A very quick post, because I can’t not. Today, as you will have noticed, is April Fools’ Day. It is also, much more pleasantly,
#WhanThatAprilleDay15 – the day when medievalists, including the fantastic and wonderful Chaucer Doth Tweet, take to twitter to share snippets of medieval languages and texts. It’s really fun. Yesterday, two friends of mine, Sjoerd Levelt and Kate Wiles, were on the radio talking about why it is that so many medievalists take to twitter. Their piece is here, and it’s from 33 minutes in, and you should listen. In it, amongst other things, Sjoerd very elegantly expanded on a point first made by Dorothy Kim, that twitter’s cheery little bird icon has a special connotation for medievalists. In a lot of medieval poetry – and especially Chaucer’s work – the trope of the bird who speaks with the voice of a human is politicized: it lets poets take on a new persona, familiar but also strange, human but also not. Speaking birds interrogate the margins of human speech, the margins of comprehensible language. As Sjoerd explained, twitter may be understood as a margin, a space for the unofficial commentaries and informal conversations, but it’s also a forum that has given a lot of young academics a voice.
It won’t surprise you to know that there’s a gender connection in all of this. Many (though not all) of the birds in medieval poetry are female, and some – like the hawk I posted about before – seem to slip between genders. This reflects medieval views quite aptly. Women’s speech is always, in some sense, birdspeech, always, by virtue of gender, sub-human, Other. It requires interpretation before we know what it means, and it places us on the margins of the main discourse.
So, what does all this medieval tweeting have to do with Everyday Feminism? Well, I’ll tell you. A friend of mine, Sophia Baggins, just pointed out this cartoon on their site. Cheerfully, the editors of the Everyday Feminism write:
“What do you think when someone says “I’m not a feminist?” They might not mean what you think. If you identify as a feminist, check out some of the reasons people don’t.
And if you don’t call yourself a feminist, see if you find some of your reasons here. The stories in this comic can help us all have more respect for the wide range of ways we stand up to oppression.”
The cartoons show a variety of women (and one man), mostly, by implication, constructed as members of marginalized groups within feminism. The first is a Black woman, another wears a headscarf, another proclaims herself as a transwoman, yet another locates herself within indigenous culture. There’s finally, for good measure, the scapegoat: the woman who refuses to recognize her privilege.
All stand underneath the same two captions. Firstly, there’s “what they say”, under which each cartoon character proclaims that feminism is not for her, does not fit her identity, and so on. Secondly, there’s “what they mean”, under which each character gives her reasons for struggling to identify with feminism, or rejecting it entirely.
Now, I can see what the cartoonist was trying to do here. There are many reasons women (and men) don’t feel like identifying as feminists. Some of these reasons tell us about the history of feminism’s problems; many others remind us of ourselves, at times when we didn’t realize feminism can have space for us too. And these are important concerns we all have, and they need consideration.
But what I had a problem with was summed up neatly by Sophia’s comment to me. The cartoonist, she noted, refers throughout to these women as “they”. Not, ‘we’. They. There’s a good reason why lists like this – ‘what Brits say versus what Brits mean’ and so on – tend to be humorous in intention. And that’s because they’re fucking patronizing taken literally. There is a very long history of society telling women “what they mean”. A long history of claiming that women’s statements and emotions cannot be respected at face value. This is women’s speech presented as the speech of the Other, the speech that needs interpreting. It’s womanspeech, birdspeech, the not quite human speech that must be translated by someone else. In six hundred years, it seems we haven’t moved on much.
I’d love to think this cartoon is an April Fool, an subtle joke about how far we’ve come. But, unfortunately, it’s not.
Update: I wish I’d managed to articulate before (though I hope the implication was clear) that this cartoon has quite unpleasantly racist connotations, and that transmen – a group of people who patently do experience misogyny (trauma doesn’t disappear because you are transitioning, and identifying as a man does not magically make everyone treat you as one) – are, apparently, our only male ‘allies’. As you will notice, the one group absolved of either the responsibility to identify as feminists or the need to have their words interpreted is … men.
I wrote this piece on the fly, but I did want to come back and say just how appalling that is.
I have now been told that the cartoonist prefers the pronoun them for themself, so it may have been that this usage was not intended to invoke the history of othering women, and was just an accident. This doesn’t surprise me – I think Everyday Feminism is fundamentally well-meaning – but is sad in a different way.