How do you make your voice heard without being considered anti-feminist?
Reading Molly Ringwald’s thought-provoking and perceptive article, I was struck by the section where she discusses Haviland Morris’ opinion on the victimisation of her character Caroline by both “the dreamboat” and the Geek in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles. To give a brief summary of the scene, Caroline’s boyfriend Jake hands her over (in a drunken state) to the Geek, in exchange for Samantha’s underwear (which Samantha gave the Geek to help him convince his friends that he had slept with her). As Ringwald reports, Morris lays part of the blame on her character Caroline: while clarifying that she does not think rape is justifiable, she notes that it’s “not a one-way street. Here’s a girl who gets herself so bombed that she doesn’t even know what’s going on.” While this is clearly Morris’ personal opinion, it may be jarring to women who have been violated while inebriated, and it may even be reminiscent of the convention of blaming the woman for the assault enacted upon her (for being drunk, for dressing ‘inappropriately’, and for calling attention to herself, for instance). This convention, unfortunately, is almost a social norm, and is problematic because it constrains female agency and perpetuates a culture of victim-shaming.
While Morris makes a valid point—it is wise to know your own limits and avoid exceeding them, it is proof of how messed up the world is, that a woman can’t afford to lose control of herself or feel safe in her surroundings, because she has to constantly watch out for the dangers posed by the people around her—even by her partner (as in Caroline’s case). A man can drink as much as he likes and often not be at risk of being predated upon (though admittedly, we often fail to realise that men can be victimised too), while a woman, 100% of the time, has to be aware of where she is, whom she’s with, and what she’s drinking. What does this say about our cultures, that women are not only policed by society, but also have to self-police merely to avoid being the targets of violence and violation? In simple terms, this is what we’re telling women: by all means, go out for a drink after a hard day’s work—but be careful you don’t get raped. What does this say about the liberty, respect, and safety of our societies?
While I find Morris’ opinion extremely problematic (especially since it reflects a predominant, problematic attitude), the issue also lies with feminism, where we link every individual comment and opinion that we hear to the broader narrative of feminism, weighing each comment against whatever conception (or misconception) of feminism we hold. In today’s world, we are constantly forced to censor ourselves lest we say something that contradicts someone else’s brand of feminism, leading to a barrage of insults and arguments that labels us “anti-feminist”, sexist, and an embarrassment to women in general. Until we all learn to emotionally disengage from the opinions with which we are confronted, or to dissociate the individual and the collective (impossible situations, since so much depends on personal experience and belief), there will always be someone who is offended by our statements, however well-intentioned (especially when they are on controversial topics), and there will always be someone whose opinions affect us. Given this impasse, it may seem that there’s not much we can do to avoid offending people, and that silence is the best option. Despite all these issues, it is important to voice your opinion, especially if you feel that it adds weight and perspective to the discussion.
When expressing your opinion, though, there are some things to keep in mind. First, while you have the licence to hold and air your own views, be aware that nearly everything has a certain politics behind it, whether in relation to male privilege, discrimination, violence against women, or to the broad sphere of sexism; even if you don’t see it, someone else may find your views problematic. Second, people have their own experiences and traumas—what may seem a simple opinion to you could involve painful memories and unshakeable convictions for someone else. In this light, it is advisable to tread carefully when you discuss potentially sensitive topics; rather than being high-handed with your statements, acknowledge the other person and the other sides of the argument. Being empathetic could mean the difference between entering into a discussion that is productive for all concerned and offending someone whose story varies greatly from yours. Finally, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that people’s opinions are often integral to who they are: in your quest to make your voice heard, don’t forget that everyone has the right to counter your opinion, even if they attempt to nullify it—so as ready as you are to defend your points, be willing to respect and acknowledge other people’s points of view as well.