The thing about being in a position of knowledge or influence on a particular topic is that at some point you had to go from ignorance to experience. At some critical juncture in your development, you became interested in your discipline and you decided to pursue it further. Looking back, your first tentative forays into reading or research or education seem to be as naive and simplistic as a child learning their ABCs. That’s the point, though – if you never take the baby step, you’ll never get to take the bigger ones.
This is something I think about a lot when taking part in discussions about politics and feminism. It seems so obvious to me now that the dominant media voices primarily focus themselves on women somewhere near the top of the intersectionality* ladder. It seems obvious that there’s a massive world of literature out there, and that you can view pop culture through a feminist lens and see things you’d never noticed (and that sometimes you wish you hadn’t noticed (she says, glumly)). It didn’t always.
[* intersectionality: the principle that your place in society is affected by your gender, your race, your age, your sexuality, etc, and that the benefits and disadvantages conferred by each of those factors is modified and operated upon by each of the others. Basically, society as a big game of Top Trumps.]
To me, one of the primary aims of involvement in an area you care about and consider important is to promote it to others. Makes sense, doesn’t it? You’re a feminist because you want society to give women equality, and the best way to get there is to make more feminists. You’re a scientist because knowledge is vital, so you inspire people to take up scientific careers and thereby progress our understanding of the world around us. Sometimes people tell you you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes they’re right. Often, though, they aren’t – and I see a strange possessiveness articulated by experts/’experts’ when it comes to the general public playing in their garden.
Obviously the Cox/Ince/geeks business is in the forefront of my mind here, but the couple of recent discussions about Caitlin Moran’s writing are playing into it too. Full disclosure: I like Caitlin Moran. She’s not perfect and sometimes she’s entirely wrong, but for my teenage self, finding her writing was one of those watershed moments. You could be a feminist and be funny and care about music and media and non-academic interests! Holy crap. Where has this been all my life? So I carry a residual affection for her from that, yes, but I also think the criticism of her writing can be a little off the wall. Last time I read an argument about her, I spent ten minutes staring at a comment box attempting to reply to an accusation that she’s not a proper feminist because she uses comedy and frivolity in her self-expression. I ended up closing the page and walking away because I didn’t know how to explain to another adult human that people like jokes.
That’s just it, though. People like jokes. Humour is an excellent way to make your audience feel like they have some ownership over your subject, like they’re in the club. Academic feminism has many virtues, but it does often feel like a circle of closed doors – and I’m speaking as someone who’s read the books and had the arguments. If you want to engage people, you have to let them in. You can no more take the average member of the public and set them a reading-list on feminist intersectionality, as you could teach them to enjoy astronomy by giving them an astrophysics PhD dissertation and telling them to get their heads around it before they go buy a telescope.
Everyone has to start somewhere. This is the problem with dismissing articles speaking to laypeople: there is no way to make a layperson an expert if you confuse and isolate them first. Argue that Moran has used offensive wording somewhere or that Ince and Cox could have explained the phrase ‘the scientific method’ better, if you want, but saying that simplistic writing for an inexpert audience is wrong is entirely counter-productive. I would much rather someone ended up at bell hooks by starting out with Caitlin Moran than that they never find either. To be honest, I don’t mind if someone ever makes their way to the academic end of feminism as long as they start questioning the misogynistic standards of society when it comes to what we’re paid, what we’re allowed wear, our freedom of choice, and so on ad infinitum.
Because I want more feminists. I want more people who understand science, too, and I want more people who understand law. I want people to make informed political decisions and I want people to engage with history. But mainly, I want your voice and my voice and everybody else’s. I want gay feminists and transgender feminists and feminists with mental illness and feminists of colour. I want everyone to be counted. And I want teenage girls to understand that you can look at your life with a feminist slant without needing a college education or membership in some esoteric club.
Some people write this off as populism, but I prefer to think of it as accessibility. We’re building Rome – it won’t get done in a day, but that doesn’t mean we’re not progressing by taking one hour at a time.