Bullsh*t Feminism

Just for the record, I'm a big fan of bullshit.  In fact, I buy huge bags of it every spring to use in my garden.  Sure it's stinky, but it gets the job done.

Recently, the Feminist Hulk (a tongue-in-cheek twitterer) sent out a tweet about bullshit and it was widely "re-tweeted" (or copied, with attribution) by many users in The Exponent community.* It read:

When I first saw this tweet I bristled a bit at the profanity.  These words carry more weight and are somewhat more offensive when in print than when heard in casual conversation.  However, that's precisely why I liked the tweet.  I felt uncomfortable and it caught my attention.  And that discomfort made me think about how feminism is portrayed on The Exponent blog.   The look of our blog is organic and feminine: pastel colors, the leaf motif, subdued fonts.  The photos in the sidebar are artful--all of winsome smiling young women.  Not a scary old hairy feminist in the bunch.  I'd say that we sit squarely on the "softer side" of the feminist line when compared to mainstream feminist blogs like Feministing, Bust, or Pandagon.

So when the bullshit post from above was re-tweeted on the official Exponent channel, several of the bloggers protested on the private permablogger listserv.  And when the week's aggregate feed post went up, the bullshit tweet was removed because it was considered too vulgar for an Exponent post.

I'm shaking my head here, as I ponder whether feminism is best served with a wink and a smile.  Our sisters who fought for the 19th amendment weren't afraid of a little discomfort.  I'm not necessarily suggesting that profanity be used in every Exponent post--just the opposite.  When used judiciously, the discomfort that results from a smartly-used swear word can serve to illustrate an important point.  Because if the Hulk tweet had said simply "RESIST THE PRESSURE TO DOWNPLAY FEMINISM TO MAKE PEOPLE MORE COMFORTABLE.  DISCOMFORT CAN BE PRODUCTIVE," I seriously doubt it would have had even half the intended impact. Discomfort can be productive.  But when we carefully sanitize our writing so we don't push boundaries or let things get a bit ugly, are we missing out?

In fact, not one reader even mentioned the Hulk tweet or the profanity in the twitter blogpost.  If someone had been offended, I'm sure they would have let us know--the fact that the profanity passed unnoticed by our readers makes me wonder if there was even any cause for concern in the first place. 

When I use steer manure in my garden I have to be cautious to ensure that it's been properly aged or it can burn young seedling plants.  Similarly I can see why profanity needs to be used with caution, because of the possibility of "burning" those blogreaders who are only just barely acquainted with feminism or who might be turned-off by a bit of bullshit.  But at the same time I can't help but wonder if the discomfort is really our own, and not that of our imagined audience--and if it is, then what are we really afraid of?

*Note: For new readers of my blog: I'm a founding member of The Exponent blog, which focuses on Mormon feminism and other topics that are relevant to progressive LDS women.


Deborah said...

This is a tightrope for me, Jana. I suppose my choice to work to effect change within the system -- a system whose feedback loop keeps telling me it is suspicious and sometimes hostile to change -- affects how I reacted to this language on a group blog that seeks to build bridges while pushing boundaries. I had zero zip discomfort seeing the title of your blog post or reading your (fabulous) commentary. Maybe I'm too cautious. Maybe I'm too protective of this space that helps me (and I hope many many others bridge their internal and external worlds. I'm open to both possibilities.

Craig said...

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I'm a big fan of being abrupt, brash, direct and discomfiting.

Partly it's because I have no patience left for bullshit, and partly it's because I don't believe in watering down the message to make it more palatable. For me, it feels somewhat dishonest.

I see where it has its place, but it does seem to me that tip-toeing around in order to be certain to offend no one also has the effect of not creating substantial change.

I do find it more than just a bit silly that the word "bullsh*t" even with the vowel removed was deemed "too offensive". More offensive than the fact that oppressing women and making them subservient to men is legitimately bullshit?

Kaimi said...

Great topic, Jana. I think there's a lot to this.

Of course, profanity can be misused. It often is, used indiscriminately, just noise, drowning out content. Mindless yelling doesn't really convey much content.

On the other hand, careful use of strong language can be a jolt, to make folks pay attention, to break from the existing discussion norms which, let's face it, were created by patriarchy, and which tend to be very status quo reinforcing.

For instance, one very effective piece of feminist writing I saw recently was The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck, by Melissa McEwan at the popular feminist blog Shakesville.

She talks about ways that women are expected to endure small bits of misogyny from many of their male friends, relatives, co-workers, and how any sort of protest is painted as a feminist overreaction. And to illustrate the choice, she uses a perfect metaphor. She writes that she distrusts men, because

"I never know when I might next get knocked off-kilter with something that puts me in the position, once again, of choosing between my dignity and the serenity of our relationship. Swallow shit, or ruin the entire afternoon?"

That stark choice illustrates the violence of the imposition on her, and the incredible unreasonableness of the implied demand that she simply keep the peace. I don't know if another word choice would be as effective.

So I say, brava, Jana. Using words like bullshit may be offensive in some settings. But don't we have bigger things to complain about? Like, for instance, the real bullshit that society imposes on women?

And hey, that suggests one possible compromise. Out of regard for the ears of sensitive patriarchal elites, you offer a deal: You'll stop using words like bullshit, when society stops imposing bullshit patriarchal expectations and norms on women.

I wonder who will blink first? :)

Kaimi said...
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Joanna Brooks said...

jana: thank you. i too am a fan of resisting bullshit of all types. this meant that i often felt like i was "doing it wrong" over the years, but i am convinced that there is no "right" way to do feminism. it just needs to be done. lots. in lots of ways. including fun, sort of obscene, and irreverent ones. your courageous voice is always welcome to my ears. j

Caroline said...

" I can see why profanity needs to be used with caution, because of the possibility of "burning" those blogreaders who are only just barely acquainted with feminism or who might be turned-off by a bit of bullshit."

That goes to the heart of the matter for me. I want to convert those Mormon women who are just starting to explore feminism. If there's a chance they could be turned off by profanity in a tweet like that, I don't think it's worth the risk. Should they be turned off? No, but it's still a possibility. If we're going to be risky, I'd rather it be because of our ideas, and not our curse words.

I think this goes back to the discussion we had about whether we want the blog to be a bridge or a haven. For those bridge people, being aware of the sensitivities of our audience is important. Haven people are probably less concerned with that and more concerned with authenticity and the power of the message. I think there's validity to both sides, though at the moment, I favor the bridge. If I'm going to survive Mormonism, I need other women to join me there as feminists. So no doubt there's a self-interested aspect to where I come down.

Juliane said...

found my way over here from fMH and loved this post. I myself am a recovering potty mouth. I do think sometimes profanity can make a statement. It's like a wake up call, a little shocker. It of course only works if you don't overuse it, or it looses all shock value. I don't use the Lord's name in vain, that's where I personally draw the line, but everything else is just words to me. I feel that you can say plenty horrendous things without using profanity.

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