Thursday, December 20, 2007

Noah Berlatsky: Privileged and Clueless

As a largely bourgeois liberation struggle, feminism has always reflexively linked the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of self-actualization. On the one hand, feminists have worked towards concrete, egalitarian goals -- suffrage, access to education, abortion rights. On the other hand, feminism has offered the fuzzier prospect of personal transformation and utopic bliss. Thus, early feminists hoped that when they gained the vote, women would cleanse political culture, creating a more peaceful, more honest world. Similarly, Betty Friedan wanted women to have more and better jobs not primarily because it would make them richer or more equal, but because it would make them happier. Personal dissatisfaction is tied to institutional inequality -- with the result that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that the two aren’t necessarily the same thing.

But at least when she connected her depression with her oppression, Friedan was actually depressed. Jennifer Baumgardner’s new book, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, tries to build a political identity out of what appears to be, at worst, mild irritation. Baumgardner is bisexual, and she insists that “at least in some ways, bisexuals are an unliberated, invisible, and disparaged social group.” Bisexuals, and especially bisexual women, she points out, are not taken seriously -- they are seen as either gay women who are afraid to come all the way out, or else as straight women flirting with a hip lifestyle that signifies edginess.

These stereotypes can be painful and unfair. And yet, when Baumgardner turns to her own biography, it’s hard see any concrete way -- physical or mental -- in which her bisexuality has done her any harm. Baumgardner started dating women when she worked at Ms. Magazine, so there was no problem with her work life. Nor were her affluent, liberal parents at all upset by her decision to date women. Baumgardner notes that some bisexuals have to deal with social censure from lesbians -- in her case, however, one of her first female-female relationships was with the famous lesbian rock-star Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, who, as it turns out, prefers bisexual lovers. In fact, the most Baumgardner can muster, as far as personal trauma goes, is that people tend to assume that she’s either gay or straight, and then she has to “crowd every conversation with sign posts” to explain herself. I can see how that might be annoying for everyone -- but it’s not quite a “you have nothing to lose but your chains!” moment, is it?

Luckily, though she flirts with the idea of bisexuals as an oppressed class, Baumgardner is smart enough to realize that it isn’t a thoroughly convincing meme. And that’s where self-actualization comes in. Bisexuality, Baumgardner argues, isn’t merely a lifestyle or a sexual preference -- instead, it’s a way for women to live more fulfilling lives. When women have relationships with other women, Baumgardner argues, they begin to have “gay expectations” of their relationships with men -- better sex, more emotional openness, cleaner houses. In addition, when women sleep with other women, they take on, or interfere with, the male privilege of objectifying and lusting after women. This, apparently, destabilizes the hierarchy.

It’s hard not to be a bit sardonic about all this joyous transformation and playful rebellion. On the face of it, it looks suspiciously like nonsense. If you pay even minimal attention to what lesbians themselves say, either in person or in print, you’ll find plenty of evidence to contradict the suggestion that relationships between women are automatically nurturing or egalitarian (check out Ariel Schrag’s comics, as just one example.) Moreover, it’s hard to see exactly how bisexuality challenges male prerogatives when it is so thoroughly incorporated into mainstream male fantasies. Guys love the idea of women sleeping with each other, especially if said women are also willing to sleep with men. Baumgardner pays lip service to this reality a couple of times, but she never really comes to terms with it. Certainly, she never manages to acknowledge, to herself or to her readers, that male bisexuality is a fundamentally different and fundamentally more uncomfortable phenomenon than is female bisexuality. For example, Baumgardner recounts seeing a movie audience erupt in homophobic expressions of disgust after seeing a scene in which two men kiss. But it doesn’t seem to occur to her that, if the kiss were female-female, the reaction would almost surely have been titillation rather than repugnance.

The fetishization of bisexual women in the media, and its relationship to patriarchal power, might have been a good topic for a bracingly bitter second-wave feminist screed by, say, Kate Millet. As a third-waver, though, Baumgardner is relentlessly cheery about popular culture, gushing about Ani Difranco, Ellen DeGeneres, and (inevitably) Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Buffy is “an important and accurate allegory of what it means to be a feminist today”, she says, meaning, I guess, that feminists today are whiny, extremely thin, and badly plotted.) Baumgardner even has kind things to say about the almost universally reviled Anne Heche. Yes, Baumgardner admits, Heche is “privileged and clueless.” But, by gosh, those are qualities that can be useful in the feminist struggle.

This argument is easy to parody. Nonetheless, it’s actually a worthwhile insight. The privileged and clueless have, in fact, always had an important place in social justice struggles. This is partly because, as Baumgardner notes “cluelessness” can translate into fearlessness -- Anne Heche just assumed that the world would embrace her relationship with comedian Ellen, because, well, why shouldn’t it? Even more important, though, is the fact that “privilege” almost always translates as “power.” And if you want to change the world, power, in one form or another, is what you need.

Baumgardner is a little fuzzy on exactly how bisexual women’s relative privilege can be translated into feminist gains. In part, she’s hampered by her own cluelessness: Baumgardner is a regular lecturer on the liberal college campus circuit, and she seems only dimly aware that such places aren’t necessarily representative of the country as a whole. Still, limited as her perspective is, she does manage to point in some interesting directions. She notes, for example, that, while young activists aren’t very interested in feminism, they tend to be very excited about gay rights. She also points out that feminists are often seen as boring and sexless, and elsewhere notes that bisexuality can be perceived as romantic and sexy. She doesn’t quite connect the dots on this last point herself; nonetheless, I think one of the implications of her book is that feminism could make itself hipper and more appealing by aggressively embracing bisexuality.

For both gay rights advocates and feminists, then, acknowledging bisexuality can be a step towards the mainstream -- a way, at least, to leverage some support which might not otherwise be available. There’s an analogy, I think, to the position of biracial blacks in some early abolitionist and civil rights narratives. Of course, the obsessive focus on those who were light enough to pass wasn’t all to the good, by any means. But I suspect it did have some strategic value as well. Baumgardner’s book says a lot of dumb things, and it’s way too chipper. But her basic contention -- that bisexuals deserve to be taken seriously, and that, if they are, both women and gays will benefit -- is probably right.

A version of this review first appeared in The Chicago Reader.
©Noah Berlatsky. Used by permission.

No comments: