes, too. Kate Chopin, Gena Rowlands, Jessica Lange…Ok I see these are all artists and why not add some imaginary characters: Nancy Drew, Betty not Veronica, Jules y Jim’s Catherine (sorry, no room for the central woman’s name in the title). Sanity is also a societal construct, ever more problematic in an insane society. That’s why so many of these real and fictional women kill themselves when they can’t fit in.

So Madonna: I thought it was great that there was this mainstream pop star doing what she wanted and that young women (I was 20 but thinking about the young’uns!) would be inspired to also be powerful, lift one another up, reject what the patriarchal society was telling them, reject their perfect Republican hairstyles, foundation, mascara, lives. In the 80s it was an act of rebellion in middle class Chicago suburbs to wear black in the sea of bright colors, to not brush your hair, to not wear makeup, to wear the wrong kind of makeup, to wear something too sexy (for me, only at Rocky Horror!), to wear something not sexy enough. I was sent to the counsellor and put on the drug watch list just because of the way I dressed which was merely different from others. (I DID need counseling and DID do drugs but that wasn’t the point and conforming wasn’t the solution.) In 1991 on a cross-country road trip with my sister, I knotted my long (from neglect) hair on top of my head like all the popular girls do now and gas station clerks acted like I was about to rob them. Thelma and Louise had just come out and no one did that then.

Well, maybe I did overstate the Madonna phenomenon. Anyway, Tom Frank’s counter point about Madonna was: “yeah yeah fine but how does this help working class women.” 

He may not have said quite that, or anything close to that, but he was right. Let Madonna do what she wants, but that’s not a life of service and trying to lift others up. It might be empowering TO HER but it shouldn’t be confused with Feminism, which I understand as working for equal rights and opportunities under the law and out from under the many other means of control. Maybe her music did lift people up, but her wearing a bra instead of a shirt didn’t. That just sold records using the sexual language and currency that has always proven successful in these endeavors. 

And somewhere along the line: I DO WHAT I WANT became the mantra of many of these young women’s lower case feminism. And I agree, seriously, DO WHAT YOU WANT (sure, like the men, but within reason and the law….unless the laws need to be changed and then maybe work to change that for yourself, and also others?) And also while you are DOING WHAT YOU WANT, try not to hurt others or yourself, and also accept the consequences of your actions instead of blaming others? But yeah, DO WHAT YOU WANT, but please fucking stop calling it Feminism because that’s not what it is.

In my 30s sometime I wrote and performed a piece as Hillary Clinton in which she asserted herself as a smart progressive woman and ALSO a sexual being, something she was not being allowed to do or be in those years. Or now. It was, I thought, provocative and funny in a not-funny but making a point kinda way. I was not defending her as a person as much as condemning the roles male-run society proscribes for women. If you’re going to be powerful, you can’t be a sexual being. If you’re going to be a sexual being, you can’t be powerful. I performed it at my aunt’s condo at Thanksgiving that year, at UCB, and insanely I put it into my writing packet for all to see and not hire me. 

Now, I’m a woman in my 40s doing my best in my career and art to elevate the playing field, the dialogue. I take this service seriously. My idea of myself as a woman and person has never been and will not be solely defined by my sex or sexuality or what I wear or the color of my skin, but my ideas about things, and how hard I’m willing to work for what I believe. And I encourage all people to broaden their own self-definition. I’m not qualified to think about issues of gender, race, sexuality, art, because of who I am but because I’ve spent much of my life asking, listening, reading, and thinking out these issues. I’m not always right but I’d rather be wrong and be someone who is at least asking questions, challenging the status quo, asking for better. I try to keep my thoughts and actions on the lines of: “what’s best for all of us,” not “what’s best for me.”

And I’m back in wonderful art and entertainment and comedy which is an exciting platform for exchanging and mixing ideas and putting light on injustice and prejudices but then always in danger of sliding into showbiz which builds forcefields of silence as the higher the stakes, the less people call each other on their shit. As I’ve gained my teeny bit of power and status and I feel more silenced than ever before. From the girl who once submitted that not-really-funny-but making-a-point pro-anal sex Hillary Clinton sketch to SNL.

So I just wanted to shout, one day only, for lady day, because I’d rather be wrong and loud than quiet and right:


Feminism doesn’t work for the benefit of the self, but for shared benefits for everyone.
Feminism tries to build others up.
Feminism doesn’t shame others for voting for the candidate of their own brain’s choice, for voting based on ideas not gender.
Feminism doesn’t shame others for following boys around or not following boys around.
Feminism doesn’t shame others for not being sex-positive enough.
Feminism doesn’t shame older women for daring to be sexual or for aging.
Feminism doesn’t shame men for calling themselves Feminist.
Feminism doesn’t answer objectification and denigration with the objectification and denigration of others.
Feminism doesn’t meet hatred with hatred.
Feminism recognizes and accepts the value of a variety of expressions and beliefs and experience.
Feminism works for freedom from sexual discrimination more than freedom of personal sexual expression 
Feminism recognizes that perhaps personally empowering sexual expression can sometimes reinforce sexual discrimination of those with less power.
Feminism isn’t gonna cosign the idea that it’s empowering to use sex to sell yourself or your ideas. That’s a DO WHAT YOU WANT but don’t call it Feminism.
Feminism would rather fix the societal inequalities that allow sex industry to flourish than theorize about whether selling your sexual self ought to be considered empowering.

Feminism is empowerment through service to others, especially other women.

Ok I wore myself out.
Did I wear you out?
As Robert Reich always says, what do you think?

Originally posted to Facebook March 2016

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