Monday, November 24, 2008

Alice and Rebecca, Embracing the Complications

My blog is down again, and so I am here, at the lovely Ms. Elle's place, doing some ranting until I can move back into my place! ~~BFP

First a little background. The following posts are important to read so that you understand where I'm coming from:

What Michelle Obama is Giving Up: A question of Power

Walker on Michelle O. Or, the stupid job of First Lady
How my mother's fanatical feminist views tore us apart

Ok. You with me? For those of you without the patience to sit and sort through the above links: here is the short version of a long story. Alice Walker and her daughter, Rebecca Walker do not get along. In fact, from what I can tell, they are estranged. Rebecca Walker details her end of the relationship here. As far as I know, Alice Walker has not spoken specifically on her relationship with Rebecca, but as anybody who has read her work knows, Alice has talked about being a mother, many times in highly complicated and negative ways, just as Rebecca has talked about being a daughter to a feminist mother in highly complicated and negative ways.

Ok, having laid the framework for this discussion down, I want to bring in the third player. The one who said:

It’s hard not to read a major Oedipal* subtext to Rebecca Walker’s work. It ain’t hard to link the distancing from feminism in her writing to her struggles with her mother, Alice. This dynamic was obvious in a recent column for The Root about Michelle Obama.


Of course this hasn’t hurt Walker’s career, since the powers that be are always delighted to give an anti-feminist woman, better yet an anti-feminist black woman, plenty of airtime. It’s too bad, though, because there are interesting things to say about Michelle Obama. I think Michelle Obama is the bomb and I loved it that she was quoted immediately after the election saying she’d be working to raise awareness of the struggles of working moms. And damn is it something fine to see a gorgeous, regal black woman as First Lady of the United States of America.

Before I go on, I want to point out--what the woman who wrote this said about the Walker relationship is not new. If you look back through the course of Rebecca's online time, you find that she's gotten a *lot* of this response to her writing: "I know you don't like your mother, but that's no reason to talk bad about feminists." Or, "Rebecca is everything that's wrong with the third wave of feminism--they're all a bunch of petulant children who hate that they're not as good as their mothers." Or, "it's great that Rebecca can make a name off of bashing the only reason anybody even knows her." etc etc etc etc.

So, seeing as the previous passage is simply another chord in a previously played song, I don't want to focus specifically on the blogger in question.

Rather instead, I want to focus on a few more general things. General things like, 1. Why is it so easy to dismiss a woman of color who says she's been hurt by feminism? 2. Why is it that a woman of color says she's been hurt by feminism and suddenly it doesn't matter *what* she writes about, the only thing people can associate with her is her 'angry' 'bitter' 'resentful' 'jealous' and 'ranting' against feminism? and 3. Why is it that it's so fucking easy to take two really complicated and painful interactions with motherhood written by women of color and strip the complicated and painful down to 'bitter' and 'jealous'?

Why is it so easy to dismiss a woman of color who says she's been hurt by feminism?

Rebecca Walker is not the first woman of color to say that she's not only ambivalent about feminism, but that feminism has hurt her, deeply and powerfully, in ways that many women simply can't or refuse to understand. She's pointing to reasons that are much different than the reasons I'd point to--but she's saying the same thing that I've said and that historically, MANY women of color have said. And she's being treated in the same way most, if not all of us have been treated. Completely ignored, infantilized, cast aside, ridiculed and outright rejected.

Having been on the receiving end of this treatment, it's hard not to notice how many *white* women are treated when they voice similar problems with feminism as a whole. They get whole books written to them in their 'language' in an attempt to reach out to them. They get linked on their mother's blogs, even though they say exactly the same thing women of color say:

Then there’s Erica Jong, well-known novelist and advocate of what Shalit describes as “the concept of a random, guilt-free sexual encounter between strangers.” Jong’s now-grown daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, tried that lifestyle and found it utterly unsatisfying. The sad thing is, she tells Shalit, “You’re not allowed to admit that [promiscuity] just doesn’t work.” Though devoted to her mother, Molly is “embarrassed” by Erica’s writings and says to Shalit, “I was sold a bad bill of goods.” Well, their kids ought to know.

Is this anything different than what Rebecca Walker has said? What's up with that difference in how white women and women of color are treated for expressing the same thing? What does it mean? What does the difference stem from? Is there something wrong with feminism that white daughters are embraced and recognized as valuable enough to keep reaching out to, but colored daughters are written off? Does it speak to the values of feminism?

2. Why is it that a woman of color says she's been hurt by feminism and suddenly it doesn't matter *what* she writes about, the only thing people can associate with her is her 'angry' 'bitter' 'resentful' 'jealous' 'ranting' against feminism?

Count the number of times Rebecca Walker mentions her mother in that essay about Michelle Obama. The answer? Zero. She instead talks about the passionate discussion that her and other women had about a passionate woman and how she still had thoughts about that discussion. When I read her post, I felt excited and vaguely jealous because I wanted to be a part of that discussion.

But for some reason, when other people read that post (or, frankly, anything written by Rebecca), all they can see is some "Oedipal complex" playing itself out in some sort of vain obnoxious way.

Is it reflective of feminism that a woman who voices objection to it becomes known for those objections rather than her complicated, interesting, passionate debates that have almost nothing to do with her fight with feminism? Is it reflective of feminism that with few exceptions the woman who becomes entrenched in feminist history as existing almost exclusively as a reactionary force of violence and hate against 'real feminists' is a woman of color?

What does it say about feminism that this pattern keeps repeating itself?


Why is it that it's so fucking easy to take two really complicated and painful interactions with motherhood written by women of color and strip the complicated and painful down to 'bitter' and 'jealous'?

I'm going to be forthright here in how I understand both Rebecca and Alice's relationship with motherhood/daughterhood. I get both of them. I am a daughter who would never ever in a million years make the same decisions my own mother did, because I disagree with them that forcefully. I am also a mother who has made decisions that I know hurt my baby girl because they were the only decision I *could* make and stay alive. I am so beyond grateful to Alice Walker for writing Meridian, and pointing out the conflict of my life: what do you do when you figure out you never wanted to be a damn mother to begin with?

I am also so beyond grateful to Rebecca Walker for writing the other conflict of my life: what do you do when you figure out you never wanted to be a mother, but now that you are, you would rather cut off your own hand than hurt your child the way you were hurt?

What do you do with the love you have for your mother, the anger you have, that seems to simultaneously show itself in your relationship with your own child?

What Alice and Rebecca Walker talk about is not easy. It's not fun, it's, more often than not, completely painfully devastating--almost exclusively because there are no easy answers. Both of them are right. A woman has a right to not be tied down or defined by marriage or child rearing. A child has a right to be raised (and a right to *expect* to be raised) by a mother, not a friend or hired help. And yet, somehow, the painful brutal conflict that Alice and Rebecca discuss is so very easily reduced to "Oedipal conflict."

Why is that?

Is it a reflection of feminism that two women of color who are complicated, nuanced, painfully truthful, and committed to 'the personal is political' can be so easily reduced to squabbling children?

Is it a reflection of feminism that opportunities to self reflect and critically examine what feminism has done, what it's achieved, what it's screwed up, what it still needs to figure out, are considered male identified hate attacks rather than opportunities to become bigger, stronger, more beneficial to more women?

Is it a reflection of feminism that "feminism" as a whole seems to hold itself accountable to pretty much--well--nobody?

That it's simply another trick that people get to use however they see fit to achieve whatever they want?

Because I think that's what so many find so offensive about Rebecca's writing--that she's asking exactly what so many other women, and specifically women of color have asked for-- accountability. Feminism as a whole is demanding things that many women haven't asked for, and is insisting that it is doing it in their names. But when those women demand accountability, when those women say, not in my name, or what were you thinking, or you hurt me--then, suddenly the fun game is up. Then suddenly, the hard work of *movement making* is sitting and staring feminism as a whole in the face. And feminism as a whole refuses to admit--it isn't really sure what the hell to do.

There are many reasons for this, I think--but the biggest one is then women would have to sit down and admit, really admit--feminism is in the process of failing. Failing itself, failing women, failing girls-- but who wants to deal with that when there are more fun things to do like get Hillary into office and write books?

And if we can reduce Rebecca Walker to a whiny petulant brat, keep Alice Walker on a throne instead of in a painful dialogue, feminism can achieve that super fun dream.

But as somebody who will never again call herself a feminist and now approaches most, if not all of "feminism" with caution and trepidation--I have to say--You'd think that the lives of women would mean more to a movement that claims to care about women.

Wouldn't you?
Shouldn't you?


sally said...

I have to say that I have at times been rubbed the wrong way by Rebecca Walker's comments. They do sometimes seem to stem from her issues with her mother than feminism itself.

That said, I am a feminist who strongly believes in many of the things Rebecca Walker, and you, advocate for. The fact that there needs to be a bigger diversity in the voices presented, that intersections need to brought to the forefront, that the interests of real women need to play a bigger role than an abstract movement, etc.

I suppose I'm sometimes in the minority in still claiming the feminist label while advocating for all of these things, but I do think it's possible to do both. If our voices grow stronger, and the ideas we have are pushed to reality, then don't we become the movement?

bfp said...

I have to say that I have at times been rubbed the wrong way by Rebecca Walker's comments. They do sometimes seem to stem from her issues with her mother than feminism itself.

I see your point--and frankly, I think that there's considerable amount of stuff that I disagree with politically with both rebecca AND alice (major disappointment of my life was how a.w. handled FGM in her book) on a lot of stuff--but I guess it sort of rubs me the wrong way when people dismiss how Rebecca talks about her mother--because I talk about my father in the same way. Who I am politically is *very* motivated by who my father was and our relationship--i couldn't even begin to imagine my political organizing as not being intertwined with my father and my relationship with him--I think many of us, if not most, can say the same thing.

So why on earth is it wrong for Rebecca to connect her feminist experience with her relationship with her mother? isn't that what feminism has encouraged? Isn't that what ALice walker does? Isn't that what virgina woolf did? And so many others?

but when we talk about a daughter holding her mother accountable--we get tense. ANd I have to wonder why that is. ANd why in cases where it's white women doing the same damn thing, there isn't the same condescending blow off attitude.

What's with the difference?

And oddly enough, I've even been thinking to myself--why did I bother writing this post? because if I have no investment in feminism and I don't trust it and it doesn't make sense to me, what the hell do I care if it implodes on itself.

I guess I'm just looking at how a relationship between women of color is used and manipulated to fit the needs of a whole bunch of people who aren't women of color...I don't know. How Rebecca is treated just irks my nerves--and how Alice Walker is treated does the same thing. I'm think of black amazon's words about how even if you're up on a pedistle, you still have to be considered inhuman on some levels--you can't just be human with a full complex layer of emotions, fuck ups, etc--without bursting everybody's damn opinion of you. Why do women of color either get cast as heroines or trouble makers? never fully complex humans who fuck things up badly but do amazing things as well?? You know??

sally said...

So why on earth is it wrong for Rebecca to connect her feminist experience with her relationship with her mother?

There definitely shouldn't be a double standard there, but I think part of the reason it's there is because they are both such public figures that can be seen as "enemies" of feminism (using the word loosely). AW advocated more for womanism at points in her life, while RW is the founder of Third Wave. I think just by virtue of that and them using their relationship as a jumping point for this very public, messy thing is why it makes people uncomfortable. I, for one, am always slightly embarrassed when I read something from either of them that directly or indirectly references the other. It makes me feel like I should be turning away. It's weird.

And oddly enough, I've even been thinking to myself--why did I bother writing this post?

I think, in some ways, it not only has to do with the fact that these are powerful WOC having this public discussion, but also a desire for defining and redefining what these discussions mean not only for feminism as a movement, but our status as women for equality in general.

Unknown said...

I really appreciate this post for pointing out the complexity in Rebecca & Alice's relationship. I think my biggest problem with Rebecca has always been that I feel like she's universalizing about a lot of her experience, and I think in retrospect for me at least, and I'd suspect for other feminists, I would hear "women are happiest being mothers" and immediately put on the stamp of "patriarchy"--which now that I actually think it through is a pretty stupid way to think about her and erases her context and the things we might be able to take from her experience even if we don't agree.

But even as I was doing that it was pretty impossible for me to defend Alice's actions, as told by Rebecca at least, which points to a frustration I sometimes feel with feminism (but rarely voice)--this thing of accountability you're talking about, this tension between on the one hand, yes it is important to say "women shouldn't always be the caretakers, they should be free to develop themselves as people" etc. and on the other hand, well, but no man OR woman is an island, we all depend on other people which means other people depend on us too. Which means we are accountable, as you say, to other people, and I think that is inescapable and also not something I want to escape, because deep down inside I am a big softie and I believe in things like love and commitment. And on the one hand I can understand why Alice felt like she had to do what she did, and on the other hand lately I start to see Rebecca's side too, and I think that it is not particularly helpful or productive to assign "blame" in either direction. And in the future ideally women wouldn't be rushed/forced into motherhood the way Alice apparently felt she was which would avoid that particular problem, but also women who are in that situation would have more empathy for the human harm they were causing.

And I wonder, not knowing much yet about other incarnations of feminism, if this is a problem more or less unique to American feminism, born in this country of individualism. I was talking with a professor of mine the other day about how one thing that historically sets American Socialism apart from its counterparts around the globe is that American Socialism sought to marry Socialism and American individualism, erasing in a sense the collective spirit that is really pretty essential to Socialism, and I wonder if a similar phenomenon is at work in American feminism, because it becomes a problem when feminists seek success for women on a faulty definition of success. And I wonder also about internalized sexism, I guess you could call it, on the part of feminists that they want to seek success as traditionally defined by the patriarchy (or kyriarchy?) instead of seeking to redefine success. And reading that over I realized it's missing entirely that that's a WHITE male definition of success and that the (often) white women who aspire to it will do so on the backs of non-white women (and it's funny how you think you're all liberated and stuff and then you realize it still takes you a second thought to add that back in and you give silent thanks that at least you learned to expect these uncomfortable revelations about yourself a while ago so now you can just nod and remind yourself there is always work to be done and few things are more dangerous than complacency in your own open-mindedness).

and BFP I remember very clearly a post you did a long long time ago about your irritation over the misuse of Audre Lorde's master's house/master's tools quote, but I think in this situation her framework does apply, because individualism (like racism, her original example--not of course to draw any more than the scantest comparisons between the two phenomena) is an ideology that is used to prop up the status quo and keep a system of hierarchy and oppression in place, and which will act as a barrier to real change until we call it into real genuine question and explore alternatives. (again not to say individualism is equally harmful to racism or that the comparison is at all useful beyond an illustrative analogy). does that make sense?

Daisy said...

Well, I hate to be the unpopular voice here...but Alice Walker is "on a throne" for a reason. Alice Walker is a great artist. And many of us grant great artists a pass, and ASSUME their personal lives will go to shit in several ways. That seems to be the price of great artistry. If that is a "male model"--and I concede it might be--then THAT is the issue.

I recently read how awful DH and Frieda Lawrence's marriage was, throwing plates of food at each other in public, etc and I find myself thinking: But he was a great artist. Bob Dylan was not a good parent, nor was Hemingway. They are GREAT ARTISTS. THEY GET A PASS FROM ME.

Why do we treat women artists differently? Alice Walker dared act like a white man in her parenting, that was her only flaw that I can see. Male writers pawn their kids off on other people so they can write ALL THE TIME.

Thus, I disagree with your premise--it isn't (only) feminism that hurt Rebecca, but the role of ARTIST in Western cultures--that was demanded of Alice if she expected to compete in that realm. If Jakob Dylan tells us his father was largely absent, we shrug--well duh! of course he was. If Rebecca tells us that Alice was absent--OFF WITH HER HEAD.

I think a lot of this is generation-specific, and older feminists are protective of Alice, as we are very proud of what she has accomplished. I am 51 years old, and my mother drew me aside when I was 15, IN TEARS (almost as rare as Hillary's tears!), to tell me she had read a short story called "Roselily" by someone named Alice Walker--had I ever heard of her? She then made me sit down and read "Roselily"--which she said spoke her truth, about leaving West Virginia. I had never understood her feelings until I read the story. I felt that Alice Walker brought my mother and me together--two rednecks in Ohio! This is what great art can do.

Alice Walker gets a total pass from me... Thrones aren't good enough!

bfp said...

forgive me for my brevity, I have a wounded hand at the moment and it's really hard to type.

I just want to say that I don't think that this has much to do with "age" or "generations"--the relationship between alice and rebecca may, but what I am talking about doesn't. Why? because I think *race* is how their relationship gets interpreted--and as such, how both A.W. and R.W. get interpreted and understood as individuals.

As I mentioned above, mother/daughter fighting and acrimonious relationships is nothing new--Erica Jong and her daughter have had a *very* contentious relationship which *includes* Molly Jong *publicly* calling out her mother. She even dismisses her mother on her mother's own blog.

She's not treated in the same way R.W. is. Erica Jong *is* just as influential as A.W.--*why* isn't Molly Jong treated with the same dismissive, callous, condescending attitude that R.W. is?

And i think it's possible to be reflective on the choices feminism as a whole is influencing or even demanding women make without disparaging the very great work that women do. Like I said above, A.W. is somebody I admire deeply (and I have used her work to center many aspects of my writing), and R.W. is somebody I admire deeply--AND I disagree with them both quiet vehemently on many things as well. that's what normal people do, right? I love my W* with all my heart and soul and my relationship w/him has given me the best times of my life--but he's no god. I disagree with him vehemently several times a day. that allows me to be pushed into interesting and exciting places, to consider things in new ways, same for him. We grow and evolve and become new people on a regular basis, and that's the part I love most about committed relationships.

Why don't we allow the leaders of feminist movement to come off that throne and push us all in the same way? Why don't we get the privilege of pushing them back?

In my mind, no one person is worth sacrificing the growth of a 'movement'--no matter how much they clarify and free my mind.

Daisy Deadhead said...

I agree, race is a major reason for the differences in how Molly Jong and Rebecca Walker are regarded--but let's be totally honest and add the fact that Molly Jong is thoroughly untalented and largely dismissed (not just by me!), while Rebecca is an intelligent, lively writer who has written very cogently about the third wave. In short, nobody cares what Molly thinks--she comes off bored, rich and whiny. Nothing new under the sun--and certainly, this can't be said for Rebecca's thoughtful writing and theory.

Why don't we allow the leaders of feminist movement to come off that throne and push us all in the same way?

I'm an old-fashioned believer in Dialectical Materialism, and I think this "leveling" will occur whether we want it to or not, whether we force it, endorse it, or not....IF we continue going forward. And I think we will!

I think of Jong and Walker as old-style "popular girls" in long as we retain this pedestrian social habit of making certain women the "popular stars"--we will always be disappointed by them.*

This is the worst of 'white guy' behavior, most definitely! (*references The Who's The Punk meets the Godfather)

Thank you for your kind reply. (Hope your wounded hand feels better; since I broke my leg, it hasn't interfered with my typing but HAS put me in a BAD MOOD.)


Blackamazon said...

I wuvs you , and I disagree with you somewhat.

Now because we are both women of color it is often unbelieved that this can happen but it can true fax.

It is teh avoidance of complexity that is choking the " movement to death" and of course accountability.

There is something about the Walkers conflict that makes so many people accountable that does not manifest itself in the Jong- Jong Fast conflicts.

Rebecca Walker worked HARD WITHING feminism and still ended up disillusioned and RIGHTFULLY ANGRY.Alice Walker is one of the few people of color mentioned in many white washed feminist histories but only as an example of the " cool diversity" ( mind you she damn near singlehandedly coined some of its earlier womanist critiques)

Now if these women can't get along , even though IN THE MINDS of the movement they both have critiqued have achieved the "success " it was aiming for says something very VERY scary and yes COMPLEX about that success and whether that success is enough to fix what ails us.

And that's what I mean about the pedestal thing, because what is literally a fraught terrible process of two women trying to understand how one of the seminal people in their lives FORMED THEM as well as hurt them is being distilled into how to serve a movement that BOTH have said often didn't speak at all to them.

I also think a LOT of it is thinly veiled racialized classism . WAIT your the ones who talk about for diversity don't you know what role your supposed to PLAY?!?! You can afford to have the Jong conflict because they are good for the " big tent " image we want to portray (for some), the Walkers however are screwing up the presentation with this , so one or BOTH has to be fundamentally defective .

And in a lot of ways It also speaks to a huge problem with the whole wave conflict this is presented as at times.My perception of thirdwavers silence ( and no if only Rebecca Walker gives a response it's not THE third wave)on a LOT of teh campaign straight asshattery by second wavers.

And it;'s also why I get very frustrated at the idea of a generational conflict , because while that may be true it's not necessarily the same conflict and what informs that conflict comes from ENTIRELY different histories.

The second and third waves aren't older and younger women in mass.And the conflict of the Walkers is placed there by that post in a way that just irks my soul.

Okay you feel like your afraid of you "mothers" but what about those of us who don't have any connection to these academic ideals as worth of paying homage to. What about those of us who aren't plugged into this history for reasons like Race and Class and religion? How does that fit in? What about those of us who aren't looking at these women as a generational conflict but as a LIFE conflict that * gasp* maybe in defense of MY OWN MOTHER?

( Your a child has a right to expect to be raised by a PARENT hits me hard amour because my mom was asked to make that choice and chose me and has been made to SUFFER and been mocked for it by WOMEN.And is suffering now monetarily because of it. So when I become vehemently angry about a generation of women talking about what they'll withdraw or why I am too young or why women who aren't a certain age don't know the cost of these kind of choices or why any speaking out is jealousy??)

And we could ( as you always incite) the discussion that would make this happen .

And its part of the complexity while I am right next to you in telling so many people who are TAKEN ABACK when I go I am not a feminist.

ANd the thing is I still ( and I'm wondering if you do as well) harbour the fools hope that somewhere in there is that idea that we love women and are able to comprehend why this HURTS them and if they knwo it hurts they might finally fucking STOP

Octogalore said...

A great post. And yes, the differentiation between Jongs and Walkers is racially and class-based.

I think Daisy's point is very wise, however. It's not only feminism that hurt RW. While RW's feminist career was blamed, her busy lawyer dad comes in for no criticism. It could be that he was a more attentive parent, or there could be other factors at work. With two intensively career- focused parents, RW likely did deserve more. But her focusing the blame on her mom raises an (unanswered) feminist question, which is more interesting than anything invoked by the Jongs' issues.

Also, feminism pays more attention to the Walkers because, as Daisy says, both are prominent feminist authors -- obviously AW much more so. Molly Jong is an unknown.

I don't think RW was hurt by feminism, the principle that means women deserve equal rights. She may have been hurt by the Feminist Movement. That's a distinction with a difference, and IMO, that difference means that one can call oneself a feminist and still have issues with how the movement is structured and managed.

blackgirl on mars said...

I have to say that I get a bit antsy when anyone, even her daughter, "attacks" Alice Walker because she has been so brave to write her truths down that it is painful to see her being criticized so openly by her daughter. And that is perhaps what is so tragic about this situation, the difference between the public figure and the private. Walker was mothering a whole lotta us: and in the process, of course her daughter gets "neglected" in the traditional sense. It is a sacrifice, and not an easy one to live with. I do agree that they should be allowed to dialogue openly and we should, out of respect, give room for that and love them and hopefully guide them towards reconciliation. What they both have chosen to do with their lives, to be public, is not easy. And yet as a writer myself, I know it isn't even down to choice, it is a compulsion...
Thanks for such an intelligent look into this situation: for someone who writes a lot about motherhood (and who is a mother herself) and who have reaped the complications and rewards of living an untraditional life, it's a relief to come upon your blog.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...