Outside the Asylum
The other day, one of my partners and I went to see All Elite Wrestling in Jacksonville. The show itself (and why we were there) merits some attention, but what I want to focus on today is an interaction I had when we were going through security.
A young black woman (much younger than me) was checking people in. She said to me, “I love your t-shirt and I LOVE your hoodie.” I was wearing a t-shirt that has some rock and roll poster art from the sixties on it. I’m a big fan of album and poster art from those times. My shirt was originally (I think) a poster advertising a Led Zeppelin concert.
In retrospect, it’s interesting that the young woman liked my Led Zeppelin t-shirt, and I wonder now if she was just responding to the design, and maybe didn’t notice that it was a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. I say this because of the reason she liked my hoodie.
My partner purchased this hoodie for me at Disney World. It’s a Dr. Who hoodie with a Tardis on the front and the words “Follow Me” placed so that when the hoodie is pulled down they land, somewhat inconveniently, right on my butt. (I suspect that may have been intentional on my honey’s part.)
“Are you a Dr. Who fan?” she asked. I admitted to it. She asked, “Have you watched them all? You know, Dr. Who is a woman now.” I said, no, that I had stopped watching some time ago, early in the tenure of the Doctor before this one; I found the last Doctor to be a real downer. I don’t remember all the rest of what was said, but I’m certain she repeated, at some point during our brief encounter, the information that Dr. Who was a woman now.
There was something pointed, something subtly emphatic, about the way in which she repeated those words, like she was dropping a code phrase or giving a Masonic sign. I have a feeling I was supposed to say “Wow! Really?” or “I know, isn’t it great?” My not giving those responses seemed to faintly puzzle her. I know my own lack of response puzzled me.
The truth is, I don’t care whether or not Dr. Who is a woman, and I’d like to know why not. In the world of public discourse, such as it is in this country and much of the English-speaking world, the answer to that is simple: I must be sexist, probably a Trump supporter who thinks pussies should be grabbed or something. But in my own mind, where things like rationality, evidence and logic at least have a seat at the table, I know that I was a feminist from the time I was a teenager.
Actually, I’ve been a feminist since I learned what the word meant. I didn’t need anyone to explain to me that women were oppressed or to reveal my oppression to me. Life with my alcoholic, abusive stepfather meant that I had figured all that out before I encountered a single Women’s Studies professor. And once I got old enough to encounter feminism as a movement, I signed on without a second thought. I have an old 59c button from back when we were protesting that a woman, on average, made 59c for every dollar a man made. I marched for abortion rights, and against rape. I walked with Take Back the Night. My mom worked at the local spouse abuse shelter. When I discovered paganism, it was through feminist authors like Starhawk and Z Budapest. My feminism affected my spirituality, my social life, and my work. It wasn’t like a commodity that I could pick up or put back down on the supermarket shelf. It had become part of me. I had become part of it.
The way that feminism permeated my work—literary criticism—makes my response, or lack thereof, to Dr. Who being a woman even stranger. I wasn’t just a feminist—I was a feminist cultural critic. I believed that politics influence the way we use language, and that, if we’re not careful, the way we use language affects and shapes our politics. A lot of my work, including my dissertation, focused on the ways that certain beliefs about women influenced the way language was used to describe female artists and writers, and that that language, in turn, influenced the way female artists and writers thought and felt about themselves, which, in turn, influenced their art. What I’m trying to get across here is that I was one of those people who scrutinize language looking for (among other things) signs of bigotry. By all rights, I should be at the front of the Resistance and shoulder-to-shoulder with every social justice warrior online.
I should be delighted that Dr. Who is a woman.
Why am I not?
I’ve only just begun to delve into this topic. I’ve been putting off writing about it because it’s hard to analyze. I can see, of course, how left-wing social justice movements have been largely taken over by the most powerful in our society and used as a kind of magic kabuki mask of morality behind which people who do insupportable things can cower. Identity politics has been turned into the moral equivalent of money-laundering for bad ideas. Want to normalize torture? No problem. Just call up the nation’s first Black president and get him to act, on camera, like torture is kinda OK, and maybe there’s something wrong with those who don’t like it. Want to normalize the idea of nuclear war with Russia and China? Send out Hillary Clinton to suggest that it’s a reasonable policy response to the United States “being hacked.”
And, of course, it works even better in reverse. Does someone have a problem with drone strikes during the Obama presidency? No problem. Say that they’re racist and they don’t like a Black man being in authority in the White House. Does someone have a problem with the idea of cutting Social Security? No problem. Just talk about how Social Security wasn’t available to Black people when it started. Somebody have a problem with constant war? They’re probably sexist Putin puppets whose real problem is Hillary running for president.
My sense is that the elite, sometime between 2010 and 2016, simply took left-wing social justice movements into the palms of their hands as easily as I’d pluck a tangerine off the tree in my front yard. Everything, including the language I used to use to talk about my experiences as a woman, has been so repurposed to serve the needs of the elite that I now no longer talk about being oppressed as a woman at all. I no longer use words in a feminist way. I think that if I heard that a woman was in trouble due to sexism or misogyny that I would come to her aid. Deeds I can manage, and I still feel the impulse to solidarity. But talking about women’s oppression with the tools at hand is simply impossible. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, and these tools have got his initials embossed on every handle. If I had encountered feminism today, as a young woman in the 21st century, I doubt I would have chosen to ever be a feminist at all.
But I am a feminist, and I haven't answered the question: Why don't I care that Dr. Who is a woman?
It’s not like there’s anything intrinsically wrong with Dr. Who being a woman. To begin with, an alien race that has a habit of dying and being reborn into entirely new bodies, and can expect to do so thirteen times over a lifetime, would hardly be phased by being born a different gender once in a while. In fact, it’s odd (within the context of the story) that it’s never happened before. This isn’t stupid nonsense like “The Force is female.” There’s no reason, no story reason, to be upset by it. There should be reason to be happy. I can remember being the person who would have seen this as a small victory in a long battle against injustice, cruelty, and intellectual meanness.
What has changed?
I don’t yet have a full answer to that question, but my first attempts to get one are taking me in the direction of context. Rights for women used to be in the context of rights for humans. Getting a Black man into the Oval Office used to be in the context of rights for Black Americans—all of them, not just the upper-middle-class ones who work in politics and the media. All of these social justice movements were in the context of an enduring human civilization, and all their attempts at reform were in the context of an ongoing project to make that civilization better. Quite specifically, the benefits of civilization were to be extended ever more broadly, its errors erased, and its cruelties curtailed. To paraphrase Bobby Kennedy, the goal was “to tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of this world.”
If you remove the assumptions that human rights exist, that we are part of an enduring human civilization, and that our ongoing task is to improve that civilization and make it more kind, functional and just, how does that change the movements against racism and sexism? I don’t know the full answer to that yet, and I think it will take more analysis than I have room for here. How could you have a feminist victory, of any kind, if you have left behind the notion of human rights? If you haven’t left behind the notion of human rights how do you wink at torture and endless war for profit?