Am I A Bad Feminist?
Achilles’ Heel: “A deadly weakness in spite of overall strength that can actually or potentially lead to downfall.”
Despite that I spent years on a personal struggle to reconcile my strong, deep beliefs in the fundamental principles of feminism with my masculine gender and my sexual tendencies toward dominance and sadism, I was still unprepared when readers of my work started accusing me of being a “bad feminist.”
I feel like if I just had the right shoes, my Achilles’ heel would be safe.
Feminism is the first way I learned to make sense of my life, the first system of theories and thinkers that brought the events in my personal experiences into a larger context of political and personal struggle against oppression and marginalization. Next are literary theory and queer theory, though like a teenager full to the eyeballs with hormones, I will never forget my first theory love.
There are many similes to describe the effect: most commonly I refer to it as a lens through which I could view my life’s events—and larger cultural tendencies—in which the vision was finally clear. Finally I had context for my parent’s relationship. Finally I had words to describe how it felt growing up as a girl and panicking about graduating high school because I didn’t understand where my place in the world would be, or what it could possibly look like. Finally I had an understanding of heteronormativity, sexuality, gender identity—and an explanation for why I rushed into the arms of the first boyfriend I had immediately upon graduation.
Throughout my young life, there was an unrest brewing, something I couldn’t place—until suddenly I could, and everything in my life was about getting out of my relationship and coming out.
I have feminism to thank for that. And the Internet, back in the late ‘90s when blogs were journals or weblogs, and webrings and cliques ruled the sidebars. But that’s a slightly different story.
Feminism was an awakening. I feel so strongly about basing all my work in feminist theory, which is to say, in examining hierarchies, questioning privileged, social positioning, and being aware of the interrelated systems of oppression.
So it shocked me to start getting critiqued for my “lack of feminist thinking.” For “setting back the movement.” For “giving feminists a bad name!”
I knew I shouldn’t take it so seriously, or so personally, but it hurt.
But it’s easy to think of feminism as singular—in truth, there are feminisms out there, plenty more than one. In fact, it’s such a big movement that I have run across plenty of people who are doing things in the name of “feminism” that I completely disagree with, and that I think in fact disagrees with some of my fundamental principles of feminism.
One of my feminist-theory professors said to me once, “You know a movement’s made it into the collective consciousness when it’s so big that it can encompass opposing viewpoints.” I appreciated that, and it has stuck with me when I start to get in a huff about what I see as someone’s supposed “feminist” views.
But it is different when it is me and my work, especially since I write about sexuality and gender not just in an abstract, academic way but personally—about my sexuality, my gender, my kinky, sexual relationships infused with complicated gender and power dynamics.
My critics scoffed: How dare I (consensually, carefully, skillfully) slap someone or hit someone or dominate someone! Didn’t I know that all power is bad power? Didn’t I know that all penetration is rape and phallic objects are anti-lesbian?
To be honest, the critiques that sting the most aren’t like those—those are easy to point to and say, clearly we have different ideas about sex positivity. Clearly we are coming from different places. The ones that hurt the most are people who seemed to be coming from the same place I do, but who come to very different conclusions—particularly the conclusion that I am being careless or thoughtless.
It has taken a lot of work for me to take a deep breath and to ask myself, “Is what they’re saying actually, really true?”
I do want to know if I’m doing something that hurts someone else. But that little break in my armor cracks open when someone tells me that I’m ‘doing something wrong’ while simultaneously misunderstanding what I’m doing, or not understanding something fundamental about where I’m coming from. I try to make my intentions and my perspective clear, but of course that isn’t always enough. I listen—I want to know, I want to hear opposing opinions, I think that is one of the best ways to grow.
Listening and taking into account other people’s perspectives is one of my greatest strengths, but it can become one of my greatest weaknesses when I allow myself to listen to people who are just trying to raise anger, who are lashing out, who are stirring up shit. In Internet speak, we call these folks ‘trolls,’ but it’s much easier for me to dismiss the drive-by hater than the long-term reader who suddenly gets on a soapbox about how much I’ve fucked up. These trolls, more often than not, come dressed as princesses, so of course it is my inclination to cross the burning bridge over a dragon-filled moat and see if I can’t get that locked door open.
So I try to keep in mind that my greatest strength is often the other side of my greatest weakness, and that while it is important to listen to others’ perspectives, it is never healthy for me to let my own sense of myself get overridden by someone else. And as my own personal sense of self, my own sovereignty, has grown stronger and stronger over the years, it’s been easier to let the attacks roll off of my back or out of my inbox without the aftermath of days of questioning myself.
Sometimes, when my head is clear, I can acknowledge now that I am on the edge of something new, pushing the boundaries of conventional feminism into new, uncharted, queer, kinky, and sexual territory, that not everybody understands that. I will still strive to be understood, and it still smarts when I get attacked, but every once in a while, I can tell that when I’m being questioned and criticized by a larger audience, I must be doing something right—they must be feeling the growing pains of expansion. I keep in mind that “growth requires the temporary suspension of security,” and that for some folks, being not secure is the worst thing they could be.
Meanwhile, I’m still collecting shoes to try to keep my Achilles’ heel protected and safe.