Laundromat Feminism

It’s a lot harder than classroom feminism

| Managing Editor

I was sitting at the laundromat the other day, reading Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” I could barely read because of the blare of televisions, and I couldn’t go outside, because it was too cold for my fingers to be able to annotate the text. The Loop Laundromat, if you haven’t been there, has three televisions, each in a corner of the square room, each tuned to a different channel. One was playing a television show like “America’s Next Top Model.” One was playing the evening news. One was playing a show about jobs that are ridiculous and crazy. I was trying to understand Rubin’s trajectory toward the dream “of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love.” And I realized, as I continually tried to trace Rubin’s argument and was continually interrupted by the one hundred percent totally inane drivel of televisual audio, that there is a fundamental gap between theory and real life.

Because it’s Feminism Week, I think this is an important thing to bring up. Many of us harbor the implicit hope, I think, that our intellectual endeavors will effect some kind of change in the world—that really good ideas and really good ways of expressing them are really valuable more than just aesthetically. They are, in that they reformulate the consciousness of whoever encounters those ideas and texts. But for people in the laundromat getting sucked in by continual appeals to the eye’s movement toward moving light and the ear’s proclivity for preprocessed enthusiasm or gravity and the mind’s desire to escape from freedom/responsibility, TV is not only really great, but it’s also inescapable. And TV perpetuates cycles of gender bias, and stereotypes and bad judgment and obesity that, no matter how smart we are, are going to make our world a worse place.

But suddenly, on the other hand, you think of what all these intellectual movements have done, and you realize that the influences of feminism, even without a universal buy-in to utopian dreams like Rubin’s, have obtained suffrage for women and have changed attitudes throughout society toward women. And while nothing’s perfect, yet, people really are getting won over by this whole equality thing, and now it’s just a matter of getting the ideal of equality to fully penetrate into everyone’s brain such that its not even “equality” anymore, but just “stuff,” “things,” “life.”

I think it’s great that we’re excited about liberating women from thousands of years of ideological oppression, and I think weeks reminding us that it’s a continual battle are good, because it is. But what I’m trying to bring to the forefront is that theory, while it’s really helpful in some ways, and while without an avant-garde the rest of the army wouldn’t go anywhere, can only do so much. And more than likely, there’s a gap in your own life between what you believe intellectually and how you behave. The intellectual part of ideological change is often pursued more fervently than the personal part of it. I suggest that before taking another class on feminism, or criticizing someone for using the wrong pronouns in class, or subtly dissing an author with a clever footnote on their gender bias—and all these things are important, sure, but what I’m assuming is that you’ve got them under control already—before doing all these things, never ever watch “America’s Next Top Model” ever again.

  • jacob

    while i admire your attempt to transcend simple dialectics with your metaphysical theory of “gaps,” in the end it seems you too are bogged down in the distinction between realism and idealism (perhaps authentic/constructed as well) with which you grant supremacy to practice over theory. what i mean is, Why should we never watch phallogocentric and heterosexist television shows (your example) “BEFORE taking another class on feminism, or criticizing someone for using the wrong pronouns…”? (my boldness). inadvertently your model incorporates the liberal reformist notion that oppression can be dealt with on a case by case basis, gradually improving our social condition until the problem as a whole has been fixed and everyone is finally “won over by this whole equality thing” (which thing is that?) . what Rubin is saying is nothing utopian: we need to change the way the very categories of sex and gender and probably desire function is our society, even to the point that they become irrelevant as she says, specifically because of the way they currently function, that is, in ways that normalize compulsory heterosexuality and male supremacy. this is in fact the opposite of a utopian sentiment, which would seek a starting point outside of the system. not watching “America’s Next Top Model” is a good idea. being aware of how gendered language works to maintain and reproduce our positions as subjects within existing power relations is also a good idea. why shouldn’t the two live in harmony within the conscious feminist?