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We need to talk about Lionel… a lot less

Leila, Melbourne gal and feminist, guest writes for Words and Leaves about hearing two very different women speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival – Lionel Shriver and Juliet Jacques – and how, respectively, they angered and inspired her.

Initially when I planned this review, I was going to write about how the authors I’d heard at the Melbourne Writers Festival – Magda Szubanski (Reckoning: A Memoir), Charlotte Wood (The Natural Way of Things), Yassmin Abdel-Magied (Yassmin’s Story) – all meditated on how reading and writing illuminates the human condition and helps us to know ourselves better. I was also going to write about how authors and readers can grow to love (or hate) the characters in the best books with as much passion as if they were real people. And how our favourite books are far more than just stories, instead becoming real experiences that enter into our memories and really change us.

I was going to write about all those things. And then I saw Lionel Shriver give her closing address.

Shriver described her views as ‘incendiary’. I prefer to describe them as ‘infuriating’.

Lionel Shriver’s closing address about gender – only tangentially relevant to her latest novel The Mandibles – was delivered to a packed-out theatre. 11During her 45 minute address, and in the question and answer session after, Shriver trotted out the tired, offensive line that gender dysphoria appears to be all about ‘clothes’, and that transgender women are betraying feminism by linking identity to the body and parodying conventional femininity. Disappointingly, the only evidence Shriver cited in support of her unsophisticated conclusion that trans women are just men playing dress-ups were unspecified newspaper articles about little boys wanting to wear skirts, and Caitlyn Jenner. She clearly hadn’t spoken to any ordinary trans women about their life experiences.

Far from being ‘radical’, or ‘controversial’, she was parroting the dull, over-used conservative rhetoric that has been used to legitimise transphobia and transmisogyny for years. She patted herself on the back for not allowing her gender to restrain her identity or determine how she developed the characters in her novels, and repeatedly made the statement that ‘I don’t feel like a woman when I’m alone in a room’. Who lives their life alone in a room, though? Our identities are complex and dynamic, and they are shaped at least in part by how other people and institutions respond to us. And these responses are definitely shaped by gender, as all feminists, and most women, are acutely aware.

I was unsurprised to read that Shriver made a similarly out-dated speech on race at the end of the Brisbane Writers Festival. Talking about race and gender as if they don’t matter are functions of unexamined privilege.

It was greatly disappointing to hear an accomplished cis woman use her profile and platform to attack trans women as being a central problem for feminism, instead of a focusing on more pressing issues such as growing inequality between rich and poor (which disproportionately affects women), the persistent gender wage gap or the backlash against feminism. Not to mention even greater issues facing women who don’t live in wealthy countries, and for women of colour and women with disabilities.

In the end, Shriver simply angered me, rather than inspired me. Juliet Jacques, on the other hand, was quietly amazing.

Juliet Jacques addressed a small, intimate audience about her life and work, Trans: A Memoir. Jacques’ first major published work was an autobiographical series in the Guardian, Transgender Journey that covered the period in her life when she was physically transitioning. Juliet stated that she had moved on from justifying her right to exist (which people like Shriver are still trying to deny) and is now focused on the real discrimination and disadvantage that trans men and women face.

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Juliet thinks deeply, and does not talk lightly. She knows that she is seen as a representative of the trans community and she respects that role. Jacques spoke intelligently and thoughtfully about intersectional feminism, and acknowledged her privilege as white and middle class. This did not come across as craven or disingenuous, nor did it not serve to diminish her power – rather she grew in stature as she spoke. I purchased Trans: A Memoir and very much look forward to reading it.

I found that my festival experience was dominated thematically by a stark contrast between old and new feminism; and these very different talks embodied this perfectly. These two women really got me thinking about how my journey into feminism is still very much underway. Like a teenager pushing her parents away in order to find herself, I am starting to question the lionesses of the feminist movement. Feminists like Germaine Greer (a notorious defender of transphobic views and referenced by Shriver in her speech) were radical women who challenged the status quo and broke down barriers, for which I will always be grateful. But like the teenager who realises that her parents are fallible and old-fashioned, I’m also realising that women like Greer and Shriver are deeply embedded in their white privilege, and increasingly represent a far more conservative side of feminist debates than I’m comfortable with. More disturbingly, as Shriver evidenced in her closing addresses in Melbourne and Brisbane, some of the loudest and most prominent voices in mainstream white feminism are openly trans-exclusionary and anglo-centric.

Towards the end of her interview, Jacques stated that she felt it was time for her to take a step back and let younger people’s voices come to the fore. It’s a shame Shriver didn’t get the same memo.

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Image courtesy of Bug Cruickhank (http://centipedes.tumblr.com)

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it's hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.

7 Comments

  1. That is frustrating. I’ve meant to read both Shriver and Greer for so very long, and hearing things like this makes it harder for me to prioritize them, which means I just go on indefinitely with a vague idea of “someday.” I like that graphic at the end of your post. So many people seem to want the line redrawn just enough that it will include them, but no one else.

    • Yes is it frustrating Gwen! I would like to think feminists can lift each other up, rather than tearing each other down. To me there is no sisterhood if it’s not inclusive. Sometimes it can be painful to admit our own prejudices but it’s such an important part of social change – people who have fought hard against oppression do sometimes have a hard time facing up to the fact that in some ways, they can also be part of the problem. That is not to say that we should beat ourselves up all the time, but we can all do better and I think we have a duty to keep trying. Really listening to others before we dismiss them out of hand, thinking about the impact of our words and actions, stepping back and allowing people to speak about their own experiences (rather than speaking for them), and being willing to admit when we’ve got it wrong rather than immediately jumping to defensiveness are all good qualities of the best inclusive feminists I know (I won’t include myself in that group, but I’m working on it!). I would say, do read Greer and Shriver, but seek out black feminists, queer feminists, Indigenous feminists, Islamic feminists – bell hooks, Juliet Jacques, Melissa Lucashenko, to name a few.

      I like this quote from Audre Lord (another must-read): “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

  2. Many thoughts! Firstly – we could have met! (I was at Shriver also).

    Where to begin…? I’ve seen Shriver speak a few times and each time I’ve found her to be a very powerful speaker – that’s not to say I agree with everything she says but I do like the fact that she is deliberately provocative. Any dialogue about current issues is good, even if it’s uncomfortable (and her reference to Greer was interesting in that respect).

    There were a few things that I took away from her MWF address. Firstly, I think it’s easy to say the kinds of things she did about gender when you’re quite comfortable with who you are and where you’re at. She was very clear about the fact that “My gender is not central to my identity” and yet, for some people struggling with their identity, gender IS central. Shriver obviously grew up in a supportive environment and has the luxury of just ‘being’, without it being attached to gender. But again, I found her comments about changing her name and the fact that if she was a teen now, would her parents be taking her to specialists, interesting because clearly there is more to her story than one might first think.

    I also found her discussion on characters and gender really interesting, and that she gives her characters traits that are ‘non-stereotypical’ – it’s something I admire about her writing. I read Double Fault earlier this year – almost want to read it again – the female character, Wily, is fascinating.

    How did I feel after the talk? I didn’t feel infuriated like you but I did think that she has the luxury of speaking as a successful, white female living in a safe country. What has lingered is how I ‘feel’ in terms of my inner being. And that doesn’t feel gendered – but again, is it because I live a safe, comfortable life? Who knows, there’s no perfect experiment.

    • Many thanks for your thoughtful response, as ever. I read your review of Shriver last week and that you found her a very powerful speaker.
      I didn’t actually go – it was Leila who guest wrote this one for me (aren’t I lucky!?). But I’m pretty sure she’ll come back to you with some thoughts about your thoughts.
      I think your point about being secure and safe is a really good one. It’s a luxury in some ways, to be confident of identity, but it’s not something that I really examine or reflect on (beyond being a woman).

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response Kate – and thanks to Weezelle for letting me post on her fabulous blog! I completely agree with you that Shriver obviously has grappled with insecurities about her gender, and the sexism of the publishing world, and I would have welcomed hearing more about that. Although she stated that gender wasn’t central to her identity, I got the feeling it was more important than she would like to admit. More self-reflection would have been fascinating – perhaps a more honest and closer examination of the fact that she changed her name to something obviously more masculine, yet chose to wear very feminine clothing (and made an explicit comment about enjoying ‘dressing up’). I also found her pride in not having flowers on her book covers and having a substantial male readership interesting. To me those vignettes really illustrated the tensions that women have to negotiate all the time – they have to be feminine and attractive, but not too feminine because then they won’t be taken seriously by men. She obviously doesn’t want to be thought of as a ‘typical woman’, and she doesn’t want her characters to be seen that way, which I completely sympathise with.

      My inner being doesn’t feel non-white, for example. I’m just me. But people ask me where I’m from, they mispronounce my name, and my relationship has been described as ‘inter-racial’ (which actually shocked me at the time, I just hadn’t thought of it like that!) Identity is a least in part a relational concept. Similarly, just because we may not ‘feel’ like being female is a core aspect of our identities, we still live in a patriarchal society that responds to us as women. And that of course has an impact on how we see ourselves. That discussion is far more interesting to me and I would have loved Shriver to talk about her experiences more.

      However, I didn’t find her dismissal of trans women particularly provocative, but rather shallow and almost anti-intellectual, which was surprising coming from someone clearly so smart. I think there’s a difference between challenging the status quo and provoking conversation that takes us forward as a society – which she obviously has done in her writing and her career – and repeating reactionary and offensive nonsense just to get a rise out of an already very marginalised and oppressed group. I actually started off feeling disappointed and annoyed, but became infuriated the more I thought about it. When you are contributing to a discourse that really harms people (trans women in particular face some of the the highest levels of violence and abuse, mental health issues and suicide rates of any minority group in society), without doing your due diligence or research, I’m not sure I can agree that any dialogue is good dialogue. Particularly when there wasn’t a dialogue in the true sense of a word – trans women’s voices are rarely heard in any arena, and they certainly had no opportunity to respond to Shriver’s address. So often powerful voices (those that come from a place of privilege and comfort, as you so rightly said) are able to set the agenda and influence thought in ways that has real-world impacts – I think that power comes with a responsibility. A discussion between Jacques and Shriver – now THAT would have been provocative in a good way!

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