Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ani DiFranco, Joni Mitchell and The Problem with Feminism

I was surfing the Internet today (as I do from time to time when I'm putting off doing real work), and I came across an online piece on Ani DiFranco in The Guardian entitled "I'm Considering a Revolution" (October 10, 2007). The article references an earlier piece DiFranco did for the LA Times, in which she interviewed venerable female artist Joni Mitchell, in the following paragraph:

Last year, the National Organisation for Women (NOW), America's largest feminist advocacy group, honoured DiFranco with a Woman of Courage award. She has always been outspoken about her feminism; in that same Joni Mitchell interview she suggested that her subject, who has been disparaging of feminism, might embrace the concept. Mitchell simply responded, "I prefer the company of men." DiFranco went on to write that "Either you are a feminist or you are a sexist/misogynist. There is no box marked 'other'" (Emphasis mine).

This isn't "courageous," it's narrow-minded and hypocritical. In fact, it's exactly the kind of aggressive dichotomizing and intolerance of diversity that feminists are always saying characterizes patriarchal thinking. I thought the cardinal sin of "phallogocentric" patriarchy was its tendency to sort the world into binary oppositions (like, say, feminist and sexist/misogynist), one of which (feminism, in this case) is privileged over the other.

Unless there is a kind of feminist logic at work here that is subtly "subversive" on a level beyond the understanding of a petit-bourgeois white male rube like me.

DiFranco's attitude is remarkably patronizing, bullying, and arrogant towards women who are unsympathetic to feminism's goals and aims, which profess to be about improving women's quality of life, but are (in my experience) more often locally and immediately concerned with securing status and opportunity for upwardly mobile career-feminists. This bears repeating: Feminist interests and women's interests are not identical. Feminism's support of women is "universal" only in the sense that it regards all women as targets for prosyletization, and DiFranco's treatment of Mitchell illustrates this point.

I love women, and I support them in their struggle for equality. It's ironic and disappointing that feminist discourse is so often characterized by bitter and virulent intolerance of any point of view other than its own.

I think the next frontier for women's liberation will be the freeing of the mature female worldview from the worst tonal excesses, political reductionism and skewed logic of 20th century feminism. These may then be consigned to the historical scrap heap with the rest of the rusting avant garde intellectual apparatus.

One can always hope, anyway.


Shauna said...

You know what, I love Ani DiFranco, but I agree with you totally on everything you just said. Ani DiFranco is for young women what NWA's "Fuck the Police" is for young black men... an anthem to help them realize they aren't the only one feeling oppressed, and recognize there's something worth fighting against, something that should make you "give your head a shake", rather than just learning to "lie down and do your time" (both catch phrases from my new place of employment, the PEI correctional center - but that's a story for another time).

As much as I would disagree with a literal interpretation of NWA's response to police brutality, I have a problem with Ani's messages on feminism. But they get you thinking, which is a hell of a lot better than most women artists marketed to young women about being obsessively in love and being sexy to the point of indecency. I would buy an Ani album for my daughter, but I'd make damned sure she didn't take it all literally.

Oha said...

In a way, i can see what your saying, but in this case I think Ani Difranco is right. Feminism means fighting against the oppression of women, and non-feminism is accepting things as they are. A sexist person might be actively fighting against women, and a non-feminist only refusing to ally themsleves with feminism. But by doing thsi they are saying they dont think things need to change for women in society. And that, my friends, is sexism.

Lucky 13 said...

While I appreciate the feedback, and the designation of "friend," I'm inclined to disagree with the way in which you've defined "feminist" and "nonfeminist." I define feminism as "following a feminist political agenda (i.e. a pro-female perspective informed by postmodernism and identity politics, especially of the post-1968 variety)" and nonfeminism as "not following that same feminist political agenda."

I think it's perfectly possible to support women and fight against sexism (real sexism, rather than sexism as it is defined by the opportunistic double binds of late 20th century feminism) while refusing to label oneself a "feminist." It all comes down to semantics, really, and I believe "feminist," at least at this point in time, conveys an attitude and an ideology that I want no part of.

It's a little like the word "naturalist." In a way, this term simply designates the philosophical notion that all things obey natural laws. But in another way, especially in French and American literary study, it carries a great deal of socioeconomic deterministic baggage from the mid to late 19th century. The naturalist position has been used to say, for example, that the children of poor and uneducated people are scientifically likely to remain poor and uneducated. Thus, one could hopefully understand why some people would be uneasy with being labelled "naturalists," or might even seek to avoid it altogether by finding a new term (autonomy) to explain what they are--one that doesn't require kilobyte after kilobyte of equivocation and qualification in order to get to exactly what it means.

So maybe the positive meaning of "feminist" can be saved from its postmodern errors and excesses or maybe it can't. My point is that many feminists claim to speak for all women when they in fact only speak for feminism (i.e. for themselves, because feminists, in my experience, can rarely agree on anything). That is not who or what I am, and thus I will stick up for women and reject the feminist label while maintaining that I am neither sexist nor apathetic about the oppression of women.

I hope I've made myself clear. You're certainly entitled to your own opinion, and I welcome the dialogue.

Lucky 13 said...

Correction: of course I'm sexist sometimes. I occasionally fall back on my default stereotypes without realizing it, but so does everyone in possession of an evolved intelligence rooted in heuristics. It takes hard work and lots of personal reflection to override the intellectually lazy superstition of sexism, but I'm sure we can agree that it's worth the time and effort.

Patty said...

There may be problems with inclusiveness within the "feminist movement" itself, but the fact remains: If you aren't a feminist, you believe that men should be treated better than women. It's in the definition.

John said...

Nice to hear from you, Patty. I'm afraid I disagree with you. A definition isn't a fact at all, it's an appeal to the authority of convention. This seems to me to be precisely the kind of thinking that second and third wave feminists have been trying so hard to deconstruct-- don't you think it's hypocritical and un-feminist of you to say that something is right (i.e. a "fact") merely because convention says it is?

Here's another familiar example: anti-gay marriage activists claim that while civil unions between monogamous gays might be acceptable, these cannot technically be called "marriages" because the Biblical "definition" of marriage concerns the sacred union of a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation. Pro-gay marriage activists claim that such a "definition" makes a spurious claim to authority, and that, in fact, the definition of marriage is whatever the people and their representative government say it is.

What do you think?