The front page of Harper’s October 2010 issue says it all: “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide” by Susan Faludi. http://www.harpers.org/archive/2010/10/0083140
Apparently, according to Faludi, American feminism has a mother-daughter problem: daughters keep fighting with mothers, mothers keep undercutting daughters, and this, ladies and gentlemen and everyone else, is the real reason that feminism never quite gets its revolutionary interventions right! Trotting through some rather predictable and tame histories of feminism (first, second, third waves; sex wars; women’s suffrage; temperance movements; Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch as founding mothers; the Miss American Beauty pageant of 1968 etc.), Susan Faludi remarkably, ends up somewhere in the vicinity of our contemporary moment and winds down to a drearily pessimistic conclusion—feminism is dead, we killed it—and punctuates this sad insight with a kind of amusing send up of yours truly, bullyblogger and professor, Jack Halberstam! Well, I have kept my weapon in its holster until now but upon receiving a few emails wondering what I thought of the Faludi piece, I thought I would respond with a bit of matricidal anger – actually, though, Faludi, though she may sound like your grandmother, is actually my age, so I guess this is sibling rivalry if one must stick to familiar metaphors…
How did I come to be the bad guy in “feminism’s ritual matricide”? Well, after drifting around various feminist venues like a NOW convention for example, Faludi ended up at a conference at the New School where both she and I were speaking. The conference, “No Longer In Exile” consisted of huge panels (sometimes with 8 or 9 speakers), a couple of on point presentations (by Ann Stoler, Nancy Fraser, Val Smith and others), and a lot of slightly random talks which failed to add up to any kind of state of the union event on feminism. Susan Faludi spoke on the mother-daughter dynamic and how it undermines feminism but I honestly cannot remember much of what she said other than that she seemed to have missed several generations of theoretical works by feminist theorists. She clearly felt no need to comment on the instability of gender norms, the precarious condition of the family itself nor upon the many challenges made to generational logics within a recent wave of queer theory on temporality. Instead, as I recall and as she does in this article, Faludi cast conflict in the mother-daughter bond as transhistorical, transcultural, universal and she situated its toxicity as the reason for internal rifts in the feminist project. She never once mentioned Freud or the Oedipal, she did not differentiate by class or race, she made no mention of queer challenges to the normativity of the family and of generational thinking. Faludi had clearly missed all the other big feminist conferences in the last few decades on the theme of generationality and she thought the mother-daughter thing was big news when in fact feminists have moved on and are more likely to speak of rhizomatic schemes of association, assemblages, ruptures, and performativity than about passing the torch of knowledge from one generation to the next, from mother to daughter on into perpetuity.
The event at which Faludi and I appeared seemed loosely organized around questions about generationality, institutionalization and activist and theoretical legacies and it celebrated some institutional milestones at the New School, many pioneered by Ann Snitow, the conference organizer, herself. Like many such events, there were good talks, bad talks, indifferent talks – there was the obvious, the painfully obvious, and that was just the social science stuff…and so when I had my turn to speak, on one of the last panels of the day, I tried to mix it up a little, try a bit of humor, try a bit of provocation, make some comments about what we had heard and make a bridge to the many young people who were in attendance but seemed bored out of their skulls.
While Faludi characterizes me as a glib twit who proposed Lady Gaga as the answer to what ails feminism, I actually had tried to show that Lady Gaga’s duet with Beyoncé in “Telephone” provides an exciting and infectious model of Sapphic sisterhood that moves beyond sentimental models of romantic friendship and references a different kind of feminism, one more in line with the imaginary bonds that animate violence in Set It Off and Thelma and Louise.
While no one is proposing that there is some kind of clear feminist program for social change in the world of Gaga, activists of all stripes have looked to popular culture for inspiration and have refused facile distinctions between culture and reality. The Gaga piece of my talk was just a humorous ending to a lecture that covered changing notions of gender, evolving models of institutional relevance and argued for an improvisational feminism that kept up with the winds of political change.
Why is Faludi so insistent on beating the dead horse of Oedipal conflict? First, Faludi seems to be stuck in a pre-1990’s understanding of feminism and moreover her world is a resolutely white world of middle-class women who just want the recognition they deserve. While very few academic feminists would characterize NOW as the bastion of contemporary feminist action and definition, Faludi is committed to a reform model of feminism, to the idea of feminism as a politics built around stable definitions of (white) womanhood and as a ladies club of influence and moral dignity. The mother-daughter bond, which for her is exemplified in the dynamic between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriet, allows for the gains of one age to be passed on to the next. But never does Faludi question whether the gains of white women in one era actually benefit women of color in the next, or whether the goals of white middle class women reflect anything beyond their class interests.
Faludi’s blindness to race is on display in the Harper’s article in the section where she reports on a shift in leadership at NOW while attending their annual conference. As she herself puts it, the leading candidate for president of NOW at the annual meeting she attends is a young Black woman, Latifa Lyles who is a “charismatic speaker attuned to a youthful sensibility, a black woman who insisted on a more diverse constituency, a technologically savvy strategist who had doubled the organization’s Internet fund-raising and engaged the enthusiasm of a host of feminist bloggers.” Lyles’ opponent is Terry O’Neill, a fifties something old style feminist who embodies the frustrations and fears of a group of older white women who see younger feminists as ungrateful, apolitical and unresponsive to the generation who came before them. While Faludi implies that this presidential contest may have something to do with race, ultimately she seems to think that racial struggles always give way to generational rifts and when the young woman loses the election and charges that O’Neill had “recruited older Hillary Clinton turned-Sarah Palin supporters to throw the vote at the last minute,” Faludi quickly shifts the blame back onto Lyles and her supporters and implies that their lack of insight and the callous indifference to the concerns of older women had led to Lyles’ defeat.
Even though the defeat of Lyles is a filicide and not a matricide, suggesting that if generational struggle is the real problem with feminism then it goes both ways, Faludi doggedly pursues her thesis that “a generational breakdown underlies so many of the pathologies that have long disturbed American feminism.” Billing me, in the article’s final section, as the butch matricidal maniac who casually dismisses early models of feminism and then blithely offers up Lady Gaga in exchange, Faludi tidily but not very convincingly wraps up her vapid take on “ritual matricide” with an apocalyptic image of an older woman sitting in the emptied conference room wondering what happened to feminism. Depicting this woman as the last living feminist at the New School and characterizing her as “knowledgeable and enthusiastic about recent developments in critical feminist theory” (which is more than one can say for Faludi), but still rendered redundant by the recent moves against gender studies at The New School, Faludi gives the misleading impression that a) there are no gender studies professors at The New School and b) that the expulsion of this lone older woman was the main chapter in a story of institutional erasure. Anyone who has read Jacqui Alexander’s excellent chapter in Pedagogies of Crossing, however, about a coalition of faculty, staff, students and security guards who led a political protest at the New School in NYC in the mid 1990’s, knows that there have long been struggles at the New School about politics, practice and theory. Jacqui Alexander was at the heart of the mobilization to protest the contradictions between the New School’s rhetoric of diversity and its practice of creating and supporting structural inequalities. The decision made by the New School not to hire Alexander as permanent faculty after employing her as an adjunct professor sparked the creation of a protest movement and allowed the protesters to make structural and historical links between the New School’s employment practices in regards to service employees, its past history of radicalism and its current failed promises of diversity. These are precisely the connections that Faludi fails to investigate, probably does not know about, probably does not want to know about and with their omission, she is able to clear the ground of all distractions from the big event of the momma-daughter fight that bloodies the daughter, slays the mother and brings all of feminism down with it.
If I hadn’t taught work by Faludi in the past and found her insights into gender often illuminating, I wouldn’t be so annoyed by the complacency and myopia of this article in Harper’s. I did try to talk to Faludi at the end of the New School conference to explain why I thought the mother-daughter conflict was a red herring but she just takes one piece of this interaction (where we discuss rumors of Lady Gaga’s hermaphroditism) and leaves the rest (where we discuss the redundancy of familial metaphors, the chaos of all generational transmission and the need for better models of both change and consistency). Mainstream feminism deserves better spokespeople than it currently has – the Camille Paglia’s and Susan Faludi’s, the over-paid, under-experienced phalanx of elite ladies to whom the press returns again and again. Honestly, if these are the contemporary “mothers” of feminism, then matricide might be justifiable.