This afternoon I bought a staple gun. When I asked Twitter first if anyone had one which I could borrow, the only responses I got were incredulous as to why I would need one? ‘Scariest tweet in my timeline’ said one reply, ‘Do you know about restrictive gun laws?’ said another. I’m not sure whether the jokes were due to men getting nervous at the idea of an 8 month pregnant woman wielding a staple gun or just me specifically. Sadly, the answer was much simpler. I needed one to build something.
At home my husband and I often fulfill contrary roles to those expected of a heterosexual couple. He lives to tidy and, in his mind, I liberally scatter dirt in my wake. I, on the other hand, manage wiring, assemble furniture in record speeds and take charge of the bulk of other DIY projects. Just last week he phoned to let me know the toilet was broken and he had left it for me to fix as ‘you know how to do it’. I don’t mind though, I enjoy mending things. Some women get diamonds, I get to repair stuff and in exchange I never ever have to vacuum. A very fair deal if I say so myself.
I come from a long line of handy folk, especially when it comes to toilets. My grandfather, by himself and in his spare time, built his first home from the ground up with the materials that he could find. As Canadian industry reverted to civilian production post war, toilet manufacturing was slow on the uptake. My great grandfather, a canny and taciturn Glaswegian engineer, aghast at the idea of his grandchild being brought up with an outhouse in the modern country he’d emigrated to found the best solution he could - poker. A game with the local hardware store owner gave my great-grandparents the perfect housewarming gift: porcelain for the bathroom. If my mother’s side of the family had a slogan it would be: practical solutions for stoic people.
My grandfather always encouraged my desire to build. I can remembering him hanging a Smurfette poster on my wall which boldly stated: ‘Girls can do anything.’ I often dis- and re-assembled household objects, learned how to use power tools my hands were too small to hold and even once terrified my mother by constructing a mini-gallows for my Barbie dolls. I loved playing with Barbies, especially the fab 70’s dresses which I’d inherited from other families. Despite the joy in getting Barbie dolled up, I knew that something was amiss with her rigid expression of femininity. The joy at making Barbie look divine didn’t feel entirely kosher; she had to pay for the sins of the patriarchy. Ergo the oh-so-chic mass hangings.
Separating your own pleasures from the unfair expectations put upon women as a whole is tricky to do. For the longest time I did not feel comfortable wearing makeup without feeling like I was somehow selling out the sisterhood. Was baking a cake surrendering my sense of self worth to 1950’s domesticity? Was Betty Friedan rolling in her grave somewhere? While growing up, navigating what was right for me vs. what the world expected of me as a woman has ultimately boiled down to feeling comfortable in my own skin. Yes, the personal is political, but sponge cake is also delicious.
Today I do what pleases me and what needs to get done, whether that’s fixing the toilet or doing a photo shoot for a fashion magazine. I don’t see a contradiction - and if others do, I don’t really care. Challenging outdated societal norms is my very favorite kind of deviance (that and jaywalking late at night when there’s no traffic). Woman-led home improvement doesn’t really feel like a revolutionary act to me (it’s the 21st century for goodness’ sake) but if others want to see it that way, go for it. I define what kind of a woman I am. And today I’m a woman with a brand new staple gun.
This piece was written for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Ich, Heute. 10 vor Ich. blog. It’s written in response to the widespread reductionist view of feminism that impedes progressive dialogue and as a result, change, using the Glodieblox shitstorm as a case study. You can read the German version here
When discussing feminism today, many feel that it’s redundant, that feminism is an outdated mode of political activism with a simple agenda – it’s burning bras in clogs. Yet once you start to discuss issues around women’s equality and bring in non-debatable facts, eg. The massive gender salary gap between women and men in Germany, it becomes clear that those who purport to be opposed to feminism agree completely with the core of Feminism, namely, achieving a world in which gender does not impede the quality of life or opportunity offered to any individual.
The question of whether we needed feminism or not is the wrong question. For the most part, when we are talking about Feminism in the mainstream, what we are really talking about is what are the right means to achieve equality. Those who oppose feminism are very, very rarely anti-woman. What self-identified anti-feminists are opposed to is a specific form of rhetoric. In pop culture, feminism has become a convenient straw man, diverting us away from broader, much needed discussions.
The lack of clarity around what feminism actually is, stemming from the single-track narrative about whether feminism is or isn’t needed, can be extremely confusing – what does being a feminist mean in practice? A recent case which can be used as an example is the internet-shitstorm around GoldieBlox, a toy-maker focused on encouraging more girls to get into technology.
GoldieBlox created a viral video promoting their toys, the key element of the video being a re-written version of the Beastie Boys’ track ‘Girls’. It had right mix of social-cause and entertainment that gives the viewer a bump of self-satisfaction for passing it on – a KONY 2012 with smiling children and without the African warlord. It reached over 6 million youtube views in 3 days.
And then it got complicated. No rights for the song were cleared for the video, lawyers from the Beastie Boys reached out to the GoldieBlox team to discuss. The GoldieBlox team promptly preemptively sued the Beastie Boys (using an American legal quirk which allows people to defensively sue another party if they think they will be sued themselves). The issue at hand is that of fair use. The Beastie Boys have clearly stated that none of their work can be used commercially, indeed, this was a clause in the late Adam Yauch’s will. Meanwhile supporters of GoldieBlox claim that this video was fair use as it was promoting a the empowerment of women. Muddying the water is the fact that original version of the track ‘Girls’ was written as an ironic commentary on sexist anthems. Let me underline that I am not a legal scholar here, however it’s my impression that in the US and elsewhere, fair use is a very grey matter. Fair-use of copyrighted work can be both commercial and non-commercial, parody is often protected as fair use but not always. The GoldieBlox video is both a parody and commercial. The GoldieBlox team feel that it should be fair use because it supports a good cause, namely, inspiring more women to enter the STEM field – now, a judge will decide.
So how does this relate to feminism? The Beastie Boys don’t allow their work to be used for commercial purposes. As artists, it’s their right to decide that. As the video is an ad, despite that it promotes a good cause, it’s an issue of furthering corporate interests. As the US lawyer Steven M. Ayrpointed out in an interview on the US blog Vulture: “If McDonald’s was trying to sell a hamburger to further female empowerment, we would all look at it very differently.” Goldieblox could have found another track to parody/play off the broad cultural awareness of, from musicians who allow their work to be used commercially and licensed it - whether by old school or Creative Commons methods. They didn’t. Many have even cynically suggested that it was the GoldieBlox marketing plan to cause a legal battle in order to create more visibility for the company. Either the venture backed GoldieBlox have terrible lawyers, are incredibly naive or are ruthless marketers.
Supporting artists and their rights, whether they be big or small is a feminist issue. Doing so is imperative to protecting a culture where people can support themselves from their creative output and aren’t taken advantage of. While IP is a flawed system, it is the best means by which we can compensate artists for the time that they have put into their work. IP is not just about ownership, it’s an expression of labor rights – ignoring that will deconstructs the most viable (and some say only) way that artists can exist within our economic system, regardless of gender. Allowing people to disregard the wishes of creators because we deem their cause to be important is a very slippery slope. It stands directly against empowerment of the individual and the collective good. A truly equitable society cannot be reached if these values are not upheld, and thus, this is a feminist issue. While GoldieBlox have a clearly feminist goal, their means of achieving it is not.
Goldieblox is a pristine example of how feminism is far more complicated than boys against girls (almost literally). While many felt that it is about getting women in STEM fields, it’s actually a debate about economics, art and law. Feminism is a framework for creating a more equitable world, gender equality being the lens through which thought is focused. It touches every aspect of life and thus cannot be defined by one single world-view.
Just like the problems it seeks to remedy, feminism is messy. Reducing feminism to the words of one woman (regardless of whether it’s Silvia Bovenschen or Alice Schwarzer) deprives society from exploring multiple avenues of thought. We must accept a pluralistic perspective of feminism that allows for rich debate that goes beyond the confines of issues such as daycare or quotas, where more than one woman is invited on a talk-show to discuss the ‘woman’s viewpoint,’ and where it as normal for a man to be a feminist as a woman. We need to accept that feminism is about everyone.
I shared my thoughts on the Goldieblox saga in a forum and thought it might be worth sharing with a wider audience as there seems to be some ambiguity about how to consider the issue as a feminist. There are many worthwhile arguments on the topic - here’s mine:
The Beasties don’t allow their work to be used for commercial purposes. Punkt. As artists, it’s their right to decide that. As the video is an ad, it’s not an issue of freedom of speech - it’s an issue of furthering corporate interests. Goldieblox could have found another track to parody/play off the broad cultural awareness of, from musicians who allow their work to be used commercially and licensed it - whether by old school or CC methods. They didn’t. Supporting artists and their rights, whether they be big or small is imperative to protecting a culture where people can support themselves from their creative output and aren’t taken advantage of. Allowing people to disregard the wishes of creators because we judge their cause to be important is a very slippery slope and in my mind, stands directly against empowerment of the individual and the collective good (aka - what feminism is fighting for).
If I can find more time, I’ll expand on my take on feminism within a capitalist society.