Or at least, I think that’s the gist of her article, which rails against “online Mean Girls” who are – apparently – conspiring to bully well-intentioned young women out of the feminist movement. For shame! Be warned – the article will probably make you rage. There’s two parts to the article, which I’ll take down one at a time. I actually contemplated not writing this at all – I usually reserve this blog for media stuff, film reviews etc – but I figure this kind of thing happens so often that I might as well write it up once and have done with it. So here goes.
1. People are abusing the idea of privilege!! Oh noes!! Sometimes I have to check it!
According to Smith, there’s an online mob of women who go around demanding people “check their privilege”. I’m imagining them riding in like Valkyries, spears at the ready, screaming “CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE WHITE WOMEN!!” whilst slashing their way through mainstream feminism. Ah, good times.
“Where “privilege” goes wrong is that it is routinely used for, I’d argue, shutting up women who disagree with the Online Mob. The whole foundation of the argument is flawed anyway; about 35 per cent of the world’s population has access to the internet. Everyone on Twitter is privileged. Everyone. Claiming “unprivileged” underdog status when you are in the top 35 per cent of the entire world makes you sound like the sort of annoying princess who screams that it’s just not fair and she hates you because she only got an iPhone and a pony for Christmas.”
Oh, do you hear that? Asking women to ‘check their privilege’ is MEAN and just used to shut people up. Also, everyone on the internet is privileged just for having the internet, so no other complaints about relative oppression is valid and you are all just whining when you talk about it.
Here’s the thing about the internet and our increasingly-global society: it’s full of people who have vastly different life experiences to our own, and some people have relative privilege over others due to being white, or cis, or straight, or living in a Western country, or being upper-middle-class as opposed to dirt poor. We’re all trying to navigate this as best we can, sometimes we clash, usually we manage to learn from each other. Hey, I’m a white Muslim woman, I know all about intersecting privileges and oppressions – this isn’t straightforward stuff. The key to getting it right and getting feminism right is to listen to other people’s narratives about their own lives and to constantly bear in mind that no one OWNS feminism and that it’s supposed to be a movement for everyone. It can get fraught online. I get that. Sometimes people get annoyed and sweary. It’s almost as if the world is full of women who are navigating more oppressions than you’ll ever have to deal with and they aren’t necessarily inclined to hold your hand and gently correct you whilst you get everything about their life wrong? I dunno, just a gut feeling telling me that has something to do with it.
There’s altogether too many white, straight, cis, Western, middle-class, able-bodied feminists who – due to their hefty dose of privilege – are able to ignore all of this, and ignore the need for feminism to be intersectional and take into account the myriad other oppressions many women face. And being able to ignore it, many of them choose to do just that. These women are frequently the face of ‘mainstream feminism’ – or what Smith calls ‘good honest feminism’ (ugh) – and it seems like every time they’re reminded that, hey, not all women are carting around a bucketload of privileges, some of us are facing a perfect storm of different societal oppressions that we can’t untangle, and we deserve feminism too – they get annoyed. They get defensive. They get angry and start bitterly complaining about how unfair life is.
Remember when someone turned up at Slutwalk with a racist sign and women of colour complained and then white women told them to pipe down and stop being “divisive”? Remember when radfems uninvited trans* women from their conference because hey policing gender, that’s a fun thing to do? Remember all those times white feminists have decided Muslim women need saving from Islam and hijab, completely ignoring what Muslim women actually have to say about those things? FUN TIMES.
This is what happens when feminism isn’t intersectional.
If it feels like there’s a lot of women online pushing and pushing for feminism to be intersectional and inclusive, maybe that’s because they’ve been repeatedly failed by the mainstream feminist movement and all this pushing is in fact not uppity troublemaking but pushing back against a movement that’s sidelined them and marginalised them for far too long. Maybe think about that, huh?
When you tell women to stop saying “check your privilege”; when you bemoan “call out culture” and complain that calling people out for their failings is just about showing off or being a troll, then you’re silencing women. You’re telling them to shut up about racism in the feminist movement; shut up about how the movement excludes them; shut up and sit down and stop talking about things that affect them as women. And when you do that you’re implicitly asking women to throw their weight behind a movement that is repeatedly failing to represent them – and is sometimes overtly harming them. When you parse “raising legitimate concerns about feminism’s failings” or “calling out troublesome behaviour because it’s hurtful” as “attacking other women, boo hoo”, then that’s a move calculated to shut down debate and dissent. Furthermore it casts women who have occasion to call out other women as unreasonable bullies. The conflation between ‘getting called out’ and ‘being bullied by online meanies’ is trotted out on an almost daily basis, but it’s entirely disingenuous. Being told you said something hurtful or are being inconsiderate is not ‘bullying’, and I can’t believe I really need to say that.
But of course, Smith does what so many other privileged feminists do, which is claim that there’s some vast, organised, evil collective of dissenting individuals out there ready to leap on unsuspecting straight white cis women the moment they slip up. The way Smith tells it you’d think Twitter was a-swarm with feminist Valkyries terrorising poor unsuspecting white girls when they try to join the feminist movement. I guess that’s what happens when you think being asked to modify your behaviour so as not to harm others is mean nasty bullying. How very dare anyone ask you to examine how your privilege allows you to frame and control the feminist debate? BULLYING I TELL YOU. MEAN GIRLS.
And yeah, sometimes call-outs get rough. Sometimes there’s… like… swearing and nasty words. Hey, news flash – when people are telling you how your behaviour fits into a pattern of systemic oppression that makes their daily life infinitely more difficult, they might sound harsh! Maybe even a bit rude! It’s almost as if constantly having to deal with multiple oppressions that can’t be disentangled exasperates and frustrates people. And it’s almost as if by ignorantly perpetuating those oppressions you’ve upset or angered someone, and that emotional reaction is entirely a valid and appropriate one, and the anger that’s directed at you is completely understandable and warranted given the circumstances. And, you know, policing other women’s emotional reactions to things that might understandably make them angry or upset is a form of oppression; and dismissing their concerns because they’re angry and that made them sound mean is a form of silencing.
As I said on Twitter, I’m 1000000% DONE with this kind of feminism. Take it away.
2. Cis is a horrible insult!! It hurts my poor fee-fees!
Yeah, no. Just no.
File this under “collecting your folks”, because I’m a white cis woman, Smith is a white cis woman, so let’s do this.
[N.B. This part probably needs a trigger warning, so I've whited-out the bits of it that are particularly distressing. They're about the death of a trans woman, Lucy Meadows.]
So according to Smith, the word ‘cis’ to describe ‘anyone not trans’ is terrible and upsetting:
“A lot of cis women have a problem with the term [cis] in a way they can’t quite fathom. Well, I’ve fathomed it and I’ll tell you: because it’s a name that has, once again, been conferred upon a certain group of women without their consent. It would still matter, although infinitely not as much, if a Twitter search of “cis” demonstrated that the term is mostly used in a sisterly and affectionate manner. Nah, more like “cissexist”, “cisfascist” and, in one case to a certain Laurie Penny of this parish, “f*ck off cis girl.” [...]
So forgive me if I hear “cis” as an insult to the very essence of who I am and then, when I complain, feel aggrieved that I’m not entitled to experience my discomfort because my “privilege” means that my point of view doesn’t matter and my opinions don’t count.
The good news is that cis is a term that can be reclaimed. After all, it is just a word and meanings of words can be rehabilitated. But in its current manifestation, through its misuse, it is laden with pejorative connotations.“
This is beyond ridiculous. BEYOND. Cis is an insult? “Laden with pejorative connotations”? A word to be “reclaimed”?
I really recommend you read this excellent article by Stavvers and Cel West about what’s wrong with this statement – I can’t really add a lot to this exemplary analysis, so this part will be short.
This sort of statement reminds me a lot of white people who get upset when you call them ‘white’ and act like being labeled (entirely correctly) as white is horrible and offensive and HOW VERY DARE YOU. ‘Cis’ is a fairly innocuous word that’s really useful when discussing issues that face trans* individuals; similarly words like ‘cissexism’ or even ‘cisfascism’ or ‘cissupremacy’ are important words that we need to have in order to discuss power structures and privileges. These are not light issues, either – fear and hatred of trans* individuals all-too-often translates into real-world, physical violence.
It’s a grim happenstance that Smith wrote this article the same week that a trans woman named Lucy Meadows died. [Her death is believed to be a suicide, and it was preceded by an extremely nasty hate-piece about her in the Daily Mail, written by Richard Littlejohn. It's not yet known if the media attention led to her taking her own life; but we do know that she and her community were being hounded by 'the press pack' trying to get photos and statements. This predatory attention was probably due to the fact that Miss Meadows was a teacher who was about to return to teaching after making the transition to living openly as a woman, and the Daily Mail line was the usual "think of the children!" drek.]
This is how serious and damaging hatred of trans* individuals can get. I don’t claim by any means to be an expert on these matters, but I’ve seen the kind of things that happen to trans* folks and it’s deeply worrying and disquieting. We NEED to be discussing such things and we NEED to make feminism open and welcoming to trans women. Feminism should be a tool we use to address such problems, and for that to happen we need to use words like ‘cis’ and ‘cissexism’ and so on. And if your one take away from these discussions is that you don’t like the way ‘cis’ sounds and it’s making you uncomfortable? Well, screw you. Because that is a terrible, vile, selfish position to take. What you’re saying is harassment and mistreatment of trans women is less important than your hurt feelings about being labeled with a word you ‘didn’t choose’, and that’s outright disgusting.
“A lot of cis women have a problem with the word!” Smith cries, purposefully obfuscating exactly who she’s speaking for here. Well, Sadie Smith doesn’t speak for me. I’m completely a-okay with words like ‘cis’ and ‘cissexism’. I want to see them used more often. Let’s have the debates we need to have.
I’ve got no time for the type of ‘feminism’ that privileges the hurt feelings of straight white cis women over actual, real, serious problems facing the less privileged. And if that makes me a part of the ‘Mean Girls club’, then so be it.