Fausse route feminism

by Rob Horning

18 August 2006


Last week, the TLS reviewed French historian Elisabeth Badinter’s recent book, Fausse route (or “wrong course”), which, after being a best-seller in France, has made it into English translation under the decidedly more inflammatory title Dead End Feminism. (As far as this critic is concerned it should be called Blame the Victim.) The review summarizes her argument as a denunciation of the alleged “cult of victimhood” among feminists (she perhaps has anti-pornography crusaders like McKinnon in mind, but it seems like a straw woman has been built, a false construction of feminism as a species of political correctness) that leads women’s acheivements to be downplayed in favor of broadcasing the innumerable ways women are exploited or abused. This has the consequence of criminalizing the apparently inevitable expressions of masculinity as aggression, “virility.” Badinter then asserts the somewhat grim proposition that “the principal goal of any kind of feminism should be to bring about the equality of the sexes and not to improve the relations between men and women,” which the reviewer, Biancamaria Fontana, glosses this way:  “Thus the purpose of feminist action must remain confined to the dimension of legal rights and social opportunities, rather than addressing the intractable tensions, incompatibilities and mismatched expectations which exist between the sexes.” This seems a bit drastic and fatalistic, a kind of surrender to a segregationalist approach where the genders are separate but equal, and at best complementary only in the most basic, evolutionarily prescribed ways. It reminded me of the quasi-utopian society imagined at the end of Sarah Scott’s 1762 novel Millennium Hall, which, as Wikipedia piquantly claims, expresses “a pathological revulsion at heterosexual sexuality.” (Essentializing masculine aggression and the male’s evolutionary need to spread seed is just the flip side of the “revulsion” coin.) I’m not sure that these aims can be separated. Isn’t it true that “relations”—social capital—is one of the ways inequality is maintained, and improving women’s access to such networks of power would seem an essential step toward accomplishing equal opportunity? And if we are all to accept unameliorated “intractable tension”, what incentive for change is there? Maybe this is hopelessly Pollyanna-ish, but isn’t the pursuit of economic equality ultimately a means to the end of less tension, less incompatibility, less confusion about expectations, as well as more shared experience, more mutual understanding and appreciation? But then, it could just be my luxury to see it that way, of course, because the current inequalities in rights and opportunities already work in my favor, and only the intractable tensions tend to trouble me personally. My privilege may buy me a lot of optimism.

All this is strange, because in this interview, Badinter seems to agree, rejecting the idea that the genders are ultimately irreconcilable: “If man must be considered an uncompromising enemy, then it’s not worth it to militate for equality between the sexes and a fair division. Then we should preach separatism.” The problem I’m having may lie in my conflation (what Badinter calls “the zero degree of reflection”—not sure what that even means) of “improved relations” between the sexes with their general willingness to comingle. Is the gist of Badinter’s approach that the sexes can coexist without needing to acheive much mutual understanding? Maybe this is where I go wrong: I interpret “improved relations” to mean relating in ways that aren’t ultimately in some way reducible to sexuality, to libidinous impulse—relations not governed by the mating game. Because the status quo, it seems to me, is just that, expressed in When Harry Met Sally as the faux-commonsense notion that men and women can’t be friends without some sexual undercurrent. In other words, men and women coexist only when enacting the roles assigned to them by evolutionary psychology (and later enshrined in tradition and lasting notions of what is “natural”), and divergences from that path create chaos. And no effort to address this eternal truth is worth making; it is inevitably futile if not authoritarian or Puritanical.

Ultimately it seems like the most important issue for Badinter is demonizing “American feminists” and selling books to those in America cheered by the antifeminist backlash. In the interview, Badinter defines her feminism this way:

The feminism that suits me is the one that militates for an equality of power, not the one that demonizes men. That’s why I’m heartbroken that certain European feminists cede to the Sirens of Anglo-Saxon radicalism and often draw their ideas from there. Consequently, no one has really understood the seriousness of a European law that just came into effect this July. Mrs. Anna Diamantopoulou, European Parliament Commissioner for Employment and Social Issues, had a law voted in on April 17, 2002, against sexual harassment, thus defined: “where any unwanted verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature occurs, with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” Such a definition does not distinguish between the objective and the subjective, the real and the imaginary, and is directly inspired by American feminists. Here’s a great gift we leave to the new generations!

But isn’t it so that to achieve an equality of power will require pointing out those ways in which men contrive to retain more of it—the inequality didn’t just happen; men found ways to advance their interests as a gender and contrived institutional (legal, governmental, cultural, scientific, etc.) ways to preserve it. Moreover, they may have had the best intentions in doing so; either universalist ones (inadvertently universalizing a male perogative) or paternalistic ones (protecting frail womenhood in her pure innocence, etc.). Is that demonizing men to point that out? Some proverbial huevos may need to be broken in order to pursue that egalitarian course of gender equality that Badinter advocates. Sexual harassment laws attempt to institutionalize the parameters for a male-female relationship that exists beyond sexuality; it seems counterproductive to villify the laws because they fail to appreciate the sexual imagination. They may be a blunt instrument, but that is because they haven’t had centuries to become more supple—to become intuitive in the ways patriarchal power has. But one way or another, people should have to opt-in to sexualized relations; women shouldn’t always be expected to have to opt out.

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