Cross-posted at Feministing Community.
Hanna and I have been talking lately about feminism and feminist politics, comparing our very different experiences with various incarnations of feminist theory and feminism as a political movement. One of the things that we’ve been talking about is the question of hypocrisy: if someone (a feminist in this case) critiques a certain behavior, beauty ritual, book/song/movie, word/phrase, cultural belief, etc. and yet still engages in (possibly even takes pleasure in) said behavior/ritual/belief, does that make the person hypocritical? Or are they just being pragmatic or realistic? And if so, does that mean that there’s no point to engaging in critical feminist analysis, if in the end we all end up pragmatists: does that mean that the status quo wins out in the end anyway?
There was a time in my life when I would have answered with an unqualified “yes, absolutely.” I will always remember the conversation I had about shaving my first year taking college classes (I was seventeen) when I had just discovered theoretical and political feminism as something that — rather than being of historical interest — was of living, breathing political relevance. I had this Creative Nonfiction professor (whom in retrospect I would say I had a huge crush on) whom I met with to discuss an essay I was working on, and in the course of the conversation I said something to the effect of:
“Anyone who shaves their legs is supporting the patriarchy.”
Yes, I did. I really did.
And my professor, bless her heart, gently suggested that given that we live in a complicated, messy, real world in which actions have multiple meanings and sometimes you do a thing for complicated, messy, personal reasons — given all that maybe, just maybe, it was possible to shave your legs because it made you feel less self-conscious about your body, or shave your legs because you enjoy the ritual of shaving, or shave your legs because it makes it easier to lotion your dry skin and none of these things makes you less of a feminist. I was skeptical.
But I didn’t forget what she said. And, over time, I’ve learned to live with the dissonance that is a fucked up world that — try as hard as we might to improve — is never going to be perfectible (and we should probably be grateful for that!). And living “within and against the rules” of that imperfect world (to borrow a phrase from theorist Sidonie Smith) is hard. Because we’re at one and the same time unique individuals and products of our culture; our desires, our like and dislikes, or comforts and discomforts, they are often a confusing jumble of “me” and “society.” Figuring out when Society is worth resisting, because it compromises my Self too much to be borne — that’s practically a full-time job. An important one, but an endless struggle. Sometimes even more difficult are those times when my Self and Society appear to be in accord: do I just think they’re in accord? Do I want that because I’ve been encouraged to want it? Or do I want that because that luminescent Self at the center of my Being desires it?
Or is it a combination of both? And when, oh when, does it matter — discerning one way or another?
(See, for example, my reflections on the sex and gender roles in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series)
I’m pretty sure all of you thoughtful people out there on the internets have examples of these difficulties in your daily lives. And I’m curious how y’all manage to navigate the perilous waters of Self and Society, to make a meaningful life for yourself “within and against” the rules of to culture as-is, while you’re striving to live as if the world was the place you wanted it to be. Is living “as if” even practical? Is compromise always hypocritical? How do you have compassion for yourself (as a human being) who sometimes has to make the best of an imperfect situation? How do you hold on to your vision of a better world while slogging through the everyday? How do you make sense of the desires you have, or the actions you take that are, on some level, counter to your core values?
Please consider this an open thread for discussing any of these questions. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you’ve brought together feminist values with life in the world.