In The Beauth Myth Naomi Wolf describes how sickness and health “are often subjective judgments that society makes for its own purposes”:
Women have long been defined as sick as a means of subjecting them to social control […] The Surgical Age took over from the institutionalization of female “mental illness,” which had in turn overtaken the institutionalization of nineteenth-century hysteria, each phase of medical coercion consistently finding new ways to determine that what is female is sick.
Wolf was writing about the cosmetic surgery industry at the end of the 1980s. This pressure is still with us, greater than ever before, but still we are finding new, more complex ways of diagnosing women as ill and unfit for activism or debate. I see this happening within feminism itself. It’s not just that women are told they are sick as a means of silencing dissent; dissent itself has been pathologised. You can be well, but only if you keep your mouth shut.
Terms such as bigot, TERF, whorephobe and SWERF are hurled at women whenever they do not toe the line regarding essentialist definitions of femininity and sexual passivity. It’s a means of discrediting arguments by suggesting that the subject is diseased, unable to think clearly due to multiple phobias. I think there’s a direct line to this from the cults that Wolf describes. Women who threaten the misogynist status quo by being active and demanding have to be put out of service one way or another.
The pressure placed on women not to fall victim to a bigotry diagnosis is intense. The “treatment” is harsh: public humiliation, threats of violence, no platforming, rumour, libel, mockery. That this is often led by middle-class white males — positioning themselves as allies or growing their hair long and declaring themselves “non-gender conforming” — adds to the level of threat. These males, adopting a position of authority over “sick” women who cannot be trusted to speak, could not be more gender conforming if they tried. Gender conforming is as gender conforming does. If you’re expecting women to be passive and silent, or to serve as mirrors, reflecting only your world-view, then all your claims to be challenging cis norms are meaningless.
Women have various options when it comes to avoiding the bigotry diagnosis:
1. Abase yourself. Make yourself into an empty vessel into which others can pour their superior ideas. Maintain some small degree of self-respect by telling yourself this isn’t what you’re doing and that actually, you are just checking your privilege, listening and learning, being receptive to other viewpoints (ignoring the fact that intersectionality has practical applications and contexts and that if all you are doing is absorbing without questioning, you are taking and not giving, to the benefit of no one).
2. Align yourself primarily with a form of discrimination which can affect males as well as females, and use this as a vantage point from which to deflect the bigotry diagnosis onto a caricature of the cis, middle-class, white feminist. This can be difficult if you yourself are white and middle-class but not to worry. Just say you’re non-binary and if it turns out you conform to every gender stereotype going, just pass this off as being femme. Don’t ever stop to consider that no woman conforms to the misogynist caricatures you’re applying to her. Don’t stop to consider that all women, growing up in a culture which equates innate femaleness with inferiority, should be granted the basic level of respect that treats them as non-binary. Convince yourself you are special and superior and others might go along with it, too (as long as we don’t start running low on supplies of caricature women to abuse).
3. Don’t be a feminist. Don’t challenge the status quo. Just ignore it all. It’s easier that way. Convince yourself you’re the mature one, aloof from all this in-fighting (even though challenging misogyny is not childish in-fighting, it’s essential. But hey, who cares, right?)
There is a degree to which being a feminist really can drive you mad.The disjuncture between what you know to be true (women are full, complete human beings) and what is broadly accepted as “the truth” in terms of how society functions (women are inferior beings, existing to serve the needs of men) can make you feel like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. You’re constantly asking yourself “is it me? Isn’t it obvious? Why doesn’t everyone else see this? Why aren’t they as furious as I am?” The answer to that is surely that it’s easiest not to feel angry. We all suppress it and become complicit in our own oppression to a greater or lesser extent. We wouldn’t be able to get through the day otherwise and if you challenge too much, you put yourself at real risk. But the effect of the bigotry diagnosis is to knock feminists off balance and make them think that maybe they are deluded. Maybe women are just inferior. Maybe, sod it, we should embrace gender stereotypes and sexual compliance and all go home.
But I don’t want to do that. I think we can do better. There just needs to be more of us saying that the emperor has no clothes because truly, he is naked and we need to say so.