My students are taking their final exams this week, which means I will be spending the week frantically, but attentively grading in order to make our grade submission deadline next week. End of semester grading is a mountain of careful criticism we educators scale one step at a time, with deliberateness, towards an ultimate goal of student success (if not in our classes, then in the next, or in life, relationships, etc.). Thus, I often find myself returning to the question: what am I hoping to create in what I say and write, and in how I critique?
One of the goals of feminist pedagogies is to help us prevent recreating the domination of kyrio-patriarchy in classroom spaces. While activism is not the same thing as education, and strategies of resistance are different than pedagogy in important ways, the concern for careful critique is warranted in both praxes. What do we create in how we critique, resist, and protest? What do we recreate, wittingly or no? I have found myself concerned with this since the election of Trump, DT (cause I can only write that name so many times), to the presidency.
Back in January, I read an article from the Guardian entitled, Donald Trump is Changing Our Language: We Need A Vocabulary of Resistance, by Michelle Moyd and Yuliya Komska. In short, the authors suggest that we need to avoid appropriating Trump-isms in our protest and create words to resist that are based in that resistance rather than Trump’s abuses. I have been thinking a lot about this.
On the one hand, it can be very powerful to reclaim language that has been used against us. I loved the protest signs and memes screaming out “Pussy Grabs Back,” and claimed the moniker “Nasty Woman,” as I marched on January 21st. On the other hand, I concede to the authors’ assertions that:
the irony that fuels this headlong push to ‘colonize’ and parody, subversive as it may first seem, does little but reproduce the familiar speech bubbles. Worse, it creates a distance, as irony does, where proximity – full language ownership – is urgently needed.
Moyd and Komska call for “linguistic disobedience,” referencing another piece from The American Interest. I believe we need to take this call seriously, particularly when considering what some liberal criticism of DT reproduces.
Let’s closely consider an example of problematic criticism: DT is frequently made fun of for his small hands and stubby little fingers. Of course, this is only a thinly veiled allusion to a small penis, and so, small manhood. There is history behind this insult, and DT responded to the slight and its subtext on the debate stage, saying, “I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee you.”
Okay. So, I will admit right up front that I have definitely used this kind of insult before, and it is effective: it riles people up, it ‘hits them where it hurts,’ and, subtly or no, undermines a man’s power. But that’s exactly what’s wrong with this kind of disparagement: it is based upon phallocentric understanding of power as dominance. This pissing contest is all too familiar ‘sword fight,’ which only reestablishes the dominance of the bigger dick (pun intended).
What’s more, we need to ask ourselves, who else is thought of as having small hands? Women. Women are thought of as having small hands; and I am so tired of having men like DT, disgusting men, abusive men, and men who hurt women, compared to women. Second question we need to ask when we are concerned with what we create in our criticism: who else has or is said to have small penises? Sissies. Children. Effeminate men. Non-aggressive men. Non-sexual men. Some intersex people. And among the injustices faced by particular intersex populations, please consider that some individuals with “too small” a penis at birth were surgically assigned a female sex because it was considered easier to make a vaginal hole than a functional phallus. (For more discussion of challenges facing intersex communities please see “Introduction to Intersex Activism: A Guide for Allies,” 2nd Edition.)
Criticize DT for his fascism. Criticize him for his abuse of power, his blatant pandering to corporate interests, his nepotism, his frightening lack of self-control or respect for other world leaders. Don’t criticize him for being effeminate, womanish, small and big bodied, or emotional. Don’t criticize him for being ‘queer.’ Because when we do, we reinscribe hetero-patriarchy.
Taking this analysis beyond the blatant problems of body shaming, I want to briefly consider a parallel critique that I also find problematic. There was a great deal of media attention and criticism around the idea that Ivanka Trump would be named or act as First Lady instead of DT’s wife, Melania Trump. While I agree that Ivanka’s ascension to this position is problematic for multiple reasons, particularly because of the conflict of interest that this would represent (and her current unnamed position does represent) due to her corporate interests, I disagree that the office of “First Lady,” need be a married, heterosexual, female partner of the POTUS.
The office of First Lady is a peculiar sort of office when we think of it in terms of feminist and queer politics. Don’t get me wrong. I have loved some of this country’s First Ladies, their work, and what they represented. Many of these women’s voices persisted and did not disappear in the face of ultimate male power. But the office also reifies the privileges granted to heterosexual marriage in a powerful symbolic manner. How much of Hillary Clinton’s sexist opponents’ inability to see a woman become POTUS was also paired with their unwillingness to accept Bill Clinton as “First Lady?” The office of “First Man,” doesn’t exist, after all. When heterosexual marriage is literally given office in the center of our nation’s power, a white house, what it required to displace the centrality of this patriarchal, racist, and heterosexist vision of family, home, and power?
I understand the need to blow off steam. I also think sometimes we need to express anger and rage in ways that are not careful, deliberate or creative; though this may create problems as well. Resistance, after all, also requires survival. But, as we feminists have learned from our own history, when it comes time to check our results, when the grades are in, we still have to be responsible for what we’ve (re)produced. Continued praxis then demands careful critique and redirection.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Sara is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, CA. She earned her Ph.D. in Religion from Claremont Graduate University in 2011, emphasizing Women’s Studies in Religion, and Theology, Ethics and Culture. Her research interests include the formation of counter-abusive community, relational and feminist theo/alogy, feminism and gaming, and embodiment issues in technology. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.