Fifty Shades of Dark. And One Shade of Feminism.

Fifty Shades of Dark. And One Shade of Feminism. February 24, 2015


The ever-insightful and pretty brave Nathaniel Givens here offers a very illuminating reflection on the latest box-office hit and its implications for, you know, the man/woman thing.

What has kinky sex to do with questions of gender roles in the family and the workplace?  The Roman poet Horace put it this way:  throw nature out with a pitchfork, it blows back in. The mainstreaming of sado-masochistic porn in “50 Shades” is, I think, a clear symptom of a blow-back that is likely to become more and more violent: throw out all traditional notions and norms shaping our deep human desire for real sexual difference, and that difference will come back with a vengeance.  Or, as Nathaniel puts it in his more irenic style:  “In simple terms: if you see huge demand for an inferior good, the most reasonable conclusion to draw is that there must be a dearth of the superior good.”

Here is Givens’s eloquent conclusion:

In a healthier environment, 50 Shades would face competing models of male leadership, but gender feminism’s take-down of gender roles has left 50 Shades as pretty much the only game in town. It represents the collision of deep human desires for gender roles with an ascendant political ideology that is dedicated to eradicating them. It’s possible that the rape, abuse, and general misogyny play no role in attracting women to Christian Grey, but when it comes to finding someone to represent that aggressive male role there just aren’t a lot of options. When gender roles become monstrous in the eyes of society, only monsters like Christian Grey are left to enact them.

The implications for feminism are not far to seek, if we’re willing to follow the logic Givens lays out.  Here he quotes Steven Pinker:

“Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive—power—and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups—in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.”

(Givens continues:) The reason that gender feminism is so compelling is that it has such a simple story to tell. If all the differences between men and women are socially constructed and artificial, then the path to equality is obvious: eradicate those socially constructed differences. Furthermore, because gender feminism sees society strictly in terms of power and dominance, the assumption is that any difference is not only an unnecessary impediment to equality, but an instance of oppression.

This is why gender feminists fixate on differences in gender representation, quickly assuming that whenever there are fewer women this is proof of successful male domination. This seems credible when we’re talking about fewer female CEOs, political leaders, or academics in STEM fields. It’s less clear how gender feminism’s belief in universal male domination holds up in the context of some other discrepancies, however, such as fewer women in prison, more women in college, fewer women unemployed, more women winning custody of children, and fewer women dying in workplace accidents.

Equity feminism, with roots in individualism and classical liberalism, is much more flexible. An equity feminist can examine gender differences on a case-by-case basis to determine when differences are the result of sexism or discrimination and when they might be the result of individual choices. But, where equity feminism may win on nuance or flexibility (not to mention compatibility with basic science), the conceptual simplicity and ability to manufacture unlimited amounts of righteous indignation make gender feminism perfectly adapted to our viral, outrage-addicted society.

The end result is that the most dominant form of feminism is also the one that is dogmatically opposed to any and all gender roles. Combine that with the fact that biology and anthropology both reveal that gender roles are a part of our innate human nature, and we have a recipe for trouble.

Do our faithful LDS “feminists” successfully resist a slippage from what we might call “difference feminism” to “equity feminism,” finally effectively succumbing to the dominance of “gender feminism.”  I wish I were confident they held their ground.  Take, for example, the case of Valerie Hudson Cassler — as eloquent and deeply committed a Mormon “difference feminist” as there is.  (She is responding to my earlier piece here at The City and the Soul on “Eternal Womanhood and the Limits of Public Recognition.”) Valerie is emphatic in affirming the beauty and goodness of the eternal male/female difference,  and the glorious equality of the promises offered to daughters as well as to sons of God.  But then she takes me to task (after politely acknowledging my good intentions) for questioning the assumption that the eternal equality of Kings and Queens, Priests and Priestesses, should translate neatly into equally public roles for men and women in the Church and in the larger society:

 …it is really (really!) hard to listen to someone with “the public and visible status of men” telling those without such status that they are simply “driven by envy”—in this essay I’d rather assert that “freedom” and “fairness” and “equality” are some of the most important concepts of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

I had simply argued that eternal equality does not necessarily translate into sameness as far as visible Church leadership is concerned.  Would she deny this?  Does Valerie mean to demand, or to plead, that there should be at least 6 female apostles and alternating female prophets?  And an alternative female Savior?

Here again is the core of my argument:

Our good Mormon feminists have unique theological resources for elevating the meaning of womanhood, and they deny in all sincerity that they want women to be the same as men; but whenever we evaluate the status of women by framing a comparison with the public and visible status of men, we are tending to slide from the spiritual idea of equality to the secular idea of sameness.

How can we be sure, as Sharon Eubank seems to assume, that applying our unique doctrine more perfectly will lead to practices that are more “fair” and “equal” as the world understands these; that is, that we will treat men and women more as if they were the same? Let me be very clear that I have not the slightest objection to any practical suggestions made by Sharon Eubank or others concerning improvements that might be made in the Young Women’s program, or greater visibility for women leaders. And in fact I am an enthusiastic supporter of the argument that we need to make the fullest use of women’s wisdom in Church councils at all levels. But I believe we need to beware of the slippage from spiritual equality, which recognizes the distinctive and wondrous role of womanhood, to sameness, which buys into a logic of envy and comparison.

Far from refuting me, Prof. Hudson’s somewhat impatient response to my mild suggestion that maybe gender differentiation in Church leadership might be OK seems, alas, to illustrate my point.  The slippage from difference feminism to equity feminism is all too easy, and from there the dominance of the gender feminists is all but irresistible.

I’m still waiting to find a “feminism” that wouldn’t be liable to this slippage.  And If I found it, I’m not sure why I would want to call it “feminism.”  Unless we mean  by “feminism” the idea that the distinctive gifts of womanhood (motherhood and sisterhood in all the glory of these terms, broadly understood) should be valued over any publicly visible offices and powers — which is a pretty idiosyncratic definition of “feminism.”  All things considered, I’m not sure the labor of re-definition is worth the trouble, seeing that the gender-feminists, the militants of sameness, already own the language.

I recommend to those who honor womanhood that we make a fresh start, drawing upon the rich resources of the restored gospel, and that we  abandon the language of feminism, which I maintain is indeed infected by the prideful and envious sameness of the world.

No doubt this will be “hard to listen to” for some, but that doesn’t count against the possibility that it’s true.  Even if was said by someone afflicted — for eternity, we’re told! — with a Y chromosome.

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