U.K. feminists went head-to-head with U.S. feminists in an academia smackdown at the Flow television studies conference earlier this month.
Actually, it wasn’t even like that. I just felt like being dramatic. It was, however, a really great conversation on a panel titled, “Feminisms and Feminists in the Public Sphere.” The panel’s organizers voiced a need to take a good hard look at how feminism is represented in the public sphere—widely defined as public discourse or conversations about feminism. Who does the media select to represent feminism? What issues are deemed feminist enough for the mainstream media?
Frustratingly, for me, whoever chose the response papers decided that public sphere meant “blogosphere.” Was it the suffix –sphere that threw them off? I mean, dang, I like blogging, but I refuse to concede the terrain of, well, all mass media except the Internet to anti-feminist viewpoints.
For example, my bête noir is the Observer’s monthly Woman supplement. I was way excited when its arrival was announced and way-er disappointed when I actually picked up the rag. For one thing, it featured its same, tired columnists (Burchill, Vernon, host of SNAGS*) with their one-note, “Look, Ma, I can say ‘pussy’!” version of feminism.
Second, the topics were those hard-hitting gems of feminist discourse about to-shave-or-not-to-shave, public breastfeeding dilemmas, and does high street retailer Marks & Spencer represent today’s Bridget Jones? To be fair, there are occasional glimmers of political analysis, but they are usually an afterthought or way behind the progressive press in its coverage of significant feminist politics. The result is the neutered idea that just because one is talking about something related to females or women that feminism is sorted.
That might all seem like a load of sour grapes, but trust: I hate the game, not the playa. Our argument about feminisms and public discourse is not new and one that radical feminists made quite adeptly in the early 1970s: the star system blows because there are many more voices that represent feminism than the mainstream press allows. The response would seem to be that blogging allows these voices to be heard, but yet, I quibble with the notion that blogs are the be-all, end-all and not merely preaching to the choir.
Going Public: Girl City TV and feminism 3.0
From the U.S. side of things, our co-panelists offered a range of ways (besides blogging) to bulldoze one’s way into the public discourse. Artist and theorist Stella Marrs is building on her catalogue of kickass patriarchy subverting postcards.
Using online video to encourage storytelling, GirlCity.tv, starts with stories about Barbie. The goal is for the videos to detail experiences with the leggy legend and how women of all sizes, races, classes, etc. played with/manipulated Barbie.
Also notable was Vicki Callahan’s feminisms 3.0. It’s a feminist media website dedicated to exploring how we communicate differently via the web. Here theory and practice are intertwined through “distributed authorship” of, not only blogs, but also videos and podcasts. Both Girl City TV and feminism 3.0 recognize that the terms of public discourse are not set in stone and that the public sphere only remains public because we demand it remain so.
The panel also raised challenging questions for feminists on both sides of the tenure divide regarding academic freedom and blogging. If our goal is to spread feminism’s message (assuming there’s only one), does blogging anonymously as we do here at Across the Pond count as a significant intervention in the public sphere? Do women who are just starting careers in higher ed risk job prospects by being vocal on the web or in the press about their feminism or discrimination they may face in the academy?
Our conclusion was that, in addition to fostering existing connections, perhaps we need to more closely examine the idea of a plurality of feminisms. As a black feminist, I found it provocative to think that perhaps 1980s interventions around multiple identities have diluted feminism’s overall strength in public discourse. Surely, feminist issues gained breadth and depth by thinking through gender, sexuality, race, class, and physical ability. But what might we have lost in this balkanization? We can’t speak for everyone, but in that knowledge, has feminism ended up still speaking for the very few of us? Has the lack of a singular message or issue made feminism inscrutable to the mainstream media?
*Sensitive New Age Guys: they attend Billy Bragg concerts and hold up the fist salute when he sings union songs despite the fact they’ve never even been near a union hall.