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(Feminist) Sages

The SRB is delighted to be hosting a seminar devoted to women readers and writers at the Writing and Society Research Centre on Friday 22 March 2019.  Frances An will be elaborating on the ideas presented in this essay at the seminar. She’ll be joined by Beth Driscoll, Sara Knox and Julieanne Lamond in a discussion chaired by SRB editor Catriona Menzies-Pike and WSRC Deputy Director Dr Anne Jamison.

A Samsung4 slips out of my hand, slippery with sunscreen from fieldwork shifts. I stare at the half-page of crossed-out passages, scribbles of self-censorship and -correction. Nothing I had written seemed progressive or ‘Feminist’ enough. Was I meant to open with a sexist incident from a male superior (the whiter the better)? I press the Home button on my phone, checking for messages from Selena whom I had consulted for help with this piece about women writers and readers.

Hey Selena, so what’s the common idea about feminism? Is it where we have to become more manly or something? And you’re not allowed to be into femnity because that’s patriarchal and stuff?

*Femninty

**Feminininity?

Sent

She is a law student and among my other high school friends, she is the ‘super political’ one. Unlike other ‘super political’ women though, I trust her to engage in fruitful political discussions about, say, the problematic state of identity politics or feminism. Both of us were sceptical of the far-Leftist, pseudo-intellectual fake news rampant in a certain university newspaper I mispronounced ‘Honey Soy’.

A female university student sits opposite me. She sports a blonde hair bun and curly forelocks which frame her tanned face. Her crystal-frame glasses magnify plastic eyelashes and blue irises and her shirt has ‘TOTALLY FEMINIST’ slapped in white capitals on the front. She looks more like a Feminist than I do. I imagine her face on a poster in Town Hall train station with a ‘Girl Power’ or ‘Women Rule’ slogan. I bet she could write this essay better than I, a bare-faced chicken who slots right into the ‘good Asian girl’ stereotype, could. What Feminist gives a little bow to her adults, hands clasped as she utters, ‘chào chú… Chào cô’? A Feminist calls out when someone defaults to the pronoun ‘he’ when talking about a person in power and exclaims about periods at all the wrong times.

With my sense of incompetence as a Feminist warrior rising, I gather my belongings and catch a train from Martin Place to Town Hall. The train along an opposite platform speeds off, revealing an ad for Nakkiah Lui’s How To Rule The World plastered along the grimy wall. I feel like I should be really into this because three coloured people, two of them women, stare across at the commuters on the platform. But the ‘sex lies power’ caption looks too clickbait-y, the ‘yay, people of colour’ thing forced. Another reminder that a bland straight stick like me can’t be Feminist.

And why did I need to be Feminist anyway? During my undergraduate studies, I was part of the Theory And Methods (TAM) group at Western Sydney University, watching two female professors whom I nicknamed the ‘TAM sages’ analyse and compose complex theoretical and philosophical arguments about foundational assumptions in the discipline of Psychology. Both male and female lecturers engaged with my questions: whether ethnography was laden with colonial overtones; why I needed to change the term ‘illusion of moral superiority’ to ‘moral superiority bias’ for my Honours project because ‘illusion’ implied error while I was simply studying a discrepancy between self- and average-person- ratings of moral character; whether Bandura’s social-cognitive model of behaviour inadvertently supported logically untenable appeals to free will. I never needed to whip out the gender card. That seemed like a cheap, worn out trick for irate women who were too dumb to compose proper logical arguments.

I knew that Feminism had been and is still a necessary movement for protecting women from social injustices. But these were ‘older generation’ and/or ‘feminine woman’ problems. Women like my mother complained that they couldn’t be independent because they were housewives. My classmate on exchange boasted that she was ‘the smallest size in the UK’, then lamented that men she dated only wanted a ‘fuck buddy’. With my goldfish expression and pot belly, I was more like an oversized toddler than a woman — which was fine because being a ‘feminine woman’ sounded terrible anyway.

When Maria Tumarkin writes in her essay ‘Against Motherhood Memoirs’, ‘it was either that [(i.e., gender thing)] or the ethnic thing’, I realised that I’d avoided the woman thing for so long by sticking to the ethnic thing. The pseudo-intellectual sham of racial identity politics seemed to be the more pressing ‘my generation’ problem. I had a fair scrape with extremist postcolonial cults who started every sentence with ‘as a [ethnic minority]…’ and threw in terms like ‘Otherness’ and ‘decolonise’ to assert their status as messiahs of racial justice. In addition, the racial arena prevented me from feeling like a prick who upholds white supremacy by only reading dead white men. I could continue adoring the works of authors such as Yan Lianke, Haruki Murakami and Czeslaw Milosz — sure they were male, but at least they weren’t white.

Even within the racial arena, I discovered that women of colour (WOC) had their own version of Feminism. WOC Feminism involved a smattering of terms such as ‘intersectionality’ and denigrations of ‘white feminism’., though I described the syndrome as ‘white girl with coloured face’ which my professor corrected to ‘bourgeois individualism’. I couldn’t really tell the difference between WOC and white feminism. Both featured women pretending to be gangsters, members holding their chins up as they squat in grungy alleys. The only difference is that white feminists sport hair colours sampled across the Photoshop palette and WOC feminists sport skin colours sampled across the Photoshop palette. It didn’t make sense that WOCs spent their lives rebelling against their conservative ethnic family moulds, only to turn back with idolisations about ethnic-ness in individualistic, self-righteous phrases like ‘as a woman of colour, I think…’

Only during my time in Finishing School, a Parramatta women’s writers’ group, and in preparation for this piece did I realise where the ‘Feminist thing’ was coming from. In their undergraduate days, other women felt painfully aware of their gender, enraged that the syllabus implied that only (white) men wrote meaningful literature. Popular media suggested women were only good for writing pulpy romances like Cinderella Accidentally Pregnant or Love In Dallas. I was in the lucky minority of women who had grown up around intellectual women, listening to them discuss thinkers like Gigerenzer and Wittgenstein without bringing up the Feminist thing. Now I finally was looking beyond the gender-neutral test tube of the intellectual world I developed in. Was it time to use ‘being a woman’ as a leg up in the disadvantage Olympics? Practise spelling ‘femininity’? Prepare ten different ‘as a woman _____’ speeches to whip out when stuck on a literary panel?

I think back to a TAM meeting about my Honours project, when I listened to my professors untangling the logic of Heck and Krueger’s Social Projection Index. They critiqued Heck and Krueger’s  vacillation amongst different definitions of ‘bias’ and used logic to demonstrate the impossibility of differentiating between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ bias when there is no objective criterion of correctness. That demonstrates female intelligence and agency, more than flashy posters of glamorous women with ‘Girl Power’ and ‘Women Rule’ plastered all over them. They showed support for other women by developing the scientific minds of younger women like me and other students, more meaningful than posters of female models standing together with half-open mouths and arms around one another’s shoulders.

I’d like to follow after my professor, the ‘sages’ whose intellect and critical thinking inspires me, not a woman who can only yabber on about being a woman.