TERF Wars: Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Feminism

By Robin

I had an interesting experience the other day. I got into a Facebook argument (I know) with a friend of a friend of a friend (I know) about feminism (I KNOW, mistakes were made okay?).  This debate took place because the friend of a friend had posted a petition calling for a boycott of Teen Vogue’s recent article about the basic how-to’s and why’s of anal sex. The friends of this friend of a friend were all arguing some pretty odd things: that this amounted to forcing young women to engage in unwanted anal sex, that anal sex is inherently painful, degrading, and undesirable, and most bizarrely that the lack of mention of clitoral stimulation and the referral to people as “prostate havers” and “non prostate havers” was…female erasure?

It was at this point that I should have realized that nothing good could come of confrontation and walked away. But dammit I am an optimist and someone who does not cotton to transphobia or people who are against positive sex education. So I helpfully and politely pointed out that referring to “prostate havers” and “non prostate havers” is a way to be inclusive to trans folks. After all, not all people with prostates are men, and not all people without prostates are women (I mean, even setting aside trans men, some cis men have to have their prostates removed and that doesn’t make them magically stop being men). This, as you might imagine, did not go well. I was called, among other things, an MRA (men’s rights activist, which is ridiculous because this is actually me every day), and a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist, also preposterous, because I was literally arguing against TERFS about their…TERFing? TERFitiude? TERFocity?). I was even told that intersectional feminists like me want to create a hierarchy that places men’s rights above those of women??? This, you might recognize, is ludicrous given the actual meaning of intersectionality.

Intersectionality, coined by civil rights advocate/feminist scholar/lawyer/badass Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, is a way of describing how different identities come together to result in unique experiences and oppressions. The basic idea is that two members of the same oppressed group (for example, women) will face some similar struggles based on that shared identity and different struggles based on other identities (race, sexual orientation, ability). In short, the way a black queer woman moves through the world is different from the way a straight white woman moves through the world. Both will experience gender discrimination, but only one will face homophobia and racism as well. This is NOT, as is popularly suggested by anti feminists, a way to establish who is “most oppressed”. The Great Audre Lorde herself famously said “There is no hierarchy of oppressions”. No true intersectional feminist is here for Oppression Olympics. What we are here for is a fight against the systems of oppression that supports ALL of us in all our glorious differences. When Lorde says there is no hierarchy, she describes how it does no good to her as an activist to fight for queer rights if the queer movement does not support her blackness. Likewise, there is little point in her participating in black activism that refuses to acknowledge her queerness or support her feminism. She writes that she cannot separate her identities, as they are all a part of her. All issues of social justice are feminist issues, because women are affected by all of them. If you are engaged in a discussion with someone and they start to get salty about how your experiences differ, or start trying to engage you in Oppression Olympics, that’s your cue that this probably isn’t going anywhere helpful. I find I get a lot of push back on this from White Feminists, usually in response to them being called out for ignoring the intersections of sexism and racism, or sexism and really anything else.

I did eventually walk away from the ever-increasing ridiculousness of the Facebook comment argument, because by the time that kind of name calling comes out you know you’re not getting anywhere, and I felt I had made my point. Plus I was hangry, which never lends itself to productive conversation. However, this nonsense percolated around in my brain all day. How could someone call themselves a feminist and be so bigoted and hateful? How could anyone argue that an article that doesn’t include information about clitoral stimulation (amid lots of others that do) claim “female erasure” with a straight face? How can radical feminists argue that trans women want to rape them while simultaneously minimizing the epidemic of violence against trans people? I let all these thoughts simmer for a while and pretty soon I had come up with my favorite thing in the whole world: an analogy.

There’s a debate that comes up in linguistics about whether the field should be prescriptive (telling people how they should communicate) or descriptive (documenting how people actually communicate). You see this rear its head every time a new slang word is added to the dictionary, and is described by someone with far more expertise than I will ever have on this subject here. Basically, there’s a struggle between people who think language is rigid and fixed and should be strictly maintained in terms of right and wrong, and people who think language is fluid and malleable and should be allowed to evolve and grow. (I used the word “hangry” earlier, so no points for guessing which camp I’m in.) I see this applying to gender theory as well. We have our radical feminists/TERFs, who argue that gender is a strict binary defined by biological sex, and that trans women somehow usurp “real” women’s experiences and struggles. Then we have our intersectional feminists, who aren’t jerks and believe that gender is a social construct totally separate from biological sex, and that we have to be inclusive of trans peoples’ experiences in order to truly be advocates for justice. (Again, no cigar for guessing which school of thought I subscribe to.)

It’s not that prescriptive linguistics (feminism) is inherently evil or bad, more that it’s outdated and limiting and can result in people being hurt and left out of crucial discussions. And descriptive linguistics (feminism) is not just a bunch of hippie liberal morons with no sense of decency or morality, they’re just new and excited about all the possibilities. The one came from the other, and took it further. Improved on it. Saw ways to include more voices. Wants to broaden the discussion.

I think this analogy bears out well when looking at the example of the “cotton ceiling” and how it was twisted by TERFs to create fear and backlash against trans lesbians. Basically, there’s a common idea circulated among some TERFs that trans women want to force cisgender lesbians to have sex with them. This fits in well with the TERF narrative of trans women as “men” who want to dominate and rape cis women. The problem is, it simply isn’t true. No one is saying people aren’t allowed to have preferences, or that you should force yourself to have sex when you don’t want to. What trans women are saying (to cis men as well as cis women) is that it is imperative to examine WHY we have these preferences, and to explore them and the ways they might be rooted in transphobia/transmisogyny. Much like people of color throw shade at white people who won’t date them because of “totes not racist” preferences, or how I roll my eyes at people who “just aren’t attracted to fat people at all”. Trans people, particularly trans women, face incredible amounts of stigma, invalidation, and even violence from their romantic partners. Obviously you don’t have to be attracted to everyone. You don’t have an obligation to sleep with anyone (prescriptive). But you can’t pretend that socialization in a world that prioritizes thin, white, cisgender, able bodies didn’t help shape those preferences. You do have an obligation to examine your biases. You do need to take note of how your environment shaped you and what that might mean for you and your relationships (descriptive).

So, the next time you hear a TERF doing their TERF thing, think critically about what they’re really saying. Are they setting rules and strict boundaries that leave people out? Are they using pseudo science to back up their hateful claims? (Looking at you, Laci Green.) When you hear intersectional feminists sharing their stories, think about that too. Think about how freeing it is to describe our lives rather than limit them. To embrace new ideas and new ways of connecting and being in solidarity with each other. Think about feminism like language, something that grows and breathes and changes with each generation. Something that has historically left people of color, poor people, non-native speakers behind but is stretching to include them. And remember that just as every non progressive movement has given way to something better, TERFs too shall pass.




Ghost Stories and Other Reasons You Don’t Want to Invite Me to your Party

By Casey

I have enough self-awareness to know, without anything remotely resembling doubt, that I’m the worst party guest you’ll regret inviting to your small gathering. I’ll very likely demand to bring a friend* just so I have someone I feel comfortable chatting with. Left to my own devices it’s likely I’ll have any or all of these conversations with strangers:

  • Culturally appropriate domestic and sexual violence prevention and services, complete with the latest Department of Justice statistics
  • Running
  • How much I hated Gone Girl (both the book and the film)
  • Mountain Lion sightings in Lower Michigan
  • Scottish Terriers, presidential dogs, canine allergies, and my recently departed Scottish Terrier, Drama image1
  • My miniature panther masquerading as a housecat, Dartanianimage2
  • Ghosts

Yes that’s right: ghosts. And before you try to tell me all the logical reasons why ghosts don’t exist, know that I don’t care. My religious views are best described as apathetic atheism with a pinch of passive superstition. Unless we’re talking about Tom Waits, I don’t believe in God, Heaven, Hell, or souls that could be left behind to deal with unfinished business. Moreover, I’m highly critical of organized religion—especially Christianity—and all the shit storms they’ve started over the years in the name of faith. And even though I only have a very basic understanding of science typical among those in the Social Sciences, I’m still far more willing to put my faith in science than general woo. Your microwave will leave you with shitty tasting food but definitely not cancer, you don’t need to go on some ridiculous cleanse unless you get your jollies from shitting your pants and being hungry all the time (which sounds terrible), and anti-vaxxers are a deadly combination of willful ignorance and assholery. Yet despite all this I remain steadfast in my belief in ghosts, even if all logical evidence points to the contrary. At the very least I know that if I’m wrong I haven’t done any undue harm to anyone else, unlike that measles outbreak at one of my favorite grad school diners, or conversion therapy.

Recently I’ve been reading Sherman Alexie’s latest memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me . A common theme throughout his writing is walking between two worlds but never quite fitting comfortably into one or the other. This is a common point of contention between himself and his mother, about whose life and death are the subject of the memoir. Laudably, Mr. Alexie recently cancelled much of his book tour, citing that this book and subsequent tour brought up too many painful memories to continue. In the book he talks about how he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but sees “ghosts” all the time in the form of small reminders of his mother. Many cultures have teachings tied to ghosts, spirits, and the supernatural. These ghost stories still serve practical purposes, ranging from pure entertainment to cautionary tales of the types of people and situations that can lead to harm. They provide a link to the past and help to keep cultural practices alive. For marginalized communities with a long history of colonization, these ghost stories, for lack of a better term, can be seen as an act of resistance against Euro-Christian powers meant to assimilate and destroy. They are a way to proclaim that we are still here, despite attempts to get rid of us. Odd as it is to think about, our reverence for our dead is part of what keeps our cultures alive today. For instance, consider New Orleans Voodoo Queen Marie LaVeau’s lasting legacy: she was a mixed race woman in the South alive during the 1800s who managed to rise to prominence across all socioeconomic statuses. While it’s hard to parse out what is fact or fiction about her life, what remains is that she was able to gain enough trust (fear?) from the social elite to obtain the status she had, using ancestral knowledge as a healer and voodoo practitioner. Whether or not her legacy is comprised of tall tales, the stature she has within New Orleans history is still incredibly relevant. In a lot of ways it doesn’t matter whether or not she was possessed by spirits, her immortality extends far beyond the hot mess that is American Horror Story: Coven.

As a small child I had two imaginary friends. There was Sneaky, who was some sort of magically growing and shrinking, shoe shaped creature who I know definitely didn’t exist and only proves that, even as I small child, my obsession with shoes was very real. Then there was That White Girl, a temperamental girl a bit older than me, dressed in a white Victorian dress, who would run around in my mother’s garden and would occasionally slam doors in the house. That White Girl stories are some of my mom’s favorite creepy anecdotes to share from my childhood. It’s very important to note here that my mother is about as skeptical and scientific as they come, but still gets the willies talking about her First Born’s strange connection to the spirit world. In that sense ghost stories are fun. They’re fun to tell and they’re a whole lot of fun to listen to. In my adult life I’ve gone on at least two walking ghost tours in major cities (for the record, nothing paranormal happened). I’ve listened to every episode of Snap Judgment’s Spooked special and am impatiently waiting for the latest installment this fall. I’ve seen enough episodes of Haunted History, My Ghost Story, Klingon Ghost Adventures starring Worf, son of Mogh, and the inaccurately titled Celebrity Ghost Stories to give me all the anecdotal evidence I need. Knowing the lore behind some of America’s most famous haunted locations made reading Colin Dickey’s Ghostland even more interesting. For instance, did you know that Sarah Winchester of Winchester Mystery House fame wasn’t actually being haunted by all the ghosts of people killed by a Winchester rifle, but rather kept adding onto her home because she rather enjoyed architecture and, as an added bonus, used constant home renovations as an excuse to never entertain visiting relatives? (Author’s note: I mean, there could have been ghosts, or she could have just been an eccentric introvert who didn’t want her  family visiting all the time and touching her stuff.) Abandoned prisons, defunct hospitals and asylums, battlefields, crime scenes—places where some sort of traumatic event took place—tend to have their own ghost stories. I admit that I can’t even begin the explain the existence of ghosts on some logical level. I don’t know what they would even be or why they’d stick around. That said, even if you don’t believe in ghost stories, it’s important to acknowledge that history as a way to show respect to those who have been historically mistreated while striving to not repeat the mistakes made by our ancestors. Whether or not you believe in ghosts is irrelevant, though what is important is looking at the meaning behind the stories and what that represents. 

So, do you have any ghost stories? I’d love to hear them sometime.  

*This friend is very likely Robin. We’re unfriendly, awkward, and will likely eat all your snacks. 

The Mummy, Reboots, and the Brendan Fraser of our Hearts

By Robin


Brendan Fraser recently gave a fair minded and even handed review of the reboot of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and Fucking Grace from Peaky Blinders. In his review, he astutely pointed out the issue I think most of us knew instinctively when we first saw the trailer: there is simply not enough Brendan Fraser in this newest Mummy iteration. (Author’s note- I am decidedly less skilled at establishing the veracity of celebrity gossip than I am with real news, mostly because I don’t know what constitutes a reliable source for actors’ quips and they rarely turn up on NPR’s fact checker. If this story is not true, please leave me to my happy delusion.)

I wholeheartedly agree with Brendan Fraser’s key points, and I decided to show my undying support of this fine gentleman by purchasing a DVD box set of the Holy Trinity of the Mummy Franchise starring Brendan Fraser, The Brendan Fraser of my Heart. This was especially exciting to me, because I did not, until that fateful Amazon search, realize that this was in fact a trilogy. I had been happily watching The Mummy and The Mummy Returns for years, never knowing that the gloriously ridiculous, sadly-bereft-of-Rachel-Weisz-but-still-utterly-charming The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor was at my fingertips. When my bounty finally arrived I watched all three movies in one day, and was reminded of several things.

First, the brilliant thing about each of these movies is that everyone is totally slumming it, but also acting their hearts out. Arnold Vosloo is soulful and evil and sensual in that way that 90s villains were legally required to be. That scene were (SPOILER ALERT) Ihmotep watches Evy pull Rick to safety and pleads with Anck-Su-Namun  to show their love to be equal, nay, superior to that of these insolent peasants’ and she screams “NAI” and RUNS AWAY AND LEAVES HER ETERNAL LOVE TO DIE and his eyes tear up and he recognizes the beauty of true love you don’t have to murder or dominate/end the world for but just show up for each other and be tender and vulnerable and then he gives Rick that “we understand each other, you and I. Go live your life with this good woman who loves you, and let my folly be a lesson for the ages” look and casts himself into the fiery arms of hell? Brings a goddamn tear to my eye every fucking time.  And in Dragon Emperor, not only Jet Li but MICHELLE YEOH were both giving Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-worthy performances, for a movie that had to resort to CVS brand Rachel Weisz and was very technically not even about mummies but Terra Cotta Warriors. Respect.  Seriously, go back and see if you can find one actor, in any role, who doesn’t seem to be giving it their all.

Second, there simply aren’t enough mummy movies. I don’t really have more to say about that. I don’t have like, evidence or anything. Just a deeply held belief. Zombies, ghosts, werewolves, demons, and vampires have all had their day in the sun, but mummies are left shrouded in mystery. I’ll see myself out.

Third, and most importantly, Brendan Fraser is a perfect human being. This isn’t really something I ever forget, but is something I like to be reminded of anyway. He is golden and earnest and such a deeply gentle man that they had to put him next to John Hannah to make him look remotely intimidating. He is roguish without playing into toxic masculinity, he is charmed by women riding camels with ease, and he is a dedicated and supportive father. He’s just very soothing to watch on screen is my point, and yes I know he’s not young and lithe anymore but Tom Cruise is also old now and besides that he’s much weirder. He’s got nothing on the sheer goodness of Brendan Fraser.

Heartbreakingly, I also discovered that there were plans for a fourth movie which John Hannah’s character insinuated would be set in Peru. I know you all realize what this means. We were cruelly denied Inca Mummy Girl with Brendan Fraser! Maybe he could have met Buffy! Or Giles! In my perfect world this would have led to a decades-long series of movies in which Brendan Fraser travels the world, battling mummies from dozens of different cultures. We could be watching the Mummy 2017: Brendan Fraser Fights Celtic Bog Mummies, but noooo, Tom Cruise and Fucking Grace from Peaky Blinders needed to make a PG-13 horror movie. (Side note from my life: When I asked my partner to read an early draft of this piece, the phrase “celtic bog mummies” reminded him of something he read about making bog butter, and we had a lively conversation that consisted entirely of him trying to explain bog butter and me refusing to engage and insisting that “butter” is code for “mummy”. The he calmed me down by showing me pictures of a baby flamingo while I made some very undignified noises.)

Another reason to revisit the original Mummy trilogy is to have a perfectly good excuse to re-watch the Scorpion King, an excellent piece of cinema starring Future President of the United States Dwayne The Rock Johnson and some other people having a goofy, fun, action adventure-y time. I have always refused to watch the Scorpion King sequels because they do not star Future President of the United States Dwayne The Rock Johnson, a position I may have to reconsider because during my STRENUOUS RESEARCH on this subject I discovered that Billy Zane is the villain in one of them. Which seems redundant given that it is Billy Zane; I suppose I should just say Billy Zane is in one of them. Point being, the first Scorpion King movie is a national treasure, and although I understand that Brendan Fraser is in no way personally responsible for the creation of that film, I’m still grateful to him for it.

I don’t really have a final point to make, I’m just so happy about Brendan Fraser and good bad movies and B or even C list actors who give things their all. Maybe the point is that instead of getting upset about remakes and reboots, which seem to be a fixture of modern movies that isn’t going anywhere, let’s take these bizarre and largely terrible new takes on our very silly favorites as an opportunity to remember why they were our favorites in the first place. Let’s remember a simpler time, when Brendan Fraser was The Brendan Fraser of our Hearts and Future President of the United States Dwayne The Rock Johnson was just plain old Dwayne The Rock Johnson and everything was gentle and sweet and deeply earnest. Or maybe my point is, does anyone want to come over and watch all four Scorpion Kings movies with me? They should be arriving on my doorstep any day now…