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. During 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.
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.