Whither Feminism?: Gender and The New Normal

By Jack HalberstamOctober 7, 2012

Whither Feminism?: Gender and The New Normal

Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal
Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf
The End of Men: And the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin

IN HER SOMETIMES HILARIOUS rant against all the obstacles still holding women back in the world (you know, Brazilian waxes, Kim Kardashian, and five inch heels), Caitlin Moran in How To Be A Woman asks her readers: “Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it?” If you answer in the affirmative then, “Congratulations! You’re a feminist.” While I say bravo to Moran’s attempt to challenge the widespread disavowal of all things feminist, especially among those folks (young people of any gender) who badly need a complex and politically labile language for gender and sexuality, I am confused and dismayed that said feminism should issue from, of all places, the vagina. What does feminism actually look like right now as we hover between economic meltdown and slow recovery, environmental collapse and new green technology, pink power, gay marriage, and the so-called “end of men”?

At the vagina end of things, feminism makes an appearance as a new graphic (too graphic?) and public discussion of female genitalia. Some of these discussions locate the vagina as a source of a new pink power but others convey the anxiety of beauty norms and the pressure to look good — and so Moran, for example, has a long treatise on the waxing of the vagina and the new labor of grooming it! Naomi Wolf joined the conversation recently and provided us with a “biography” of the vagina. At the same time, other mini wildfires around the use of the word appeared everywhere — one in the Michigan state house of representatives where a state representative (Lisa Brown) made reference to her “vagina” while opposing anti-choice legislation. When she was censored publically, Even Ensler rode into town with her Vagina Monologues to provide backup! And another vagina war sprang up in the wake of an embarrassing and offensive description that senator Todd Akin gave of “legitimate” versus “illegitimate” rape. Akins infamously claimed that the vagina has a mysterious ability to repel the sperm from a “real” rape.

How to make sense of all these vaginas, some of them with brains (Wolf), some of them with primal prophylactic powers (Akin), some of them with so much to say (Ensler). Does the new casualness in the use of this word and the debates that have ensued about who owns it, what it does and does not do, indicate that feminism has done its work and has now been absorbed into mainstream politics? Read on. It is much more likely that the reduction of the category “woman” to the term “vagina” has actually narrowed the scope of topics that might have previously gathered under the heading of feminism and then simplified the long and complicated history of multiple feminisms into genitalia.

In my new book, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, I do not use the word vagina at all. Truth be told, gender and gender politics nowadays have little to do with simple genitality and are much more connected to new social arrangements, diverse households, and innovative classifications of identity, community, and desire. In Gaga Feminism, instead of pitting bodies with vaginas against bodies with penises, I argue that we are living in a new world where the categories of male and female are rapidly being updated all around us. In a world of sperm banks, in vitro fertilization, queer families, butch daddies, transgender men and women,  and heteroflexible women, pretending to be offended by the use of the word “vagina” in a public speech or making insupportable claims about rape and pregnancy are not just quaint and old-fashioned: they signal a deep ignorance about the world we live in and the enormous changes that have taken place within it in the last two decades. So rather than making the vagina talk back to the idiocy of Christian or Republican hypocrisy by giving it a biography or a monologue, it’s time to move on from simple, genital genders and start actually engaging the many forms of gendered embodiment moving us out of the age of normativity and into a new era of going gaga! In my book, “going gaga” means catapulting anachronistic formulations of men, women, and everyone else and recognizing that the current crises in gender relations, like the current crisis in the economy, should not push us back to the tried and true but should force us to try new ways of thinking.

But rather than just pondering why the vagina and why now, we should really be asking why feminism and, for that matter, whither feminism? Feminism, of course, is a political philosophy that has a much longer history than commentators like Wolf, Ensler, and Moran suggest, and it consists of much higher aspirations than offering a user manual on the vagina. Feminism, now and in the past, at its best, wants to speak to and for, with and about people with and without vaginas. It is not a monologue, vaginal or otherwise. It is not even a cozy dialogue between vagina and penis. Feminism has always been a noisy and messy and wonderful conversation about the meaning of gender, sex, embodiment, and desire.

Feminism has more often been declared dead than alive in recent years and this despite ongoing national debates about abortion, the changing nature of the family, marriage crises, and shifts in household economies. Throughout US history, feminism has either been considered a central component of social transformation (in the 1960s and 1970s) or an obstacle to change, provoking what Susan Faludi famously called “a backlash.” More recently feminism has been blamed for marriage crises and for “empowering women out of a good mate” (Lori Gottlieb in Marry Him) and all of this at a time when no one even admits to being a feminist!

Given how much power people would like to ascribe to feminism in this age of casual references to vaginas and female sexual response, it is amazing to find how allergic people actually are to the term and all it implies. Indeed, when I had finished writing Gaga Feminism, and I was looking for an agent and a publisher, I was consistently told the same thing about how to find an outlet for the book: take feminism out of the title. “Feminism,” I heard again and again, is poison when it comes to publishing. And while publishers don’t mind marketing to women, selling books about women, or even selling books about vaginas to women, they do mind, greatly, the use of the term “feminism” in all such endeavors. Of course, I can understand the reluctance to endorse a politics built around the stable category of “woman” in this day and age, but feminism has become much more than this: while in Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina, feminism is still a vague, witchy feeling associated with the floaty mysteries of the female body, in Caitlin Moran’s book, feminism is actually an urgent and necessary engine for social change — yet it remains firmly attached to people with vaginas. But in Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, the book that has recently captured headlines for its incisive analysis of the state of gender politics, feminism barely makes an appearance!

In The End of Men, Hanna Rosin, thankfully, refrains from leading with the vagina and instead makes a somewhat polemical claim that we have reached the end of male dominance. To argue her point, Rosin combines an analysis of how the recent economic crisis has impacted men much more than women with a study of recent trends in education where women do much better than their male classmates. In the world Rosin depicts, a world peopled with meek men and their go-getter wives, women make more money than men, still manage more than half of the household chores, make most of the household decisions and consistently outperform men in effort and competence and knowhow. Female flexibility, she tells us, suits the current marketplace. And given the growth in the service industry, the transformation of some jobs from manufacturing to service (as in pharmaceuticals, for example), and the decline of traditionally male areas of employment (as in factory jobs), we see men facing underemployment in all traditional fields, and women moving around the marketplace, degrees in hand — ready to work.

Rosin’s argument is compelling enough as far as it goes. Unfortunately, she is only able to divide the world into male bums and female supermums because she limits her study to mostly white, mostly middle-class, completely heterosexual households and then just applies the information she garners there to everyone else. So when it comes to explaining, for example, the gender gap in relation to black families, Rosin says that black women have an even harder time than white women in finding a suitable mate and this is because the same script that we recognize now in relation to white lower middle class and working class families played out among black people — and earlier than it did for white families. In the 1970s, Rosin tells us, “black men began leaving factory jobs; by 1987 only 20 percent of black men worked in manufacturing. The men who lived in the inner cities had a hard time making the switch to service jobs or getting the education needed to move into other sectors.” From there, Rosin suggests, it was one small step to the breakup of the family, to drug use, etc. and so — the punch line — “in the intervening two decades, the society has turned into a virtual matriarchy.”

This compression of black history into a three-decade slide from nuclearity to matriarchy is as erroneous and misleading as the simplification of gender politics into a love song to the vagina. There are libraries full of books detailing the long arc of slavery, the deep impact of slavery on black kinship structures, the continuous war on black families in the US sustained by Jim Crow laws, enforced by lynching, and extended long after the civil rights movement through incarceration and the so-called “war on drugs.” Watch one episode of The Wire and you will get a more complex lesson in US race relations than we are given in this quick nod to the devastation of black communities. In some ways, the title of the book would be less quirky and more accurate if it were “The End of Black Men,” given that, while white men seem to be going nowhere in terms of all the conventional markers of power, black men, on account of pernicious and sustained racism, are quite possibly facing end times — and this despite a black president.

Race is not the only omission in this frothy book. Even the idea of queer people seems foreign to the world that Rosin describes. While Rosin beats away at the dead horse of her argument (men are over), she also declares that the upper middle-class white household has been able to ride the marriage and labor crisis all the way to happiness itself:

Among the educated class, women’s new economic power has produced a renaissance of marriage. Couples in possession of college degrees are much more fluid about who plays what role, who earns more money, and, to some extent, who sings the lullabies. They have gone beyond equality and invented new models of marriage.

Rosin calls these marriages “seesaw” marriages because the earnings and responsibilities may swing back and forth between these happy, flexible super-people. And while some of the men in these couples were less able to adapt to the new arrangements, they generally do better, according to Rosin, than everyone else.

Many other journalists and writers — people like Stephanie Coontz, a historian of marriage and family — have challenged Rosin’s data and statistics and have shown how she overreads her data to produce this one-size-fits-all argument about the end of men. I won’t debate the data with her here, but I will say that to write a book that acknowledges the breakdown of marriage and nuclear families but has nothing — not one thing — to say about new queer families, about the social, sexual, and political experiments that so many queer communities engage, or even about the impact of new IVF technologies on the meaning of manhood, is breathtakingly naïve.

Our society, ultimately, is a complex, shifting matrix of bodies, labor, policies, culture, natural and unnatural disasters. Not to mention greed, injustice and exploitation. Within this matrix, shifts and changes in one sector inevitability impact shifts and changes across the whole spectrum. The rise of sperm banks and IVF technologies, just to give one example, has not only facilitated fertility for white middle class couples able to afford fertility therapies; these new technologies have also given rise to lesbian baby booms, transgender pregnant men, and new dynamics of kinship in the form of twiblings (siblings born of the same sperm to different women). And while the downturn in traditionally masculine jobs may well impact the conventional family, so do masculine women appearing in those jobs (female pilots, engineers, electricians, construction workers) and feminine men appearing in jobs usually associated with women (flight attendants, nurses, child care). Simultaneously, the decline of marriage for heterosexual people must be considered alongside the rise of diverse households across the country, as well as the new predominance of singles.

If men are at an end, my friends, that is only because so too are women, and masculinity, and femininity, gay and straight: all are currently under review. There is no going back now to the “vagina” politics or the old notion that anatomy is destiny. Certainly we are at the end of something, but given the evidence of female empowerment, male decline, marriage crises, and new diversities within gender and family, the real end may be this: the end of normal. In its wake are new forms of feminism ready to imagine — new ways of thinking and talking about bodies, desire, labor, and pleasure. Heterosexuality has come crashing down in the early 21st century, and normal has reached its breaking point.


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Jack Halberstam is a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Columbia University. Jack is the author of many books, including Trans: Trans: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (2018), Gaga-Feminism (2012) and The Queer Art of Failure (2011).


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