I once overheard my wife, as she was talking with a friend, refer to me as a feminist. In calling me this, she meant to emphasize the fact that I support the rights of women and that I believe them to be the intellectual equals of men. Later I revealed to her that I actually don’t consider myself a feminist; not because I think “feminism” is a dirty word, but precisely because I was not born a woman. To me, to be a feminist means to see the world through a woman’s eyes, and there is no way that I can authentically do that.
There are many women who I admire and hold up as personal ideals for emulation. I continue to gain incredible insights by reading the books of Simone DeBeauvoir, Iris Murdoch, Hannah Arendt, Babette Babich and Susan Bordo. In fact, all of the advisors I have worked with most closely throughout graduate school have been women; and this despite the fact that the philosophical topics I am obsessed with are often thought of as quite “masculine.” On top of this, among the most important people in my life are my wife, my sister and my mother: all women. They are the ones who, probably more than anyone else, have contributed to the type of human being I have turned out to be. I have been shaped by their presence, and yet despite all of this, I still cannot truly say that I understand what it means to see the world as they see it. As humans, I feel a kinship and a sense of solidarity with women, and yet I cannot authentically claim to understand that aspect of their experience tied specifically to womanhood, any more than I can understand what it is like to exist in this world as rich, black, asian, gay, European or a genius.
I may be fooling myself, but the closest that I have come to feeling like I understand the female perspective – and thus to taking on the perspective of feminism – is through reading books or watching movies that involve the dramatic struggles of female protagonists. With this, I am not referring to philosophical works of the sort alluded to above. With those types of works I’m more apt to identify with the non-gendered arguments and ideas than with the embodied experiences of the authors themselves. Rather, I am thinking of historical or fictional works that dramatize events and narratives in which women play central roles. Many of the books and movies that I have in mind, it is true, are written or directed by men. But this may be the bridge that has allowed me to resonate so much with, for instance, characters like Fran in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Susy Banion in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Perhaps by watching females as they appear filtered through the perspectives of male writers and directors I am able to resonate with them while also finding something of my own familiar, male-centered perspective reflected back to me.
All of this comes to mind because I recently finished reading two books and watching a movie, all of which feature females as the central characters. The first book is a historical study titled Hypatia of Alexandria, which attempts to set the record straight about the ancient philosopher and mathematician. This is a book written by a woman, and it is interesting that while I really did enjoy it, I also found myself a bit deflated and disappointed by the sorts of historical realities that the author, Maria Dzielska, brings to light. I am a big fan of the movie Agora, in which Hypatia is depicted as a pure martyr for philosophy on par with Socrates, and while I know that the truth is no doubt more complicated than depicted in the film, I still can’t deny that the myth attracts me more than the reality. In her book, Dzielska emphasizes how Hypatia was probably entangled in political as well as philosophical struggles (as was also probably the case with Socrates), and that when she was killed she was old, not a young woman as those who idealize her tend to suggest. Perhaps it takes a woman to cast a realistic and non-romantic eye on the life and struggles of another woman. And yet, from my male perspective, I felt let down. I want Hypthia to be pure and perfect, like the character in Agora who, when accused of believing in “nothing” retorts, “I believe in philosophy,” or who tells another character, “You cannot question; but I must question everything!” This is the image I find inspirational; but that’s my own fault, not Dzielska’s or Hypatia’s.
The other book that I recently finished reading is Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk. This is the first in a two-part series involving a 13 year-old girl named Madison who is strangled by her step-brother and ends up in Hell. Here we have a female lead as conceptualized by a man, and while she does not represent anything like the philosophical ideal of Hypatia, she does embody strength and courage coupled with a kind of honesty, which seems to be the sort of mixture I resonate with in female characters. Madison’s dispassionate and detached descriptions of the landscape of Hell (filled with mountains of toenail clippings, seas of wasted sperm and deserts of dandruff) are disgusting and hilarious, supplying a surreal backdrop to her own existential adventure as she resolves to take hold of her situation and confront Satan himself. This is good stuff from the author of Fight Club, but I’m not sure if it represents anything true about young girls and their way of seeing the world. It all comes across as very male and adolescent, and not really what I would describe as distinctively feminist.
As a birthday gift, my wife gave me the DVD of Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural. This film occupies a strangely central place in my psychology, due as much to the circumstances under which I first viewed it when I was a kid as to the imagery it contains. I must have been about 13 – the age of Madison in Damned – when Lemora was shown late night on the television show Creature Features. I do not know where I was while watching it. It was somewhere unfamiliar and I was alone in the living room. For some reason I have no recollection of why I was staying in this particular house or why no one else seems to have been with me at the time. (Maybe that’s an issue for future therapy!) I do recall a scene involving bizarre, horrifying faces pressed up against the windows of a bus and a little girl recoiling from them. Upon recently watching the DVD, I recognized that particular segment, but otherwise it was like watching the movie for the first time. I did not recall the narrative arc or the strongly Freudian themes that permeate this story of a young girl in search of her father just as she is starting to realize the power of her emerging sexuality. Of course as a 13 year old I could not have articulated these themes, but as I grew into adulthood, the impact left on me was permanent. Shortly after meeting my wife, in fact, this film was one of our early topics of discussion. Neither of us could remember the movie’s name, although both of us vividly remembered the images and the atmosphere it contained. In this, I suppose, male and female perspectives converged somewhat, but again I wouldn’t say that there was anything particularly “feminist” either in my sympathy for the film’s young protagonist or with the fascination my wife and I shared for this movie. It was just an absorbing, creepy experience.
I admire feminists, just as I admire anyone who intelligently and vigorously argues for their own ideas about the Truth. Such people make important contributions to the world by articulating and voicing their beliefs, helping the rest of us to learn, grow and see the world differently. I’m not under the illusion, however, that I can understand all perspectives. There are points of view I am unable to comprehend simply by virtue of who I am. But, in many ways, those are precisely the ones that are the most interesting to me. The perspectives I am unable to adopt as my own (like feminism) are the ones that will always be there to provoke, challenge and push me to question myself and my own fragmented and limited perception of reality.