Reframing privilege and value (a response to Tara Sophia Mohr’s article)

Venus symbolSince April I’ve been taking Tara Sophia Mohr’s Playing Big e-course, and I’ve found it to be very helpful. Last week Tara published an article in the Huffington Post, “Why BlogHer ’11 Got Me Angry,” explaining that her good experience at the women’s blogging conference reminded her just how much our perspectives are usually marginalized. I appreciated lots of her points, and her boldness in making them, but some of what she said didn’t sit right with me. I talked it over with Erik over the weekend, and realized that although I agree with Tara’s central point — women are marginalized — I would reframe the problem as something even bigger: everyone is marginalized, because of a narrowly defined “norm” that probably doesn’t even exist.

I found myself nodding at a lot of what Tara wrote in her article. She spoke very strongly to my deep-seated fear of being seen as frivolous, superficial; this is something that has come up frequently in the Playing Big course too. Women fear that they will not be taken seriously when they go after what interests them — and that fear comes from a real place. We’re often not taken seriously. Our passions are dismissed, our interests derided, our abilities downplayed, our voices silenced. This is all true, and should be changed.

There certainly is a male bias in our society that relegates many of women’s central interests to women’s-magazine territory. It’s not just that lots of things get marginalized as “women’s issues” when they’re really not (how is parenting something that affects only half the population?). It’s that in a male-centric society, when the default is always male, women’s issues are — by default — marginalized.

However, this issue affects us in more ways than just gender. Male is not the only default setting in our society; the defaults are also white, middle-class, heterosexual, and so forth. Any time someone deviates from that unspoken norm, they relinquish some authority. Women’s interests (assuming we can even speak of “women’s interests” as a clear entity) are often trivialized, but how much more so the interests of people who are poor, queer, mixed-race, disabled, or other deviations from “normal”?

The difficult thing is it’s not always a clear equation of deviance from norm = power lost; there are two complicating factors. First, there’s “passing” ability. It’s not always immediately apparent when someone doesn’t fit into the norm; a person may enjoy many of the benefits of social acceptance without actually conforming. Second, not all qualifiers are equal; there’s a complex balancing act that happens when someone fits into some of the norm categories but not all of them. For instance, since I am obviously Asian and female, I’ll never pass as “default American.” However, the fact that I’m straight, married, educated, and well-to-do, in many circles neutralizes the threat of my skin or my gender, and lifts me to the same status as those who are closer to the white male “norm.” Basically, I’m talking about privilege — which marginal people have always recognized, and privileged people often don’t. It’s hard for me to get as angry as Tara about the devaluing of the feminine, when I’m all too aware that some kinds of “feminine” are already valued a lot higher than others. Male privilege is not the only kind.

Male symbolBecause I feel that the problem Tara describes in her article (patriarchy, male privilege) is only part of a larger problem in our society, I also feel her solution (bring out and raise up what’s traditionally seen as feminine) isn’t big enough. It’s not enough to just insert certain kinds of femininity into what is usually a male-dominated discourse. Moreover, I’m wary of the potential of “the feminine” to become just as narrow and exclusionary as “the masculine” (which, as I’ve said, is usually framed as “the default”). What is the feminine, anyway? All women do not share the same interests, views, or values; neither do all men. How can we make a new list of what’s important, without having to resort to generalizations about what’s important to whom?

It is true, as Tara points out, that there’s already a bias in our society’s definitions of what’s important and newsworthy. She writes in the article that in her ideal world, Elle Decor would get the same respect as Businessweek. While I’m not convinced I should be seeing these two particular magazines as equals, I agree that it’s frustrating to have to choose between critical, intelligent discussion (The New Yorker) and broad coverage of domestic and design concerns (Anthology) — but there’s more going on there than just a difference between “default” and female audience.

If we focus just on the news for now, even there the so-called “serious, important” topics reflect a very strong bias. Why is “12 killed in suicide bombing” more newsworthy than “1,744 American military deaths in Afghanistan,” or “1.5 million Iraqi deaths due to US invasion” — why do we broadcast the numbers for single events, and not the running totals? Even “objective” news reflects subjectivity in the way the stories are selected. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t follow the news because I feel it’s incomplete; I realize now that it’s because my ideal news includes not just headlines but running updates on all topics of global and local concern, placing those topics into context. My perfect newspaper (or news site) is one where there isn’t just, say, a Libya correspondent, but also reporters whose regular job is to cover the environment, or food, or the various wars in which this country is involved. That way, we’re not just fixated on the big single events, but are keeping constant awareness of what’s going on in the world. Yes, such a newspaper would be very expensive and difficult to produce, and yes, it would probably be a major task to read as well. But just think what it could mean to have this kind of coverage of our world. It’s a complete reframing of what’s important: engagement, not superficial knowledge; deep concern, not passing interest; education about far-off places as well as locales closer to home — and of course, there would be comics!

This all goes back to what I was saying about privilege. It’s not enough (or even correct) to say, “X, y, and z are important to women, and since women are marginalized, we should bring these things more to the fore.” There is really no such thing as “women,” just as there is no such thing as a first-world consumer who’s entirely disengaged from the rest of the world — we all stand with our feet in both margins and mainstream. What we need is to point out, “Our society has only narrowly defined what’s important. We need to broaden that definition, for the benefit of all.”