The recent feminiblogsphere (I’m coining the term) controversies regarding the arrest of male feminist blogger-turned sex-offender Kyle Payne, and the clash between “fun-feminists” and, like, “real feminists” have been stirring around my poor little head the last few weeks, resulting my hoity-toity response a few days ago, and (believe me) the absolute post-apocalyptic wasteland of half-written responses doomed for eternity to the Blogger “drafts” folder.

The questions before me were:

1) Can men be feminists? If so, how? If not, what the hell is wrong with feminism?
2) How to resolve the tensions within feminism? Am I a real feminist? Are the abstract “they” real feminists?
3) Omg! [dies] is feminism still relevant? Is it time for another social movement to take its place?

My ensuing breakdown (as evidenced by self-loathing information binging on Google Reader) has been calmed, unsurprisingly, by The Newlywed Game.

This anecdote and analysis comes to you from communications theorist John Fisk circa 1989. In keeping with my goal never to use the word “Jouissance” on this blog, I will paraphrase Fisk, but please consider the following attributable to him.

Behold:

John Fisk shows an episode of The Newlywed Game to his college class. In one segment, four husbands were asked how their wives respond to the husbands’ romantic (read: sexual) demands. The husbands were made to choose between the following responses:
1. “Yes, master”
2. “Get serious, man”
3. “No way, Jose!”

Unsurprisingly, all four husbands chose option 1, “Yes, master”.

When the wives came out to reveal what they had chosen as the typical response to their husbands’ sexual demands, two of them selected “Yes, master”, one had selected “Get serious, man”, and the last revealed “No way, Jose!”.

The couples whose answers matched were awarded points, but it was the mismatched couples that got the hearty laughs and shouts from the studio audience—clearly they were awarded popular, if unofficial, “points”.

Fisk explains the reaction in his class.

1. The self-identified feminists (remember, this is pre-third wave) were understandably appalled by the very question itself. Fisk writes, “for them it enshrined patriarchy in its assumption that women had no sexual desires of their own, but that their sexuality was limited to responding to men’s needs.”

2. The men in his class felt that the question had been put the husbands in a difficult position. No man in public could possibly answer anything other than “Yes, master” even if they knew quite well that their wives would not respond in such a way. Fisk writes, “the ideology of masculinity left men no choice. Their options were oppression or failure”. Thus, the humiliation of the men who were “showed up” produced the strongest reaction from the audience because the “men’s failure to live up to [patriarchy] was more critical of the ideology than the women’s compliance was supportive of it.”

3. The third group of students were women who did not identify as feminists. They, like the studio audience, delighted in seeing the women reject their husbands’ “Yes, master” response. The feminists in group 1, could not delight in the progressive pleasure of the nonfeminist, because they identified the problem as structural from the outset. However the nonfeminists, accepting the structure, were able to laugh at the gap that was revealed between the “ideology of patriarchy and the everyday experience of women”.

Both the audience and the nonfeminists awarded popular points to the “losing couples”. “Despite the patriarchy inscribed into the question, for some viewers, the men on the show came off worse than the women; the vulnerability of their power was revealed and women’s tactical ability to deal with it was publicly validated.”

This anecdote helps in thinking through the recent crises I noted above. First of all, this episode of the Newlywed Game is a small, but effective example of how patriarchy hurts men who don’t live up to it (all of them). They are confined within the gender too, which is why the ideology of gender equality, while certainly in the interests of women is also in the interest of men. Not to say this speaks to Kyle Payne’s specific case, but it does speak to men’s involvement in the feminist movement in general which is much welcome and much needed. Feminism is in their best interest. Men can be feminists.

The more complicated element here is the tension between the feminists and the nonfeminists (many of whom might identify as feminists today in the third wave). I’m not proposing that “fun-feminists” (a term I will hereby substitute with “progressive feminists”) are nonfeminists, but I am going to align them with this groups’ reading of the Newlywed Game.

The gladiator smashdown on I Blame the Patriarchy is similar to the tension between student group 1, the feminists, and student group 3, the nonfeminists.

The debate centered on the question, can women’s appropriation of burlesque possibly be feminist, when it fundamentally conforms to a tradition of patriarchal domination? I think the terms of the debate were unclear. The real issue is this: is progressive feminism inherently at odds with structural (radical) feminism? Or: can guerrilla warfare thwart broad militaristic strategy? Or: can the mirco-political resistance undermine macro-political aims?

The tactic of the progressive feminist is to work within the patriarchal structure, appropriating symbolism for their purposes. They laugh at the newlywed husband’s failure to live up to a false patriarchy, where the women watching in their living room at home can share in this delight—potentially giving her tools with which to resist her husband’s domination on a micro, or guerrilla level.

If radical feminism cannot capitulate with the above model of resistance, on what grounds, I ask, do they feel their militaristic battle will be waged? Quite frankly, they don’t have the funding, the ammo, or the (wo)manpower to fight the war they are proposing.

So, feminist burlesque does rely on a pre-existing power structure to carry out its resistance. The humor here requires an intelligible, original meaning from which burlesque can be ripped and stitched into a new empowered framework– the juxtaposition between the two being both the critique and the fun in it.

The goal is not to bring patriarchy to its knees in doing this, but to skew what was once a form of domination, into a shared joke—like the one enjoyed on the Newlywed Game. We all laugh together, oppressor and oppressed, but the latter delights all the more, for here we have a micro victory and– if we know how to use it–we further amass our forces.

Boo-yah. Okay, I’m done with this. Onwards, Pop Feminist!

Fiske, John, Understanding Popular Culture, “Productive Pleasures”, Routeldge Press, 1989.

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