Feminism Redux: Attacked, Again

Shortly after my post on The Bourne Ultimatum, I received the following comment. I moderate incoming comments, to avoid spam, and usually post everything that comes through. This one, however, I mused over for almost two weeks, debating whether to post it and respond, or to just reject it and move on.

Finally, given my recent post about reconsidering feminism, I decided to share this in the blog proper:

8/8/07 Carol Smithers has left a new comment on your post “The Bourne Ultimatum”: My god you’re a pompous thing. Your editorials are so biased at their core that reading them makes me angry. The only problem with men is women like you who alienate and destroy them. As a self-proclaimed superior force on this planet your writings are tainted. I’m all for feminism if it is coupled with hominism, or better yet, let’s just call true search for equality and fairplay as humanism and forget the splinter self-interest groups of neuroses and damaged psyches that pro-female or pro-male groups promote. The editorial disseminates an unbalanced view of the world under the veil of being sophisticated, enlightened, and thus “politically acceptable,” all the while it is just so much dribble.

I receive a fair number of letters like these, occasionally on the blog, frequently when I write letters to the editors of various publications, and of course more subtly in the classroom. (At UT, a colleague who’s since left the department once wrote me an angry email in which he called me a “feminazi” simply because I’d circulated an email announcement citing dismal statistics about women in professional theatre that asked people to take action.)

I know my skin should be thick enough to slough off these comments. I know I should have just rejected this comment on the blog and forgotten about it. But somehow, each of these attacks, so inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, winds up smarting. I’m always surprised to receive these communications, nearly all from strangers, nearly all worded like the one here: mean-spirited, ad hominem, not terribly thoughtful or reasonable, but vicious and self-righteous, from people who are clearly mad enough to take the time to write.

Partly what’s hard is that people forget they’re writing to someone, to a person with feelings. I am a “critic,” but I do try to write in a spirit of critical generosity in the hopes that real dialogue might come from respect and caring. Calling someone “pompous” and their writing “dribble” is just so haughty and mean–I’m always, literally, physically and emotionally shocked to read these comments.

Carol Smithers misreads my Bourne post (if that’s the one she read; she implies that she’s read others). I don’t believe I’ve ever suggested that women are a “superior force on this planet,” nor have I suggested that men are the problem. But for writers like these, it most likely doesn’t matter what I really write. They see “feminism,” and bring to what they read their own prior assumptions, then damn a perspective they conjure, rather than one that really exists.

As a writer, I’ve long accepted that people understand what they will about what they read. Part of writing is being misread. We speak knowing that what we say may or may not be truly understood; that’s part of the contract, I think, of public exchange and commerce. I wouldn’t maintain a blog if I wanted every reader to agree with me, and in fact I relish debate and disagreement.

But Smithers’ attack is an entirely different thing. Hers are words that those of us who teach feminist subjects or methods often hear—the knee-jerk, willful misreading, drenched in stereotypes of feminism propagated by the media and fearful conservative politicians. The pain in receiving posts like these comes from the writer’s unwillingness to engage in real dialogue, and her eagerness to damn a stranger based on something she already thought about feminism.

The comment reminded me of the conference panel on feminism about which I recently wrote. This kind of angry, self-righteous presumption is what feminist teachers regularly confront in their classrooms. I think about the young women who organized the panel and spoke so eloquently about their commitments, and it pains me to know that they, too, will suffer these attacks for trying to consider theatre and performance from a gendered, activist perspective.

This is why our pedagogy and our writing and our thinking, spectating, and reading is so important.

In sad solidarity,
The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

6 thoughts on “Feminism Redux: Attacked, Again

  1. The vitriol in that response is amazing to me. Though of course it is based on, as you say, willful misreading.

    I came to your blog with my own set of preconceptions (and I admit… my teeth set) over a year ago. I have a short leash for feminist criticism due to a Lit Professor who tried to teach a Shakespeare course from a Feminist Perspective (unannounced in the course catalog) and did so eschewing such trivial things as ‘fact’ and the ‘text’.

    My 20 year old brain chalked up her butchery of course to The Feminist Perspective rather than her simply being a poor professor, and so have a vague aversion to the feminist critical perspective lingering in my brain.

    Even with that baggage I have found this blog to be incredibly even-keeled. Indeed if I weren’t so keen on taking the word back from the knee jerk lexicographers who stole it, I would have you simply rename the blog “An Intelligent Female Spectator”.


    My biggest problem with your Bourne review was not taking them to task as harshly as I did for eviscerating the Julia Stiles character so needlessly. 🙂

  2. Hi Jill,

    How incredibly sad I was to read Carole Smithers’ comment. In addition to the generalized anger and mild nausea I felt at remembering what getting such mail feels like, I was also struck by two things in the post proper.

    First: Ms Smithers’ use of the term “thing” to describe you. A literal act of objectification, and yet she doesn’t see it as problematic – in fact, I imagine objectification is exactly what she aimed for in writing her comment. Second, her phrasing around the term – “my god you’re a pompous thing” – reminds one of being scolded by an angry parent or guardian. I get a strong sense of infantilization from these opening words: the attempt to scold you and cut you down is actually an attempt to replicate a domestic, heirarchical relationship in which you can be easily put in your place.

    Read in light of the ongoing anxiety in the US (and in fact in Canada too) about “family values,” this infantilization carries special resonance. It’s as though Smithers is asserting the fundamental incompatibility of feminism and the family, something that forgets, to our detriment, the incredible struggles undertaken by early feminists to help wives and mothers achieve respect, recognition, and equal rights in the home, a space of work that for a very long time was not acknowledged as such. To clobber you for your political identification is one thing – and an upsetting thing, no question – but to clobber you in an attempt to turn you back into a domestic object, not even mother but child, available to be whipped, bossed, and scolded, strikes me as a powerfully chilling gesture, one that uncomfortably reflects the political times.

    Do take care!

  3. A response for Travis and Kim:

    Travis, thanks for your note. Your insights point out, I think, the ways that feminist perspectives get misconstrued and disregarded, from the media’s disembowelment of the meaning of feminism, to a more fascist implementation of the approach. I wish there were a way for people to be open-minded about different approaches to criticism, and to get them to own up to the fact that they, too, have a perspective that could be named (even if it’s called “objective”). Thanks for writing, Travis, and keep reading and responding.

    Kim, thanks for your razor sharp analysis of the Smithers’ post. I appreciate your perspective–indeed, being called a “thing,” let alone a “pompous thing,” did make me feel chided and infantilized. But this is an easy tactic for those who want to diss and dismiss a feminist perspective. Calling her to task for the larger ideological implications of her words is important. Thanks so much for your sharp reading.

    Best to you both, Jill

  4. Jill,

    Wow, thanks for your honest and open-hearted rumination on that kind of personal, dehumanizing comment. That helps me find new tools to figure out how to deal with the attacks I receive from individuals, the government…not to mention the press! Yikes!

    Tim Miller

  5. For what its worth, Jill, there is someone who calls himself Ed Smithers who has been a troll on other academic women’s websites, recently denigrating Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time for her decision to go back on the job market before tenure.

    I only hypothesize that Carole and Ed Smithers might both be pseudonyms for the same person, or perhaps a ideologically aligned couple, but the Smithers name is becoming a known quantity in the academic blogosphere for reactionary and (they seem to hope) disciplinary anti-feminist rhetoric.

    Kudos for modeling for them (one says, wishfully) the kind of humane response that they can’t seem to muster for you. As a long-time (male) admirer of your work, I can’t say that I would’ve expected anything less incisive while still deeply considered.

  6. In response to Horace, thanks very much for this. As someone still not terribly conversant in the blogosphere, I wouldn’t have known that these Smithers folks are out there harrassing progressive bloggers. I appreciate this context a lot, as well as the general support.

    It does seem to me that we need to model, as you say, more humane ways of launching critique. I’m quite committed to David Roman’s notion of “critical generosity,” which I use in my utopia book and try to use here in the blog. Especially when we’re writing about (or to) people whose voices are still marginalized in dominant culture, what’s the point of heaping on vitriol when a more considered conversation could be more productive all around?

    Again, thanks for the response.

    My best, Jill

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