The problem with representational politics: a feminist agenda

“…When truth is too traumatic to be confronted directly, it can only be accepted in the guise of fiction.” [1]

What kind of justice can we achieve through representation alone? Very little to none. Our daily lives and our fictional worlds are enmeshed in the neoliberal system of both value and meaning, which monetizes identities. Representation is a facile solution: change the fiction and reality will morph to mirror the art. But what does a black James Bond or a female Doctor from Gallifrey really do? Justice is irreducible to token appreciation on a symbolic level. So why write about geeky fictional worlds at all?

To understand why we can meaningful discuss fictional worlds, I must first turn your attention to the nonfictional battleground, material and symbolic, over representation and over the feminist project. I submit, rather unoriginally, that a feminist vision must foreground labor and race over gender to affect the women whose situations are the most in need of equalizing.

Why’s everyone so mad at representational politics?:

Representation has become something of a sticky subject, on all sides. From a Conservative perspective, representational issues exist in a performative call-out culture, where well-to-do liberals prove their virtue via political correctness. From a leftist perspective, representational issues are a token symbolic issue which detracts from more important political projects of social equality on a material level. Finally, from the Liberal perspective, representation and politics semantically collapse into one another.

“White lady feminism,” as Second Wave feminism is often called, is all about representation. “More women in the boardrooms,” they say, “more female prison guards and senators!” This kind of feminism seeks equality at the highest echelon of society, the reasoning being that highly-placed women will produce meaningful change for the women “below them.” This kind of “trickle down feminism” is deeply flawed, however, ignoring key issues of labor and race by focusing its impact on socially empowered women rather than deeply disenfranchised ones. Inherently, this kind of feminism recapitulates existing power relations rooted within roles of masculine authority under neoliberal capital. How could a true feminist project not dismantle such a system?

Representation as a praxis of intersectionality:

I know we are all sick to death of think pieces peppered with buzzwords like “intersectional.” I know we do not need another “liberal elite” online touting its importance. Nonetheless, intersectionality is an undeniable and material experience, that must be addressed. The dichotomy of symbolic and material issues is a false one.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election demonstrates this point exceedingly well. Many democrats, myself included, felt deeply betrayed by the white college-educated women who voted for Trump en masse. The endemic issue of “white lady feminism” is it whiteness: these women overwhelming voted in the interest of “whiteness” instead of in the interest of “womanhood.” The varying lives, issues, and political projects of women in our country alone should be more than enough proof that there is no universal experience of womanhood, and that white feminism is hegemonic at best, and neocolonial exploitation at worst.

The “trickle down” political project of many white feminists demonstrates what Judith Butler means when she says that, “Women can never be … precisely because they are the relation of difference.” [2] Butler is deconstructing the usefulness of the category “woman” as a universal experience, a fundamental and essential way of being which can be said to unite all women together in global sisterhood.

This myth of an essential sisterhood of women is at the foundation of the white feminist agenda: by helping white women, they are helping all women. The experience of womanhood, however, is by no means universal or exclusive; while gender is a highly visible axis of our bodies, race just as visibly marks the body in social spaces. Creed can also be highly visible, especially for women whose religions prescribe modesty vestments by which their belief system can be identified (hijabi women, Orthodox Jews, and some North American sects of Christianity come to mind).

Reconciling symbolic and material battlegrounds:

So why do I still care so much about these fictional worlds? Why do they matter to me, and to so many people? Is it because I too am a crypto-white-feminist? I am well-positioned to be one: graduate educated, white-passing, from a well-off suburban background. Sure, I’ve only earned a wage and never a salary, but I’ve always had the financial safety net of a family able to provide for me. How is my project not “white lady feminism” when I stand at an ostensibly “white lady” intersection?

My feminist agenda is focused on labor, race, and gender, in that order. Why does my feminist project put labor and race before gender? How can we even call this a feminist project at all? Why must a feminist vision put labor and race before gender?

First and foremost, it needs to be said, my politics are not, nor should they ever be read as, a “celebration of putative victims.” [3] So why do I insist on this hierarchy of labor, race, and gender? Color- and class-blind feminism actively empowers the extant racist and classist hierarchies. Singling out the category of “woman,” without parsing out any of her material circumstances, produces an understanding of womanhood that most closely reflects concerns and desires related to maintaining the cultural capital distribution within the status quo.  Whiteness, wealth, cisgenderedness, and heteronormativity are the inherent outputs of an intersectionless feminism.

Compared to directly aiming to help women generally, addressing labor and race issues is a better way to improve the conditions of poor women and of women of color. Women “at the bottom” of multiple intersectional hierarchies receive very little support from “women-first” feminism.

Feminism must reintegrate the symbolic and the material. A feminist utopian project must include all three: labor, race, gender. Each of these embodied facets is ideologically tied to our personhood, while also having an incommensurate material impact on our lives. Gender—closely tied to the politics of desire and of sex—creates space for LGBTQIA+ issues and agendas within the feminist project. As a queer and white-passing woman, however, I truly believe that feminism must place labor and race at the foreground of an intersectional politics for women and by women.

Class, and therefore labor, have become divorced from issues of the subject because: 1) unlike physical traits like race and sex, it does not appear to emanate from the body, but to act upon it; 2) it has clear and quantifiable material consequences. We easily forget that class is an embodied, visible experience as much a part of someone’s day to day experiences as their skin color and physiogamy.

Race and gender live in a discourse of symbolic battlegrounds, by contrast. Occasionally, we are able see past the false dichotomy of symbolic and material issues. Racial discourse in America is such an example because of the very material consequences of dehumanizing racial ideologies that encouraged and excused violence against black bodies.

But if class and race are so important as to precede the gender in feminism, why talk about gender at all? The gendered body is a fundamentally crucial part of understanding labor and race, though it must be put after both. Gender is a recognized category of social distinction that we ignore no more easily than someone’s skin color or their specific physiogamy. Our bodies, and the highly visible social categories which they index, produce and reproduce our relations in-the-world. For example, white, heternormative, cis-male middle-class spaces are fundamentally not “neutral” spaces; rather they occupy a highly recursive and specific category of immense intersectional distinctions of race, desire, sex, gender, and class.

Feminist fiction:

One could say that my whole feminist agenda is an exercise in class privilege. In our contemporary neoliberal context, where culture is industrialized and the self is commodified, representation has borne the brunt of paralleling corporate branding within theoretical discourse. By this I mean that the self is branded and is also adjacent to brands, both metaphorically in their ideos and also literally, through material product-based brands.

Discussing the symbolic does not mean ignoring the material. Fictional worlds and geeky subcultures may seem like purely symbolic battlegrounds, but in truth no such space exists. Political battles, feminist manifestos, and fictional worlds must continue to chip away at the false dichotomy of material and symbolic issues.

Discounting the importance of fictional worlds eclipses the role of symbolism with that of materialism, to the detriment of both. Fictional realities allow us to peer behind the curtain of our societies, and project our utopian visions into the world. These seemingly frivolous concoctions of imagination provide an avenue to “make claims for alternatives that are markedly different  from the claims that are made in relation to high cultural archives.” [4]

Represenational politics are themselves not an evil. As a scholar, I feel obligated to do justice to the contemporary cultural discourse, which at this moment continues to center representation as modality. We do not have to throw out representation. But we cannot satisfy ourselves with it either.

[1] Slavoj Žižek. Less Than Nothing. Verso Books, New York: 2013 (23).

[2] Judith Butler. Gender Trouble. Routledge, New York: 1990 (25). 

[3] Heather MacDonald. “Revisionist Lust.” The New Criterion May 1997 (17).

[4] Judith Halberstam. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, Durham: 2011 (20).