Feminism and the Struggles of Sisterhood
When I was assigned to cover the school beauty pageant for my middle school newspaper, I thought: “Ha! Now’s my chance to eviscerate those bimbos.” I wrote a subtly condescending description of the event (which, incidentally, I didn’t actually attend).
The teacher in charge of the newspaper staff (who also happened to be my aunt, a great 8th grade English teacher) encouraged me to be less divisive. Few enough people read the school newspaper as it was. She suggested, for example, that I change my line about the girls stumbling across their stage in their high heels to say the girls “glided” across the stage. I can’t remember whether she let me publicly humble my peers the way I wanted to. I know I argued adamantly that middle schoolers could not walk well in high heels. They were just kids, after all.
From the time I was a frumpy sixth grader with a love of flannel, I would have said I was a feminist who believed that society’s standards for female beauty and behavior were stupid, and that sisterhood was vital to female empowerment. I grew up in a house with brothers and no sisters, which meant that I associated the concept of sisterhood with soldiering against society rather than fighting with each other over borrowed clothes. I’d never had to deal with the reality. But if the concept was important to me, then why did I tear down my fellow females who loved fitness and fashion and pageantry? From my perspective, those women wanted us to lose the fight. If Cosmo Girl told them they just had to fit into the newest glass slipper, they’d already have the saw poised over their toes. They couldn’t be my real sisters.
Around this time, I was developing a special kinship with female authors like Jane Austen who also, from time to time, eviscerated bimbos. Although Elizabeth Bennet life in 19th century Britain feels remote, her struggle with tall, thin, rich, mean girls will always be relatable. Miss Bingley, her rival for Mr. Darcy’s affections, makes snide comments about her beauty, her behavior, her status, and her confusing love of reading, and Elizabeth manages to remain enviably cool and snarky. I tried to be cold when I felt threatened, too, but I was never sure if the act was working.
In truth, I had a hard time keeping my cool when girls were mean to me. Like many bookish girls, I spent most of my middle school and high school years having crushes on popular guys who were pretty nice to me, but who were never going to date me. Around this time, I realized that I wasn’t just mad at girls for being bad sisters. I was angriest at them where guys were concerned. And that made me a bad sister, too.
When Mean Girls came out, it made “girl-on-girl crimes” a major topic of conversation. The movie successfully gave a lot of girls a common vocabulary for discussing female solidarity and female cruelty. It’s a fine line between inside jokes and solidarity (“we wear pink on Wednesdays”) and explicitly exclusionary behavior (“you can’t sit with us!”).
It has always been relatively easy for me to be a good sister to women I like, even if when it’s uncomfortable for me. For example, I have to confront my own biases to avoid the traps of white, middle-class feminism, and I often fail. The necessity of doing so makes me feel inadequate at times, perhaps afraid of failing…but not angry.
Where I’m most uncomfortable is in figuring out how to be kind to the women I don’t really want as sisters, women who seem snarky, women whose values differ from mine, women whose tastes are appalling to me.
In retrospect, I can see that the girls in my middle school who I thought were exclusionary and image-obsessed were just kids, and that I could be pretty exclusionary and image-obsessed, too. We’re all trying to navigate a confusing, painful world. When I can remind myself of that (and it isn’t easy), I feel guilty for trying to eviscerate others – even if I’m just eviscerating them in an article they’re never going to read!
In the wake of the election, many people are understandably scared and angry. It’s natural to lash out when you’re afraid. Perhaps that’s why, in recent months, it has become socially acceptable for progressives to make statements that would otherwise be quite unacceptable. Case in point: berating a woman for putting her feet on a couch. Don’t some of these tweets sound like someone’s abusive boyfriend?
Yet, as you might point out, the pain caused by the policies of her boss are much more damaging and painful to the country than mean tweets. Keep in mind, though, that this was a campaign conceived with mean tweets, with accusations that our first African-American president wasn’t born in this country. Rather than addressing the issues, he decided to be cruel. I believe it wasn’t right for him to be cruel, and I believe it isn’t right for his opponents to be cruel, either.
Cruelty might temporarily triumph because it appeals to our primitive instincts, which are admittedly quite powerful, but how can you reach a goal of long-term peace in a vehicle of cruelty?
And yet, you can’t promote anything if you’re too nice to disagree. Speaking your truth without the distraction of ad hominem attacks is difficult, and it’s natural to fail sometimes. Plus, even calm, well-reasoned disagreement can be provoking to those we disagree with – and we can’t let that shut us up. Yet perhaps in the spirit of sisterhood (and naturally, general siblinghood!), we can maintain our core values of respect and well-reasoned dissent, even when we fail to fully live up to these values.
This is a reminder, especially to myself, to speak with compassion. We’re all mess-ups. We all (when given the luxury) are inclined to obsess over nonsense. That doesn’t mean we have to accept nonsense from ourselves or others. But it might mean that we aim to disagree more kindly (even with ourselves), for the sake of all of our sisters.