Sunday, April 29, 2007

Feminism, blogging and the art of saying no

Here's the thing: some weeks ago - and thanks to the vagaries of net provision, working hours and sheer idle ineptitude on my part it has been weeks - I wrote a forward hinting post regarding feminist blogging. It was prompted by Amanda at Pandagon's thoughts on the topic and was subsequently reinforced by Ilyka's Pandagon post about women saying no. Back then, I indicated that these had spurred some thoughts in me and, whilst they're probably no longer that interesting, I thought I had better post them. It's not as if they can become irrelevant or out-of-date, but merely that events have overtaken things somewhat and other topics are pushing to be written about (not least of which, Daleks. Go figure my logic in that prioritising...).

Anyway, here I am presenting the musings that were originally pondered some weeks ago, first written some weeks ago, had a troubled gestation period during which Joe prompted for its posting, needed some serious editing for coherance, and which - in a neat twist - found an interesting echo in Lynsey Thomas's piece in the Guardian for Saturday 28 April 2007. So, with some updating, here are my thoughts:


The original prompt for Amanda's post was a male blogger writing about his response to and wish to engage with the feminist blogosphere [scroll to second part of his post]. And yes, I know, that term 'blogosphere' isn't well liked or accepted, but lets let that one go for the moment. Anyway, his gist came down to him wanting to read more personal narratives, the day-to-day engagement with feminism, rather than more theoretical, ideological, distant analyses in the vein of political writing. The strict binary that his remarks suggested exists is problematic in itself of course since rarely are sites an either/or. Amanda Marcotte's valid risposte was that whilst there was some legitimacy in seeing personal narratives as more engaging and illustrative of contemporary women's relationship, debate and their living with feminism, writing about issues from the personal perspective presents its own difficulties. One of these comes with the perils of blogging, its openness to comments from all and sundry and how certain topics can be almost guaranteed to set off some vile commentators. The example Amanda talked through was around pornography, but it could easily have been around any number of other topics. I'm a pretty small scale blog, but sometimes - as any trawl of site visits and searches can reveal - you can easily draw the ire and some seriously nasty comments on all manner of subjects.

In such an overheated atmosphere, even presenting the personal angle around particular debates such as porn can spur barbs and torments that overshadow the positive responses. Seasoned blog veterans may be able to brush the worst vileness away - or at least convince themselves they are unhurt by it. But smaller-scale blogs may find themselves stung. It can be less painful to be less contentious, to be less emotionally open about issues affecting our lives as women. How often do we hear phrases like "you're taking this too personally" in response to a criticism or comment made, especially when the implied or explicit suggestion is that any expression of feeling is clearly too much feeling?

As Amanda goes on:
... the thing to realize is that when we're intimidated away from telling our stories by the abuse and sexist stereotypes, we've been deprived of feminism's best rhetorical weapon. Stories are how people link the personal and the political, which is why our political enemies are hell bent on depriving us of those stories.
Of course, as she concludes, "... the telling stories thing is easier said than done". Perhaps this is why a number of explicitly feminist blogs do focus on commentary on current events, activism and/or ideology; to engage otherwise leaves them open to (accusations of) vulnerability or the dangers of writing purely personal confessionals that do little other than lay out the difficulties of life without considering the tangled motivations - both social and personal - as to how and why those difficulties arise.

The thing is that whilst I read several collective and feminist orientated blogs (Pandagon is just one of them), I am personally drawn to those blogs which rarely explicitly cite the concept of feminism but which are inherantly engaged with feminism. The very issues that challenge women in day to day existence; that force the politics of daily life to the foreground; that demand feminist awareness even if the word is not used.

Interestingly, something I have occasionally done is go through posts I have enjoyed reading and save the text, annotating it where it engages with debates key to feminism and its discourses. Whether it is around how we dress, how we work, our responses to representations of women on TV, our relationship to our bodies, our ways of dealing with emotions (bereavement, pregnancy, being single, being in a relationship, being angry, being happy) --- all of these engage with core debates from feminism. Dressing for whom? For the pleasure of whom? are you comfortable, or agonisedly on display? Can we get the time off we need to deal with family crises, caring duties? Why are the caring duties largely women's anyway? What about how work deals with male involvment with caring? How seriously are workers taken if alongside caring they also want to advance a career? What if we do/do not want to advance our careers? What should our relationship to work be? How do we deal with the behaviour of those above us? [I'm noting here the age-old debates about female dominated work environments and female bosses being rarely devoid of the same difficulties as mixed-sex ones - including why women bosses are often seen as harder, often more unsympathetic, or unable to be heard over male voices]. And that list just raises issues arising from the first two topics. But what those questions highlight is that it doesn't have to be an overtly feminist blog to be engaging with feminism or usefully contributing to feminist discourses. The debates of feminism are everywhere in the lives of women (and that also goes for those who actively disavow feminism as irrelevant to them - sadly, that would include many of the students I encounter).

Anyway, in a round-about way, thinking about what feminist blogging would, should or does like, also drew me to Ilyka's aforementioned post on 'saying no'. For surely one of the ideas underpinning both Amanda's post and the responses it drew in the comments box centres on the socialised difficulty of women saying 'no'? To be able to say 'no', to be able to express our discomfort - with porn for example - involves dealing with so many ingrained attitudes which historically have been socialised into many women that it can hurt to even confront the possibility of saying no. To be able to recognise our own feelings as ones which need us to say no, and then to actually say it.

Ilyka wrote:
I’ve been caught in the first trap, the fear of saying “no,” dozens of times–someone close to me asks for something they don’t particularly need (or don’t particularly need from me, specifically); I hesitate just a second too long; having hesitated, I then get anxious, because now it looks like (dear heavens!) I might have been thinking of saying That Word; and so to cover up for it, I shower the other person in an effusive “yes.” Yes, of course! I only paused for a second because [some bullshit reason].

But I’ve been caught in the second trap even more often, where I unthinkingly say “yes,” and only afterwards let my real feelings bubble up to the surface, and realize, “I don’t want to do this. I should have said ‘no.’”

I wouldn’t be too surprised if incidents like that help shore up the women-can’t-make-up-their-minds trope, either, because there have been occasions on which I’ve reversed myself just in time, just at the last minute, to say, “Wait–I meant ‘no’.” What looks like indecision or flightiness to an outside observer, though, is actually delayed recognition of feeling on my part. It isn’t that I have suddenly and arbitrarily changed my mind; it’s that I didn’t bother to consult my mind in the first place.
I think this is a powerful demonstration of why we need feminist debates, feminist ideas, experiences, to be presented and explored and considered. But it is not without difficulty, and it is one I feel quite powerfully. Emily Jane writing in the comments to Ilyka's post remarked that "socialization... teaches us to undervalue women's time and commitment". In being 'giving' of her time, in saying 'yes' to every event and activity, she actually made herself undervalued by colleagues; now she does none of the extra activities or tasks, even those she previously enjoyed doing to help others, but she has now got the respect of her (new) colleagues.

Whilst part of me wants to cheer for her new-found respect in having learnt to say no, there is another part of me whose heart sinks at how this perpetuates the need to be ruthless in order to be taken seriously. Is there not a way in which we can learn to say 'no' sometimes without abandoning others to their fate, usually failure (who the hell would read exams to a blind student if someone doesn't say 'yes'?). Perhaps part of my desire to engage with the debate of 'saying no/yes' comes from my own struggles with the action. It's a contradiction born from the fact that saying 'yes' can often mean not being taken seriously whilst saying 'no' can sometimes cut us off from the very positive actions with which institutions and individuals should engage. Can there really only be one way to 'be' successful in the world? Does it have to always mean trampling, not accommodating, not helping others?

Ultimately of course one of the reasons why the 'saying no' debates is important to feminism is that often it is bound up with subjugating what we want to please other people: the idea of 'everyone else ahead of ourselves'. Whether we like it or not it is often perceived as a feminine trait; correspondingly it then becomes a feminist debate. Lynsey Thomas doesn't mention feminism in her piece in yesterday's Guardian Work supplement, but when she writes about her deep-seated and life-long (destructive) desire to please others and make then happy, I not only recognise something of myself but also mentally added my usual feminist debate annotations to the article. For the crux is that in saying 'yes' we often succeed only in making others happy: whilst that can provide second-hand happiness to us, the effect it can have on our self-esteem and therefore on our ability to ever say 'no' can be immense. Once the habit of saying yes is there, how can we achieve a comparable happiness in saying no since that at least suggests the probability of making someone unhappy? For women to learn to say no successfully is hard, and part of that is around how saying no is perceived. Responses to a woman saying no often fall into either "that's hard", as in unfeminine [negative sense] or a desexed sense of respecting being "appropriately tough on others" [positive sense]. Can there only be self-sacrifice or the sacrifice of others?

What we have to do is learn to live with ourselves, but also recognise that we have to fight to change the systems that rely on us saying yes and exploit our guilt when we say no. That means challenging assumptions that a well-placed 'no' does not make us arrogant and mean (pace Alix's comments in Ilyka's post) and that systems of work which demand, say, unreasonable flexibility need to change for the good of everyone (not just the person put under pressure to say 'yes').

And it also means we have to think about why saying 'yes' rarely stimulates the need to expand on why we say yes, but saying 'no' will almost always demand an explanation as to why, an unburdening and justifying of the action (as per thinking girl's comment in Ilyka's post). What we have to learn is to be comfortable in our saying no as well as yes, and to recognise where the difference between the two may demand changes not just in ourselves but also in the world around us.

I'm done. I can't even think straight to edit this damn post no more. Was it worth the wait?

[Apologies for typos, blogger spell-checker keeps wibbling]


JoeinVegas said...


Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Yeah, sorry about that. I kept trying and trying to edit it and it just wouldn't get cut. I should have set myself a word limit (oh, you know, like ai do my students!!!) but after such a fractitious period of writing I felt I had to let it be what it was. I really should have prefixed it "rant". I better add a tag to that effect!

Marie said...

Totally worth the wait. Interestingly (for me anyway) my new year's resolution this year was to learn to say no. Success so far: mixed.

Am also intrigued by the category of "feminist blogger". I am a blogger. I am a feminist. I am therefore a feminist blogger, but I doubt anyone would put me in such a category. I occasionally do "feminist" posts (e.g. top female TV characters) but in a way this is a misconception; my whole view of the world is informed by my feminism so I don't consider myself to be being feminist at some points and not at others. The idea that feminist bloggers should write about A rather than B is a weird one to me; I don't write about anything specifically because I am a feminist blogger, female blogger, author blogger, British blogger etc, these are just descriptions of who I am. The blog comes from the unique mix of all of it, as all of our blogs do.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Marie: I agree that the label feminist blogger is a bit of a misnomer. I too am a feminist, and I blog. Everything I do is informed by my feminism, or at the very least my experience of being a woman. So it only makes sense to talk about feminist blogging if you see that there has to be something separate and different (read 'lesser' in some eyes?) which hardly makes sense at all.

having said that, the debate was worth reading, and I think, worth writing about.