10 April 2008

Righteous Babes; or, why I don't listen to Ani DiFranco

I watched The Righteous Babes last night, a 1998 documentary by British filmmaker Pratibha Parmar about women in popular music. The Women Make Movies catalog says it better than I could:
Parmar argues that, far from being dead, feminism has thrived and expanded its reach through the direct, aggressive, and revolutionary medium of rock music, and through the role models of performers like Madonna and Ani DiFranco. Intercuting performance footage with interviews, Parmar explores her thesis with some of the most outspoken female musicians, feminist theorists, and journalists of the UK and US, including Sinead O’Connor, Skin (Skunk Anansie), Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, Camille Paglia, and Gloria Steinem.
If you're thinking that's a motley list, you're right. The film is incoherent, praising Madonna's overt sexuality or Tori Amos' "Me and a Gun" at the same time it denounces pornography and the Spice Girls. Camille Paglia's discussion of pussy power is smashed in with Andrea Dworkin's sermonizing; Shirley Manson of Garbage, who wears heavy make-up and stylized hair, ridicules the over-done images of blonde pop stars. Perhaps most offensive was the film's treatment of black female musicians, who were (aside from Skin of Skunk Anansie, a rock group) completely absent. The occasional image of Queen Latifah or Tina Turner was whitewashed with background music from Sinead O'Connor, Ani DiFranco, or some other angry white chick with a guitar.

Of course, produced ten years ago, the film is dated, and much of its incoherence is rooted in the confusion of the feminist movement at that time -- a confusion that persists. It fits into a broader discussion I've been having over and over again lately, which revolves around the question: what can a coherent third-wave feminist movement look like?

I subscribe to Feministing, and Feministe, and Pandagon. I read them; I like them. By pointing out injustices, feminist blogs serve as my daily reminder that feminism is still a meaningful movement, and that it is still meaningful to identify as a "feminist." I don't want to downplay their significance. But, despite well-intentioned efforts to include working class women or women of color in the discussion, these blogs are usually drawn from the perspective of financially comfortable middle-class women; and while this in itself is not problematic, it concerns me that feminism continues to be defined by issues of body image, objectification, terminology, media.

In some ways, it's the old argument -- the movement is too white, too secure. Ani DiFranco syndrome. Yet, I want to move beyond this.

We need to stop letting the media define our anger, and acknowledge our own desires. The irony of Shirley Manson pissing all over the Spice Girls, or Ani DiFranco saying she wants to "put them on an island somewhere with no electricity" (real quote from the film) is precisely that these women have commodified an image of "girl power" in precisely the same way as the Spice Girls, albeit with different hair coloring. Why deny this? Why pretend they're different?

I like fashion, and I'm a feminist. I like to shop, and I'm a feminist. Instead of seeing these spaces a danger zones where the Big Scary Media or Evil Pop Culture suddenly denies me agency to make my own decisions, why not see them as battle zones, where we can wrest control from those those powers that want to silence women? Instead of wagging our finger, or shipping the Spice Girls off to some desert island, why not play with these images, re-appropriate them for our own purposes?

I have always seen fashion as a spot where I can both participate in mass culture and celebrate my own individuality -- where I can de- and re-construct images to fit my own agenda. This is what Moonslush.com was all about. This is also what Carol Queen, one of my favorite third-wave feminists, is doing when she celebrates herself as a feminist submissive: acknowledging (rather than denying) her desire, and playing with its contradictions. We aren't either/or -- either you're sexy or you're sexless, either you're a blonde bimbo or an angry bald chick -- we're both/and, a celebration of diversity with contradictions, and a denial of, as Donna Haraway might put it, any original "wholeness" we must return to.

Could this be a model for third-wave feminism? Can feminism remain a coherent movement after admitting its own contradictions? Or have we evolved past feminism?

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