Context is Everything

Still Andrea here, while last I heard Elsa was listening to prurient gossip from elderly dancers in Vegas.

Every so often it’s as if the feminist blogosphere feels the urge to rehash old problems endlessly. My personal favorite is the Name Change Wars, in which one side claims that women who take their husbands’ names upon marriage are catering to the patriarchy, adhering to harmful outdated norms, and RUINING FEMINISM FOR EVERYONE and the other side claims that women who don’t change their names don’t actually love their husbands, are deluding themselves as to the patriarchal nature of their last names, and furthermore are GIANT MEANIEHEADS.[1] And yes, somehow it’s always the heteronormative marriages that are the problem.

Other fun subjects that feminists like to periodically wrangle over include whether or not your clothing means you’re a tool of the patriarchy (too modest or too revealing and guess what? YOU ARE RUINING FEMINISM FOR EVERYONE), whether or not your parenting style is Feminist(tm), and of course whether or not whatever you do by virtue of being a woman is Feminist(tm).

Lacking from pretty much every single one of these discussions, which often devolve into weeks-long bitter wars before the respective camps slink off to lick their wounds, is any discussion of the context in which individual women make their decisions. There’s also pretty much no discussion of the ways in which a woman’s individual life means that a choice that may be RUINING FEMINISM FOR EVERYONE and CATERING TO THE KYRIARCHY in one context is a pretty radical rejection of kyriarchy in another. Our all-too-human desire to have black and white rules and hard boundaries for everything means that a lot of women end up being collateral damage.

Let me pick on our beloved blogmistress for one example, since she is off in Vegas having fun without us. She is a burlesque dancer. I have seen it asserted on more than one occasion that taking your clothes off in public for the enjoyment of a crowd is NEVER, EVER anything but CATERING TO THE KYRIARCHY and also RUINING FEMINISM FOR EVERYONE but. But. Our beloved blogmistress is also a crip, a blind lady who gets around with a white cane. The kyriarchy, gentle readers, is greatly invested in making sure us crippled people understand that our bodies are never, ever, under any circumstances, desirable. In fact media portrayal of people with disabilities is often brutally desexualizing, giving the impression that we crips, like dolls for small children, have no genitalia and certainly do not desire and really for sure certainly are not desired.

And in this context, Elsa stands up on stage and dances and is desirable. In the face of a world which tells her she should be hiding herself away unless she wants to come out and be inspiring for the non-disabled crowd, she puts on a rhinestone bra and she dances, in a way that claims her own body and her own sexuality. It’s possible Elsa herself would not put it quite this way, but every time she gets up there it is a giant “FUCK YOU” to an entire world telling her that her body cannot be, is not, a thing of beauty and desire.[2]

Or, you know, let me talk about myself. I took my husband’s name when I got married, in a move that shocked a lot of people who are aware of my leftist politics. But here’s the thing: my dead estranged asshole biological father wanted a son. He didn’t get one, he got a daughter, so he went out of his way to give me an only slightly feminized version of the name he would have given his son. Which meant that basically I was walking around the world carrying the name of a man my mother divorced for being an emotionally abusive asshole, a man who never paid child support, a man who never wanted a damn thing to do with me. A man who, when we did try to reconcile the year I turned 30, thought it was appropriate to make comments about my “fatass 30 year old thighs”.

My husband, by contrast, came here from England to marry me. He left behind his country, his friends, his family, the NHS, everyone and everything he had ever known, and moved to a country he had visited once before because he loves me and I love him and we didn’t see the whole long-distance thing working out well over the long term. Why should I have kept the name of an estranged asshole biological father (he wasn’t yet dead then) when I could seize the opportunity to easily take the name and visibly and publicly align myself with a man who loves me so much he gave up everything for me? Why would I leave the name of a man who treated my child self like disposable trash plastered all over any and everything I might achieve in my adult life? What is so very, very Feminist(tm) about carrying the name of an abuser for the rest of my days just because he happened to be married to my mother when I was born?

The point here is that the world is painted in shades of grey. The periodic drawing of the battle lines among feminists as to whose choices are More Feminist(tm) does nothing but leave a lot of metaphorical walking wounded in its wake, women who are screamed at that they are RUINING FEMINISM FOR EVERYONE for making the choices that were necessary for their survival. I’m not saying that we don’t need to discuss, dissect, and take down the structures underpinning things like the fact that it is cheap and easy[3] for a woman to change her name when she gets married, but if a man wants to do the same he needs to jump through the ten million hoops required of people getting a legal name change for any other reason than that they are a woman who just got married. Some states are taking steps in that direction, which is awesome, other states (like my own Virginia, a place I love kind of like you love a dog who is very sweet and adorable but sometimes shits on your pillow) have not yet gotten on board, and in fact if a woman wants to do anything but take her husband’s name or keep her own here in Virginia, it’s a no-go without legal hoops. WHat I”m saying is that we need to keep our focus tight on those systemic problems, rather than worrying about the choices of individual women on the ground.

Right now, it’s more than a little like we’d rather give a patient with pneumonia some Tylenol to get their fever down, when what we need to be doing is providing a nice big dose of the appropriate antibiotic.

[1] I think I’ve managed to characterize things fairly. I’ll know when I start getting hate mail from both sides.

[2] I, on the other hand, am an ex-sailor who swears a lot and anyway who’s in charge here, Elsa or me? Y’all are stuck with me til Wednesday. Possibly longer if it takes Elsa a while to recover from the debauchery.

[3] Well, as easy as contacting everyone with an interest in your legal name so you can provide them with a copy of your marriage certificate ever is, anyway.

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