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First Girl Problems

25 May

Kath Kenny has written an op-ed for Fairfax about the “first person industrial complex”, which she suggests should be retitled the “first person traumatic complex”, bemoaning that first person pieces are essentially calculated grabs for attention in a world that fundamentally misunderstands the feminist mantra “the personal is political”.

Despite a kernel of rhetorical promise, Kenny’s piece fundamentally misunderstands the nature of first person writing, all while sacrificing a bunch of women in her prayer for better writing and feminism. It’s not the first time we’ve watched a professional Cassandra enter the competitive feminist arena, nor will it be the last, but we’ve seen the cycles so often it’s less novel than an editor might think.

Feminism developed consciousness raising as a means for women to explore how they were oppressed in their lives through story telling. Not only did the storyteller derive meaning from this monologue, but so did the other participants who could find a different perspective, representation and affinity.

Men have done it since time immemorial – Herodotus’ Histories could well be retitled “crazy tales I heard in bars” and ancient Rome and Greece were drowning in apologias or confessions (as the first person tract was originally known). Feminism simply politicised what was the artistic and commercial norm for men and called it consciousness raising.

So why do women have to justify the same right as men to share their stories? The first English language autobiographies were written by women like the Book of Margery Kempe, even if she didn’t get the same attention as Augustine or Rousseau. Perhaps we interpret men as telling large stories of accomplishment, while women’s stories are considered small and domestic, insignificant in their contribution to public thought.

Which – again – underscores how incredibly important consciousness raising was and remains a feminist act. No matter how “small” the life or the trauma, there is power in sharing the story to give critical mass to representation and to the issues involved. It also recognises transformation is possible: from trauma to story, for storyteller and audience.

Take sexual assault as an example, given Kenny thoughtlessly linked to philosopher Na’ama Carlin’s memoir in Meanjin. Carlin’s piece examines the notion of victimhood from a religious, philosophical and, yes how dare she, personal viewpoint. This is a relatively common technique in some philosophical essays designed to give easy non-theoretical access to readers. Damon Young shows a similar style with his work (most notably with the Art of Reading) but is not tarred with the same brush.

Gina Rushton, an experienced journalist covering breaking news for Buzzfeed, had her Meanjin essay on the balance of mental illness and suicide reduced by Kenny to a calculated attention grab about eating disorders. That’s Kenny’s interpretation, a woman calling for better writing but not better reading comprehension.

Sophia Hewson’s video installation “Are You Ok, Bob?” about rape is classified by Kenny as a “canny marketing strategy” and “an artwork that speaks of a culture where performing terrible stories has practically become the default speaking mode for young women in the public eye”. We may have to wait some time for Kenny to catch up on art history showing Hewson as part of an incredibly long history of female performance artists using brutal imagery and performances to question society’s brutality and inaction (read her artist declaration via the above link for more).

Kenny opines “We’ve created an attention economy that tells people, particularly young and female people, that the most interesting and valuable thing about you is the worst thing that has ever happened to you”. There’s a kernel in there, but again, the point is missed with nothing to show except collateral damage.

The attention economy Kenny so fears isn’t telling women their only marketable asset is their trauma, it’s telling them it has a credible place. If economics works on supply and demand, the attention economy for trauma is meeting the market because there is so much trauma that goes unreported.

Kenny argues that, in her bid to get “first person traumatic complex” happening (not unlike fetch), we are baring too much in a calculated effort to be seen. What Kenny fails to realise is that writers don’t want to be seen, they want trauma to be seen for what it is: something that can occur in grand sweeping empires to the four walls of our homes.

Trauma such as sexual assault, which has incredibly erratic coverage in the media and where victims are either hidden (as per Carlin’s piece) or presented as downcast (Hewson). Trauma such as mental illness coverage where access to fiercely intelligent representation is denied and the sufferers either silenced or presented as victims (Rushton or Nakkiah Lui’s recent piece). Trauma such as silencing discussion around disability and sexuality (like Jax Jacki Brown over at Daily Life).

Brown’s first person piece spoke more of her actions than feelings, which at first glance might validate Kenny’s belief that “the difference between Steinem’s feminism and the kind of feminism now played out in the media and cultural industries is that where once telling a tragic personal story was just a starting point to building a movement, now it has become the whole point and the way to build a personal brand”.

But it’s a hollow argument that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

There is no single trajectory with feminist acts – there are multiple, which was why the second and third wave had so many different techniques. Consciousness raising was one. Legislative lobbying was another. Charitable works, building support services and jumping into academia are others. The list goes on but the main point is this – if you think there is only one entry point to feminist activism and one path to follow, you’re reducing women to a herd following a path you’ve denied them forming for themselves.

The feminist theory of intersectionality demands representation, amply shown by these writers who span race, sexuality, ability and activism. They aren’t building a brand – they’re demanding representation for their life experiences and activism.

It’s worthwhile revisiting intersectionality and expanding the definition. Intersectionality posits that intersections of identity oppression (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.) can heighten the oppression one person experiences. Therefore, the oppression and trauma one woman feels isn’t the same as another. That’s why we share stories – so we can understand how it impacts others.

First person stories not only tie into feminist consciousness raising and its promise of personal enlightenment, it also creates access to representation (if properly managed by editors) and gives readers a broader understanding of lived experience outside their own daily lives – thus putting intersectional awareness into action. First person stories are crucial to this greater and diverse understanding, tying into what is known as the “identifiable victim effect” – by reading the experiences of others, they can empathise and understand the experience more intimately. Reporting doesn’t always work, we need stories.

First person stories aren’t gilded, and there are plenty of bad examples that can be found to buttress a sagging argument. There are clumsy or cynical writers in every genre within literature and journalism just as there are clumsy or cynical editors who commission and publish these pieces. But Kenny did not link to those.

In light of this, it’s more instructive to look at what Kenny does in her op-ed rather than what she says. The attention economy is actually the op-ed economy, a world where ill-informed views are hastily cobbled together with facile research and understanding but presented as concrete theories. One might even argue this can be seen in Kenny’s piece, which castigates others for their alleged superficiality, while refusing to admit the same.

Like all writing genres, there is potential for greatness, for expertise and resonance. Potential to move forward in both artistic expression and activism.

This isn’t it.

 

Edited to add an update: Kath Kenny spoke briefly on Twitter about the piece, most notably that “#relaxitsjustanoped”, that op ed doesn’t allow for nuance and that the reaction is part of the generational divide. So far, so facile. 

More notably is that the references to Gina Rushton and Na’ama Carlin have been removed from the article. There was no note to identify this correction, which is a standard practice in journalism. 

This panicked reaction, however, does not elevate her argument at all and simply shows that Kenny doesn’t understand either Opinion Editorial or First Person pieces.

If you’d like a more “nuanced” look at the first person op-ed economy, here’s a piece I did for Overland: the Bustle Hustle (thanks to Sonia Nair for reminding me I wrote the damn thing).

 

 

The problem with feminist thinkpieces

22 May

I use Ask.FM a lot and enjoy most of the questions I get, even though they often delete my answers because I like discussing the usual things like period blood, sex and vaginal yeast.

Every now and then I get a big question that I don’t want to lose to the modbots so I’ll copy the odd one over there.

Here was the first question (copy and paste):
I’m passionate about feminism but like a lot of people am nauseated by a lot of what passes for mainstream feminist discourse. Its garbage, but it annoys me that instead of dismissing terrible opinion pieces, many want to dismiss feminism as a whole and get kudos for doing so. What needs to change?

I asked some clarifying questions:
1) who are these “a lot of people”?
2) what’s “mainstream feminist discourse”?
3) and the “terrible opinion pieces”?

Here’s the full two part question I received (two part because Ask.FM has character restrictions):
My question was poorly worded, by mainstream i mean what gains the most traction, what you’d mainly see if you didnt dig further eg newspapers, twitter, tv. I get the feeling some of the women writing about feminism, particularly in their 20’s dont seem to really care about it at all beyond what they can gain from it, like making it their ‘brand’ and then trashing it, rather than improving things for women as a whole. terrible think pieces include championing Hillary just because she’s a woman, endless talk about whether a woman should change her name if she marries or not.

Here’s my response:

I think it’s a hornet’s nest of a question and I mean that in a very neutral sense.

Let’s not forget that feminists are often held to a standard other ideologies aren’t – no one asks these questions of male writers.

Firstly, there’s a series of fences writers have to get through so I (with no small amount of bias and experience) would direct people to realise feminist writers don’t get this work on the front page of the newspaper without getting through those fences.

The main fence are editors. Editors will have certain soft points and know what will get a response. Some won’t touch certain topics – like feminism – and others won’t touch other topics within feminism.

The other fence is payment and, as a subset, return on investment. We are pretty much all freelance – that means no job security, we only live off what we can sell to an editor and we don’t get super or sick days. We don’t get paid a lot and the money has at least halved (or more) in the four years I’ve been writing. That means you get less time to write and you have to write more to make anything close to a livable wage.

The impact of that? A reduced level of quality in research and formulating arguments.

The other area to consider is that editors are relatively time poor – they don’t have time to grow “talent”, so that means they’re less likely to take chances on other writers and will often go to “favourites”. The net result of that is shitty representation.

Another issue: feminism and anything relating to women is still considered a novel and niche area. As an example, I was on a radio panel a while back discussing domestic violence. We had 10mins to talk, if that. When the host remarked we all seem to discuss the same thing, I challenged them to go deep by doing a series of topics within domestic violence to actually give indepth coverage of the topic. They got in contact later, I gave them a huge list of topic/pitches. They never covered them.

So that’s editors out of the way.

The next item you’ve alluded to and I’ve mentioned here directly before is that feminism is ageist as fuck. Now, that’s partly generational but it’s also partly ignorance. The majority of the people who trash second wavers like Greer and Dworkin et al haven’t read them. They’re basing their dismissal on shallow five minute media bytes or tumblr forwards. This is partly because feminism has been successful in reaching out from academia to popular culture, but also because people are too damn lazy to truly specialise and get in depth historical knowledge beyond google (and remember they have no time or financial incentive to do so).

But let’s also not forget that for many women, the process of aging forces them off the public platform. Now, this is because celebrity(ism) feeds off youth like oxygen but also because many women are forced out of industries as they age. Some of them create their own platforms and some defy stats but it still edges most out through commision/$ starvation.

I’m not going to trash a woman from making a brand because we don’t trash men for doing the same. It’s key to really question the standards to which we hold feminists who are living under the same capitalist structures as other writers.

Women are allowed to make money. Feminists are allowed to make money. They’re allowed to be just as shitty as men.

So we have endless repetition of topics because people can’t respect older work (and women), editors like clickable churn and no one has a fucking collective memory or enough sustained subject exposure for the public to develop knowledge and move onto the next point (same as climate change, in a sense) and writers who get blamed for trying to survive in a system, face more accusations than their contemporaries while failing to shrug off multiple intersection points of privilege.

The other aspect is that feminism has an uneasy tension between progressing academic theories and consciousness raising. That means their personal experiences are considered political and profound which results in churn and repetition because while it’s not new to feminist discourse, it’s new to them.

But let’s tackle one thing head on: don’t expect feminists to speak with the same voice. They won’t. You shouldn’t expect that. If you’re going to argue feminists aren’t intersectional enough, don’t then expect them to hold one single opinion. They may like Hillary – each to their own and I’d also argue there are just as many thinkpieces on “why this woman/feminist/carbon-based life form will vote for Bernie”. We may want to improve things for women as a whole but don’t treat them as a single organism that thinks as a whole.

Fuck your Mother’s Day: motherhood is political

8 May

Motherhood is so often sold as a state of service, with Mother’s Day positioned as a “tip your waiters” event where we all ignore they’re under minimum wage.

I despise Mother’s Day. I despise the veneer of sentimentality screening the multiple disadvantages women face as penalty for being women fulfilling one biological function of the untold abilities of their bodies, a sole function that then manacles them as an entire identity. A suffocating identity that drowns out the woman…and we are supposed to celebrate it? The one day we celebrate women?

No.

I reject the elevation of family. Family is the first base of cultural control – we are first educated about society and politics through them. They enforce the boundaries of identity and potential. There are times when that works well….when we agree with that politics.

That’s why I reject people telling me I’m a good mother – I am not a good mother, you just agree with my politics.

I adore my daughter with a passion. I will sacrifice for her because I want her potential to be as unlimited as her intelligence. That sacrifice will only go so far because I want her to see how I live, and see that women can and should have boundaries in the world. I will not let her define my mothering by sacrifice, she can define it by what I reject, accept and do with my life without reference to her.

I respect the politics of family and will use it as a weapon to make sure she is fully armed when she is out in the world so that she won’t be restrained by the sentimentality that distracts her from the politics of her life.

To be a woman is political. To be a mother is political. Spare me your sentiment, spare me your one day, spare me your consumerism and the nobility of servitude while women are dying in their homes at the hands of those they love, as their bank accounts dwindle be cause of their gender.

Spare me all that. We have shit to do.

On your fear of false rape accusations

4 Mar

I am so damned sick of (not all) men getting loudly alarmed about false rape accusations and claiming that even the 1-8% wide variance is too high and demanding more statistical or ontological (was it false rape or unsubstantiated rape complaints?) breakdowns from me.

So here you go:

A 2000-2003 Victorian report found that 2.1% of 850 rape complaints were false complaints. That’s 17.85 complaints against presumably 17.85 men over three years.

During that time (Aust):
* Only 15% of men accused of rape went to face trial.
* At least 40% plead guilty
* But that remaining 60%?
– around 10% are acquitted
– around 15% are found not guilty
– the rest, well, the prosecutor gives up half way through.
– In fact, your best statistical chance of a guilty verdict in a rape trial is to be a male      victim attacked by a male perpetrator.

Added to all of this is that less than 20% of Australian women actually report rape in the first place.

But no, tell me more about the scourge of false rape accusations. Tell me more about those poor 17.85 men.

A woman’s work and online op-ed cycles

10 Dec

chrisgraham

Feminist writers often talk about the emotional labour they’re  compelled to perform, an additional layer of expectation and to-doing. Often, it’s comparable to what most people do in their jobs – we network, we engage in professional development like reading, conferences and courses.

But it gets an added layer – we have to spend an inordinate amount of time sorting through abuse, supporting each other through each wave, all the while trying to earn some semblance of that 81c per dollar women earn in Australia.

This layer takes a toll on most, though some rise through it like the Morrigan they are. For the rest, perhaps we end up cagier about going out in public, or perhaps there’s an added defensiveness to our online communication waiting for the slap of a hand, or we tire of the op-ed cycle that capitalises on this stress and fatigue for cheap churn.

I’m one of those people – I’ve only weathered a few crises but I’ve watched others face worse more often. Amazingly, sitting shotgun on crises and going through them personally have the same impact. I develop huge anxiety, get angry at what gets said and published (as though the act of publishing gives an added credibility) and who takes part, all the while spending hours with others affected by it all.

The impact is that I don’t want to write op-ed because all I end up seeing is a publishing system that sets out a strawman and then charges money for the matches.

A website will publish a piece about how feminism (and a particular feminist) is doing things wrong – this will often be written by a man, though god knows we have enough pigs sitting at the table with the farmers discussing Marx.

Then comes the outrage of clicks – always directly linked so the publisher gets the views and potential revenue. This is outrage that weighs profit above the wellbeing of others, like publishing ill-thought screeds of a juvenile writer and his target. It’s a model where the publisher looks after one entity: the publication.

And you fuckers fall for it every time. A flurry of rebuttals fire up like arrows and, just like most arrows, they miss the mark. Publish a piece with the originating publisher and you can be certain there will be no criticism of the publisher, just more bland arguments grabbed from women who might not have been published there otherwise. Publish it elsewhere and you’re contributing to another publication’s attempt to cash in on the cycle.

Meanwhile, more clicks and insults are traded online. MRA’s feast like scavengers while allies go rat-king and attack each other in ever-increasing levels of lateral violence (another fantastic distraction technique to distract from work).

The only entities that are looked after in this exchange are the publications.

There’s a reason op-ed is so popular these days – it has a low barrier to entry and promises relatively easy money for those who write often enough and are backed up by a day job. It’s the sort of writing work that is incredibly profitable for sites looking for spikes in hits that other writing can’t bring – it’s low investment, quick turnaround and people will prioritise opinions and personal experience over all other communication.

But its rise is wholly predicated on exploitation – of readers, writers and everything in between. Individual people are treated like objects, endlessly autopsied rather than discussed. Writers get paid less to do more with less time. Then everyone gets attacked or mocked by the lazy affectations of disaffected-libertarian-manchild memery.

Yet more jump into the fray – watching the industry for three years I can pinpoint the cycles, where new writers are brought in, new insults are developed and more people lock themselves into the cycle and others disappear. Everyone is so earnest about their participation – even the disaffected-libertarian-manchild memers – and no one watches the impact it has on readers and writers and ponders their personal accountability. It’s like watching a hurtling train as its passengers dismantle it from the inside while screaming “yay! I’m helping!”

This isn’t about victimhood and feminism – that’s a trope that is all too often misapplied. I’m as dubious of feminists saying  “I just got a death/rape threat, that must mean I’m onto something!” as I am of MRAs or the mindless trolling from people looking to pile on and try abusing a feminist, like it’s a new online attraction.

What this is about is that we face an added workload, and all the financial, physical and psychological impact that carries, because of this work. And there are people out there who capitalise from our free labour, distracting from the work we’re actually trying to do and silence any sort of scrutiny about their part in this exchange. We’re dodging our accountability and the accountability of those who profit.

 

There’s a reason this was a blog and not a published piece – I could literally give zero fucks for our current media model that does this to women. That’s the same total of fucks I have for women who enter this cycle to profit on attacks of other women – you’re not standing up, you’re not standing alongside, you’re sitting down and counting the money and bylines. In short, you’re part of the problem.

Protesting Choice or, that time I hung out with anti-abortion protesters

2 Sep

Jane Gilmore has republished my old piece about when I stood outside an abortion clinic with some anti-choicers and asked them about their work and beliefs.

A protester blocks a woman with her family, a small child in a stroller.

“There’s another way”, the protester says, holding out a pamphlet.

“I have cancer”, the mother shouts, her husband trying to shield her as they make their way in.

The protester, Pam, shrugs, somehow confused and upset someone would consider her rude. She tuts, “I just offered a bit of assistance instead of going in there and having an abortion and she said it’s cancer, well, why would she be going in there, why wouldn’t she be going into a proper hospital, she’s going to abort and that’s what it’s all about….she got nasty.”

Malcolm*, another protester agrees. “We see this as a killing factory….nobody should be supporting an organisation like that, an organisation that kills innocent children.”

“It’s like saying – and I know people don’t like us using the comparison – but it’s like saying in the gas chambers in Nazi Germany they might be exterminating hundreds of Jews and others every day but they’re giving a nice bath to some people so I think we should support them.”

You can read the rest over at Women’s Agenda.

Missing Kat Muscat

29 Jul

  Kat Muscat was a brilliant writer. Her voice was like a sidewinder, curling herself through essays and thoughts. You always got the impression she would be relaxed and yet somehow earnest at once, someone totally accepting while pleasantly pushing back on tired debates and tired defenses.

She was like that in person too, curling herself into my couch as we zoned out on debates and crap tv, for we had the blessed shared high/low tastes (except she loved the Wire, fuck the Wire). After meeting at a rally, we kept bumping into one another at protests, launches or whatever gutters or events writers seem to gather at. I got to know that flirtatious way of hers, how she would giggle before she would deliver a one liner or how she could somehow shrug and hug at the same time.

I don’t let many people into my apartment (especially more than once) but Kat was the exception. We would sprawl on the couch and make a trade: one of her perfectly rolled cigarettes for one of my perfect cups of tea. Both of us would sigh at the perfection the other could give, before settling into our routine: junk food, junk tv and the junkiest, stickiest secrets we could share. Somehow, her partner Jack moved in with me and then Kat moved in. We would stumble home from our adventures or slumber, make that trade and then sling our secrets.

One night, Kat was trying to move my cat Tonkatsu and her head bounced off a wall corner. Blood geyesered from her the middle of her forehead like she was Harry fucking Potter at Carrie’s prom. She refused to go to the hospital so, after another perfect trade of smokes and tea and as the clock ticked to midnight, I convinced her to grab a cab with me. We spent hours making each other laugh uproariously in the Emergency Dept. I’ve never been more comfortable being the most hated person in a room from all our noise.

photo 2 We joked about the coffee that tasted as though it was made from peanut shells and would definitely be the next hipster craze, with low slung bearded men queing up every day for the coffee vending machine. We decided that “artisanal boyfriends” were a thing, live tweeted everything to annoy others with masses of selfies, defamed my cat to anyone who would (and even those who wouldn’t) listen and – some four hours later – decided that hospital is just a fancy form of Etsy where people are stitched together in sterile rooms instead of crafternoons.

We got out around 5am, everything still dark and outrageously cold, and tumbled down Victoria St. Kat’s head was filled with glue and bandages and giggles. Because we were both delirious by this point, I turned to Kat and sang “Take me out…tonight..take me anywhere, anywhere, I don’t care…”, laughing deliriously as she joined in. By the time we reached the brightly illuminated 24 hours Macca sign, we reached the crescendo and pointed at the sign screeching “there is a light that never goes out” and bought burgers to eat, delighting in our bitchy immaturity.

Some people you just mark out as constants in your life. They will always be there, you decide, so you tape off areas for them, unsent invitations for future milestones, a reserved seat in your life. Kat was one of those people. She would continue being an amazing aunt to my daughter as she grows, she would be at that mythical party I one day throw and I’d get to enjoy all those shrug-hugs and couch times when we would collapse on each other, trading tea and smokes.

And sometimes those people check out early and you’re left gasping for air at the obscenity of it all. She’s no longer here and I’m left with these empty spots reserved for her. She was 24, an obscenity to go so soon.

If I can’t yell to make her wake up, I want to yell at the world for letting this happen. This stupid world that lets in someone so lovely only to force her out so soon before I can read all her words, hear all her thoughts and spend more nights falling asleep on the couch in a chorus of snores.

photo 3 (1)If there’s any solace to be found, it’s that there are no better friends in this world than other writers. We’ve called each other, some of gathered together to take solace and some of us have hid at home to eat pizza, watch junk tv and smoke perfect cigarettes while drinking perfect cups of tea. I’ve never seen such care and generous thoughtfulness like I have from writers. For people who tend to work alone, writers know how to hold on to each other.

I spent decades trying to find my friends and I found them in writers, writers like Kat Muscat. It’s an obscenity that she died before I could spend decades with her.

I miss you, Kat Muscat. You were always loved and you always will be.

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