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7th December 2016

A response to “Everyday Feminism: Take control of yourselves”

Ilya Cereso argues that the article mirrors how issues of oppression within our societies are too often generalised and oversimplified

In her article “Everyday Feminism: Take control of yourselves” in The Mancunion, Elrica Degirmen argues that some aspects of the feminist movement “make excuses for women.” In her critique, she focuses on the author Jessica Valenti and the website Everyday Feminism. She also touches on the “politics of victimhood”, the “excellent job” the patriarchy has done for allowing today’s women to exercise freedoms, and her relief at Trump’s victory for its prevention of “four more years of feminist propaganda being shoved into our faces”.

I am proud to call myself an intersectional feminist. I support a feminism that is not white or western- centric and acknowledge how different forms of oppression intersect. I am keen to challenge ideas that continue to negatively affect people’s lives. For example, the writer says — in a tone reminiscent of David Cameron telling Angela Eagle to “calm down dear” — that, “life is unfair, honey.” Yes, “honey”, life is unfair. But we can do something to make it less so. Cancer is unfair, but we do not accept it as an unchanging fact of life — we fight it.

I agree that our struggles as individuals are diverse. Wider societal forces undeniably have huge power over our lives: sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression continue to shape people’s experiences globally. But these forms of discrimination are not fixed entities. Rather, they can be and have been challenged. To use a few obvious examples: the end of the slave trade, independence for former colonies, and voting rights for women. Would the author have viewed these processes as similarly unchangeable facts of life?

Degirmen is particularly critical of Jessica Valenti, claiming that she published two contradictory articles on catcalling: one critiquing it and another on her feeling unattractive when she is not catcalled. Here lies a central problem in Degirmen’s piece: oversimplification. Valenti in fact raises an important issue. She says that she would never go back to the “hellishness” of her teenage experiences of harassment, but she discusses how “when you’re brought up to feel that the most important thing you can be is attractive to men, the absence of their attention – even negative attention – can feel distressing”. It is very, very hard to unpack and reject patriarchal norms which have been drummed into us from birth. This idea that women should look and act a certain way in order to be attractive to men makes a good example. Valenti calls for a nuanced discussion, something disregarded in the writer’s oversimplification of Valenti’s argument and the debate surrounding this complex issue.

The author’s argument that discussions of sexism are creating a culture of victimhood is at fault, too. Her wish that Jessica Valenti would accept a “personal responsibility” is particularly worrying. Would Degirmen argue that Valenti was responsible for being catcalled, for having somebody masturbate in front of her on a tube when she was in seventh grade? Would she argue that women who are raped do not carry enough personal responsibility? What if they were wearing a short skirt? Valenti’s descriptions of her experiences are not attempts to gain victim status, but rather to discuss complex issues that affect women every day.

Moreover, many women who have been subject to sexual violence actively resist being labelled as ‘victims’. Branding discussions of everyday sexism as the “politics of victimhood” detracts from the real, lived experiences that almost every woman and girl has faced. The Cornell International Survey on Street Harassment Survey found that 90 per cent of British women first experienced street harassment under the age of 17; in fact,  71 per cent were under 15. Such experiences lead to feelings of anger, fear, and depression. The silencing of these experiences makes discussion of societal perceptions of female bodies, especially those bodies of colour, increasingly difficult. The writer’s closing claim that people need to, “take control of themselves and stop blaming everyone else for their own issues” is worryingly reminiscent of victim-blaming.

The writer says that she and others feel alienated from the student body because of the actions of “student social justice warriors”. Yet the site Everyday Feminism, which she singles out in her critique, is much more inclusive than many liberal and white feminist perspectives. Perhaps the writer should read some of the articles and engage with them on a deeper level rather than simply branding the site and its multiple authors as “sexist” and comparing it to “a nagging wife blaming absolutely everything on men”.

Today, despite what the author says about feminists being “upheld as beacon of truth”, many dominant representations of feminism undermine the work of those who challenge the multiple and intersecting oppressions at play in our and other societies. This piece oversimplifies feminism, harassment, and female identity, and attempts to represent a huge body of feminist literature with just two prime examples. These oversimplifications mirror wider societal problems that are hampering real change.

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