Narcissist Feminism

I talked about Spice Girls feminism a while ago; now I’ve decided to label another form of feminism that I disagree with. I’m calling it Narcissist Feminism.

Narcissist Feminists – let’s call them NF’s – are, so far in my experience, white heterosexual middle class women who experience feminism only as a friction occurring between themselves and white men. There are no other women on Planet NF. There are no people of color. No queer people. Just her – the woman the patriarchy pictures when it thinks “woman” – and the white men that stand between her and the top of the world.

As she scrambles to get to the top, she dislodges boulders that fall onto the heads of those who stand beneath her in the hierarchy.

Her only goal is to get to the top of the heap.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Because her feminism doesn’t involve anyone in the world but herself and her lot in life and her relationship to the men above her, she has internalized the methods and priorities of the patriarchy. She wants to have what men have, and she thinks that’s feminism. It’s not.

This is a standard phase for white western women on the path to feminism. We grow up in a culture that actively dissuades us from noticing what people “beneath” us in the hierarchy are going through. Naturally, our first beef with the world tends to be with those nasty white men that stand between us and the things we believe we can earn, given the opportunity to prove ourselves. So we know where the NF is coming from.

When I was 20, I was lucky enough to have an African-American friend who was double majoring in women’s studies and black studies. She introduced me to some fascinating thoughts on how there ought to be a black women’s studies course altogether, because you couldn’t just take some ideas from anti-racism and a few from feminism, mix them together in a binder and suddenly understand the fairly unique position African American women find themselves in.

Folks: I gave her ideas full and immediate credit, but it was a decade before I really began to understand what she meant. In the meantime she’d opened my eyes so I could look around and begin to see my own privilege better. And if black women needed something different from feminism than I did, that probably meant lesbians, poor women, and women of each other race out there had different needs. If I didn’t support them as well as myself, I was being a narcissist, not a feminist. I was making legitimate points about the meanness of white men, but I was only doing it to serve myself. Not women everywhere.

And certainly not men and women everywhere, and the improvement of the whole human race.

Here’s a checklist to know if you’re a real feminist (of any of the 15,000 legitimate different breeds), or just a white girl who’s noticed how her own life isn’t fair:

  • When a lot of women Unlike You tell you you don’t get where they’re coming from, you say they’re all out to get you.
  • and you unquestionably think this attack on you is far more awful than anything they may have had to endure for, oh, ever.
  • You just can’t figure it out what the problem is when people point out that the stuff you’re proposing only benefits white heterosexual girls of means.
  • You get defensive when people suggest you aren’t as enlightened as Buddha, rather than welcoming the opportunity to learn and further your own deprogramming.
  • You think you are Too Cool to be influenced by tons of childhood programming.
  • When a lot of other feminists say something you disagree with, and you tell them how stupid they are, then they explain that, well, you’ve actually just framed it in an exclusively white, middle class, het scene and that’s not where they live, you refuse to back down from supporting your perspective as the only valid perspective for all women/feminists.
  • You engage in counter-stereotyping of men whenever you feel like it (I’ve been guilty of this in the past myself).
  • …without even explaining that your counter-stereotypes apply only to white men, because you keep forgetting men of color exist and experience a whole different intersection of privileges and anti-privileges than the men you want to be.

If this list sounds like you… you’ll probably need someone else to tell you, since you’re just Too Cool. But if someone tells you it sounds like you, take a deep breath and admit to yourself, “I can be wrong. I can be. It is possible.” And then listen.

Or stop calling yourself a feminist and admit you really just want the toys your brother had.

Comments

  1. says

    Careful, BC. I understand if you speak out of turn about this you’re nothing but a mean bully and are out on a personal vendetta for your amusement. *sigh*

    I’m still fumbling around with the whole thing, I have to admit. I wish I could say that I’m not struggling with wanting to only deal with things that affect me and the people close to me, because I know that makes my pretty fauxgressive. (But! But! Listen to my concerns FIRST! Yeah.)

    But, as has been brought to my attention, through you and Tekanji and coffeeandink and others that are slipping my mind right now, it takes more on my part than just admitting I have a blindspot. Now I need to do more about it than just listen and read. I need to engage more, and once again be brave enough to *talk* about it.

  2. says

    I wish I could say that I’m not struggling with wanting to only deal with things that affect me and the people close to me

    Wanting to deal with these things in your own life and in your own world is pretty natural, I think. There are several stages between that and the kind of narcissism Betacandy is addressing.

    The first is an inability to really relate to other people’s experiences if they may be different – you can’t get far enough outside your own reality to see what other people are really saying, and so you try to impose your reality onto their stories, instead of figuring out how, maybe, your worldview is limited and can be expanded by connecting to the stories.

    Then there’s the tendency to take that assumption and control the terms of the conversation, telling these other people how things *really* are, what *really* matters, and yes, that we’ll get to you when what’s *really* important (me and mine) has been covered. That’s a step beyond making the things that affect you closely a priority in your own life; it’s acting to prevent others from being able to do the same, or expressing anger at them for doing so. Since it’s normally done by those who have greater access to power towards those who have less, it’s a very effective and very hostile tactic.

    Then there’s responding to people who try to describe their feelings to you, who try to point out the very real impact of your behaviour and your position, with the assumption that those criticisms are based in mean-spirited ill-will, ignorance or irrationality.

    Admitting you have a blindspot gets you out of the first link on this chain, I think. I don’t know if I, personally, will ever think that I “get it” and if I do, I’ll probably have fucked up somewhere along the line and will have to have that pointed out to me rather forcefully. I’m all for more reading, listening, engaging, increasing bravery, I’m just suggesting you might be being too hard on yourself in making the leap between your reaction and what’s happening elsewhere.

    The Angry Black Woman is doing a Carnival of Allies at the beginning of next month. It would probably be a good place to start with that “engaging” thing.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Anna, I think it’s a lifelong struggle to be an ally to others whose experiences you can’t possible experience. It’s natural to look out for ourselves first. It’s natural to defend ourselves vigorously when we feel attacked.

    But if you don’t come to the table with a sense of community, then you’re not experiencing solidarity. I deliberately kept this post general because I prefer to focus on the bigger lessons we can all learn rather than castigating an individual, but in reference to the incident we’re all talking about, I will say this:

    There have been times I got an opportunity which a woman of color next to me had worked at least as hard as I to earn. I felt obligated to mention the other woman’s work so that at least she got SOME public acknowledgment. It didn’t matter to me that I had done my own work independently of hers. It mattered only that the selection process was so skewed, her work hadn’t even been considered because she didn’t fit the demographic I did. I couldn’t help but address that in the best way available to me.

    There have also been times I have failed to acknowledge someone’s work because I didn’t have any idea it existed. When multiple people pointed it out to me, I always felt comfortable adding in some acknowledgment of the other person’s work without suggesting their work had contributed to mine – all you have to do is acknowledge they’ve been toiling in obscurity and deserve recognition, too.

    But you have to come to the table with that urge to promote your whole movement, not just yourself. If you don’t have it, then you’re only working for yourself.

    @Purtek, maybe we need to promote that Carnival on the main page. I saw that and felt excited about it.

  4. Firebird says

    “because you keep forgetting men of color exist and experience a whole different intersection of privileges and anti-privileges than the men you want to be. ”

    Uh. Whoops. I *do* tend to forget about that one. I’d like to claim it’s because I tend personally to turn a blind eye to color and appearance in general – especially in regard to men – but I’m not sure that covers it.

    So, I guess it wasn’t the point but thanks for reminding me all men are not created equal in this patriarchy of ours.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Purtek, good suggestion.

    Firebird, I’m right there with you. I was trained to be colorblind, too, but at the same time I realize that when I think of “men” the image in my head is white men. (“People” also means white people.) Through lots of conscious effort, I’ve gotten to the point where I almost always remember “Oh, yeah, other races” very quickly, but will I ever get to the point that the word “men” conjures a multi-colored sea of faces with different levels of privilege above and below my own? I hope so. But it’s quite possible, given how deep childhood programming goes, I’ll never stop thinking first of white people. :(

    The thing is, making the effort instead of getting defensive is the most essential step.

  6. MariaS says

    Different from your main point about white privilege, but I’ve come across a couple of times now, in passing, blogposts by women saying they used to read or participate in radical feminist blogs/forums/whatever, but felt like they should feel guilty because they weren’t abuse/rape survivors, and that the radical feminist focus on sexual violence messed up their own attitudes to sex and men, (which they are now back to being comfortable with). I’d bet that these were young, white, middle-class women.

    This centralisation of their own discomfort struck me as very narcissistic and supremely missing the point. I can’t quite articulate why, but I think the gist of it is the presumption that guilt is what is being asked of them from these other women who have been subjected to sexual violence. And though this is not a case of well-meaning-but-complicit member of the oppressor class confronted by member(s) of oppressed class, so not strictly same dynamic as calling white people or men out on white privilege or male privilege, the presumption of what is being asked of them -guilt, usually angrily rejected – is similar.

    And to me it seems obvious that guilt is not what is being asked of them by oppressed/injured people, but solidarity, gestures of alliance, their attention and belief, to take those people who are not like you/have different experiences from you seriously, to listen to them , to learn from them, to facilitate their voices being heard, their cause getting attention, to offer affirmation, to challenge the obstacles that are in their way, to avoid participating in silencing or marginalising those people. The reaction “it’s all about me” is rarely the right one. I am not a survivor, but I don’t have to think hard to think of people I know who are survivors, and not being a survivor does not prevent me from listening to those who are, and thus understanding the damage that rape/abuse does to the victims, and understanding and trying to challenge the societal forces that foster and normalise predatory male sexuality. (Nor does it prevent me from understanding that I am also a potential target of that predatory sexuality)

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    MariaS, great point. I’m cringing at the thought of calling “never been raped” a privilege, since it should be a basic human right, but relative to those who have suffered, it does work like any other privilege:

    –Victims aren’t supposed to talk about their experiences frankly because it might make people uncomfortable.
    –It’s socially acceptable never to think about rape or child abuse if the subjects upset your tum-tum
    –It’s socially acceptable not to do a damn thing about them, either. If you’re not committing the crimes, that’s enough.
    –It’s socially acceptable to tell victims they’re making it up, exaggerating, attention-seeking, etc.

    It’s just the same as what happens if, say, an African-American tries to talk about racially-charged experiences she’s had in front of some nice white people who don’t burn crosses on lawns or say racial slurs. What have they done to have this unpleasant topic foisted upon them?

    My answer? Bollocks. It is the duty of any decent human being to do more than not commit the crimes. If you don’t do more, than you’re not a bad person, but I don’t call you a “good” person or a “nice” person either. You get no points with me for “not doing” the bad stuff. You get points for doing something helpful, even if that’s just listening to someone without judgment or taking it personally when they come to you.

    If anyone’s shocked at how harsh I’m being here, I had an emotionally abusive, head-game playing father whose damage wasn’t hard to overcome. What WAS hard to overcome was how all the “nice, good” people – including family – who could have helped couldn’t bury their heads in the sand fast enough. THAT is the privilege they had, and I didn’t.

    I can understand if someone just can’t keep frequenting a forum full of horrible stories that give you a sense of survivor’s guilt. They don’t have to, because there are other ways to show solidarity. If someone can be more sympathetic by NOT engaging on a certain level, it’s okay to set that boundary. It’s not a cult where you’re 100% in or out.

  8. says

    That’s actually why I’m here. I can’t even really begin to call myself a “feminist,” and I freely admit that my views on gender equality are narcissistic. I’m struggling to move past that, I’ve been reminding myself to see not only my own viewpoints and experiences, but to recognize others’, as well.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    We all start with what we know, which is how injustice affects us. It’s the struggle to understand more that makes someone a member of a movement instead of an army of one.

  10. says

    I linked to this post on my new blog as the trigger to a post about why I’m a feminist. I have struggled with acknowledging the needs of others when they do not affect me directly at all, and this struggle is ongoing.

    An issue that I want to bring up: I have often spoken about feeling marginalized as a bisexual woman, especially in GL forums (or GLBT-in-name-only forums). I am beginning to reconsider my stance on this. Not that I think prejudice towards bisexual people does not exist both within GL and straight communities, but I am beginning to reconsider whether my feelings on the matter are biased because of my position as a bisexual woman. Am I marginalizing the valid problems of power-imbalance between lesbian and bisexual women?

    I would like to solicit the thoughts of others, the better to examine and solidify my own.

  11. Helen says

    I would like to say that the actual article is amazing, and the discussion of internalising white male values which I think every feminist goes through.

    However. Your list.
    Oh my god. I’ve been accused of this crap before. People assume because i’m white, hetero and (finally) earning a reasonably good wage that I have no kind of empathy or experience of anything else.

    And frankly the kind of thing you’ve just detailed puts people in a position where if they disagree with what you’ve just said, then they are ignorant, ‘not a real feminist’ and somehow defective. Even bel hooks says we can “do without a feminist identity”.

    Reminds me of the LGBT society at my uni. Everyone who disagreed with their particular worldview of what it meant to be gay, was not really gay, not really out, not clever enough to comprehend the issues. Shockingly, their memebership dwindled to about five people within the month. I also have F-M trans friends who are deeply chauvinistic, obv because they are internalising a particular standard of male behaviour.

    “When other feminists say something you disagree with, and you tell them how stupid they are, then they explain that, well, you’ve actually just framed it in an exclusively white, middle class, het scene and that’s not where they live, you refuse to back down.” – in this particular scenario, BOTH parties are refusing to communicate, rather than ‘back down’. Both parties seem to be more bothered about ego and point scoring than sharing experiences or learning from each other. A black gay woman will obviously be more informed and aware of what a black gay woman goes through, and what she needs to improve her life. She won’t *necessarily* be a ‘better’ or more informed feminist. Patronising someone by saying “oh you’ll learn to agree with me” is awful from either direction. Nobody should have to repress their point of view or acquiesce to another… every pov is valid, and anything else is just… cliquishness.

    Am I being defensive? No. I’m calmly disagreeing with an established dogma of a particular branch of feminism, and trying to treat people properly equally; the views of a woman who is white, heterosexual and middle class should not automatically be considered invalid.

    However. I do definitely counter-stereotype men. I really must work on that. Also if people are interested in the experiences of Saudi Arabian women and their fight for equality, check out http://saudijeans.org/

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    Helen,

    Okay. In hindsight that quote wasn’t entirely clear, and I’m going to edit it to make it clearer – the whole post was inspired by the recent Amanda Marcotte debacle, and with that in your head it makes sense. What I intended (and failed) to convey is that when a whole LOTTA feminists are telling you, “You just did something uncool”, the odds are they’re not crazy or all conspiring to hurt you. The odds are, you really have done something uncool and the least you should do at this point is really listen (instead of getting defensive and smug in your victimhood).

  13. Dan says

    If you incorporate issues of non-biological gender identity, class, and race, (and while we’re at it, let’s not forget age, religion, ethnicity, and mental/physical faculty) doesn’t that in some sense transcend the specific label of “feminism” and become something more along the lines of “universal egalitarianism”?

  14. Jennifer Kesler says

    Well, yeah. As I see it, feminism is one of many movements WITHIN the push toward universal egalitarianism. But it’s possible to narrow feminism’s focus without CONFLICTING with the goals of the other movements. Not always easy, and we’re going to make mistakes, but we have to at least try and not get defensive when someone suggests maybe we got it wrong.

    For example: white affluent feminists decided in the 70s and 80s that the solution to many women’s problems was to get good jobs and be financially self-sufficient. Great idea… but loads of poor women were already doing that, often not by choice. Because they faced a whole different sort of “glass ceiling” than affluent, educated white feminists faced, none of the solutions offered by the affluent whites were any help.

    It’s kind of like telling a doctor, “I’m working out an hour a day and not losing weight” and having him say “Okay, I’m going to put you on a strict exercise regiment that’s guaranteed to lose the weight – half an hour a day! Think you can keep up?” And you’re wondering if you fell through the looking glass, because didn’t he just hear you say you were doing twice his solution and it’s not working?

    The doctor isn’t listening to himself, and sometimes that’s what white feminists do. We can forget to listen and hear how we sound to others. That’s what we have to work on.

  15. says

    There’s a lot of debate on that topic. Some people feel men can be feminists; others feel they must be considered allies. Here’s some interesting discussion on the topic.

    Another interesting question I haven’t seen much helpful discussion on is that of transgender people and feminism. (I have come across people advocating the view that a women who identifies as a man is a feminist traitor, which I find horrifying; I don’t personally find gender to be a big part of my personal identification, but if someone feels strongly about it, I don’t interpret that as a rejection of the gender she was born into.)

    In my opinion, anyone can advocate for equality, and we need a whole new term like “equality advocate.”

  16. Taylor says

    Really love this article! I had a rude awakening when an African American woman called me out on my blind-eye bullshit. It’s hard for people to realize that they enjoy unearned privilege.

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