Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Can a feminist talk about bitches and bunnyboilers?

2011-09 SlutwalkJHB 0004

I’m terrible. I make blonde jokes. I pass bitchy remarks about other women behind their backs. I make fun of myself and my female failings. I refer to “chickies” and “bokkies” and bunnyboilers are one of my favourite topics of discussion. Technically, I can be a terrible misogynist, though my baleful attitude applies equally to all human beings. I’ll be honest though: if there’s a sisterhood, I’m a very bad member of it.

And yet at the same time I consider myself a feminist. Not a very good one, perhaps; I’m probably a feminist in much the same way I’m an Anglican, involving lots of warm and fuzzy residual associations without ever actually kneeling at a pew. But a feminist nonetheless.

How is this possible? Can a feminist really be so politically incorrect? Should I be able to use the codes of stereotyping and marginalisation and tell myself I’m playing with discourse — that I’m being ironic, and that makes it OK? I know only too well that some of the worst misogynists out there are women, and that by playing with stereotypes, I do come dangerously close to reinforcing them rather than deconstructing them.

The personal is political, as the old slogan went, so here’s some history to contextualise my stance. I was a feminist before I’d even heard of the word. At the age of six, I knew I didn’t want to be like me mother, and be a housewife; I knew then that I wanted a career, that I was cleverer than most boys, and I didn’t want a husband. As a child, I completely refused to toe the line on gender stereotypes, lovingly caressing my First Love doll, dressing in pink frills — I had dreadful taste when I was eight, utterly dreadful — and at the same time being utterly obsessed with military jets and helicopters. That I ended up married at the age of 26 was a surprise to everyone who knew me. “But I thought you liked lesbians?” my mother said when I made the announcement. She didn’t mean I was a lesbian, just that my student political activism, campaigning for gay rights, had led her to assume that settling down in a normal heterosexual way was not on the cards.

There is no such thing as feminism of course, at least, not in the sense of a homogenous catch-all -ism; feminism comes in all varieties, and there are many different ways of expressing the core conviction that gender impacts on the way we operate in the world, and how the world operates on us.

Participating in SlutWalk Johannesburg on September 24 certainly forced me to think again about different versions of feminism and my relationships with them. I rocked up at Zoo Lake expecting a combination of PC worthiness and hardcore dyke attitude, and that’s how things started out, with terrifying flashbacks to my master’s year at Wits. But then speaker after speaker stood up to claim the word “slut”, to reject the boxes that society manufactures for women, to take an epithet and turn it neatly on its head. The core message was this: that women should have the freedom to express themselves as they wish without having to conform to some kind of societal expectation. Wear what you like, do as you choose (within reason), have as much sex as you like (or as little) without being called names or being subjected to male violence. Feminism is often stereotyped as an –ism with absolutely no sense of humour (not always unfairly, it has to be said), but the laughter, the playfulness and the good-humoured sense of community of SlutWalk Johannesburg turned a protest march into a celebration of what we hope to achieve as a society.

Still, let’s be clear: SlutWalk was great fun, but it was focused on consciousness-raising around a very serious crime. In most cases in South Africa, women are the victims of male aggression and entrenched cultural and social systems that ensure they are powerless on multiple levels. A poor, black, illiterate woman, especially a poor, black, illiterate, old woman, is one of the most profoundly powerless people in a country of many people who feel profoundly powerless. To pretend otherwise is to reinforce the oppression of those who most need access to a more equitable order.

At the same time, I can’t stand it when people who aren’t victims take on the mantle of victimhood, and that applies as much to women as it does to anyone else. Men are just as tightly chained inside boxes as women; it’s just that the boxes are different. It’s still far easier for a woman to opt out of full-time work, for one thing, and, for all the maintenance-ducking deadbeat dads out there, divorced men and unmarried fathers are still treated unfairly. Then there’s the system — intended to promote the interests of genuinely abused women — which can be abused in turn by women motivated by little more than petty vindictiveness, as this story in Noseweek explains. As the magazine’s editor commented, “in the process they are trivialising domestic violence and, ultimately, undermining public confidence in a law that was enacted to deal with a really terrifying and all too pervasive social problem”.

Feminism, for me, should be about another F-word: fairness. We have a long way to go before we achieve it, if we ever do, but that should be the point. If we want things to be fairer for us as women, then they have to be fairer for men too. Part of this means acknowledging that we can be just as complex and flawed as men; none of this Madonna/whore Victorian nonsense. When individuals behave badly, they should deal with the consequences as individuals, not as representatives of their gender (or race, or religion, or sexual orientation, or what have you).

The point of feminism, at least the version of it that I subscribe to, is that while it seeks to address the injustices meted out to women in a world where — as we sometimes forget — female genital mutilation, honour killings and female infanticide are still rife, there is an end goal in mind: where everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, religion or any other proclivity, is able to live their lives as they choose, without impinging on the rights of others. If you’re a salaryman and you want to be an indigent bum, so be it. If you want to do the traditional housewife thing, that’s fine, and it’s also fine to don corporate battlegear every day if that floats your boat.

And if you want to tell blonde jokes, talk about bokkies, and generally be otherwise in every which way — you can do that and still call yourself a feminist.

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    • Angela

      I just think the author is chickenibg out of the
      follow through requred in these things. If you
      believe certain things you should act in certain ways.
      Not just when it’s convinient otherwise you are
      a coward.

    • http://www.knysnakeep.org Wicked Mike

      Feminism sometimes oversteps the mark. Sure, give all equal rights in the work place, stop rape etc. but how many people skip the intellectual debate and revert to “traditional” roles in the bedroom and on the rugby field. Women can be women. Men can be men. What irks me is that some feminists think that they have the right to think for all women. If they truly believe in equal rights then let all women be who they want to be without condemnation. If you want to be a slut or an astronaut, it’s cool by me because they’re all human. There’s no “perfect” ideal.

    • Andrew

      Thanx Sarah. I have always rejected feminism, but I can embrace your idea of feminism. All I have ever asked for was equality and being treated fairly. And I can relate to the ironic appreciation of gender stereotype jokes as well, because it is the ridiculousness of these stereotypes that make them so joke worthy. For instance this really funny clip by Harry Enfield called ‘women know your limits’ :
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LS37SNYjg8w

    • baz

      Hmm, I might not hate feminism after all.

      About the word slut though, it’s not only used by men on women. It’s also used by women on women, very venomously. Can those women that use it against other women to mean – promiscuous, easy, of less worth than themselves – be feminists?

    • http://thoughtleader.co.za/gavinfoster Gavin Foster

      @Angela
      We all have different views and not everybody is screamingly,insanely intense about everything they hear, feel and do. Many of the injustices pointed out and wailed about by the small core of rabidly militant hard-core feminists aren’t injustices at all by most reasonable standards. Must Sarah rend her clothes and gnash her teeth about things that offend you but not her? Balls! She obviously has higher standards than you when it comes to demanding fair play. And it takes more courage to express a contrary view than it does to behave as you obviously feel that you’re expected to behave.

    • http://www.cindynel.co.za peter nel

      Thanks for the lecture. I still do not know what a feminist is though and by the way, what is a bunnyboiler? Sorry, but I am out of touch with all this modern and permissive nonsense. This from an old man who still remembers the times when men were men, pansies were flowers and both fathers and mothers were respected, just because they knew how to behave decently and taught their offspring the same values. These appear to be traits that are lost now in “modern folks”, because they are by reason of their rhetoric able to justify almost anything that is said by anyone, depending on their own individual reasoning, which is entirely dependent on the subject at hand and their own ( expediently measured ) responses pertaining thereto, honesty ignored in most cases, since the truth is of little importance anyway.

    • Brent

      Ye gods, just read the facebook/Noseweek story. Do young people actually spend their entire life messing around on facebook digging up ‘Sopie lifes’ that ruin each other. Thank haven i am toooooo old for facebook

      Brent

    • DonQuixote

      Sarah Britten

      “I was a feminist before I’d even heard of the word. At the age of six, I knew I didn’t want to be like me mother, and be a housewife; I knew then that I wanted a career, that I was cleverer than most boys, and I didn’t want a husband.”

      I’d dare say that makes you a feminist.

      “And if you want to tell blonde jokes, talk about bokkies, and generally be otherwise in every which way — you can do that and still call yourself a feminist.”

      I highly doubt it. Perhaps the form of your internet persona has overruled your general mode of being in the real world. However, adopting the authenticity that Feminism calls for, precludes acting “in every which way”.

      Wicked Mike

      “but how many people skip the intellectual debate and revert to “traditional” roles in the bedroom and on the rugby field”

      Not many.

      “What irks me is that some feminists think that they have the right to think for all women.”

      Again, not many do.

    • MLH

      You’ll know you are a feminist when:
      You’ve reached 60 single and relatively happy, despite a broken heart a few times along the way.
      You have brought up a child alone and faced the sexist treatment that his/her teachers and doctors showed both of you because no daddy defender’s around.
      You only cry once every three years when you yearn for a strong man to help you find a solution to what seems to be an insurmountable problem, but
      You’ve learned the hard lesson that all the men in your life have been too weak to help when you really needed it.
      You’ve bought your own home, car and other assets and other women have to drag their husbands along to sign the papers.
      You’ve furnished your home exactly the way you like it and you somewhat resent any man suggesting that it doesn’t suit him.
      You have developed self-preservation and get a kick out of making it work for you.
      You find it difficult to cope with men who treat you like a retarded 5-year-old.
      You’ve learnt to separate men into the categories that they can appeal to you (sexy, entertaining and affable but boring).
      You’ve learnt to walk on glass shards when other women’s husbands are around.
      You have been shocked to realise that some married women are living the lives of prostitutes, simply exchanging sex for money.
      Rod MacKenzie (who doesn’t know you from Adam or Eve) writes that you must be bitter because you cannot keep a long-term relationship together.

    • GarethV

      And yet you have an “unfortunate weakness for Interesting Men” I think you answered the question in your previous post, by writing this one.

    • Wildcat

      MLH, you are my idol!

    • McD

      In the time it took you to write that you could have made me a sandwhich!

    • PM

      Sarah:

      who says that once you have cast your critical eye upon the world and become a feminist because of what you have seen that you then have to close that eye? Being a feminist does not require that you cease to be critical of half the world (well, probably more than half, but let’s not quibble). Nor does being a feminist require you to lose lose your sense of humour, your sense of irony, your sense of play. It is entirely possible to be a feminist and to enjoy life.

      finally, “feminism” is NOT a static, unchanging, compulsory set of rules and beliefs–it is an approach to life/reality/the world. As life/reality/the world changes, feminism must also change. when feminism ceases to be useful to women in their lives, then feminism will become one of those dead, codified philosophies that people only read about in books as they are working on their PhD’s.

    • Donald Paul

      It is exactly the rural, poor, illiterate, old woman — the profoundly powerless — that came to mind when the slut walks were launched. How much would she understand what you were doing was meant for her? Reading your column reminded me that what you were calling for — “fairness” — and what others before called “equality”, would eventually mean a lot for those women who seem powerlessly destined for a rural, poor, illiterate and powerless life, in that, hopefuly, fewer would be forced unfairly and inequitably, down that path.

    • Miss O

      No offense but both the women on the picturesd look like prostitutes. So called sluts tend to dress more conservatively and certainly wouldn’t be caught dead wearing torn pantihose. Hookers and strippers wear that.

    • Miss O

      @Donald Paul: If only you would talk a little sense. What you’re saying sounds like “rural” mumbo-jumbo, otherwise known as “rambling. What are you saying, poor man?