Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Zombies and Equality: Is Feminism a Luxury?

As a lead up to the Season 3 premier of The Walking Dead, I've been looking at the way that post-apocalyptic fiction demonstrates our cultural relationship with intellectualism. If you want to catch up on those posts, check out the introduction, Part 1: the role of intellectuals in the apocalypse, and Part 2: the role of art at the end of the world.

If I'm being honest, though, this post is the one that I've been thinking about all week. This is the question that bounces around in my head anytime I read or watch post-apocalyptic fiction. This is the one that keeps me up at night and keeps slipping out of my grasp:

If end of the world scenarios strip humanity down to its bare essence, is there a place for equality? If not, does that mean feminism is a luxury?


What's the Role of Feminism

I'll be blunt. My feminism is essential to who I am because it is based out of my core belief in equality. Everything I do is informed by a belief that individual people are worthy of respect and autonomy and that the disparities in our cultures that inhibit that equality are places in need of repair. This belief underscores the research that I do, the way I raise my daughter, the roles I assume in my marriage, my career as an educator, and the blog posts that I write. 

When I encounter fiction that makes me question the role that equality has in our survival, it shakes me to my core. (And, I guess, isn't that what a good horror film is supposed to do?)

Is Feminism Anti-Survivalist

Feminism takes many forms. Some of them have labels. You can be "third wave" or "second wave" or even "fourth wave." You can be a "sex positive feminist," a "lipstick feminist," or even a "feminazi." People will argue over who gets to be in the club, but the premise behind feminism is not a complicated one: people are equal regardless of gender identification or genitalia. While that message gets applied to various battles in our cultural landscape, at its core, it's fairly universal. 

The debates that we have surrounding feminism, though, get much more attention than this core principle. Whether its internet memes cropping up over snarky comments, moms fighting over the feminist way to feed their babies, or debates on whether feminists can wear short skirts, we spend a lot of time debating what feminism means. The internet has made this debate even easier, as we now have access to huge communities of like and not-so-like minded individuals with whom we can argue. 

But all that arguing and debating tends to isolate feminism (as its perceived and enacted) to something of an intellectual pursuit. Feminist battles are most commonly won over Twitter these days, as Ms. Magazine's article "Future of Feminism: The Hashtag is Mightier than the Sword" points out. 

But a hashtag is not going to kill a zombie. 

That's why post-apocalyptic fiction cuts so deep when it looks at equality. When the going gets tough, the women do laundry. Because modern feminism so often concerns itself with intellectual or philosophical questions, it seems (to some) expendable in the face of a crisis. 

In an article over at The Good Men Project, Jesse Kornbluth considers some of the conversations surrounding modern feminism:
Consider all that this conversation requires. Ample food. Decent clothing. Comfortable shelter. A computer. Broadband. Leisure time. In short, enough money and all it buys so you can participate in a conversation that has nothing to do with your short-tem survival.
Most of the world cannot afford this conversation. Most of the world is poor and hungry and isn’t worried at all about the issues that we care about. We know this, of course, as a conversational matter, as a statement of fact, but that’s an inch deep.
That's true. There are plenty of people who cannot "afford" this conversation in a myriad of ways. Some have more pressing concerns of survival. Some cannot afford access to the tools in which we have these conversations: literacy and access to communication resources, in particular.

It reminded me of Elizabeth Wurtzel's claim (which I ranted about at the time) that "there really is only one kind of equality . . . and it's economic."

Wurtzel's claim devalued all those other kinds of equality and privileged a patriarchal system of power that determines who is in control. It's also a system that utterly and completely breaks down in the face of a true crisis, and it's one that does not exist at all in most post-apocalyptic landscapes.

In Book of Eli, the characters barter for water with KFC hand wipes and Zippo lighters. In The Hunger Games, Katniss provides for her family by trading illegally hunted game for grains and housewares. In a post-apocalyptic landscape, Wurtzel's "economic equality" ceases to matter. And I think that these fictions demonstrate that she is dead wrong: there are plenty of other types of equality left, and--in crises--women are missing them all.

I know a lot of unemployed pot heads who would suddenly be very wealthy.
So, does focusing so much on one branch of equality and focusing so much on the philosophical questions of feminism leave the movement vulnerable. In short, is feminism a luxury?

Men as Protectors, Women as Vulnerable

In the breakdown of society's structures, one of the first things to happen is a reversion to old gender roles. Women are quickly perceived as vulnerable, and men are portrayed as their protectors. This is a play on the same tropes that demonstrate intellectualism to be useless in the apocalypse (which I talked about in part one). The physically strong survive, and that favors those in our culture who are muscular, healthy, and able to pick up heavy things. Women and geeks, our society tells us, don't have those qualities. 

Nevermind that women and geeks may very well have those qualities. As Andrea's character from The Walking Dead demonstrates, women can be very strong indeed. (Spoilers for Season 2 finale). As she escapes from the farm alone, she's physically strong and incredibly cunning. She survives where other (often male) characters did not. 

But those skills did not earn her the respect of the group. She's constantly questioned for her choices to act "like a man" rather than spend her time doing laundry and boosting morale. And those questions most frequently come not from the men, but from other women. In fact, even the strong women in the house (like Maggie) seem fairly content to let the men play the role of protector. 

It's something that anti-feminists use against feminism today even in our non-zombie-overrun landscape. Consider this Daily Beast article about women's angering of men by being inconsistent on dating rules:
Women may want equality at the conference table and treadmill. But when it comes to sex and dating, they aren’t so sure. The might hook up as freely as a Duke athlete. Or, they might want men to play Greatest Generation gentleman. . .  Why should they pay for dinner? After all, they are equals and in any case, the woman a guy is asking out probably has more cash in her pocket than he does; recent female graduates are making more than males in most large cities.
Though I just see individual preferences in these complaints, apparently all women, everywhere, have to come together and create a universal handbook for dating.  (This author sees no huge male contradiction in the fact that there are both "Duke athletes" (who I'm sure don't all hook up at the same frequency themselves) and "Greatest Generation gentlemen." Men can have variations in their personalities, but women need to get it together!)

So the fact that men still play a protector role to some women in our society is used as fodder for an argument that they are required to play that role universally and that women are incompetent. This is even more highlighted in times of crisis, and not just of the apocalyptic variety. Think of how many action movies you've seen where a man has to rescue a woman. There are plenty where the whole thing is underscored by the fact that the woman in distress was an economically and socially successful individual until the crisis struck; then she was just a plot point.

Is All Equality a Luxury?

If feminism is a luxury that can only be called into question when the world is stable, then doesn't that have to be true of all forms of equality? We've had many battles for equal treatment on various fronts: racial, physical ability, sexual orientation. If these things are only concerns when everything else is going okay, are they really concerns at all?

For me, equality cannot be a luxury. Women are human beings deserving of equal respect not only when the stock market is up and the grocery shelves are full, but also when the volcanoes are exploding and the highways crumble. 

There are people across every spectrum of identity that will be more or less capable in the face of crises--and that is going to vary depending on the crisis, as well. 

In the Season 2 finale of The Walking Dead (Spoilers, again), Rick and the gang are at a crossroads, and Rick gives a speech indicating that he won't take any more dissent. He says "This isn't a democracy anymore" and invites them to leave if they don't want to obey him. No one leaves--and who can blame them? There are zombies lurking all around them and they have no where to go, no way to get food, and no shelter. But if we're so easily able to give up our voices and equality for the sake of survival, what does equality mean? 

This question doesn't matter to me because I think that zombies will be taking over the world anytime soon. It matters to me because the world is not a stable place, and it is a big one. There are places today, at this very moment, where women do not have the luxury to contemplate feminism. And I'm not just talking about "third world" villages (which do, very much, matter in this conversation). I'm also talking about homes up the street. I'm talking about our own backyards. We cannot pretend that the culture of the economically and socially privileged is pervasive; it's not. The economically and socially privileged are the minority, and they are also not guaranteed their spots. Things change. People fall from favor. If feminism is a luxury reserved for those outlets, then so is all equality. And if equality is presented as a luxury, then it will not survive. There is always a crisis someone can use to take away your rights--zombies or not. 

Photo: Raf.F


  1. This is a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about. My main sources of reading are social justice blogs and peak oil/climate change blogs, so that particular intersection is very important to me.

    I'm not a doomer-survivalist type, so I don't expect an apocalyptic zombie-type scenario, but the evidence is pretty overwhelming that our business as usual status quo isn't going to continue. The model that makes the most sense to me is one of gradual decline happening at different rates in different communities, punctuated by various economic and ecological crises that may very well feel apocalyptic to those immediately affected. I feel that the most appropriate response to a future like that is re-skilling so that we can handle the necessities of life on a more individual and local basis, as well as learning how to live a decent life on a dramatically lower energy basis.

    Nothing in this future *should* be incompatible with feminism or other social justice endeavors, but there is both the prevailing cultural belief that you illustrate so well in this post that equality is a luxury, as well as specific groups and individuals that are hoping for crisis opportunities to seize old privileges and re-institute oppressions that have been chipped away at. Groups like dominionists/quiverfull/patriarchy types are positioning themselves to be able to survive well and take more control in the sort of future that seems probable, and in Britain, for instance, the only political party that is taking peak oil seriously is the far-right British National Party. In Greece as well, which is further along the path of decline than the US is right now, you see the Golden Dawn fascist party stepping up to provide alternative social infrastructures (to those they deem worthy) to the ones which are crumbling. It is things like this that worry me most.

    But I don't think that any of this is inevitable. I think that progressive types can do the same kinds of practical things if we would organize them (and Occupy Wall Street's efforts provide a good starting point). When you start looking at re-skilling and the necessity of families and communities being more self-reliant, the role of the home economy becomes much more important. This could go either way - women could be increasingly forced into homemaking because it is more critical (and more time consuming, as with the laundry example), or the role of work outside the formal economy could become more valued and society could celebrate and provide more practical support for home and DIY sorts of things. In that case, men would likely become more involved and ideally those roles would fall to whichever individuals preferred them and were more suited to them.

    Given the weight of history and culture, I think that in order to get the latter result we will really have to work for it and change minds. Probably it will go one way in one area and the other in other places. I feel it is a large part of the work of my life to create the good result in my own community.

    1. Breanna, have you ever read "Soft Apocalypse" by Will McIntosh? It's a very well done fictional account of pretty much what you just said.

    2. I haven't read it, but thank you for the recommendation. It is going in my library queue right now.

    3. Excellent points. I especially like the way that you bring up self-reliance. I think that too often self-reliance is seen as some sort of antithesis to the progressive movements that feminism is most often a part of, but at the core of equality movements are individuals who deserve, want, and fight for their self-reliance.

      This is slightly off topic, but I think about that (false) dichotomy when I see people say that women who are part of the homesteading movement aren't feminist because they're reverting to traditional gender roles. It frustrates me because it seems to imply that the only system one can exist within is the capitalist (and very patriarchally-bound) one.

  2. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to respond to this, and here this was the part of your three-part series I was most looking forward to!

    I wound up having a long, deep discussion with my husband about your essays. Aside from a minor side argument between us concerning the definition of "apocalyptic event" versus "local catastrophe," and whether or not people's reactions in the latter are any indication of how humanity as a whole will cope with the former, as well as agreeing that those of us in urban centers will likely be the first to go no matter *what* the nature of the apocalyptic event -- whether it is because a disease will spread quicker among millions of people crammed into a very small geographic area, or because we rely so heavily on outside sources for our food -- my darling husband did come up with a good theory about what will happen to the survivors afterwords.

    He thinks, and I think he's right, that after the initial coping and immediate reactions, that survivors will naturally cluster together and form tribes. Safety in numbers, but also because as you and I have both said in this dialogue, you need all types of intelligence and skills to survive. Survival tribes will need people with both physical skills -- fixing things, hunting, tracking -- as well as soft skills like being able to ration food, delegate responsibility, and figure out where to go and how to get there. And so a sort of new template for survival will gradually reveal itself, and the successful groups will naturally reproduce themselves.

    Now, the role of feminism will probably be changed from what we recognize now. While I think that gender roles will greatly be reverted to, I think that also survival will trump that and we will have women protectors and hunters as well as men homemakers and caretakers. But I think that reverting to traditional gender roles is easiest, and I think that it will take some time before these groups are comfortable letting women and men out of their roles.

    I think, too, that any talk of the end of the world and women must include a discussion of how dire circumstances necessarily endanger women. I'm sure someone else can speak to the actual numbers, but I feel like I keep reading that when the economy is bad, when jobless rates go up, violence against women - domestic violence as well as rape - goes up. When backed into a corner, when faced with worldwide catastrophe, it's just a sad fact that some people are going to revert not just to traditional gender roles, but to their worst selves. And for men that will mean a lot of hurting women. (This is illustrated really graphically in the book "Blindess" by Jose Saramago, when one group of men steal all the food and only give it to others in exchange for the other groups turning over their women for massive, repeated gang rapes.)

    And, thank you for my 10 minutes of adult, intellectual conversation today. I must needs go back to playing Play-Dough with my 4-year old. *sigh*

    1. It's chilling, but you're absolutely right that end-of-the-world and really any violent crisis scenarios very often result in women's bodies being abused. And when you're in a situation where that's the norm, it's hard to imagine the conversations about women's rights going much further until there are some basic expectations of safety in place.

      My husband and I also had a long debate about this topic. I think that you're right that there would be tribes because we are--at the end of the day--social creatures. We value all the things that being part of a group gives us. My husband made a point that I thought was great when I was lamenting that equality movements might be pushed to the side in a time of survival mode. He pointed out that that might be true, but that we'd immediately start working toward a more stable society, and that we seem to gravitate toward equality once we reach stability. I guess the argument is that even if equality seemed to get lost momentarily, it wouldn't necessarily mean we'd lose all the ground that we'd made.