Radical Feminism: Changing the Frame

by Noanodyne

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.

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17 Responses to “Radical Feminism: Changing the Frame”

  1. 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.

    Brilliant post, Noanodyne. It reminds me that I have been stunned by the brilliance of the radical feminist blogs that I found and their comments. I am not saying that to praise only, it is literally my experience, feeling stunned and amazed. In awe of these ideas. Not just a soundbite, meme, set of rigid rules. Rather a lens—at times like a kaleidoscope because there is so much going on—through which to view the world, not just some abstract world, but the actual world around me. It is both frightening and reassuring to look at that world thus. Frightening because it challenges me to risk change. Reassuring because I can finally make sense of my lived experiences. The pattern of my life under patriarchy becomes clearer.

    I read some of the feminists like Mary Daly during the second wave. I’m not sure I understood them very deeply, since I obviously did not understand enough to resist much of the patriarchy and continued in a heterosexist lifestyle in the decades following that. I’ve begun to read them again and just ordered some of the books from the Resources page of this blog. At this point it is a labor of love, an expression of loving myself and other women. Thank you for offering your thoughts on how to approach them. Quite valuable.

  2. thanks noan! i agree that the style can sometimes seem thick or difficult to digest, or a slow or tough read…perhaps this is the “academentia” aspect of it, like you say. seasoned academic writers tackling these issues in their more formal voices, writing to be published.

    i have to say though that the *concepts* are actually very easy to grasp for many women because they make perfect sense. for example: that the penis is harmful to women. thats an easy one, and every single woman on earth seems to grasp this (except the fun-fems)! my mother is not a feminst, but she understood this one when i spoke with her about it earlier this year (to my amazement actually). which leads me to believe that theres a willfullnes about the ignorance of the fun-fems, many of whom *are* able to digest some of the thickest “academented” theory out there, AND they have access to the radfem blogs most of which are very plain-spoken, and they still claim they dont get it, or they “disagree” with things that are impossible to refute.

    i hope that all of this will become clear to everyone who passes through here, if it isnt already. thanks for clarifiying how they might accomplish this; that is so important.

  3. Wonderful post, Noan. It is so true that you have to acclimatise to radical feminism, because contrast creates shock and is initially blinding; as in moving suddenly from darkness into bright light, your eyes take time to adjust.
    I think it is important to help people make connections between a new way to view reality and things they already understand, and as you say, that takes time. There is no doubt that repetition is important to acclimatisation in feminism, people just won’t absorb the message if it is too overwhelming and will easily forget it if it is not continually reiterated. It’s also true that those who are acclimatised have to move on; I think when you have a huge mountain to climb you need a base camp, as well as a team to head for the summit. That is why I am not entirely against feminism lite. Trouble is, it gets easily overrun by comfort talkers and trolls.

  4. I think this shit really IS simple. So simple you know it in your gut immediately, intuitively simple, as FCM said (hey FCM you misspelled “willfulness” * snicker* Oops sorry private spelling joke I forgot this was live). But seriously when I was 5 years old I asked my mom why do men get everything. And she said because they can impregnate us. Boom. Simple. Simple enough for a five year old. And it’s that simplicity, that razor sharp truth that makes one go “How can that beeeeee? How does this mechanism WORK?” and that’s where the dismantling, the nuance, the analysis comes in. Changing the frame is about figuring out how and why, and by what means the TRUTH is soooo farrrrrrr from everyday cultural reality. I never understood as a teen why straight girls had to take medicine to have boyfriends. I thought, if I was straight I would never take medicine for it, if it requires medicine it can’t be good (forgive me if that offends). So there was my simple truth. Reading radical feminists EXPLAINS to me how and why that practice is commonplace. Does that make sense? I hope so. Oh and that’s another thing I was always afraid to comment on blogs, afraid I would say something the wrong way. Women should not be afraid of that. It’s how we learn and share!

  5. Your post brought to mind another issue—the growing trend to avoid the print-based information, even for college students. People I know who teach at the local community college will attest to this. In many English classes, including advanced writing classes, anywhere from 10-30% of the students will not have read a book on their own, even a novel, ever! Many do not buy a textbook for a class unless forced to do so. They rely on what they can sit in class and absorb. Not by taking notes, either. Students demand to have powerpoints or outlines available. This is what they read and study from, in many cases, nothing else. The depth you are talking about is getting rarer.

    Here’s one journalist’s take on it:

    We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth.* The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection.
    . . . .
    There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.
    h ttp://www.truthdig.com/report/print/20081110_america_the_illiterate/

    I am alarmed at how bad this has gotten. What do we do for the women, our sisters, who do not use print to better understand their world? I know we need to understand these complex ideas ourselves, but I hate the idea of so many women not having access to the ideas they so desperately need. Is this what separates us from many of the women attracted to the superficiality of so-called third wave feminism? How do we reach them, eventually?

    *[KatieS’s note: except, unfortunately, the illusion of patriarchy in nearly all cases].

  6. What I was trying to say is that it’s the blinding truths that FUEL the desire to seek answers to the cultural incongruity.

  7. So much for being clear, lololol.

  8. I think you are right, GallusNag, we know these things as children, then have them trained or knocked out of us. I have a post about how cruelly this used to be done. But have as yet, felt unable to post it on my own blog. For each person there is a different experience.

    “What do we do for the women, our sisters, who do not use print to better understand their world? I know we need to understand these complex ideas ourselves, but I hate the idea of so many women not having access to the ideas they so desperately need. Is this what separates us from many of the women attracted to the superficiality of so-called third wave feminism? How do we reach them, eventually?”

    We use different media, maybe youtube, where we have the resources, film. Dance and plays can be helpful and feminist story telling. There is a lot to do! But first we need to be (where possible) living examples ourselves.

  9. for the non-print based…there are radical feminist graphics (for starters!) miska started “scum-o-rama” for radfem graphics, which she later invited me to collaborate with her on, and i cannot tell you how fun its been. heres my latest:

    http://scumorama.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/mens-slutwalk/

    of course, this too isnt going to reach anyone who doesnt have internet access, or those who are truly illiterate since most of the graphics to include some minimal text. but i do think it triggers another part of your brain and tweaks your awareness to see messages boiled down of their rhetoric, and expressed as a simple graphic.

  10. “Academics are protected in their jobs and in their social system when they write and talk about unpopular ideas.”
    Perhaps this was true when women’s studies departments were still functioning, independent entities, but according to Sheila Jeffreys’ recent interview with The F Word, this is no longer the case. She said (and I’m horribly paraphrasing) that the rise of corporate-university pretty much killed all radical thought (not just in feminism.) Moral of the story: Those of us outside academia have to do it for ourselves. So all the better that you brilliant women started this hub!

    To KatieS’s point about illiteracy: Wow. I am actually floored by those numbers. But the question of how to bring our message to those women made me think of the 2nd wave solution: consciousness-raising groups. Whatever a modern day version of that is called or ends up looking like, I think the solution is to speak to them. Like, TALKING. Whoa, hello 20th century. But it doesn’t require any special training or knowledge or a lot of money.

    I definitely still have some challenges reading radical feminist texts, but it gets easier to hold all of the threads at once with practice. My question now is, what do I DO with all these ideas? How else can I apply radical feminist thought to every day life and where/how can I participate in radical feminist actions?

  11. Thanks for the discussion, everyone.

    The thing about simplicity is that we always think something’s simple once we see it. It was a wonderful feeling each time I could see the radical feminist frame someone like Daly or Dworkin was describing. And once seen it can never be not seen again, that’s the beauty of excellent framing.

    But before we do get it, it can be tough going. Part of the difficulty is in the newness, part of it is whether we are really ready to understand what the new information is saying. Women have many reasons to not see their lives in the cold hard reality of radical feminist frames. And it is that and the complexity that we have to overcome any time we discuss these things. Women don’t want to know, so we need to address that.

    This week I wrote an explanation of why the distinction between sex and gender matters, and, as GallusMag described it, why gender identity protections are bad for women. I called it Feminism, sex, and gender because I was specifically trying to take complicated radical feminist ideas and get them across to people who aren’t steeped in our language and concepts. I think what I said is pretty clear, but it was very difficult to write knowing who the audience was and I had to use a lot of words knowing that any given reader was not going to take the ideas at face value or in the first pass or with one argument. I’ve already heard what the response was from people who are not radical feminists. I guess it’s completely predictable that the outspoken ones went right back to their original arguments and claimed they either couldn’t get through my explanation or that it didn’t address the issues. But we know that it’s just that they don’t want to accept what’s in there. They want to continue believing what they do. And of course there’s nothing we can do with folks like that. But we have to be aware that their facile, fairy-tale arguments are the ones that are getting far more play right now.

    What’s notable about current radfem bloggers is that we ARE making our ideas clear and accessible. And not just that, but talking about what can be done with those ideas. Women are coming up with plans for what comes next, but we’re going to have to keep working on getting more women to join us. Part of a strategy for what comes next is in growing our numbers. And we’re going to do that by what we’re doing here: telling our stories, explaining our ideas, and discussing the whole range of possibilities and being aware that a whole bunch of women are ready to join us and just need to keep seeing what’s possible.

  12. When I was discussing the harms of piv with my mother, she went on and on about how confused she was that anyone was having “sex” in “undeveloped” countries when the women couldn’t take showers before or aft (long story) and it was after like 10 minutes of gesticulating wildly, confused-face, and literally ranting about it that I said mom, men are sticking their dicks into women everywhere to kill them, and in the places you are talking about where there’s no access to running water and medical care, its even more true.

    She got it. Immediately. So I don’t know what about it was the difficult part, for her or anyone, assuming her first exposure to radical feminism experience is average? To me, it seemed like her misogyny and disgust with women’s bodies (“those” women, over there) coupled with a stubborn desire to rant and be stuck in some kind of flabbergasted confusion which she seemed to enjoy, kept her talking and ranting instead of listening, or asking serious questions. Because it took literally 5 seconds to explain it to her, once she shut up.

    She’s a nurse though. And the medical-event aspect of piv in the absence of medical care clicked immediately. But seriously, the blatant misogyny, and something about her almost-enjoyment of her own confused rant really struck me. We do have a lot of shit to work through, don’t we?

  13. you know, i am also prepared to accept that the PIV/pregnancy thing may actually be more simple than some of the other stuff. so if i derailed noans analysis here about difficult subject matter, i apologize. i may have used a bad example. PIV is in a class all its own in radfem anaysis i think. its the foundation upon which everything else rests, like a pyramind (or even an inverted pyramid?). getting anyone to care about womens reality as impregnable beings is difficult, and getting anyone to see how many abusive and male-centric institutions, practices and structures are built on PIV, which *is* a simple thing in itself (kind of) is difficult. dom/sub is difficult, in comparison. isnt it? but PIV itself…is what?

    i cannot stress enough the reality that all women, everywhere, all over the world, across time and place, seem to have known the dangers to women, of the penis. the only ones who seem confused about this are the fun-fems. thats why their rhetoric rings so hollow, and its so disgusting in its western arrogance (they have access to the pill and the best female-reproductive medical care in the world). even as they rhapsodize about being inclusive and tolerant, they are just spewing utter shit that every woman on the face of the earth for centuries (millenia!) knows is shit, and we know is shit.

    so what is PIV in all this? is it different than the rest? still thinking about that.

  14. I think it all becomes clear when you stop fighting with yourself because you find other people saying exactly what you always knew to be true.

    Sometimes it just takes time, though. I remember when I first found radical feminist ideas in the form of a book by Marilyn French and my first reaction was “this is nuts”. Then, eventually, it dawned on me that it was all true. My mind was expanding so fast because of reading this book that I could literally feel it.

  15. Then, eventually, it dawned on me that it was all true. My mind was expanding so fast because of reading this book that I could literally feel it.

    Wow, Mary! That’s a great description of it. Yes, I’ve felt that way, too.

  16. This article inspires me to think and reframe many more things…. and it is hard work reframing that which is always framed on the side of men, everything out there actually. And the fact, that we haven’t had time to uncover 95% of men’s lies is scary!! But there is a 95% rate still out there, still going strong, that remains unchallenged YET.

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