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.
Men as Protectors, Women as VulnerableIn 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.