The Kavanaugh hearings brought forth a battery of rhetoric about what women feel and what women are, both in liberal feminist and explicitly anti-feminist terms. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, feminist author Rebecca Traister claims that “women were incandescent with rage and sorrow and horror…getting angry in a new way, a public way, an unapologetic way” (Traister 2018). Beyond her personal feelings, Traister reports having seen “hundreds of messages from women who reported the same experience, of finding themselves awash in tears” in response to Dr. Ford’s account before the U.S. Senate.
I, too, saw these same messages repeated, across social media, from friends, colleagues, influencers, even politicians. Women are angry. Women are hurt. Women are horrified. I thought to myself: which women? I do not mean to imply that I do not consider Justice Kavanaugh’s actions morally objectionable, or that I am pleased with his appointment to the Supreme Court. But I was not angry, nor was I hurt. In fact, I felt utterly resentful of the many feminists who were all too eager to use the occasion to shore up women’s solidarity along lines of identity with universalist and occasionally essential rhetoric, and, in my view, much of this rhetoric had a totalizing effect, in which my own experiences were politically subservient to and eclipsed by those of affluent and heterosexual women.
Regardless, I was confused. Do women truly feel in any particular way? Am I a “bad feminist” because I refuse certain feminist political imperatives to feel and act a certain way? If women are meant to feel in one particular way in that they are women, and this can be assessed positively, what, exactly, is the “feel” of being a woman? If this feeling of being a woman eludes me, do I continue to be a woman? Or am I man, in-between, or something else entirely because of my failure to cope with the political box of womanhood? And perhaps more insidiously, is my cynicism how patriarchy “means” for me to feel, i.e. am I being “duped” into supporting its political agenda to excuse sexual assault over my “natural” feminist allegiances?
Clearly, I am deeply uncomfortable with the project of identity and its politics, to the point that I almost always find identity stifling, restrictive, and, more often than not, utterly incomprehensible. Lately I have been deeply apathetic and, perhaps, distrustful, of any political movement that seeks to provide any particular understanding of what women are, how women feel, or indeed any that posit a notion of ‘woman’ that implies a shared experience or standpoint. I am, however, also aware of the specific political circumstances that drive the invocation of identity in experiential terms, and, despite my misgivings, I am deeply sympathetic to the efforts of feminists who, like Traister (2018), consider it politically favorable to build feminist solidarities that invoke the (apparent) shared experience or emotionality of womanhood. Here, I wish to account for my trepidations concerning feminist politics through a brief relation of the interplay between emotion, gender, and identity, as well as the perils and prospects that this interplay offers in terms of (de)stabilizing essentially and experientially female political organizing.
In Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll & Their Challenge to Western Theory, Catherine Lutz (1998) illustrates a discourse of Western emotion that concerns itself “with emotion as essence; whether the passions are portrayed as aspects of a divinely inspired human nature or as genetically encoded biological fact, they remain, to varying degrees, things that have an inherent and unchanging nature“ (Lutz 1998, 53). Lutz (1998) argues for a broader interpretation of emotions as produced and implicated within certain sociocultural systems. In her view, much like gender or sexual orientation, “…emotion is seen as a component of individuals rather than of social situations or relationships, the discipline and methods of psychology have been taken as most appropriate for its study” (Lutz 1998, 41). Again, like gender or sexual identity, Western theories of emotion therefore posit an “inner truth” to emotion that we must “come out” with by disclosing that “I am angry”, that “I am gay”, or that “I am a woman”. Often, each of these statements implicate the others.
In a similar vein, Traister (2018) claims that “female anger is discouraged, repressed, ignored, swallowed” (Traister 2018, emphasis mine). With this mind, she encourages women to “come out” with their anger as a political weapon against sexism. But if this assertion that women’s anger has been “swallowed” and “repressed” is true, does this not suggest an interiority of emotion that contradicts Lutz’s critiques of Western theory? A Foucauldian perspective would suggest that this silence around women’s anger is a central part of the discourse itself, producing dichotomous (gendered) emotionalities. Indeed, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault (1978) explains:
There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses. (Foucault 1978, 27)
I believe Traister (2018), perhaps unknowingly, allows for such a Foucauldian reading of emotional productivity when she suggests that, rather than “fully” repressed, female anger may be “…transformed into something more palatable, and less recognizable as fury — something like tears” (Traister 2018). But if women are already wielding our anger in these terms, what, exactly, is Traister asking us to do?
I understand Traister’s claims in normative terms. Traister asks us to wield a specific political anger, performed in its explicitly masculine terms. Rather than how women feel, her focus is on how women should feel, not in terms of particular emotions, but particular performances. She explains that Judge Kavanaugh “cry[ed] and yell[ed]”, that Lindsey Graham “rant[ed]”, and that “women are beginning to behave that way too” (Traister 2018). In other words, women are beginning to, and ought to perform their anger publicly like men. But just because women are behaving this way does not mean that women are doing so universally, or that their message is perceived as universally the same. Likewise, Kavanaugh and Graham being “allowed” to cry and yell does not mean that all men can do so without recourse. Lutz (1998) suggests, emotion “exists in a system of power relations and plays a role in maintaining it” (Lutz 1998, 54). Emotional performance, then, is mediated and translated by intersubjective relations of power.
Echoing Lutz, Richard & Rudnyckyj (2009) “conceive of affect not so much as an object circulating among subjects, but rather as a medium in which subjects circulate” (Richard & Rudnyckyj 2009, 59). As such, “emotion occupies an important place in Western gender ideologies” because the “ideological subordination of women” is realized “in identifying emotion primarily with irrationality, subjectivity, the chaotic, and other negative characteristics, and in subsequently labeling women the emotional gender” (Lutz 1998, 54). In this case, women’s performance of anger is intersubjective, and a sign/signified relationship is not a reliable interpretation of emotion, due to the predisposition of certain signs to invoke particular interpretations.
In regard to this intersubjectivity, gender theorist Judith Butler (1990) introduces a specific “provisionality” to discourses of identity. In her view, “[t]o claim that this is what I am is to suggest a provisional totalization of this “I”” (Butler 2010, 309). Identities, then, produce “a certain radical concealment” when we attempt to “disclose the true and full content of that “I”” (Butler 2010, 309). Speaking of lesbian identity, Butler explains:
…it is always finally unclear what is meant by invoking the lesbian-signifier, since its signification is always to some degree out of one’s control, but also because its specificity can only be demarcated by exclusions that return to disrupt its claim to coherence. What, if anything, can lesbians be said to share? (Butler 2010, 309)
But Butler’s radical concealment need not be confined to identity, rather, there is also a radical concealment when we “come out” with our emotions. In calling for anger narrowly, Traister necessarily precludes sadness, happiness, fear, and any number of other politically disadvantageous emotions. But there are also political dangers in these preclusions. Butler rightly questions “[w]hat or who is it that is “out,” made manifest and fully disclosed, when and if I reveal myself as lesbian? What is it that is now known, anything?” (Butler 2010, 309). I mean to suggest that it is impossible to account for all possible readings of our performances of anger, no matter how personally or politically harmful they may become. Assertive or angry women, already the “emotional gender,” run the risk of dismissal as “bitches” or “hysterics”. They may also be taken as jokes, and their anger may incite laughter and ridicule. For some of us, anger will be sexualized and fetishized. For others, anger may be taken as aggression, and incite violent responses against black and brown bodies.
But it is not necessary that we perform our anger in exactly the same manner or for identical reasons, and I believe, despite these dangers, the provisionality of emotions still offers new opportunities for disruption and play. Richard & Rudnyckyj (2009) argue that affect is “mutually constitutive”, meaning that subjects obtain cultural intelligibility through the many affective mimetic processes in which they are engaged. In Butlerian terms, the mimetic processes of emotionality stabilize identity (and therefore emotion) as mutually intelligible categories of analysis.
Traister’s unladylike anger fails to perform normative gender both in rendering women as unintelligible within the heterosexual matrix and renders women mutually intelligible to those who share our political imperatives. Sara Ahmed argues that “emotions do things, and they align individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachments” (Ahmed 2004, 119). In this view, women’s anger could serve as a means to solidarity in its alignment of individuals, regardless of experience or gender, with a broader affective feminist community. Consider that unlike identity, solidarity based on shared affective affinity does not necessarily totalize women’s experiences or define them in any specific terms. As a result, affective solidarity queers normative identarian politics insofar as it resists intelligibility within cultural systems of power.
Hochschild (2003) suggests that “[w]e assess the “appropriateness” of a feeling by making a comparison between feeling and situation” (Hochschild 2003, 94). In this situation, the assessor is lent “a “normal” yardstick - a socially normal one” (Hochschild 2003, 94). Whereas, following Foucault, identity categories arise to grade legibility in reference to the social yardstick (the Norm), affective feminist politics also queer gender in part through their confusion of situationally appropriate and categorically legible behavior. But as I have shown, affective solidarity may still provide the minimal legibility that communal organizing prerequires.
I admit that I am still uncomfortable risking the restating of ‘woman’ as a political category, regardless of the terms. Following French feminist and philosopher Michèle Le Dœuff (2000), I distinguish a “feminism of equality”, which makes no assumptions about the eternality or homogeneity of ‘woman’, from a “feminism of difference”, which seeks to provide a language through which “women can speak their sex” (Le Dœuff 2000, 51-52). For Le Dœuff, the feminists of difference wish to “feel” themselves to be a notion of ‘woman’ that is ultimately reduced to sameness (Le Dœuff 2000, 44, 53). I fear that affective solidarity risks being read as a new strategy for women to feel like women, or to “speak their sex”, thereby reifying an interiority of womanhood that I do not believe exists in real terms. I also fear that this essentialism precludes the kind of coalitional non-identarian feminist organizing that affective solidarity allows in the first place.
But just as Butler chooses to “appear at political occasions under the sign of lesbian,” though she “would like to have it permanently unclear what precisely that sign signifies,” I, too, choose to appear provisionally under the signs of ‘woman’ and ‘feminist’ for political purposes, provided no interiority can be ascertained (Butler 2010, 308). The non-essential promise of affective feminist solidarity opens up space for social, political, and historical differences between individuals (regardless of gender) without the need for reconciliation with or repression of any particular feminist political image. When “woman” as a category eludes designation and refuses legibility, we begin to consider opportunities for non-experiential coalitional movement-building that transcends normative paradigms of what and who we are, thereby allowing a more appropriate assessment of what we could be, not as women/men but beyond women and men.
Sara Ahmed. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 22, no. 2 (2004): 117-139. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed November 3, 2018).
Butler, Judith P., and Sara Salih. The Judith Butler Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010.
Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. New York : Vintage Books, 1990.
Hochshild, Arlie. The Commercialization of Intimate Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
Le Dœuff, Michèle. 2000. “Hipparchia’s Choice” In French Feminism Reader, edited by Kelly Oliver.
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Lutz, Catherine A. Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll & Their Challenge to Western Theory. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000.
Richard, A. and Rudnyckyj, D. (2009), Economies of affect. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 15: 57-77. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9655.2008.01530.x
Traister. Rebecca. Fury Is a Political Weapon. And Women Need to Wield It in The New York Times, 2018.