The best argument I heard in favor of identifying as a feminist was from a teacher, who said combatting sexism with semantics provided no armor. I trusted her because she was everything I wanted to be: black; tinged with bravado; brimming with stories of San Francisco, the Bronx, and Ivy League dorms; articulate; cosmopolitan. But back then, I wasn’t too concerned with the flex of self-definition. There were a million reasons to not be a feminist, including that I was too sympathetic to the yellow man’s plight, straight as hell, in love with Rihanna, cuffed up by libertarians, okay with makeup, pretty certain feminists were racists, believed in joint custody as a standard, and attempting to make my virginal body look as un-celibate as possible.
Feminist film critic Laura Mulvey articulated an influential theory of the male gaze, claiming the multiple ways in which perspectives, characters, and planes in films are formed exclusively through a male spectator. She claimed an eroticization of female subjects for both male characters and implied male viewers, that reduced a woman’s humanity to her body. I was skeptical of this theory because I also, as a straight girl, derived pleasure from viewing the female body, and found myself, not unlike males, attracted to the stories of beautiful characters. Furthermore, I grew up racialized. On a basic level, I believed I was never going to be the girl of wet dreams, rape fantasies, and angsty movie plots, because my skin was too dark, my eyes too small, my body too flat, and there was time, countries, a history of colonialism, school, and wealth separating me from a woman who could claim to be their subject. The times a white male was attracted to me were so few and far between that when presented with blunt cases proving the existence of yellow fever, such as David Bowie’s “China Girl” and Weezer’s “El Scorcho”, I couldn’t take them seriously. I mostly considered them as fascinating cases where white guys got socialized wrong. In sum, I was so far removed from the eroticized female subjects of film and magazines that I never thought it was something that applied to me.
But I also reasoned that if a male gaze existed, and if it applied to me, it was inseparable from my understanding of myself. In some ways I would never stop comparing myself to a standard of beauty constructed by men. Some of my most glorious moments of early adolescence were related directly to achieving, in my own view, that standard of beauty, and though I said the objective of my self-decoration was to feel golden, I can’t ignore that my feelings of confidence in presentability took place in a male world, my joy in seeing myself being seen. And it was a special kind of joy. Taking away the male gaze would be like reimagining a world where race did not exist; it was neither feasible nor preferable. I could not ignore that without it almost all my experience living on this planet would not have occurred, so to hate it unconditionally was a form of escapism I could not afford if I wanted to be powerful in my body, to love myself, to be confident in the validity of my experience.
So I asked my teacher, if I did not believe misogyny applied to me, why did I need armor? She laughed because she knew, even if I didn’t, that it did; I just refused to see it. Like everyone else I knew, by the time of this conversation, I had the experience of being the sole female in rooms where boys actively rated, bragged about, schemed on, and discussed preying upon girls. Where, instead of the realization that I could also have been one of their topics of conversation, I felt the privilege of occupying a space I believed few girls had entered (which was not true). I had also actively passed over girls to work with boys who seemed smarter, louder, more powerful, and was given, gladly, jobs none of them wanted (i.e. “Draw Pamela Anderson on this board and color her tits real well”). My apathy and desire to please the opposite sex continued into April of junior year of high school, when a boy I knew told me he drugged up another girl at a party to have sex with her, which I said was acceptable, a response which made even him look surprised.
It is fair to say that my navigation through feminism lay directly in my refusal to admit victimhood. And the consequences of that refusal. And the idea that I was the exception, that I could roll with boys, have my cake, be friends with girls, feel empowered, be borderline womanist, make dirty jokes, have an air of mystery, and get pretty, simultaneously. I evaluated myself consistently through the perspective of another, inevitably male. To see what I wanted, which was not what I wanted. By denying an extent of victimhood I was able to blind myself to the multiple ways my body, mind, and soul were disrespected. I developed, like many girls of color, like Erykah Badu who when describing her encounters with infidelity said “I do understand the nature of these men I’ve been with; they have a need to chase,” like all the girls I knew who loved Eminem and PartyNextDoor like no one’s business and shook their heads at Taylor Swift for being overly sensitive, like Celie in The Color Purple who accepted her sexual abuse as her sexuality, quiet and no fuss, an ability to laugh, brush off, stroke, forgive. I never felt it was my cage. To me, it was my coolest personality trait, my cutest party trick.
I could blame my social desires to disclaim the label of feminism, the swing of patriarchy, my own predilections to miseducation. But I came to feminism after coming to terms with the illogical defenses of my own psyche, the ways I tolerated when I should not have, the moments when I was active in the oppression of my own gender because I believed I was harder, more equipped. But who knew it was impossible to claim labels that can never claim you.
Christina M. Qiu ’19 lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.