Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Feminism Redux: Attacked, Again

Shortly after my post on The Bourne Ultimatum, I received the following comment. I moderate incoming comments, to avoid spam, and usually post everything that comes through. This one, however, I mused over for almost two weeks, debating whether to post it and respond, or to just reject it and move on.

Finally, given my recent post about reconsidering feminism, I decided to share this in the blog proper:

8/8/07 Carol Smithers has left a new comment on your post “The Bourne Ultimatum”: My god you’re a pompous thing. Your editorials are so biased at their core that reading them makes me angry. The only problem with men is women like you who alienate and destroy them. As a self-proclaimed superior force on this planet your writings are tainted. I'm all for feminism if it is coupled with hominism, or better yet, let’s just call true search for equality and fairplay as humanism and forget the splinter self-interest groups of neuroses and damaged psyches that pro-female or pro-male groups promote. The editorial disseminates an unbalanced view of the world under the veil of being sophisticated, enlightened, and thus “politically acceptable,” all the while it is just so much dribble.

I receive a fair number of letters like these, occasionally on the blog, frequently when I write letters to the editors of various publications, and of course more subtly in the classroom. (At UT, a colleague who’s since left the department once wrote me an angry email in which he called me a “feminazi” simply because I’d circulated an email announcement citing dismal statistics about women in professional theatre that asked people to take action.)

I know my skin should be thick enough to slough off these comments. I know I should have just rejected this comment on the blog and forgotten about it. But somehow, each of these attacks, so inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, winds up smarting. I’m always surprised to receive these communications, nearly all from strangers, nearly all worded like the one here: mean-spirited, ad hominem, not terribly thoughtful or reasonable, but vicious and self-righteous, from people who are clearly mad enough to take the time to write.

Partly what's hard is that people forget they're writing to someone, to a person with feelings. I am a "critic," but I do try to write in a spirit of critical generosity in the hopes that real dialogue might come from respect and caring. Calling someone "pompous" and their writing "dribble" is just so haughty and mean--I'm always, literally, physically and emotionally shocked to read these comments.

Carol Smithers misreads my Bourne post (if that’s the one she read; she implies that she’s read others). I don’t believe I’ve ever suggested that women are a “superior force on this planet,” nor have I suggested that men are the problem. But for writers like these, it most likely doesn’t matter what I really write. They see “feminism,” and bring to what they read their own prior assumptions, then damn a perspective they conjure, rather than one that really exists.

As a writer, I’ve long accepted that people understand what they will about what they read. Part of writing is being misread. We speak knowing that what we say may or may not be truly understood; that’s part of the contract, I think, of public exchange and commerce. I wouldn’t maintain a blog if I wanted every reader to agree with me, and in fact I relish debate and disagreement.

But Smithers’ attack is an entirely different thing. Hers are words that those of us who teach feminist subjects or methods often hear—the knee-jerk, willful misreading, drenched in stereotypes of feminism propagated by the media and fearful conservative politicians. The pain in receiving posts like these comes from the writer’s unwillingness to engage in real dialogue, and her eagerness to damn a stranger based on something she already thought about feminism.

The comment reminded me of the conference panel on feminism about which I recently wrote. This kind of angry, self-righteous presumption is what feminist teachers regularly confront in their classrooms. I think about the young women who organized the panel and spoke so eloquently about their commitments, and it pains me to know that they, too, will suffer these attacks for trying to consider theatre and performance from a gendered, activist perspective.

This is why our pedagogy and our writing and our thinking, spectating, and reading is so important.

In sad solidarity,
The Feminist Spectator