The Arquette Azaperone: Rethinking ‘Feminism’

Recently the following words, spoken by Patricia Arquette to conclude a fairly boring acceptance speech that she read from a piece of paper at the Oscars, have created quite a rumble in society

“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s time to have wage equality once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

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But what is highly problematic in this whole episode starts from what Arquette said thereafter in an interview:

“It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”

Not only did this create a problematic basis for the discourse and debate but hit at the whole idea of identities: who is colored or white, man or woman, gay or heterosexual or bisexual. The manner in which ‘feminism’ is introduced in the context of the ‘color’, for instance, astounds me. To negate this point with an illustration, one could consider an African-American woman: she is ‘colored’ and is a woman, could possibly be a Texan or Belgian or Algerian, a devout Catholic or Protestant, homo- or heterosexual. ALL these identities are part of a person in question and defines her.

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Critics argued that Arquette’s comments focused on white women while erasing other groups of people from the feminist movement. When one pits the issue of representing the fairer sex against or in the context of representing race or sexual orientation, it creates a problematic topic of discussion. I guess that is why they say that half-informed, not-properly-thought-out statements using ‘feminism’ as a buzzword by certain celebrities is surely a step backward for every step forward that their attempts may have tried to bring about. Arquette probably intended to communicate that everyone should contribute to the cause, which is not bad in itself. However, her statement probably did more damage than good (which is why I feel her statements are like the tranquilizer Azaperone: one that takes the steam out of the movement when looked at closely, and yet providing a calm to view the question in a new light, as I shall discuss).

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Interestingly, possibly unintentionally, and thankfully Arquette did highlight the issue of the influence of gender and color that affects women in the United States today. The wage gap varies significantly by race. It is often cited that women make about 77% of what men make; that is true mainly for white women, while African-American women earn around 64% and Hispanic women earn only 54%! This just goes on to speak volumes about the fact that a person is defined and described by various identities and one cannot be spoken of in isolation or by pitting one identity against another, if one truly wants to talk of equality of women, or for that matter any under-represented community. The modern feminist movement, atleast in the States, is often criticized for exactly this point: the focus is mostly on the issues that white women face, forgetting the systematic discrimination that overlaps with this, for colored women. Theoretically, this is best described by Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality: oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. Chicana feminists would surely be alarmed by Arquette’s words!

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If one were to talk of the LGBT community though, interestingly, while gay mean get a lesser pay than straight men (5% less), lesbians get a higher pay (8% more) than their straight counterparts in the United Kingdom. Thus, one cannot always relate the two issues and should not pit one against the other but rather inclusive of the other.

A Highly Relevant Issue

For those who go against feminism, let me kindly put forth some facts and figures to iron out those creases on your forehead before some of you could possibly begin a rant. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over 1/3rd women globally have suffered violence from a partner or sexual violence from another man. The UN estimates that about 133 million girls and women have suffered female genital mutilation, and believes that nearly all of the 4.5 million people “forced into sexual exploitation” are girls and women. In Britain, about 1.2 million women suffer domestic violence a year, 400,000 are sexually assaulted, and 85,000 are raped! Women are concentrated in the lowest paid, most insecure and often most demeaning forms of work; they also do the vast majority of unpaid housework and childcare, in many places all around the world.

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This is alarming to say the least! Even in today’s world, with around 5000 years of post-Vedic civilization, we have such a massive number of atrocities committed against women. And to top it off, we have the pseudo-feminists: those, especially among men, who find it ‘cool’ to support feminism without truly understanding the various nuances to the issue.

The Other Side

The other side of this debate is probably twofold: firstly, whether one needs such conspicuous modes of expression, often misinformed in their conception. Secondly, is it just the females who are repressed and harassed? Cases of sexual assault among men and false convictions of men for crimes against women are growing. At an alarming rate.

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The one issue that is often raised is the idea of meritocracy. Whenever there is positive discrimination for the benefit of a certain community, one questions whether the members of that community often take that as a shield in a highly competitive world (like reservation for certain castes in India). What one so conveniently forgets is that feminism is a lot more than just positive discrimination for benefits and padded pay-day cheques. It is not necessarily a veiled veto against the ‘majority’, in terms of privileges. Probably not highlighting this aspect so often in the discourse for feminism could be a way forward. It has been seen in a number of studies that women fare better in educational pursuits, be it in academic course or entrances. Women are present in almost every field today: be it aviation, economics, politics, sciences or the army. Then, do we really need positive discrimination in a generic manner. Isn’t doing so a manner of fanning the whole meritocracy-debate?

Just like for reservation among castes, I think the way forward would be to actually study the impact of other identities of an individual as well. In India, for instance, economics would probably play the major role, and then social structures like caste and class. A kurmi woman today earns a lot less than many others purely because of an ages-old social system. At the same time, a well-educated girl in a metropolis is as good, if not better, in her status and condition, both financially and socially, as her male friends and colleagues. Does she require positive discrimination schemes? On these fronts, a different kind of approach and issues become relevant (such as oppression in the offices, work-places, etc.).

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And then there is the extreme. Recently, a self-professed feminist decided to abort her pregnancy when she learned her baby was to be a boy, as per BBC. She said she “couldn’t bring another monster” – a man – “into the world.” The sources for the story are still to be conclusively verified by BBC.  This kind of sickening practices can seriously eclipse the genuine concerns of feminists and lead to repulsion towards the whole idea of ‘feminism’.

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I believe that the representation of sexual violence in movies has a lot to do with this. The recently released ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is a prime example. It has everything: from bondage to ‘discipline’, from dominance to submission, from sadism to masochism. And it has of course drawn a lot of interest and attention, though not from the feminists, which should not be surprising since modern feminism is fairly detached from the idea of morality. Call it fortunate or unfortunate, it does raise certain questions about whether we need to re-consider and re-formulate this premise, since certain fringe elements of society have and shall always use these ‘titillating’ sources of motivation for heinous crime on women. Where does one draw the line? Do we need any kind of social and moral policing, or do we need to include some of the ideas and concepts put forth by feminism (and not necessarily the modern school of feminism) into our education system? But the one point which I believe most of you would agree with is that torture sex should not be glorified, even if it is in a cinematic production.

Lean-in Feminism?

Lean-in feminism is an interesting, new concept that has been argued upon lately. The basic idea is that feminism seeks women to lean-in to the movement to give it strength. It calls on women to gain rights, opportunities and respect unilaterally within a society that is often hostile to those objectives. The harm is done when one expects women to prioritize “feminism” and the struggle of all women over their own fulfillment and happiness.  Each woman is an individual first and then part of a larger cause. The collective work of all women to restructure society in a way that is amenable to their success is vital but when a woman explicitly states she is unprepared and unwilling to do something, it is only proper to take her at her word and not question her choices or the motivations for them. A case in example would be that of Jessica Williams, who recently refused to consider replacing Jon Stewart as the host of ‘The Daily Show’, in a stream of tweets:

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If the ‘feminists’ now go on a tirade about why Williams should take the job, or even start judging her decision, that’d go against the very foundation of feminism. Feminism is surely not about leaning-in, even if it is for the cause itself. And this is just one case. If a girl wants to be a housewife, who are we to judge or start making assumptions about why or how she is happy in that? If a girl takes up a ‘menial’ job (in inverted commas because no job is menial), of her own will, who are we to question that? Genuine cases of repression must be condemned. No doubt. But this new age brand of lean-in feminism could actually backfire and may end up being a tool of imposing a reverse psychology!

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To conclude, I’d say that let’s not make ‘feminism’ the new f-word. It is more than a hush-hush buzzword, as repeatedly criticized by some, and thrown out by celebrities and a lot more than just the idea of positive discrimination.

To put it simply, brethren, humanity can thrive not without the happiness of womenkind.

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