“We have the facility to judge each other by entirely different criteria than those imposed upon us by the superstructure of society. We have a view that reaches beyond profit margins into poetry, and a vocabulary to articulate the difference.”
– Musician Ani DiFranco in Ms. Magazine, 1998
There are many words in the English language that have, more or less, a thoroughly negative connotation for women. From the harsh snap of ‘bitch’ to the damning ‘whore’, the definition of what those words really mean – and how to take their power back – has long been a matter of concern. While a word is, at the end of the day, just a word, in a sound bite society it can have a currency beyond itself that has little to do with its intended meaning or any relation to truth.
In the early 1990s, before the prettily packaged appropriation of feminism by groups like The Spice Girls, riot grrrl music hit the scene in the Pacific Northwest. While a variety of bands and experiences made up the catalogue of riot grrrl, groups like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Huggy Bear were known for their focus on issues impacting women, from sexual assault to domestic abuse to daily life in a patriarchal society. Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill, would often paint the word ‘slut’ on her stomach at shows. Instead of being an external judgement, it became a word whose power was taken back, its meaning changed so that the woman could define its parameters – and her parameters – on her own.
In a recent article by Anne Kingston in Maclean’s, “How 2016 became the year of the ‘nasty woman”, Kingston discusses the many women who were in the media spotlight. While the article takes its name from Donald Trump’s remarks on Hillary Clinton, it explores the media presence of many women last year, from the comedian Samantha Bee to the former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson. At the end, Kingston makes mention of Roseanne Barr’s famous quote, “The thing women have yet to learn is nobody gives you power. You just take it.” But, is taking the power as it is really the thing we should be aspiring to?
I’ve always appreciated the presence – the very existence – of women like Kathleen Hanna and Hillary Clinton, but oftentimes there seems to be an inherent problem in the way that a woman’s power is framed. If sexism, like racism and ageism and so many isms, is systemic, then it stands to reason that the abiding power structures are also systemic. If these power structures are out of step with the reality of what it means to be female, why do we extol their virtue? Why do we still so frequently judge power as how it traditionally relates to men?
Many, many years ago when I was still a teenager and feminism was more internal-sense-of-justice than cultural force, I remember hearing about some dispute between the musician Ani DiFranco and Ms. Magazine. The essence of DiFranco’s critique of Ms., a magazine she loved, was what the editors defined as her achievements in an article called “21 feminists for the 21st century”. As DiFranco sums up at the end of her open letter:
“We’ve gone beyond the limited perceptions of sexism and so we should move beyond the language and perspective of the corporate patriarchy…Thanks for including me, Ms., really. But just promise me one thing; if I drop dead tomorrow, tell me my gravestone won’t read: “ani d., CEO.” Please let it read: songwriter, musicmaker, storyteller, freak.”
At the time, DiFranco’s statement was something I didn’t really understand, but it’s something I see clearly now. The abiding structure of capitalism might say that those who have the most power, the most money, are to be the most revered. However, what Ani DiFranco was hinting at was a different estimation of what it means to have power. Instead of looking to take that power, wouldn’t the ideal pursuit be to redefine it (as Hanna did), not through the traditional signposts of power, but through our self-identification?
There is that old adage that, What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? But what for us women who are supposed to walk through the doors of men and claim them for our own, as if their markers signify the roads we should follow?