I’m a Feminist, Woman: Flirtation and Liberation

The question is rather mundane: is it OK for men call women “woman” as an insult?

Perhaps we should clarify.  Are we talking about “woman” as an insult, or “calling girls ‘woman’”—“let’s see who has the power; I dare you to stop me”—as an insult?  No amount rephrasing can eliminate this ambiguity, since the act itself partakes of it.  In the first case, it might seem, the man relies tacitly on the proposition “Woman is bad, nobody would want to be a woman—that’s why calling anyone a woman is an insult.”  In the second, though, it’s the act of calling someone “woman” as an insult that’s insulting.  This second use, of course, quotes the first, and therefore relies on it.  But between the two, hasn’t something significant intervened?

We’ll leave this question aside for the moment, to give a hearing to the clamor of offended voices.  Calling women “woman” as an insult is unacceptable because: (1) It implies that being a woman is a misfortune.  This complaint accuses not so much act as actor: nobody would commit the act unless they thought womanhood somehow inferior, and that’s both wrong and intolerable. (2) To force someone to endure this attack is harassment; it isn’t any different from a racist or homophobic hate crime; it’s a small act of violence. (3) To repeat this chauvinist proposition reinforces it, reproduces it.  Could anyone seriously think that girls growing up around this kind of sexism won’t be permanently damaged?  And won’t boys be taught sexism?

We’ll consider these objections in reverse order.  First, (3), assumes an equation between repetition and reproduction.  In response, we could mention the “tactical polyvalence of discourse” (Foucault, History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, part 4, chapter 2)—any discourse can participate verbatim in different and opposed political tactics.

Or, invoking Levi-Strauss, we might distinguish “rituals” from “games” (The Savage Mind, chapter 1).  Rituals sustain a synchrony; games, though formally a repetition, always threaten diachrony, since the outcome is not decided.  Levi-Strauss describes a ritual performance (a rigged game) which the souls of dead ancestors win every year.  But we might go further, since the outcome is not just the explicit result of the ritual—who wins, who loses—since the meaning of victory or loss might change between performances of the ritual.  Thus, what seems explicitly to be a ritual might actually be a game, and vice versa.  The question would be whether the duel of the sexes around this “insult” is a game or a ritual.

Or, drawing from linguistics: some statement, as a collection of phonemes, can be repeated.  I hear someone call someone “wĭm’ĭn,” and I repeat it, “wĭm’ĭn.”  But the enunciation—the act of making those sounds—can never be repeated.  An enunciation is essentially singular; it cannot be a repetition.  And though the phonemes may be a repetition, their meaning passes by way of the enunciation; and even if the semantic value (in the narrowest sense) is the same, the pragmatic value may well be different.  Meaning cannot be divorced from the pragmatic, so the repetition of the insult means nothing about the repetition of its meaning—here we begin to touch on the ambiguity with which we began.  When children learn sexism, they certainly aren’t learning a collection of empty phonemes; they’re learning something in the register of meaning.  Explicit repetition of sexist banter does not guarantee reproduction of sexism.

Indeed, repetition and play often transforms, integrates, digests, or masters trauma and confusion—repetition is far from its only effect.  Fernandez analyzes a children’s game as an attempt to grasp and process “the inchoate pronouns of social life—the ‘I,’ ‘you,’ ‘he,’ ‘it’” (122).  Likewise, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud analyzes another game—the first game, in some ways—as an attempt to master a confusing experience.

This good little boy, however, had an occasional disturbing habit of taking any small objects he could get hold of and throwing them away from him into a corner, under the bed, and so on, so that hunting for his toys and picking them up was often quite a business. As he did this he gave vent to a loud, long-drawn-out ‘o-o-o-o’, accompanied by an expression of interest and satisfaction. His mother and the writer of the present account were agreed in thinking that this was not a mere interjection but represented the German word ‘fort’ [‘gone’]. I eventually realized that it was a game and that the only use he made of any of his toys was to play ‘gone’ with them. One day I made an observation which confirmed my view. The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied round it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skillfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive ‘o-o-o-o’. He then pulled the reel out of the cot again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful ‘da’ [‘there’]. This, then, was the complete game—disappearance and return. (14-5)

The child, Freud argues, is reenacting the trauma mother’s departure.  The child’s repetition allows him to master “a passive situation—he was overpowered by the experience” of his loss (16).  In the repetition, the child “takes an active part” (16).

The rapid transformations of gender roles in the last century are from an anthropological perspective stunning and from a psychological perspective potentially disorienting.  Just the sort of “inchoate” Fernandez describes; repetition and play, then, could be valuable tools for symbolically integrating these changes.

In response to accusation (2), we might counter that “enduring an attack” misrepresents the usual outcome of this “harassment.”  Calling someone “woman” is an invitation to verbal sparring, flirtation, comebacks.  In fact, neglecting this aspect could only correspond to the unquestioning acceptance of gender stereotypes—men are primally aggressive, women are passive and mild-mannered, and so on.  A similar error of scope plagues accusation (1), which assumes that the only message in the game is the one enclosed in the man’s statement.  Not only is that statement quite possibly in scare quotes, but the woman’s response is just as much a part of the game.  We might say that these objections underestimate the dialogical character of language, and the “duel” (cf. Baudrillard’s Seduction) character of play.

Thus armed, we can hazard our own interpretation of the game.  The game is a duel, one which stages and reenacts cultural forms—stereotypes and myths—about contemporary gender roles and their transformations.  The woman’s resistance, just as it was part of the transformations of gender roles in the last century, is an integral part of the game that reenacts those changes.  A role play, not a sexist proposition; a staging, not a reproduction; a duel, not an assault.

This isn’t to say that some men playing the game aren’t sexist.  Indeed, sexists probably have the hardest time understanding contemporary gender roles and the transformations of the last century—they need the liberating repetition the most.  Thus, not even the motivation of the “aggressor” should influence our evaluation of the game, since, after all, it is dialogical, “duelle,” and the woman’s resistance matters as much as the man’s attack.

There is, however, a disturbing ambiguity to this game.  We have analyzed it as a staging of harassment and an invitation to duel—what if, in fact, it is a staging of a duel as an alibi for harassment?  At what point does it stop being a game?

At the risk of being too provocative, we’d like to suggest that it is the very possibility of such an outcome that lends the game its danger and excitement.  Indeed, this danger what makes it a “game” rather than a “ritual.”  Either player could potentially transform the game into a situation of domination; and every situation of domination could be immediately reversed in the game.

Such a claim requires us to reexamine our ideas of domination, abuse, oppression.  If the threat of domination—enslavement, death—is the final term which alone lends a game its danger and reversibility, to eliminate the possibility of domination is potentially misguided.  Is domination bad at all?  It’s a good question—we can’t even begin to answer it here, but at lest we can raise it.  This is a question about what the outcome of “women’s liberation” should be.  Should it be the elimination of domination?  Should it be the detachment of gender roles from the duel?  Perhaps the duel should center on something other than womanhood and manhood.  But might that leveling-off represent not a liberation but an impoverishment of gender relations.  Shouldn’t liberation be an attempt to make these games more precarious than ever, to level the playing field not in order to eliminate the game, but to make it more interesting, less predictable?  To make the sexes equal not the sense of preventing domination but of causing it to threaten in new ways?


4 Responses to “I’m a Feminist, Woman: Flirtation and Liberation”

  1. There’s no question that the game of flirtation has domination / enslavement as its final term, but there’s also little question that the game works only if that final possibility is closed off, the more firmly the better. One shouldn’t assume that the kind of duel you’re describing is watered down by being “de-realized,” that if we know we’re not playing for real money we won’t take it seriously enough to have fun. On the contrary, we would never enter the game if we were playing for real money. In all likelihood the kind of feminism that seeks to eliminate real domination has done a great deal for the eroticism of power. First, by taking real power of the table, since it may be hard to eroticize being beaten in the bedroom if you’re beaten regularly in the kitchen. Second, by making us vastly more sensitive to gendered power-play: patronizing a woman, once merely a matter of course, now becomes an act of aggression to be parried. It is not oversexed queer theorists like yourself but sex-negative second-wave feminists who represent the authentic eroticists of sexed domination; their disavowals are only so many confirmations for those who can read them.

  2. I forbid anyone to read my post without also reading Michael’s comment.

    — Wilfredo

  3. Two points:

    (A) “Keeping real power off the table” — this can mean two things. First, it might mean making sure that nothing sticks, no domination is final, it’s reversible, risky. Second, it might mean making sure there’s no “real violence,” but only this “monopoly money” violence. I certainly agree that regular abuse generally results in boring, ossified, predictable relations. But that has nothing to do with being more “real”; it just so happens that when relationships between men and women (as they are found today) degenerate into violence, the man always wins. And that’s boring. In fact, domestic violence is so boring, and the man risks so little, that I was surprised to hear you liken it to “playing for real money.” That’s exactly what the man /isn’t/ doing–he stakes nothing.

    (B) A fascinating point you’ve made: political correctness /intensifies/ struggle, extends its domain! Not only because the fight for equality as leveling-off generally leads to the other sense of equality as reversibility, riskiness (see point A)–but also because it amounts to the invention (in the highest sense–not of deception but of productivity, creation) of new abuses. Struggle comes to saturate even the mundane. Holding a door, saying “baby,” enjoying the Rolling Stones: each unfolds into a new battlefield… In fact, this is the production of “real” dominations.

    — Wilfredo

  4. I did indeed mean that we want to “keep real power off the table” in the sense of playing eroticized power games with monopoly money. The standard sadomasochistic contract has an exit clause in the form of a safe-word; the safe-word is not a limitation on the fantasy but its condition of possibility, that without which the fantasy would immediately become unbearable. The safe-word doesn’t reverse power relations but restores the (fantasy of) autonomy and independence without which we modern subjects can’t breath. I’m not sure what to say about this except that (1) it’s surprising how exciting monopoly can be and (2) you’re probably more invested in fantasies of autonomy than you think– you assume you’ve tasted a bit of domination and enjoyed it, and would thus like more, but the kind you’ve tasted is *essentially* a game.

    Also, as power relations approach infinite reversibility they cease to be power relations, right? I wonder whether you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too…

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