Friday, July 29, 2011

Not Like Those *Other* Christians...

It's all too easy to be both a feminist and a misogynist, especially in the early stages of your feminism. Recognizing that the world is rigged against people of the female persuasion, you refuse to play the role forced upon you by the very fact of your (assumed) femaleness. You cast aside make-up and dresses and pink and all other things coded “feminine” in our society. You do “masculine” things and hang out with masculine-type humans. Maybe you even start bad-mouthing women who wear make-up and dresses and pink, because the fact that they buy into these products means they are perpetuating their own oppression. Not like you, who have seen the fnords of cultural misogyny and know that masculine-coded things are Good and feminine-coded things are bad.


The real reason you are bad-mouthing those silly ladies and their silly skirts (and I speak from a place of painful personal experience) is that you desperately crave the approval of non-feminist men. The patriarchy has instilled in you the idea that Getting Men's Approval is the only way to validate your existence. It's like the patriarchy is a dream within a dream: once you recognize it for what it is, you think you've escaped it, but actually you've only peeled back one layer – you're still stuck in the dream. Actually, it's worse than that, because there's this whole kyriarchal onion of layer upon layer upon layer of assumptions and bigotry and -isms; but let's stick with this first layer for a sec.

So you've recognized that the kyriarchy's expectations of Woman are ridiculous, contradictory, labyrinthine, unfair, and impossible to meet. Good for you. Trouble is, you've responded just the way the kyriarchy wants you to respond: by rejecting Woman altogether. You're still buying into culturally-ingrained misogyny; you've just granted an exemption for yourself. You're out to prove to the misogynists that you're Not Like Those Other Women.

I think/hope I have at last reached a point where I don't reflexively do this, or if I do I catch and correct myself; but I've noticed myself doing the same thing in a different field: I keep wanting to prove to non-believers that I'm Not Like Those Other Christians.

I'm on a progressive message board, prefacing snarky comments about mainstream Christianity with, “Speaking as a believer...”. I'm telling new acquaintances that I'm about to start a master's in theology, and I immediately add that my school is very progressive and pro-QUILTBAG. I play down the Christian aspect of my identity and play up the Jewish side for the benefit of secular communities that tend to conceive Jewishness as a cultural rather than religious identity.

I'm no longer saying, “I'm a woman, but woman-haters should approve of me because I don't buy dresses and I don't wear make-up and I hate romantic comedies. I'm Not Like Those Other Women!” I'm saying, “I have faith, but secularists should approve of me because I believe in evolution and I'm pro-choice and I don't think I have a monopoly on spiritual truth. I'm Not Like Those Other Christians!”

Now, there's a very important distinction between these two kinds of disavowals. The feminine-coded things I'm disavowing are not inherently bad. Dresses and make-up and rom-coms are inherently value- and gender-neutral. They're not somehow intrinsically masculine or feminine or good or bad (though you could certainly make an argument for the intrinsic badness of most recent movies with Katherine Heigl in them) – they come to be seen as m/f based on arbitrary patriarchal prescriptions, and whether we designate them Good or Bad is our response to this coding.

Denying evolution, though? Denying womb-owners their bodily autonomy? Dismissing other faiths as inferior to yours? I'd argue that these are, in fact, inherently bad things. When I as a Christian disavow them, it's not equivalent to when I as a woman disavow value-neutral feminine-coded things. It's equivalent rather to being a man with a lot of misogynist male friends, hitting on women by telling them earnestly that I don't objectify and dehumanize them, I'm not a rape apologist, I don't blame women for provoking lust in men – in short, I'm Not Like Those Other Men.

But you know who overwhelmingly doesn't need to hear that this stuff is wrong, because they already know it? Women. And you know who does need to hear it? Misogynist men. “Pro-choice Christians exist!” is not a message non-believers particularly need to hear – it's one that anti-choice Christians need to hear, desperately and urgently.

I'm past insisting that I'm Not Like Those Other Women, but in this context I'm still insisting that I'm Not Like Those Other Men. The trouble with this defensive self-exceptionalism is that it doesn't challenge the status quo – it reinforces it.


  1. I like your post but I would differ with you on the 'who needs to hear it part'. I visit a number of progressive political sites and there are people who calls themselves progressive and feminist who clearly and emphatically that all Christians are fundamentalist and who will automatically assume any poster who identifies themself as Christian,
    is against homosexuality, against birth control and is in the thrall of conservative preachers. The message is still very much needed there.

  2. About a year ago, I saw the TED video about the danger of a single story. *googles* by Chimamanda Adichie, and it's here:

    I was brought up by non believers, so it's hard for me to understand completely how it works for you. But I really want to laude your work to develop (terminology?) your faith as an integral part of your life. Because Christians don't have a single story either. So don't let the muggles get you down!

  3. @Chrisfs - absolutely true; however, to my knowledge there are no countries on Earth where an extremely powerful atheist lobby is shaping policy that harms believers. There are many places, however, where powerful religious lobbies are shaping policies to harm women, science, and progress. That's why I think it's more urgent to get the message to (non-progressive) Christians.

    @glauke - thanks for that link! Great video. And thank you for your kind words, both here and at Shakesville. You've made me feel a lot better today :)