J. Alfred Prufrock Dares to Disturb the Universe – Loewenstein Defining Feminism

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
T. S. Eliot – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The Guardian Australia is providing a great service in terms of political reporting as well as comments about our public and private spheres. Every so often, however, we can see examples of clickbaiting and generating buzzrage. Yesterday’s piece on feminism by Antony Loewenstein is one such piece.  It certainly belongs in the Museum of Mansplaining Art.  Its constant references to the author’s reluctance to write about feminism because of a female consensus that had locked men out of feminist discussion reminded me a lot of the central figure of Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock – not daring to disturb the universe, where women talk of fashionable art. Here goes the daring version of J. Alfred.

‘Feminism lite’ is letting down the women who need it the most

“Feminism lite” – a curious phrase, as if the full fat version would be better than a diet one.  Plus, here is the author, ready to tell us who needs feminism the most.  So let’s listen to him.

Men are? When? In what way afraid? And there’s a definition of “strong”?  In any case, it’s clearly important to the author that feminism be explained and analysed by men.  Because women aren’t good at critiques? That seems to be underlying that point.

This is not acceptable. Men have a stake in gender equality, from promoting fair pay and no-fault divorce laws, all the way to stopping honour killings and sexual violence. We are boyfriends, husbands, fathers or friends, and yet too many of us shy away from these sensitive matters, fearing opprobrium. Too often, men worry they’ll be attacked by women for questioning a consensus position on feminist issues.

The first part of this paragraph – that men have a stake in those issues is true. The second half is a blanket statement about these vicious women “attacking” these poor victim men who dare to challenge women on a seeming consensus position on feminist issues.  In what way attack?  It’s probably a good time to contemplate the idea of a person acting out of a privileged position – a middle class male writing an opinion in a respected form of media in which he appears often – and contrast that with the idea of being “attacked”.  In addition, I find myself puzzling over the idea of a “consensus position” on feminist issues. It would be difficult to find any such consensus on a range of issues. The use of the term “consensus” also positions the author as being outside and not allowed into this walled off female bastion of consensus. The martyrdom complex is quite strong at this point.

But then Loewenstein returns to a well used fountain for his critiques.

When Australian prime minister Julia Gillard was in power, a common refrain on the left was that she faced appalling attacks on her appearance and marital status. Her famous misogyny speech prompted headlines around the world after she accused her opponent, Tony Abbott, of sexism.

There is no doubt that Gillard faced obstacles that men rarely have to contemplate, and that many of her ugliest critics have never accepted her legitimacy. Writer Anne Summers uncovered a litany of “vilification and denigration” against Gillard that went well beyond opposing the Labor leader’s policies. Many women applauded Gillard because they knew the daily realities of men ignoring, shaming or humiliating them at home, or at work.

And yet, during this entire period I found the debate depressingly staid. The forums available to discuss these issues were limited, leaving (mostly female) feminists to defend Gillard from the trolls who mocked her ideas, clothes and hair. My argument here isn’t that men should have been central in the debate – our role as privileged players in society has lasted far too long – but that mainstream feminism seemed only to feel aggrieved, and little else.

But here’s the catch: Gillard ran a government that routinely enacted policies that harmed women, including placing asylum seekers in privatised immigration detention, backing warlords in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province, supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine, cutting benefits for single mothers and opposing gay marriage.

Through opposing issues with which Loewenstein personally does not support, Gillard can’t have been a real feminist -indeed a “feminist lite”.  In addition, he is convinced by his own undefined yardstick that the mostly female feminists writing in that era were “staid” and not angry enough. They need to get ANGRY – at levels with which Antony agrees.

PATRIARCHYSMASH-8505-1173

This is not to say that many of the policies that the Gillard Government enacted weren’t harmful to women. The fact, however, that Gillard enacted policies that were deemed by her and her government to be for the good of society, doesn’t make Gillard any less of an important figure for feminism or for women in politics.  To somehow insist that Gillard should have been a different kind of leader – a leader with a woman’s touch – is fairly patronising itself.  But let’s go on with some sniping against these staid feminists.

There are countless other examples, yet they remained mostly dismissed by the same women (and men) who lavished support on Gillard for her “feminist ideals”. The love-fest continued in September last year when Summers interviewed Gillard in an Oprah-style format, with sell-out crowds lapping it up. This was, unquestioningly, a moment of public catharsis. Of course, there is nothing wrong with praising Australia’s first female prime minister for her achievements – but at least be honest, and admit that a few principled speeches on her part don’t compensate for years of abandoning the very gender you claimed to be helping.

Loewenstein here continues to define feminism and the achievements of Gillard on his terms – she didn’t do enough for women as PM, so therefore she is a feminist-lite. Worse still are the people involved in the snarkily named “love fest” of people happy to see Gillard’s speeches. In this part, it’s a pretty good attempt at capturing buzzrage – a heap of readers angry at being referring to in such a dismissive manner. But let’s go on.

In many of my books, female voices challenge a corrupt and militarised capitalist system, and it’s these characters that inspire me. We rarely hear from those women in the west, and if we do they are buried under the din of articles about face-lifts and marrying George Clooney (a great recipe for click-baiting). I believe that’s part of the reason why female anti-feminism is growing, especially as issues many women see as tangential gain disproportionate online prominence.

Ironic that click baiting is referred to, as are many of the author’s books – the same author who stated he was “afraid” of these consensus wielding feminists – most of them not published authors with regular gigs on TV and at the Guardian.

In Unspeakable Things, British writer Laurie Penny argues:

The feminism that sells is the sort of feminism that can appeal to almost everybody while challenging nobody, feminism that soothes, that speaks for and to the middle class, aspirational feminism that speaks of shoes and shopping and sugar-free snacks and does not talk about poor women, queer women, ugly women, transsexual women, sex workers, single parents, or anybody else who fails to fit the mould.

A fair point is made here by Penny – especially as it makes feminism meet the frequent Marxist critique that feminist should eschew capitalism – that real feminism is also seeking social change on all levels, not just rights for women. It is however, a drastic over simplification of the feminist discourse currently in the media to claim that modern feminist discussion all fits into the “shoes and shopping” trope oft used by Marxist writers wanting change on every level.  Then Loewenstein does this to the Penny quote -

This perfectly describes many western women who have become media spokespeople for their gender, appearing on TV with predictable lines. These are the same self-described feminists now salivating over the possible US presidency of Hillary Clinton, despite her record as a pro-war Democrat who believes in endless war. Yes, some feminist hero.

So, feminists can’t have “predictable lines” or support war, according to Loewenstein. I imagine in his world view, all women must be anti-war.  That’s not feminism, that’s pacifism.  Sure, it might be nice to have a pacifist and a feminist and a socialist as a leader.  These things, however, don’t have to be constantly linked to one another. It could also be argued that Clinton would never make it as the President if she didn’t support war as a way of ending problems. But to Loewenstein, due to his own pacifism, she would be a lesser feminist icon if she didn’t do what he thought she should do.

In hindsight, there’s no solid reason why I couldn’t have written this article years ago, but I’ve hesitated to do so. I’ve worried that I would be slammed for my white, male position and dismissed as ignorant of the real problems faced by women today. It’s an odd concern, because I don’t worry about extreme Zionists challenging me when I call them out on their racism (and I do receive plenty of vicious attacks whenever I write about it).

No, no-one in reality was there to stop this piece being written. It’s good that it was – so we can see what it’s like to be a person who wants to play themselves in the victim chair in order to weather the criticism that this piece would generate. And it’s not for “ignorance of the real problems” for which the author should be criticised necessarily – it’s also the way feminism is being defined and positioned that needs the critique.

The bottom line is that writing about feminism when male is like gatecrashing a party – and I’m concerned I’ll be slammed for daring to arrive without an invitation. But the responsibility to advocate for half the population falls of everyone’s shoulders, not just women. To do it meaningfully, however, we need to focus on the issues that truly need our help the most urgently: benefits taken away from single mums; sexual violence which affects all women, but especially already vulnerable ones; endemic racism which leads to parents of colour scared to have their child shot by police forces; lack of unionising or legislation which leaves women without working rights worldwide; the right not subject to rape threats and abuse, online and offline; equal pay for equal work.

Outsider, victim, “we are half the population, so we should get a say”. It’s all there.  And completely unnecessary. This is the third unnecessary time for Loewenstein to take his victimhood crouch, to play the role of J. Alfred – why not just do the critique of feminism and take out the practiced, mannered martyrdom that dominates the piece? It’s an intellectually shabby position to take, arming one’s self against reasonable criticism by attempting to pre-empt it.

Ultimately, I realise I’ve been been too cautious for too long, not daring to add my voice to the debate. I agree with The Atlantic’s Noah Berlatsky who states that although misogyny predominantly affects women, “it’s important for men to acknowledge that as long as women aren’t free, men won’t be either.” But to win this battle, we have to remember that the debates about celebrity red carpet dresses and celeb-feminism are designed to distract us. This is feminism lite, and is little more than white noise. Gender equality will only be achieved by hard work and uncomfortable questions.

And so it continues, J. Alfred Prufrock now daring to disturb the universe.   And he’s telling all those staid female feminists out there that he doesn’t like what you’re doing – you need to be smashing the state – because if you’re not, not only are you a bad Marxist, you are practicing the low in fat Feminism Lite.

Maybe the author should read on towards the end of the Eliot poem – to this part.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
It’s pretty easy to be full of high sentence and be obtuse.  It’s also easy to enough to be considered ridiculous and be almost, at times, a fool.