Right now, as I type this, friends on Facebook are getting into it about Beyoncé. A local dancer and performance artist posted:
“Last night I watched Beyoncé's video album. I hear very often that she is viewed as a feminist, empowered woman. An example of femininity and sexuality. In each video she is on all fours at least once. Tell me what is it I don't see.”
Someone replied, “Is being on all fours the line of where feminists lie?”
It’s hard for me to engage these kinds of conversations. I think I feel about feminists the way most people feel about atheists: They’re aggressively combative and not fun to hang around. You don’t want to start a war of terms with either.
Yet by definition I'm both. Is it OK to be a non-fundy version of these identifiers? Is it wrong if I don’t want to spend time analyzing whether or not Beyonce’s ass empowers femalekind? I really don’t care what kind of pubic haircut anyone has. I don’t think getting a Brazilian makes you a shitty feminist. But maybe that way of thinking makes me a shitty feminist.
Talking about feminism makes me exhausted and nervous because I don't even know where to start. And I'm not alone.
Last Thursday, around 130 people gathered at Hedreen Gallery to talk about gender and feminism and being a woman artist in Seattle. Artist Joey Veltkamp conceived the event, called Seattle Women’s Convention, and organized a small panel of female speakers. Over a year since the Elles exhibit at Seattle Art Museum, he wanted to return to the subject of woman artists and see whether all the dialog surrounding the subject back then still had traction. How it had continued or evolved. The response was energetic to say the least.
Much of the post-event criticism had to do with its conversational format. At a cocktail party a few nights later, one woman told me she couldn’t handle the kind of conversational "circle jerks" prone to large gatherings on the subject of women or feminism.
I agree. But still there’s the fact that discourse is at the heart of feminism. Like atheism, feminism is still a young ideology, still rough around the edges and groping for a common language. The development of that language can be learned only by fumbling with words. At the risk of resembling a hoard of Bertha Pappenheims uncoiling on our fainting couches while we discuss the symptoms of a broken society, talking is part of the cure.
Since the Seattle Women’s Convention meeting, Veltkamp started a Facebook group of the same name, and almost overnight 400 people joined and are continuing the conversation. Amid the difference of opinion, one of the things most agreed upon is that women are subject to a crippling internalization of self-censorship and sexism. They might appear to be killing it on the outside, but on the inside women are still distrustful, cutting themselves and others down. It’s not a symptom of living in Seattle per se. It’s part of the larger culture—of being a girl. We’re our own worst enemies. We shoot each other down to stay alive.
In the midst of all this, Seattle is undeniably having a moment. Of course I’m talking about the Seahawks and Macklemore. As Leah Baltus wrote in her editorial note for this month’s magazine, the Hawks winning the NFL Championship is more than just a sports victory—it’s part of a current cultural momentum.
The name-calling and cruel backlash following Richard Sherman’s post-game comments last week were an embarrassment on a grand scale. As was some of the commentary about Macklemore’s behavior at the Grammys. Sure, Macklemore didn’t need to flaunt his accidentally self-righteous texts to Kendrick Lamar on Instagram, but that doesn’t make him a "ho bag" (to quote the HuffPo). Or perhaps the Macklemore-bashing is a sublimated response to the blatant celebration of gay marriage at the Grammys.
Which was awesome. Which happened because of Macklemore. Which happened because of Seattle.
Shit-talking and back-stabbing at the height of our moment is bad culture. It’s a self-defeating pettiness that stifles, keeps us self-censoring. Keeps us blathering the same buttoned-up clichés instead of, well, winning.
When it comes to the subject of feminism, the least we should do is get on the same page—often the hardest, seemingly insurmountable first step. Getting to that point necessitates a common language, and not a self-defeating one. Maybe the talking cure won’t solve all our problems, but there’s something to be said for seizing a moment, identifying our common strengths and getting shit done. I hope the conversation continues. It's part of this larger cultural moment that's defining both our now and our future.