With a humorous take on both the personal and cultural critique essay, writer and feminist disability activist Harilyn Rousso grabs readers’ attention starting with the wry title of her new book, talking back to the patronising and demeaning conversations that circulate about disability.
By Anna Hamilton
One common complaint leveled at modern intersectional feminism—particularly academic feminism and Women’s Studies—is that feminism that doesn’t exclusively focus on issues of concern to white, middle class, straight and able-bodied women is “too divisive” and “distracts” from the issues on which “all feminists” can apparently agree. The latest iteration of this argument has come up in the controversy over British journalist and feminist Caitlin Moran’s support of American actress and writer Lena Dunham, which culminated in Moran’s rather spectacularly insensitive display of non-concern for women of color when asked on Twitter about Dunham’s HBO series Girls and media representation. While further commentary on this incident is beyond the scope of this review, Moran’s inability to look before she Tweets and the backlash spawned because of her blasé attitude toward women of color brings into stark relief why feminism needs to integrate perspectives other than those of women whom the popular feminist movement—and the mainstream media–has rewarded with book deals, high-profile commentary and blogging gigs, and “star” or expert status.
It sounds like the stuff of nightmarish urban legends: in rural India, men desperate for money or a meal are promised both, then held captive in “blood farms” where their blood is siphoned constantly and sold at a hefty profit to blood banks. In various developing nations, young children are taken from their parents by orphanages connected to largely unregulated “adoption agencies” and, for a price, are placed with Western couples looking to adopt transnationally—all while the children’s terrified biological parents grow increasingly desperate.
One refugee camp for South Indian survivors of the 2004 tsunami is known in local parlance as “Kidneyvakkam” due to the large number of people residing there who have sold a kidney for money on which to survive. These stories may sound too outlandish to be true, but they are all indicative of the rise of a horrific, often insidious black market that applies the logic of global capital to bodies, body parts, and bodily fluids.
Wired editor Scott Carney’s first book, The Red Market, updates the reach of the black market to the 21st century. Carney powerfully argues that this “red market” traffics in the commodification of bodies, their parts, and their fluids in a world that has increasingly relied on black market commodities to create—and maintain–flows of capital to the already-wealthy, often at the direct expense of some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people across the globe.
Feminism FOR REAL, edited by Jessica Yee, Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, 2011
Mainstream feminist activism and academics, even in the 21st century, have continued to be overly-invested in conversations about feminist theory without making attendant connections to how race, ability, class and related identity categories affect everyday experiences in peoples’ lives, and how these categories intertwine with gender. Academic feminism in particular has long been critiqued for being exclusionary to those who do not fit the profile of the white, Western, middle-class, cisgender, and non-disabled woman that has come to represent the apparently “normal” feminist scholar. Critiques advanced by groups who have traditionally been excluded from feminism—including women of color, women with disabilities, queer women, trans women, poor women, and non-Western women—have, for the most part, held that the concept of “sisterhood” is in fact problematic, and the emphasis that mainstream feminism has placed upon supposed unity among women worldwide does not exist, and is in many ways exclusionary. Many feminists’ continued insistence that sexism is the most important issue—and one that “all women” must band together to fight first and foremost—has ignored the very differences among feminists and women that have kept feminism(s) so interesting and vital. The professionalization of feminism in the academy has often meant further exclusion and disenfranchisement for many marginalized women, as their experiences are often treated as abstract material for term papers, theses and graduate courses instead of the stuff of their everyday lives.
Feminism FOR REAL, edited by Indigenous activist and writer Jessica Yee, aims to begin carving a space for a feminist practice that places marginalized people at its center, instead of one that encourages us to “uncritically and obediently cheer when white women are praised for winning ‘women’s rights,’ and to painfully forget the Indigenous women and women of colour who were hurt in that same process,” as Yee writes in her introduction to the volume. The pieces that follow each examine how and why mainstream academic feminism has come to occupy such a place in the academy, and how a supposedly progressive ideology that aims to fight for all women has, in some cases, further shoved certain women to the margins and bestowed professional power upon others. In what direction should we go, Yee asks, “when feminism itself has become its own form of oppression?”
The contributors to the book do an admirable job of both outlining some of the problems with contemporary academic feminism and forwarding new inroads for a feminism that is less about uplift for white, middle-class, able-bodied, young women—and more dedicated to a holistic feminist practice shaped by those who have been watching from the sidelines as certain women have attained “liberation” at the expense of others’ livelihoods, struggles and lived experiences. Importantly, the contributors to Feminism FOR REAL demonstrate that the everyday experiences of marginalized people are not just theoretical fodder for the academic Women’s and Gender Studies mill, and that the embrace of a facile feminist “sisterhood” with privileged women at its center does not meet the very diverse needs of women in a variety of circumstances. The writers of Feminism FOR REAL do not just throw around the term “intersectionality” in order to sound appropriately academic; clearly, they live it.
Judy Chicago and Frances Borzello, Frida Kahlo: Face to Face, Prestel Publishing, 2010
The name “Frida Kahlo” tends to provoke a passionate response among art fans and feminists alike. At first look, feminist artist Judy Chicago and art historian Frances Borzello’s recent Frida Kahlo: Face to Face may appear to be yet another entry in the glut of Frida-related books that have appeared since the mid-190s and tend to cover similar ground; however, this is not just another Frida book intended to capitalize on salacious details about her life or provide a hipster’s coffee table with full-color reproductions of her amazing paintings. It is by no means a perfect addition to the canon of books about Kahlo and her art, but an important and worthwhile one nonetheless.
Judy Chicago is a strong candidate to undertake such a project, as she knows firsthand about the unique pressures of being an openly feminist creator in the art world. Best known for her 1979 installation piece The Dinner Party as well as many other pieces in a variety of media, Chicago’s perspective on women’s art—and the history of feminist art—brings to the book both her intelligent personal reflections on Kahlo’s art and its impact on her own work and that of other 20thcentury-era women artists. She provides particular elucidation of how Kahlo’s work fits in with some of the major themes of women’s art throughout the 20th century, including gender, the body, relationships, the self, pain, pride, and culture. Frances Borzello’s art history background adds much-needed artistic and cultural context to the works of Kahlo’s that are discussed in the book; many readers, regardless of their experience with art history, will find that Borzello’s analyses reveal new insights about Kahlo’s work from a more technical and historical artistic perspective.