Theory Teacher's Blog

what are you?

Many times over the past few years, I’ve had conversations with colleagues, students, friends, and family about why young people today shy away from labeling themselves “feminists.” Honestly, I can’t judge my students too harshly; I suspect that I was the same way when I was 19 years old, and consequently, for pedagogical reasons, I have gradually become more emphatic in labeling myself a feminist in the classroom. In other words, I label myself this way precisely because I know that many of my students are used to thinking of feminists in terms of TV stereotypes — e.g., the somewhat mousy woman with Tevas on her feet and an androgynous hairstyle on her head. Being myself a boyish looking man in jeans, oxford shirts, and brown leather shoes, I obviously don’t fit that stereotype.

When my colleagues and I discuss our students, as we so often are wont to do during lunch, we inevitably note what we believe to be a basic irony: most of the students agree with the fundamental positions of feminism, but hardly any of them want to be labeled a feminist. For instance, “liberal” feminism typically argues for equal rights and equal access to economic and political power — what Thomas Jefferson in 1776 and later Cady Stanton in 1848 referred to as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Who would disagree with that? Not even most “conservatives” today would assert that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, hold public office, pursue the career of their choice, or own property, even though women weren’t allowed to do any of those things not too long ago. And of course, beyond liberalism’s emphasis on “rights” — an emphasis in many ways connected to the right to own property that Stanton fought for — most of our students would also agree with modernist (e.g., the theorist Simone de Beauvoir) and postmodernist (e.g., the theorist Judith Butler) forms of feminism that question essentialist definitions of what it means to be a woman. In other words, if I say “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” in class, quoting the title of a well-known book, students are more likely to laugh than they are to nod their head. And some students would even go beyond the question of essentialism; they will go so far as to actively criticize the very structure of our society that encourages competition and mastery over cooperation and interdependency. And they would agree with all of this that I’ve just summarized and yet still shy away from the label. And as my collagues and I notice all of this apparent contradiction, we say to ourselves, “isn’t it ironic?”

But maybe we teachers are the ones missing the real irony. As I said before, I call myself a feminist in class more to make a pedagogical point than to label myself. When it comes to other labels, I too am wary of them. For instance, I run away from the word “liberal” as if it were a curse from the devil himself. I refuse to check “very liberal” on my FaceBook page or on any of the many surveys I get in the mail because it irritates me that the categories “socialist” or “communist” are not even on the list. In the surveys, I alway cross out “very liberal” and handwrite “socialist” even though I couldn’t tell you what — exactly — that means. If someone asks me, “what are you?” I am always tempted to waive the question aside or make some flippant joke. Sometimes, when I do call myself a socialist in public it is in part just to startle people out of their complacent assumption that nobody in America is one. Again, I do it to make a pedagogical point, and am not sure whether I would commit to that identity.

The label I am most willing to wear around my neck, and have worn around my neck even sometimes in the classroom, is pinko — an originally derogatory term invented in 1926 by Time Magazine to attack Americans sympathetic to communism and later used rhetorically to attack anyone in congress who might suggest we increase spending on public welfare, public education, public health care, or environmental protection. What I love about being a pinko is precisely the word’s inherent indeterminacy and irony. I can be both a liberal and a communist at the same time if I’m a pinko. It evokes an ambiguity and a sense of humor about my social position that for me are basic to my political position. (In other words, my political point of view DOES and DOES NOT — both at the same time — reflect my socio-economic circumstances and upbringing. As the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan wrote, “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.” And that’s funny, not just because it subverts Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am,” but also because it succinctly points to the strangeness of identity and thought.)

For me, the word “pinko” expresses an important distinction made by the author James Baldwin in an interview with Terry Gross. Because he felt debilitated by the many labels attatched to him — “young negro writer” or “gay activist” — he observed that the media made him feel more concerned with what he was instead of with who he was.

I also like labeling myself a pinko because of what it suggests about my feelings about my gender. I once remarked to my girlfriend that if I walked into a bar with one friend who was straight and one friend who was gay, everyone in the bar could guess the orientations of my friends, but nobody would guess mine.

Just as many “gay” people perform some kind of “gayness” either consciously or unconsciously by adopting certain styles and mannerisms (and we’ve all seen such performances exaggerated on television), so do almost all “straight” people perform their “straightness.” The vast majority of straight people are completely unaware that they are acting just as much as any stage actor is acting when he or she performs the role of Romeo or Juliet, but they are. But although I’ve never once questioned my sexual orientation, I’ve also never felt comfortable with performing the mannerisms — what Hamlet calls the “suits and trappings” — of my sexual orientation. Many of my straight friends often seem to me to be overacting their parts, and so I’ve always felt more comfortable acting ambiguously. I do it intentionally, though not always consciously — and perhaps this is why I get hit on by gay men in bars. I confuse their “gaydar” just as much as I confuse others’ “straigh-dar.” And here in this blog, I will confess something I’ve never confessed before (except to my girlfriend): I’m proud of that. And I’m proud of the fact that gay and lesbian students have felt comfortable enough to be “out” in my classroom.

So, I too am suspicious of labels. I like being a pinko, the label that isn’t a label. And maybe for all of our students who are both feminist and not-feminist at the same time, we theorists, teachers, and bloggers ought to allow them to invent a new word — something that they can enjoy being.

And yet, what would they invent? Maybe I’m being a bit too hopeful here. After all, it’s not as if people can just invent things out of thin air, is it? As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (and later philosopher Jacques Derrida) wrote, people are bricoleurs — they invent new things out of the stuff that’s available to them. Maybe we still have a lot to learn from the past two hundred years of feminist theory (starting with Mary Wollstonecraft “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” published in 1792.) To illustrate my point here, let’s look at the recent presidential campaign. One could argue that Hilary Clinton’s success with millions of voters proves that we live in a post-feminist age even if she doesn’t win the primary. (On the other hand, India and Pakistan have had women presidents already, so why are we so slow?)

But something strange happened in my First-Year-Seminar this past spring that caused me to think again about feminism and identity. I had asked all my students to choose a current issue (e.g., immigration, health care, global trade policy, environmental regulation, etc.) and compare and contrast each political candidate’s position. This was before any of the voting had taken place, and my students wanted to learn this because the mainstream news generally had little say about actual issues. And so, the goal of the assignment was to focus on the issues and to get past the mainstream media’s emphasis on the candidates’ personalities and identities. For the most part, my students did a great job focusing on the details of policy rather than the rhetoric, but something happened during one of the presentations that was very interesting. For this presentation, the group used PowerPoint to insert images of each candidate’s face above a summary of each candidate’s position on the issue. When Hilary Clinton’s image appeared on the screen, a nervous giggle spread throughout the room.

     “What’s so funny?” I asked . . . . More giggles . . . pause . . . .
     Finally one student answered, “she’s funny looking.”
     Other students nodded.
     I thought for a second. “Really? Any more funny looking than the other candidates?”

For me, their giggle was a symptom of something — something deeply ingrained in our culture, but what? In class, I didn’t know what to say. She didn’t seem especially funny looking to me, and I wondered why my students thought so. And then I wondered, even if she were funny looking, what would that mean? What are women supposed to look like when they become leaders of corporations or governments? Since we know that no leader has the luxury of simply “being herself,” what kind of person did our society expect her to be, and how much did Clinton feel the weight of those paradoxical expectations? (And doesn’t this remind you of Michel Foucault’s analysis of subjectivity and Stanley Fish’s concept of “interpretive communities”?) Despite the intention of the assignment to focus on the issues rather than on personalities, the problem of “identity” had remained oddly unavoidable.

When I came home and reflected on this incident further, I was reminded that the long feminist tradition is not just an identity or a label. Instead, we can think of it as an ethical commitment to be circumspective about one’s own assumptions, to face up to one’s own repressed anxieties, to attend to the effects that collective behavior (i.e., culture) can have on individuals, and most importantly, to question the justice of disparities (whether the disparities are blatant or subtle.) After all, what was it that produced such a strange, nervous giggle in my classroom?


June 2, 2008 - Posted by | feminism


  1. Do you think the nervous giggle was because of the fact that when the media, (and right now I’m thinking of literature specifically) portrays women of power in a ruling or governing capacity, they’re beautiful? Somehow I think that would make a subconscious connection that beautiful people (or at least, the type of people that science seems to indicate the human race finds ‘beautiful’, if you’ll pardon the ambiguous term) are somehow better able to rule or govern than un-beautiful people? So if we’re presented with this image of the woman who wants to become our leader and she doesn’t live up to this beauty expectation, we’re sort of left to weigh the whole women’s rights issue against this beautiful female leader image and it leaves us in the middle, nervous.

    I don’t even know if that’s a legitimate answer. Nice blog, though, Prof. Steve.

    Comment by Megan G | June 2, 2008 | Reply

  2. I think you make an excellent point, Megan. (Or should I be calling you Mercury Gray?) And certainly Hawthorne and Mukhergee fall into the trap you mention in Scarlet Letter and Holder of the World. So, I think you’re right, and I think that is a big part of it, but I suspect there are other things going on as well…

    Comment by steventhomas | June 2, 2008 | Reply

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