Radical feminist analysis can seem complicated and obtuse, the subject matter and the language opaque, and the point nearly impossible to grasp. Many women have had the experience of wading into writings by Andrea Dworkin or Catharine MacKinnon or Mary Daly for the first time and feeling like they’re reading a different language. It can be frustrating and maddening without someone to guide us through the concepts, language, and references.
Even people who try to explain radical feminist concepts in more straightforward language have created things that are difficult to understand at first reading. And that reality has made it harder to bring more women into the fold of radical feminism.
But why are the concepts so difficult to grasp? And doesn’t that mean that maybe it’s all just academic bullshit?
The fact that it has been academics who have written some of the formative texts that cover radical feminist concepts is precisely because the ideas are suspect and rejected in wider society. Academics are protected in their jobs and in their social system when they write and talk about unpopular ideas. And they are rewarded for developing complex analysis that exposes truths that cannot otherwise be seen. But they are not the only ones who have done the analysis and explanations — Dworkin spent her working life explaining the background and harms of pornography.
But regardless of who has written about the concepts, the reality is that human social systems, language, and experience are exceptionally complex. In our daily lives we do everything we can to simplify that for ourselves, so we can get on with just living. We spend time with certain kinds of people, we do one type of work, and follow a whole set of rules for behavior that fit us comfortably and very specifically in our social system. We live within a frame that we not only don’t see because it’s so familiar, but take for granted as “truth” and “reality.”
For anything to change in human society, we have to be able to analyze and critique the frames we create and live with. Because it is those frames that not only give us safety and comfort, but that keep us firmly in the place society says we should be in. Specifically, the patriarchy has created very precise frames to keep everyone seeing certain things and not seeing certain other things. Radical feminism is what it is because it not only brings those frames into question, but allows us to shift the frame entirely.
But a shifted frame is a very disorienting thing when you’re used to seeing everything through the one you’ve been using your whole life. Hold a camera to your face, look in the viewfinder and quickly zoom in or out. It’s disorienting and uncomfortable. That’s a physical reaction and we don’t like it. This isn’t a facile comparison. We’re animals, we like to know what’s what in our environment. And when someone comes along and makes us suddenly see something up close, or from a greater distance, or one step to the left or right, we get confused. That’s not what we saw before and we don’t have the immediate capability to know what we’re looking at or know how to react.
The metaphor continues to hold when we talk about “focus.” With a camera we know that some of the disorientation after a big zoom is because things are blurry. The same is true for new concepts — our brain needs context and a way to re-orient what it is looking at into something it already knows. I had this experience on 9/11. As I turned on the television, with no context of what was happening, the burning towers would simply not come into cognitive focus for me. I had been to Manhattan many times and been to the Twin Towers; my brain had no way of contextualizing what I was seeing on the television screen into what I knew about the physical realities of those buildings. It took many minutes of staring at the pictures for the concept to fall into place that they were on fire and why.
We get used to seeing things the way we have always seen them. And we have to get yanked violently into seeing them differently or we will continue to assume that there is only one way of looking at the world. An example of the problems around patriarchal framing was covered beautifully in a post by FCM recently. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone interested in feminist ideas that men have framed human experience to their own benefit.
But radical feminism is not merely about pointing that out. Generic liberal feminism has that covered. What’s radical is to not only show the frame, but dissect it, and reframe all the related concepts so that we see them with more clarity and depth. A long lens can be manipulated in such a way for both the foreground and background to be in focus. So it is with radical feminist analysis. And that process and the product of it are what is so disorienting and complicated about radical feminist ideas and writing.
Any time someone tells you they can boil complicated concepts down to something easy to understand and simple, you are are going to get a spun version of the original concepts. Rather than a better explanation, a “simplification” must, by definition, leave things out. And what gets left out is usually based on someone’s biases or the wish to not have to work so hard to see the whole picture.
So the harsh reality is that to grasp radical feminist concepts, women do have to spend some time re-orienting, re-focusing, and getting used to a new context, a new way of seeing, new language, and things they haven’t thought about before.
But we are here to tell you, the work is well worth it, and probably the only way we are going to bring about women’s liberation from the patriarchy and its frames.