The problems with “being smart”

Recently on tumblr, I saw this post by tumblr user obesitycore making the rounds to generally positive reception. I’ve reproduced it below with an example of some of the type of commentary I saw:

obesitycore:
the really shitty thing about being told that youre smart your whole entire life is that as soon as you dont understand something you just kind of completely shut down and his this big shitty crisis because maybe youre not as smart as youve always been told

lclfizz:
A similar thing which rang true for me when I heard it described is this: when you’re categorized as “smart,” anything you do well gets chalked up to the smartness, rather than to the effort. Combine that with lack of challenges in school and you get the situation where I didn’t learn how to work on something until I got better at it until I was in my twenties.

pervocracy:
I relate to all of the above, and also: When I couldn’t do something academic—because I didn’t have the relevant skills, or I didn’t have enough confidence, or I wasn’t organized enough, or I was confused about what was expected, or I was depressed—all I ever got was “But you’re smart! This should be easy for you!” Like if you’re smart then the only possible reason for any kind of academic failure is laziness.

Let me be clear: to some extent I can identify with these feelings and situations. But I think we need be very critical about what we are feeling and saying here.

First of all, I think it’s a bit much for us to complain about having been told we’re smart all our lives, when it is demonstrably much worse to be told you’re stupid or to be treated as if you’re stupid. This all smacks of thin people whinging “People told me to eat a burger” and “They assumed I was confident because I’m thin!” Yes, these are real problems that thin people have that cause them emotional pain, but they are minor in comparison to what happens in the lives of those who are not considered thin in our culture. The same is true of the experiences of people not considered smart. If the people around you think you’re stupid, and even worse, if they tell you you’re stupid, it can have a huge negative impact on your life. (Research by Duflo and Banerjee on this topic, outlined in their book Poor Economics, provides some evidence for this in the context of India.) The people who are really systematically beaten down in our culture are people who are considered “stupid” – we routinely hear people who think themselves “smart” bemoaning the fact that “stupid” people can vote, run their own lives, have children, and frankly dare to exist at all.

Being seen as smart by the people around you is a huge advantage in life. From a young age, people seen as smart are given more agency in their own lives than people who are seen as stupid or incompetent. They are given attention and encouragement where other, “average” people might be left to sink or swim in order to prove themselves. The personality flaws of “smart” people are explained away, or even seen as the inevitable result of their intelligence, and therefore to be tolerated without question. Of course – as these posts make clear – there are downsides here, like there are downsides to being conventionally beautiful and thin. But let’s be mindful of the wider structure those downsides occur in. I think it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of the downsides we are discussing in these tumblr posts are not the result of being seen as smart, but are in fact the result of making “intelligence” the foundation of your self-worth. That is not something you have to do – it’s a choice, even if it doesn’t feel like it. It can be unlearned. And as these posts show, it obviously should be, especially if it comes coupled with the damaging notion that being smart means never having to struggle to understand something.

Moreover, I think we should recognise that even what we think of as “smart” is to some extent culturally and socially defined. So if you are going to buy into “being smart” as some kind of important identity marker, you’re giving your society a lot of power over your identity and over your mind. Clearly, being conventionally “smart” is not the same as being intelligent – and at this point in the discussion we have to now admit that we don’t have a really good definition for intelligence. Of course, many people are devoting their lives to studying this question, so I don’t think I can add much here aside from an acknowledgement that we are far from any consensus on a definition for whatever constitutes “intelligence”.

Now, I know that some people think the very concept of intelligence is ableist, but I don’t share that view. I think the evidence suggests that there really is variation in the capacities of human brains for processing information and solving difficult problems in creative ways, and that some people genuinely are better at these tasks than others – although it’s hard to say exactly what is responsible for the variation. But I do think that these skills are not perfectly correlated with what our society calls smart, and especially not to what adults think is smart in young people. And I do think a lot of our social norms around intelligence are ableist – and also sexist, racist and classist.

I think a lot of what we call “smart” – especially in the early years of a person’s life – is more about skills that are acquired through practice, and about being able to figure out what people want from you. I think that the young people who live in an environment conducive to the kind of practice needed to develop many such skills tend to be richer on average – even controlling for educational access, which is a separate and huge issue in itself. I also think that our culture has certain ideas about who is likely to be naturally “smart” (white boys) and so we collectively encourage them to persevere to acquire such skills much more than we encourage other people. This matters because while some portion of intelligence seems to be genetic, some also seems to be developed by perseverance itself. In fact, even thinking of yourself as capable seems to help you perform better. So when one group is taught to see themselves as naturally less intelligent or less capable, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – this is classic stereotype threat (see Spencer et al 1999, for an alarming example of this in a randomised controlled trial.)

I think that our society makes a lot of arbitrary distinctions between which kinds of mental processing abilities and problem-solving skills make you “smart”. You know, “I proved the asymptotic properties of the OLS estimator” is one way to be smart, but “I have perfected the apple pie” or “I invented the lute” is another. And a lot of these distinctions are biased in ways that reinforce harmful, oppressive social structures. Excelling in male-dominated disciplines such as mathematics and science is seen as a marker of intelligence, but excelling in female-dominated disciplines such as teaching and nursing is not. Is it harder to do proofs in algebraic geometry than to get high schoolers to engage critically with their own national history? Writing reasonably complicated, rhyming rap lyrics isn’t seen as a display of intelligence, but of course it’s just as difficult as writing a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Computer programming wasn’t seen as smart when it was predominantly done by women – now that men do it, being good at it makes you “smart”. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy the social privilege from being recognised as conventionally smart should be mindful of how we’ve benefited from this structure.

And suppose even that you do think that some types of difficult and creative problems are objectively more “difficult” than others – if you think that in an objective sense it requires more “intellect” or brain processing power to sequence the human genome than to embroider the Bayeux tapestry. Still, the fact remains that no matter what we call “smart” or how legitimate you think the label and the corresponding social power is, it is fucked up that our culture says “smart” people are more worthy than “stupid” people. Look, “smart” people are not better than other people. If you lose the title of smart, if you grow up and suddenly nobody calls you “smart” anymore like they did when you were a kid, you’re not a less valid human.

I know that a lot of those tumblr posts are about catharsis, and I know that my raising these objections might cause some emotional pain. But I think it needs to be said, because I think the perspective you take on being “smart” really matters. Not just because of the broader social issues, and not just because it can make things go horribly wrong for you if you are petrified by intellectual challenge, but also because it will cause you problems even if things go right. Suppose that you actually do possess more neural processing power and problem-solving abilities than the average human. And suppose you also work hard, and you are lucky, and you want to be challenged and learn things. Then, in the best case scenario, you will eventually find yourself in a room full of people roughly as smart as you, or indeed, a room full of people who are on average smarter. If you get really lucky, you might get yourself to a room full of people compared to whom you will seem – to yourself, at least – very slow-witted indeed.

Then you’re not “the smart one” anymore – and that can be wonderful, if you let it be. I’m in graduate school now and it’s a place in which I could not remotely be called “the smart one” anymore. After a small lifetime of rarely having to ask my peers for help to solve an academic problem, I now have to ask them for help multiple times a day. I often feel inadequate in the face of the problems I have to solve, but I get on with them and usually I make progress – often, more progress than I thought possible. To continually surprise yourself in this way is a great experience. It also wipes away any vestiges of the illusion that “being smart” matters. What you do matters. The problems you solve and the things you build matter. Stop worrying about being smart and start focussing on getting things done.


Separatism and Intersectionality

One of the broadest areas of disagreement within the social justice community is the extent to which we should distance ourselves from individuals in the groups oppressing us. The argument often devolves into a fight between simpering pacifism of the “Let’s all just get along and be happy together!” flavour, and violent militarism of the “I spit in the face of group Z” flavour.

Now, on a personal level, both of these positions are completely valid. If that’s how you feel is appropriate for you personally to proceed, then that’s fine. But we have a problem when either of these positions is evangelised, and presented as though it is the only acceptable way to live with yourself as the member of an oppressed group. In particular, pushing separatism as the ideal mode of resistance from oppression is a tactic that erases intersectionality.

In the past, I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Let’s try to all live together because peace and love are better than fighting!” group. But I now realise there are some very deep problems with that position.

The first is that trying to always and everywhere get along and live together with individuals who are actively a threat to your mental and emotional well-being is not a sustainable position. There is often very real tension involved when individuals in oppressed groups befriend, become involved with, or interact with individuals from the groups oppressing them. Regardless of the intentions of the privileged individual, the social power dynamic between the groups creates additional risks for the person who is a member of the marginalised group. It’s important for us to recognise this, on two levels. As members of marginalised groups, we owe it to ourselves to preserve our emotional health, and manage these risks to the best of our abilities. That may mean limiting our interactions or choosing them carefully or many other options. As members of privileged groups, we owe it to everyone to make sure we never abuse the awful, misbegotten social power we have. (And if we fuck up on this point, we have to own it and say sorry.)

For example, in a society infused with sexism, androcentrism and rape culture, there are things that many women feel they must take into consideration when interacting with men, that they do not often feel they must consider when interacting with other women. Melissa McEwan’s excellent essay “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck” explain this very well (McEwan and I often disagree, but that essay is phenomenal). I imagine that the situation is comparable – though with its own complexities, of course – for POC when they interact with white people. I know from experience as a queer woman with various mental health issues, the tensions can also arise when someone with a disability interacts with an able-bodied-and-minded person, and when queers interact with straight people.

The second issue is that marginalised people do not owe it to their oppressors to make nice with them. Sure, there may well be benefits to cultivating empathy and forgiveness towards those who hurt us (I find anger exhausting, so I try to do this). But people are not obligated to do this! There should never be any expectation that oppressed people should have a big Nelson Mandela moment and forgive everyone. The reason why Nelson Mandela is so famous is because what he did is fucking incredible. It is simply not right to ask all oppressed people to morph into a cross between Buddha and Jesus in order to live in this world. Often this request presents itself insidiously, in the form of fake concern, “I just think you’d feel better if you forgave Whitey…”. No. If people want to be angry, let them be angry. If they never want to forgive the people responsible for the harm done to CeCe McDonald or Jamie Hubley, that is their goddamn right. The fact that individuals in privileged groups feel entitled to preach the benefits of forgiveness and then brand all who do not forgive and forget as “part of the problem” is…well, part of the problem.

However, there are equally serious problems with the rallying cry for separatism as the only form of true activism. Well actually, I’m only going to talk about the one massive problem I see with separatism. Its name is intersectionality.

Aiming for separatism completely ignores intersectionality, and in so doing, recreates kyriarchical power structures within the social justice movement itself. I am going to demonstrate the issues using feminism and women, but the principles apply the same to other movements like fat acceptance, anti-racism, the queer movement, etc. I do not mean to imply that feminism is the only guilty party here. I do not mean to imply that, for example, asking queer women to choose womanhood over all other facets of their identity is any worse than asking them to choose queerness.

Also, when I talk about separatism I’m not only talking about the idea that we should be literally separated and not interact with individuals from privileged groups. I’m also talking broadly about the philosophy that declares that Group X and Group Not-X can never get along, that they are fundamentally too different to ever understand each other. The problem of course is that Group Y Separatists also feel that way about Group Y and Not-Y. So now what happens when you’re in group X and group Y? You probably have friends and allies who are X and Not-Y, or Y and Not-X. It’s not a fun time. Ask any woman who is not straight and/or white.

So: Separatist feminism declares that no peace can ever be made between men and women, so women should at least limit or eliminate any emotional ties or interaction with men, and at most commit social or physical violence against them. But to demand this of all women is to ask women to deny other, equally important aspects of themselves besides their womanhood. It is asking them to deny the ways in which they may feel more comfortable and more at peace with some men than with some women. For example, some women of colour, who have been marginalised by white women in the feminist movement for centuries, may feel they actually have as much or more in common with men of colour than with white women. Of course, asking for racial separatism has the same problem: it asks women of colour to cast aside all commonalities white women in favour of men of colour. Asking women of colour to declare an unbridgeable gap either with white women or men of colour is ridiculous and harmful.

That is the essence of separatism. When you call for female separatism you are asking queer women to cut off their ties to non-women queers and declare undying allegiance to all women – including straight women, who may in the past have bullied them, who may today be passing laws that hurt them. You are asking fat women to declare they have more in common with thin women than with fat men – when thin women might well have been the primary enforcers of their marginalisation as fat people for years. What is more, you are erasing genderqueers and other nonbinary folk. And frankly given that some so-called feminists don’t consider transwomen women, you’re probably making all the transwomen very fucking nervous indeed.

Any form of separatism has these problems. Ask anyone with more than one area of marginalisation, and they have stories about how their “Group X” identity is marginalised within the much-vaunted “Group Y Safe Space”. This doesn’t just happen in big, populous movements like feminism. There are people who are marginalised in the trans community because of sizeism. There are people who are marginalised in the fat acceptance community, and in the movement against ableism, because of their race.

I don’t deny that cultivating an “us versus them” mentality is tempting, given the horrors of oppression. But it is actively bad for our communities. It erases the most vulnerable members of oppressed communities, that is, those who have more than one area in which they are marginalised. Even if you say “Well okay then, we’re going to have ‘queer women of colour’ separatism!” you’re still asking disabled and fat people to make allegiance choices… and you’re potentially ignoring the ways different ethnic groups are treated in the caucasian-centric racial heirarchy. It doesn’t end there either because virtually everyone is in a unique situation. We can’t escape the problem by implementing a finer granulation. It doesn’t work like that.

Thus, separatism inherently demands that some members of your group choose between their various “competing” and complex identities. That’s just not okay. This shit is hard enough to reconcile even without all the white feminists or male queers or thin or able-bodied people breathing down your neck and urging you to “pick a side”. There is no picking sides. Yes, we are different, and we have different experiences in this world because of the traits we have and the groups we belong to. But there is no unbridgeable gap between these groups – there are actual human beings where the gap is supposed to be.

On a societal level, we do all have to live together. Not out of some misplaced, wide-eyed, soppy utopianism, but because any attempt to balkanize humanity is an attempt to erase and deny intersectionality completely. Yes, any individual is free to arrange their life to preserve their mental and emotional well-being, and whatever level of interaction they choose for themselves is to be respected. Yes, it is abhorrent to expect members of marginalised groups to forgive and forget, and make nice all the time. But it is equally abhorrent to ask them to cut out a part of themselves and disavow it – to end their emotional investment in all communities except the one being championed right at that moment. That is not the way to end marginalisation. That is a recipe for re-creating it within our own communities.


Dear Kat Stratford (I think I love you)

Hopefully I am not the only one who still remembers/watches weekly 10 Things I Hate About You. It is the the story of Kat Stratford, and her younger, more popular sister, Bianca. They are at high school and there are boys and bets and Important Dances. It is, ostensibly, a remake of The Taming of the Shrew (?). Mostly it is important to remember that there are a lot of great lines and a bit where Heath Ledger sings a song and that Kat Stratford Is Really Awesome OMG.

I was going to come up with some tenuous tie in for this post eg. “isn’t it still sad that Heath Ledger is dead?”[1], it is [some random year] since this movie came out[2], “isn’t Joseph Gordon Levitt cute?”[3] etc.    However, I have decided to eschew such fakery in pursuance of my art. My art called for me to write a list of things.

A (not entirely) random number of things I love about Kat Stratford, in a mostly random order.[4]

  1. “I suppose in our society being male and an arsehole makes you worthy of our time.” When I watched this movie I was in early high school and critical and/or feminist approaches to texts were not something with which I was familiar. The scene in English class near the beginning of the film is so perfect. This scene includes Kat informing Heath Ledger’s character (Patrick) that all he has missed is “The oppressive patriarchal values that dictate our education.” I didn’t know what patriarchal values were but gee they sounded bad and I wanted to know more.
  2. Kat is angry about things which are angry-making. So maybe injuring someone to extent that they need a testical retrieval operation because they groped you in the lunchline is somewhat disproportionate but also it’s awesome… Oups?
  3. Banter! So much beautiful banter. When I watched Ten Things the first time my “moves” around boys I liked were mostly a mixture of blushing, sweating and mumbling, sometimes I managed all three moves at once! So that exchange where Heath Ledger’s character says “I know a lot more than you think!” and Kat whips back with “Doubtful, very doubtful” and others like that, were very aspirational. Would I ever be so cool?[5]
  4. According to (unethical!) sleuthing it is found that Kat likes “Thai food, feminist prose and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion.” Would I still like Pad Thai and The Handmaid’s Tale and Bikini Kill if I hadn’t met Kat Stratford at such a crucial time? A controlled trial is not forthcoming. I do know that I lived pretty far from a shop that sold Riot Grrl, so it certainly helped. (Shortly after watching the movie I used my parents newly acquired dial up internet to download Rebel Girl and it made my life better).
  5. Aside from Bikini Kill, Kat references some other pretty great stuff: Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir, Charlotte Bronte and the Feminine Mystique[6] for example. Women make great and important cultural works!
  6. The conversation between Kat and Bianca at the party. I was long from attending such events, and of course such events don’t really exist because yay, Hollywood movies![7] But that scene where Bianca refuses to talk to her because she’s not cool enough and Kat looks genuinely hurt? Oh my heart. She’s fierce and badass and has all the best comebacks but she is still a teenager girl capable of feeling hurt in the way that teenage girls are so very skilled at inflicting it.
  7. “You don’t always have to be what they want you to be, you know?” Which is just the best advice and an excellent tattoo idea and great words of wisdom I hope to impart on my future hypothetical sons and daughters. ([2] Of course my hypothetical future children will also no doubt fail to listen to me, just like Bianca).
  8. That bit where she makes out with Heath Ledger while rolling in the hay, covered in paint.[8]
  9. So Kat isn’t great at communicating all the time, but eventually she brings Bianca ‘round and then Bianca hits The Douchebag in the face. Who wouldn’t want to be that much of a positive inspiration in someone’s life???[9]
  10. That she takes him back. So maybe this is counter-intuitive but stay with me OK? You really like this hot guy and he seems to like you but then it turns out it was a bet.[10] So you think a) can I trust this guy again? b) does he even really like me? And then it turns out that yes you can and he does (as far as you can tell) actually like you. Choosing not to be in a relationship with someone should not be about denying someone the gift of your presence/vagina in payback. If you still really want to be with someone and have assessed things as levelly as you can, I say go for it! (Shockingly I may have over-thought this).[11] Also, he bought her an awesome-looking guitar!!!

An aside:  Black “panties” don’t mean you want to have sex some day. Those underpants don’t even fit the stereotype given they look like the type of cotton hipster bikinis you get in a ten pack at Target.[12]  That bit is so weird and I am impressed with Patrick Verona’s skeptical face when delivered with this as evidence that Kat is worth pursuing.


[1] Yes.
[2] It is… twelve years. God, who feels old now? Also why the fuck does this movie only have a 6.9 rating on IMDB?
[3] Yes.
[4] Other keen scholars of the film will note that actually in that (I think we can admit, pretty bad) poem there are actually more than ten things! Scandal! Lied to by Hollywood!
[5] The short answer is no because I don’t have a script writer, or a soundtrack, to my ongoing disappointment.
[6] I read this book when I was 16 mostly because of Kat, but also because of a great sociology teacher I had and the fact my mum already had it sitting on the bookshelf. In short: women are great!
[7] Although I have discovered that American parties do actually feature those ubiquitous red plastic cups.
[8] This was also very aspirational to teenage me.
[9] Disclaimer: violence is not the answer. Most of the time.
[10] Happens all the time, am I right? Oh late 90s/early 00s teen movies, why all the bets?
[11] Note to SJL: possible series idea “Sex Advice for the Protagonists of Teen Movies”???
[12] I suspect they are, in fact, “period panties”.

The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good

A while ago, tumblr user “iamateenagefeminist” compiled a list of non-oppressive insults, a public service that will never be forgotten. The people of tumblr wept with joy and appreciation (although it should be noted that the people of tumblr will literally weep over a drawing of an owl). The list is not perfect, and “ugly” should NOT be on there as it reinforces beauty hierarchies. Still, I was happy to find it, because I am always looking for more insults that don’t reinforce oppressive social structures.

But if you scroll through the reblogs you’ll see that not everyone was enamoured of the idea of creating this list at all. In particular, several people said that trying to find non-oppressive ways to insult other people is “missing the point” of social justice. Those people seem to think that being nice is a core part of social justice. But those people are wrong.

Social justice is about destroying systematic marginalisation and privilege. Wishing to live in a more just, more equal world is simply not the same thing as wishing to live in a “nicer” world. I am not suggesting niceness is bad or that we should not behave in a nice way towards others if we want to! I also do not equate niceness with cooperation or collaboration with others. Here’s all I am saying: the conflation of ethical or just conduct (goodness), and polite conduct (niceness) is a big problem.

Plenty of oppressive bullshit goes down under the guise of nice. Every day, nice, caring, friendly people try to take our bodily autonomy away from us (women, queers, trans people, nonbinaries, fat people, POC…you name it, they just don’t think we know what’s good for us!). These people would hold a door for us if they saw us coming. Our enemies are not only the people holding “Fags Die God Laughs” signs, they are the nice people who just feel like marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense, it’s just how they feel! We once got a very nice comment on this site that we decided we could not publish because its content was “But how can I respect women when they dress like – sorry to say it, pardon my language – sluts?”. This is vile, disgusting misogyny and no amount of sugar coating and politeness can make it okay. Similarly, most of the people who run ex-gay therapy clinics are actually very nice and polite! They just want to save you! Nicely! Clearly, niceness means FUCK ALL.

On an even more serious note, nice people also DO horrible bad things on an individual level. In The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker, he explicitly says that people who intend to harm others often display niceness towards them in order to make them feel safe and let their guard down. This trick only works because we have been taught that niceness indicates goodness. What is more, according to De Becker, women have been socially conditioned to feel indebted to men who are “nice” to them, which is often exploited by abusers. If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, I suggest you pick up the book – it talks a lot about how socialisation of men and women makes it easier for men to abuse women.

How many more acts that reinforce kyriarchy have to be done nicely and politely before we stop giving people any credit for niceness? Does the niceness of these acts make them acceptable? It does not.

An even bigger issue is that if people think social justice is about niceness, it means they have fundamentally misunderstood privilege. Privilege does not mean you live in a world where people are nice to you and never insult you. It means you live in a world in which you, and people like you, are given systematic advantages over other people. Being marginalised does not mean people are always nasty to you, it means you live in a world in which many aspects of the cultural, social and economic systems are stacked against people like you. Some very privileged people have had awful experiences in life, but it does not erase their privilege. That is because privilege is about groups of people being given different rights and opportunities by the law and by socio-cultural norms. Incidentally, that is why you can have some forms of privilege and not others, and it doesn’t make sense to try to “tally up” one’s privilege into a sum total and compare it against others’.

By the way, the first person who says “But then why are TV shows a social justice issue?” in the comments will have their head put on a pike as an example to others. Cultural narratives are part of what builds and reinforces social roles, and those determine what opportunities a person has – and the rights they can actually exercise, even if they have them in the law. If you don’t believe me and don’t want to accept this idea, you will now google “stereotype threat”, you will read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, you will watch this speech by Esther Duflo on women and development (which talks about stereotypes and outcomes), and THEN you may return to this blog.

The conflation of nice and good also creates an avenue of subtle control over marginalised people. After all, what is seen as “nice” is cultural and often even class-dependent, and therefore the “manners” that matter get to be defined by the dominant ethnic group and class. For example, the “tone” argument, the favourite derailing tactic of bigots everywhere, is quite clearly a demand that the oppressor be treated “nicely” at all times by the oppressed – and they get to define what “nice” treatment is. This works because the primacy of nice in our culture creates a useful tool – to control people and to delegitimise their anger. A stark example of this is the stereotype of the desirably meek and passive woman, which is often held over women’s heads if we step out of line. How much easier is it to hold on to social and cultural power when you make a rule that people who ask for an end to their own oppression have to ask for it nicely, never showing anger or any emotion at being systematically disenfranchised? (A lot easier.)

Furthermore, I think the confusion of meanness with oppression is the root cause of why bigots feel that calling someone a “bigot” is as bad as calling someone a “tranny” or taking away their rights. You know, previously I thought they were just being willfully obtuse, but now I realise what is going on. For example, most racists appear to feel that calling POC a racist slur is a roughly equal moral harm to POC calling them a “racist fuckhead”. That’s because they do not understand that using a racist slur is bad in any sense other than it hurts someone’s feelings. And they know from experience that it hurts someone’s feelings to be called racist douche.

So if you – the oppressed – hurt someone’s feelings, you’re just like the oppressor, right? Wrong. Oppression is not about hurt feelings. It is about the rights and opportunities that are not afforded to you because you belong to a certain group of people. When you use a racist slur you imply that non-whiteness is a bad thing, and thus publicly reinforce a system that denies POC the rights and opportunities of white people. Calling a white person a racist fuckhead doesn’t do any of that. Yes, it’s not very nice. And how effective it is as a tactic is definitely up for debate (that’s a whole other blog post). But it’s not oppression.

Being good and being nice are totally unrelated. We need to get serious about debunking this myth, because the confusion between the two is obfuscating our message and handing our oppressors another tool with which to silence us. In some cases, this confusion is putting people (especially women) in real danger.

This social movement can’t achieve its goals if people think it’s essentially some kind of niceness revolution. And anyway, social justice is not about making the world a nicer place. It’s about taking back the rights and opportunities denied to us by law or by social and cultural norms – and breaking out of the toxic mindset that wants us to say please and thankyou when we do.


Achievements Earned: Sexual Harassment, Rampant Misogyny, Silent Complacency

Listen up, gamers! When a prominent member of your community states explicitly that not only is sexual harassment a good thing, but that it’s ethically wrong to try to eradicate sexual harassment from gaming cultures, there is something very, very wrong. (I’m not the biggest fan of PA or this particular coverage, but it’s probably the best and most general overview of the issue.)

The fact that the article goes on to say that the fighting game community is split on the issue is positively frightening.

I’m not even going to address the people who think sexual harassment is okay because you’re morally reprehensible and frankly, you’re not worth my time. But for the people who are worried about the reputation and culture of the fighting game community, the gamer community or even the geek community in general, let’s chat.

First, it may be surprising that I’m not particularly interested in this Aris dude or the apparently numerous gamers who agree with him. At this point I’ve written them off as no-hopers who can’t see past their own egos to understand basic codes of moral behaviour. What I am concerned about, however, is the circumstances where the gaming culture has allowed these disgustingly bigoted views to flourish.

In many other subcultures and communities, people like Aris and his supporters wouldn’t make news or even dent the reputation of the community. Bigots like these people would be dealt within internally, mocked for their views and prompted ejected and vilified (as they should be). It would be clear that they were so completely out of touch with the community standards for good conduct that anyone claiming they were representative of the whole community would be laughed at.

But clearly this isn’t the case. There is a prominent and even normalised trend of sexually harassing women in gaming circles. I’m sure there are a number of perfectly nice gamers who don’t harass people and you know what, I could even believe that people like Aris are part of a small but vocal minority. The problem isn’t numbers, the problem is systematic complacency to bigotry and douchebaggery.

The Penny Arcade article illustrates the point perfectly here:

It’s important to point out that video comes from the first day of the competition. The stream where Aris defends and encourages the harassment of female players takes place on day five. That means this woman may have been mocked and sexually harassed for days without anyone stepping in, stopping the situation, or speaking to Aris. At one point during the stream there is even a conversation about the “Cap cops” coming in to shut things down, but the conversation about sexual harassment continues.

When no one stands up to bigots, then everyone who is silent is complacent to their bigotry because bigots take silence to mean approval. Yes, Aris was the one who was sexually harassing female players, but what of the number of spectators who stood around and just let it happen? This kind of behaviour could have been nipped in the bud if someone had spoken up from day one. Their individual silence is as bad as Aris’ abuse, and collectively more significant.

You might think it’s unfair that I accord this sort of responsibility onto spectators who don’t have control over what Aris says. The fact of the matter is, Aris had enough confidence to let loose his abuse because he’d done it before with no consequences. He’d done it before, might have even been congratulated by a few douchenozzles, but more importantly, he’d experienced no or very little backlash from fellow gamers. The truth is that if you’re silent about bigotry then you are complicit in it – because bigots will assume that, you too, are a bigot.

You might still think it’s unfair that I accord this sort of communal responsibility onto spectators, but it’s also fucking unfair that Miranda Pakozdi was allowed to be abused in this way. You can’t have it both ways; you can’t say that people like Aris are ruining the community image on one hand while having a laissez-faire attitude to the existence of such people within the community on the other.

Hey, gamers? If you’re so concerned with the reputation of the gamer community, you should be less concerned about the effects of media coverage and more concerned with eradicating bigots from your community so the media will have nothing to latch onto. Instead of complaining how the media focuses on the negatives, maybe you should be stating that people like Aris are unequivocally condemned within the community and their presence is wholly unwelcome in your social circles. Just like high scores or impressive chain combos, good reputations are earned by working at them and not by sitting around watching others play.


Vagina Dialogues

OK, let’s get some comedy nerdery happening on this blog. Australian comedy nerdery, that’s right, niche. (Some of the things I’m nerdy about are stuff you literally probably haven’t heard about unless you’re Australian and like comedy).

This week Corinne Grant wrote an opinion piece  about gay male comedians making sexist comments about women. Her main contention was that:

Gay male comics can declare how disgusting they find women’s bodies, how ugly older women are, how women are hags, nags, sluts, bitches and whores and the audience will laugh.

It was quite a provocative piece and in the latter part she speaks with Tom Ballard, a gay male comedian who is kind of a big deal, used to date one of the other best known Aussie gay male comedians (it’s a small country OK) and now does the youth radio station breakfast here. Ballard later wrote his own response blog.

I think the politics of this issue (in the social justice sense) are murky and ripe for getting into a oppression-Olympics showdown so lets try and avoid that. I can see the political validity in gay male comedians challenging heteronormativity, of course. Masculinity is often defined as being intrinsically related to being attracted to women. So getting onstage and saying “I am a man and I find lady bits gross” can be seen as a radical move.

However, the paradox of the way women’s bodies are viewed in society is that while women’s bodies are constantly arranged and displayed in a way that is pleasing to men and stresses the desirability of “womanliness”, so too women’s bodies are constantly attacked for failing to reach those standards. An almost impossible criteria of attractiveness are expected for women. Not too fat but not too thin, curvy but not too curvy (because then you’re tacky), enough makeup to appear with perfect skin but not so much you look “cheap”; women’s bodies have to be just right and they are regularly judged to be lacking. And let’s be honest, constructions of female sexiness are usually not about how great vaginas are. Framed in this context, a man on stage talking shit about women’s bodies seems less than politically-pure.

Now let’s get real here, I think that we can all agree that jokes about how old women are gross and people with penises are the only ones worth talking to are not OK. We’re all humourless feminists here, right? But seriously, if that’s the point of your routine, you should really be trying harder. I spend enough time putting up with sexist bullshit in my life, and that stuff makes me want to cry not laugh. Constantly calling women by nasty names is just not cool. Here I am talking about a context where it’s on-stage and public, and the women in question aren’t OK with it. I mean if all your female friends love being referred to as sluts face-to-face I would first triple check and then go for it (because there IS a difference to what you say when performing for the public and what you say to our friends, and there should be). Tom Ballard’s response blog is actually pretty on board with this, and I really admire how both he and Grant have managed to have an actually civil and respectful conversation. I’m also glad that both of them are coming from a standpoint that “political correctness” is worth considering and if you are going to comment on this post this will also be expected as a baseline.

So the real issue here is vagina (and isn’t it always, amirite? Urgh. I don’t even know what that means).  That’s right, we’re going to have an in-depth conversation about what is OK to say about vaginas, PC police/Social Justice League, suit up! I suppose the question is “can you hate vaginas and love women?” There are plenty of women (I have even met some of them!) who would say yes, because that is them. It is really problematic to tell a group of people how their experience of being part of being a member of that group can be, especially if that group is marginalised. (I say “can be” because as is sadly, but not surprisingly, missing from this debate is that not all women have vaginas and not all men don’t, but urgh, society).

I think an interesting corollary to this is that my friends and I went to see Josh Thomas (Tom Ballard’s ex, as mentioned above) a couple of years ago, after he had just recently come out. He talked about how terrifying gay sex was and how you should really avoid it if at all possible. (He also made a particular comment about how great and useful vaginas were.) One of my (straight, female) friends thought that this was a homophobic attitude for Thomas to hold. I vehemently disagreed and then attempted to get into a discussion about the mechanics of anal sex (something it should be pointed out, that is not reserved to gay men), in a quiet cafe, you guys should all be very jealous we aren’t friends IRL. (Sadly my friend was not keen to discuss lubrication right then.)

I suppose my point here is that just because you’re gay you don’t have to be overjoyed about every aspect of the experience of being a gay man, and if you have a vagina you don’t have to be delighted by all its functions. I mean, let’s talk about periods here. There are women for whom menstruating is a beautiful and natural cycle of life (apparently). I mostly find that it hurts, makes me cranky and is kind of gory (yeah that’s right, so much for the fairer sex, blood GUSHES out of my body once a month). I feel pretty silenced by the whole ‘it’s all beautiful and natural’ approach.

On Twitter I saw someone (actually another one of Josh Thomas’ exes, lolz Australia) suggest that unless Grant loved everything about vaginas she was being a hypocrite (see Grant’s pretty hilarious response). I don’t really think women expressing negative opinions about their genitalia and not being happy to hear this as a punchline from men is “hypocritical”. Just like there are words which are acceptable if used by African Americans and not if used by white people, this is not a level playing field situation. You know why? Because it was NEVER a level playing field to begin with. See: privilege. Of course there is overlap here, and maybe gay male comedians would argue that being grossed out by lady parts is an intrinsic part of being gay and by telling them not to I am silencing them.

Tom Ballard in his response to Grant talks about the special relationship that women and gay men share. I certainly think there is merit to this argument, often there is a different dynamic to this kind of a relationship, although obviously its not a get out of jail free card. I thought it was particularly interesting that he referenced the relationship that female comedians have with their gay fanbases. He mentions Kathy Griffen and I was reminded of this clip from her (seriously great, omg I love her) show where she objects to being called “fish” by members of her gay male fanbase. So the relationship is clearly far from perfect.

In the end, I have failed to come up with some kind of grand unified theory for comedians talking about vaginas on stage. I think there probably isn’t one to be found, because there are a lot subtleties, statements like “I think vaginas are gross” “We all know vaginas are gross” and “Every time I hear the word vagina I want to gag” are different levels of problematic to me, and I think there is an argument that the first one is acceptable but you can argue with me in the comments (respectfully! And I don’t promise to answer. I have important things to Tumblr work on, OK).


Stilettos, Catwoman and The Dark Knight Rises

WARNING: Discussion of The Dark Knight Rises. Don’t think that there are any serious spoilers but the purists may want to give this a miss. There are also serious spoilers for The Dark Knight discussed.

The costumes of female superheroes are often the objects of intense scrutiny from various corners of fandom for various reasons. Anne Hathaway, who will be playing Catwoman in the latest incarnation of the Nolanverse Batman films, stated that “I love the costume because everything has a purpose, nothing is in place for fantasy’s sake, and that’s the case with everything in Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City.” The Hero Complex (spoilers at the source) has stated that in a scene they viewed, Catwoman was ‘navigating the steps with stiletto heels that, on closer inspection, turn out to have serrated edges capable of leaving nasty claw marks in a fight.’

Now, Catwoman is a thief. Whether she is a thief in the Nolanverse isn’t entirely clear, though I see no reason for her not to be. Barring the Batman Returns interpretation, her whole aesthetic relies upon the cat burglar motif and as a thief, what she relies upon most is stealth. By the time she’s been seen or heard, it’s too late. Anybody who has ever worn stiletto heels knows that they are really fucking loud.

And that’s without even talking about how hard it is to run in heels, how easy it is to turn (or even break) an ankle, how hard it would be to land from a jump of any height in heels. Anybody who has seen a Batman film or read a Batman comic book knows that they spend a lot of time running and parkour-ing across rooftops.

The ability to cut somebody when you kick them (something which seems a ridiculous idea to me in the first place) is surely secondary to all that. The fact of the matter is that Christopher Nolan seems to care about gritty realism with regard to his male characters but not his female ones. Catwoman is the first female member of Batman’s rogues gallery introduced in the Nolanverse, the first woman in the Nolanverse who could be considered to be a “superhero” or “supervillian” in the same vein as Batman himself.*

This is significant, particularly in a series that is severely lacking in women. Rachel Dawes and Martha Wayne are almost literally the only named women in the first two films and between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rachel Dawes receives a rather unfortunate personality transplant. This of course is not actually the case and the problem lies with the source material as well as with the films. Anyone who has watched The Dark Knight with more than a passing knowledge of the extended Batfamily and any investment in Barbara Gordon was more than likely appalled at the final sequence of the film with Two-Face and Jim Gordon, which focused not on Barbara, a significant person in the Batman mythos, but on Jim Gordon’s rarely-mentioned son.

When a number of photos were released, some bloggers were endorsing a ‘wait and see’ approach with regards to The Dark Knight Rises, implying that Christopher Nolan is someone who can be trusted with female characters, something which I don’t believe to be true. With regards to Batman’s white, male characters I have faith that Christopher Nolan will treat them well and with the respect they deserve.**

With regards to his female characters however, I have little expectation or belief that they will be treated with the respect they deserve. I would very much like to be surprised! But in general, Christopher Nolan seems to work best with female character when they are dead or about to be dead, serving as motivation for his male characters.^ This means that the issue of Catwoman’s costume takes on more significance than it might otherwise, indicating that she may well be being treated with the same level of respect that Nolan often treats his female characters. In a universe where “gritty realism” is paramount, Catwoman’s costume and its practicality becomes an even greater issue than it is in the hyper-real world that the comic books inhabit.

*I’m not counting Nolan’s horrifying attempt to character assassinate Renee Montoya in The Dark Knight. This actually works in his favour! The character ‘Ramirez’ was originally supposed to be Renee Montoya and DC refused to allow him to use the name.

**Both Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane have been white-washed in the casting department and the only POC in the films that has been treated with any kind of respect is Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox. Admittedly Lucuis Fox had been treated with utmost respect but in light of the way in which other POC characters have been treated this seems a bitter trade-off.

^Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight, Mal in Inception, Julia and Sarah in The Prestige.


We Expect More

In the wake of the most recent ‘sexist atheists on reddit’ scandal, which you can read more about here, I think it’s time that we had a talk. Not about the event itself, because we can all agree that a girl posting her face online is not “inviting” sexual harassment and frankly Rebecca Watson (see previous link) and Kate Harding said it better already. I’m more concerned with the rejoinder of the moderates, those who try to calm the angry feminists with some variation on the theme “It’s the internet/it’s reddit/it’s humans! This is the way things are. What did you expect?”

Well, since it is so often asked, I want to answer that question.

We expect more. We expect that men relate to women as people, and afford them the same respect and dignity they afford to other men. Not sometimes, not just when they are offline, not just when they can be held accountable, not just when they’re not attracted to the woman in question, but always. We expect to be able to present ourselves in public as women without being told that in so doing we should be prepared to receive constant, invasive sexual overtures and lewd suggestions.

We expect that people understand that it is never okay to joke about raping someone.

We expect those of you who have done any of this not to be so utterly callous as to ask women to “indulge” you. We expect that you stop pretending you are too foolish to know what is right and in any case too spineless to do it. We know you are vertebrates and we expect you to act like it.

We expect you not to pretend that we hold the power and that you are our victims when it has been otherwise for millennia. We expect that we do not have to explain this to you. And when we do have to explain, and complain, and make you aware, we expect that you will take us seriously. These are things we expect from everyone. I hope that clears things up a little.

We also expect more from the moderates, from those of you who would never harass women but who ask women to accept and expect harrassment from men as a matter of course. We expect you to be smarter than this, and take a bit of a longer view. You say this is the way things are on the internet or in human society, thereby implying that things can never change. But it should be obvious that this is just the way things are now. Just like Europe in the Middle Ages, where feudalism was the way things were, and just like in the USA in the 19th century where women not not being allowed to vote was the way things were. So I guess you’d be “that guy” back in 1880 being all “Women not voting is just the way things are!” Meanwhile, other people (not you) were then, and are now, demanding change and/or going out and changing things.

Humans changed those things about their societies then, and today we can change things too. Looking around, I really don’t think we’re reaching peak enlightenment right now. If we think we’re the pinnacle of human society and culture, it is only because of our geographical and temporal narcissism. There is simply no reason to assume you’re living at the very peak of excellence, the greatest level of tolerance and enlightenment that human society can ever attain. Think outside your timezone, man.

But more immediately than that, we expect you to think about the effect your words will have now. Have you ever thought about what the flip side of “what did you expect” and “this is inherent in reddit/the internet/the world” is? Think about those men whose first response to any woman or girl, in any context, is to inform her of how much sexual pleasure her appearance provides them: what do they hear when you trot out this line? What about those men who talk about raping a 15 year old girl “as a joke”? When they hear you say women should expect it, what do they hear? Acceptance. They see that their behaviour is tacitly approved – by you.

Your call for acceptance gives any man who does these things the clear message that what he is doing is acceptable, indeed, expected behaviour on his part. So why should he stop? Not only does he have his buddies up-voting his vile comments, he has all the “moderates” telling the angry feminists to ignore him and calm down! That is the effect you have when you ask women to accept that harassment is “the way life is”.

When it comes to treating women as human beings equal in rights and dignity, there is no middle ground. There is no “let’s stop here, near enough is good enough” (and for the record this is not actually near enough). There is no compromise. I believe the probability of making good progress is substantial, but it wouldn’t matter if this probability were virtually zero. As long as the probability of change is not zero, that is enough, because success is hugely valuable and failure is enormously damaging. The situation is not acceptable, and we have to do whatever we can to change it.

One more thing for those who want women to calm down about harassment: would you ever accept this treatment as “the way life is” for you? Would you ever accept a situation where, once you let people on the internet know you are a 15 year old boy, hoards of older men descend upon your thread to make lewd comments about having sex with you? No. If someone told you to expect people to joke extensively about their desire to rape a teenage boy under any circumstances – let alone because that boy had posted a picture of himself online to show everyone his new book – you would be horrified. You would be sickened. You would ask yourself how this came to be and wonder how it could be stopped. That is the right reaction.

So stop trying to tell us that this treatment is what we should expect as women. It’s not good enough. Heck, it’s not even good. It’s an improvement relative to the time when women were chattel, but that’s about as much as can be said for this behaviour – both the harassment and the calls for acceptance of harassment. When that’s all that can be said for you, it’s time for you to change. Please, come and join us here in the future. We’ve been expecting you.


Girls are not like apples and other hard facts about the world.

Oh fuck off!

The above quote keeps doing  the rounds on Tumblr (by which I mean, keeps appearing on my Pete Wentz tracked tag. Um…). From my attempt at investigation (otherwise known as “googling it”) it seems that Pete Wentz never actually said it. I hope Pete didn’t say it, because I think he’s kind of awesome and he named his kid BRONX MOWGLI, come on (which is to say he and Ashlee Simpson named THEIR kid that and I’m sure she’s also awesome). ANYWAY, the point is that while an idle google search will not throw up the authorship of the quote it does present enough hits to suggest that this is a popular sentiment (even just searching for “girl apples” gets you this quote). Not to mention every time someone updates their facebook status to something about how unfair it is that guys always like the slutty, easy girls and not them – there is currently no search capability for this but I confidently state it’s probably happened a bajillion times.

Let’s get out of the way how heterosexist this quote is, it is hopefully pretty obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway. Not all girls are interested in boys. Boys aren’t the only ones who get to do the “apple picking” (urgh, gross). A girl’s role is not to sit around being awesome and complicated/hard (the antonyms of easy) waiting for a big brave boy to like her. Most importantly: male attention is not a gauge of anyone’s worth. This is slut-shaming. Slut shaming aims perpetuate the control of the patriarchy over female sexuality. This quote isn’t even being coy about the slut shaming, I mean, easy?! FFS I wish we were past this bullshit.

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the quotes references “girls” and not women. Beyond annoying paternalism, I think that quotes like this have particular resonance for teenage girls. High school (for many people) is all about hierarchy, hierarchy decided by some pretty arbitratry criteria. So of course it’s comforting to get told that not only is the hierarchy sorted all wrong but that you’re actually at the top. That’s a pretty easy sell, whether Pete Wentz said it or not.

Let’s not forget that it IS shit being a teenage girl (of course, your mileage may vary). If you desperately want a boyfriend and no one is interested and society is telling you that teenage school girls look like this, and you have to take fucking French even though you don’t want to, and that guy you thought liked you was only talking to you because he likes your hotter friend and HORMONES. Yeah, globally, statistically speaking if those are your big problems, you are pretty damn lucky, but that doesn’t stop it feeling pretty shitty. It’s also difficult to have a whole heap of perspective, because being in school limits your exposure to other people who don’t buy into hierarchical bullshit. So I do get why this quote is totally appealing.

The only message I would salvage from this quote is that if boys don’t like you it’s not because there is something wrong with you — I am totally with you on that, Pete (allegedly). Although it is worth noting that no one owes you their affections, so let’s just try and remove all guilt/blame/value judgement from the equation. It is true that lots of people are kind of a mess in high school and there is a whole lot of macro and peer pressure on guys (and girls) to be attracted to prescribed beauty norms. That’s shit, but metaphors about apples aren’t the answer.

The thing is, internalizing that rubbish about “good girls” and “bad girls” is only going to make you feel better in the short term. That kind of message is in no way elevating, it doesn’t make you genuinely feel better about yourself, all it does is give you a whole lot of bitterness and hate directed at those girls, the easy apples, you know (just typing that makes me feel gross).

This quote really does “objectify”, in a very literal sense. Girls are not apples or anything else (I welcome further examples of objectifying metaphors in the comments!). Inverting the stereotype doesn’t make it go away. In fact you are really just enforcing the idea that there is some kind of hierarchy of worth, and that it applies just to women. Just as with the “those thin models aren’t even attractive to MEN” argument you are enforcing men as the arbiters of what makes a “good” girl and at the same time separating women from each other.

And now for a real world example and a demonstration of why my friends are awesome: The other day I was hanging out with my friends and a male friend, let’s call him Tom, made a comment about the kind of girls who have one night stands. I quickly got on my Social Justice League leotard (it has sparkles!) and spoke up. Obviously what I said was awesome, but what my friend did was even better. She said, looking around at the two girls in the room, “you know, at various points, we have been the kind of girls who have one night stands. Do you mean us?” and it was a kind of beautiful moment because Tom didn’t know what to say. It was also just the kind of thing I would never would have had the guts or awareness to do in high school (and that’s the first step, evicting the patriarchal police in your brain that reinforce these ideas).

I encourage you to pull this “I am Spartacus” shit the next time someone talks to you about “kinds” of girls. I’m sorry to sound preachy, but we have to stop letting the patriarchy divide and conquer us on this issue. So I encourage you to put on your sparkly Feminist Activist leotard, pump some Bikini Kill (or other music of your choosing) and stand up for all women: sluts, skanks, virgins, frigid girls and the ones in-between. Because we are all fucking awesome and none of us can be contained by RIDICULOUS METAPHORS ABOUT APPLES!


Leave Kim Kardashian Alone

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but we need to lay off Kim Kardashian. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Well, actually, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but let me make a guess: you think Kim Kardashian is a bad role model for girls because she does what the patriarchy tells girls to do. Her activities reinforce dominant tropes about how to be a woman, and she actively supports dieting and sizeism by hawking her QuickTrim pseudo-science of weight loss pills.

Well, I agree with you, and I think those criticisms are valid. I’m not saying you have to like Kim Kardashian. But though that may be our objection to Kim’s activities, that is not the main message of the current backlash against her. That backlash is sexist, and as people who care about social justice, we must debunk it whenever we can – whether we like Kim or not.

The major criticisms we hear about Kim are thus: she’s vapid and shallow, a “slut”, “famous for doing nothing”, and makes a mockery of marriage – either because her marriage was too short, or because her marriage was a sham concocted to make money. Let’s go through these one by one.

Vapid? Kim’s life does seem to revolve around fashion, makeup, conventional beauty, and finding love in a heteronormative manner. Are these activities vapid? No. There’s no sense in which fashion and makeup are any less important than, say, videogames or surfboards. Would you call someone who dedicated her life to making surfboards, using surfboards, and being a surfboard enthusiast vapid? Shallow? You wouldn’t, and that’s because we associate surfboards with social codes around masculinity and fashion and makeup with social codes around femininity. Our patriarchal culture considers masculine-coded interests as somehow less shallow and vapid than feminine-coded interests. They aren’t. And as for heteronormative love? There’s nothing especially wrong with that on a personal level (though the macro tropes surrounding it are harmful). In fact, the people making this criticism usually want that too, they just think it’s vapid when women are explicit about it.

It’s also important to note that punishing women for complying with cultural demands for performative femininity is a key component of women’s oppression. Our culture insists that women conform to a certain conventional beauty standards, and concern themselves with “girl things” like fashion and hair and makeup, in order to be acceptable as women. Yet when women like Kim do this, they are derided – called stupid, shallow, and vapid. As feminists, we must never stand by while women are called derogatory names for engaging in socially coded feminine activities. Even if we don’t like those women.

Well, is Kim Kardashian a “slut”? Answer: It’s none of your business! And this particular complaint against Kim is obviously the worst form of slutshaming and misogyny. I have no idea what Kim’s sex life is like but I don’t need to know anything about it to defend her from this charge. Frankly, anyone who thinks the word “slut” in its dominant cultural use is a coherent, sensible concept – let alone a legitimate insult with which to slur a woman – is flat out wrong. I don’t see anyone calling the men Kim sleeps with sluts, I don’t see anyone haranguing the man Kim made the sex tape with and asking him how he expects us to respect him. As feminists, our reply to those who slutshame Kim must be unequivocal: you will respect Kim no matter how “slutty” she is according to your feverish imaginings.

Okay, now what about “famous for doing nothing”? Kim is famous for making a sex tape and then doing lots of modelling and reality television. I admit, this does not seem like a huge contribution to humanity when you compare it to the life’s work of Rosalind Franklin or Morgan Tsvangirai or Elizabeth Blackburn or Alvin Roth or Aung San Suu Kyi or Norman Borlaug or Christina Romer. But is that the right comparison? No. Because I bet you had to google at least one of those people, all of whom have contributed “more” to humanity than virtually any Hollywood celebrity ever will. (I admit I’m invoking a hierarchy, and I acknowledge the issues inherent in that, but I think it’s reasonable to argue that these people contribute to human society more than TV stars do.)

Fame is arbitrary. The vast majority of fame in our culture is bestowed on one group: entertainers. I do not wish to belittle the entertainment industry; it provides people with a lot of enjoyment, relaxation, excitement and fun, as well as the occasional transformative experience. But there’s no real philosophical reason why these people should be famous while doctors and teachers are not. Some people claim that it’s totally legitimate to make actors and singers famous, it’s just reality TV stars that are “doing nothing”. But really, they are entertaining people just as much as actors who memorise scripts. Is Kim Kardashian’s fame that much less deserved than the fame of Jessica Alba or Reese Witherspoon or Vin Diesel or Robert Pattinson? Maybe she is “doing less”, but last time I looked, your product is what matters in the entertainment industry – not how hard you had to work. Face it, very few famous people “deserve” their fame in any concrete sense.

It’s also worth remembering that Kim Kardashian didn’t get famous on her own: fame requires the attention of the masses. Now, clearly, Kim is pretty dedicated to getting our attention. And we give it to her – if we cut her off, there wouldn’t be anything she could do about it. We are the lynchpin of who gets famous. So if anyone is responsible for the sorry state of affairs in which the Kardashians are more well known than the Curies, it is us, not Kim Kardashian. Most celebrities are famous for their skills at entertainment: if you think Kim is famous for nothing, then you must admit that most celebrities are famous for next-to-nothing. Criticise the whole culture of fame, not one girl who is working the system.

Now we come to Kim’s apparent crimes against marriage. I have seen a lot of gay-rights activists decrying Kim’s quick-as-a-flash marriage and divorce as if it is personally injurious to them. I think the core of the complaint is that she is “misusing” an institution that is denied to us queers. First of all, let’s be honest about the situation: Kim’s marriage has no effect on us. She has not altered our chances at making gay marriage a reality. Sure, it can be galling to see how straight people are allowed to marry and divorce someone they barely know with ease while we are denied the right to marry a committed partner of 20 years. But it wouldn’t help our cause if marriage got more restrictive, so that only straight people in supercommited relationships could get married and they were never allowed to divorce. In fact that’s a giant step back. The fact that queers don’t have equal rights is not Kim Kardashian’s fault and she doesn’t deserve our hatred.

From a feminist perspective, there’s something interesting about accusing anyone of making a “mockery” of marriage. Really? What’s left to mock? I’m not implying that love and commitment are not important – they are important, but they are not the exclusive domain of married people, and they are directly counter to the historical legacy of marriage. Marriage started off as a morally bankrupt, sexist institution used by men – and families run by men – to signal possession of women. In most parts of the world it was in essence a financial contract, intended to enhance the wealth, power and prestige of families, and it had nothing to do with love. It’s pretty hilarious to say Kim is making a mockery of marriage by using it for financial gain when that was the explicit purpose of marriage for most of human history. The only difference? It was usually for the financial gain of men, since women were chattel. Now we get the faint whiff of a rumour that a woman used the institution of marriage for her own financial gain – and her husband did not even become her chattel! – and suddenly it’s off with her head? We can’t let this go unquestioned. Not on our watch.

If we want to criticise Kim Kardashian, we have plenty of legitimate concerns (and Quicktrim should be our leading issue in my opinion). But the vast majority of the complaints made against Kim are straight up sexist bullshit, and the rest use her as a scapegoat for institutional inequality. Kim Kardashian is hardly a feminist hero. But women don’t have to be feminist heroes before they deserve to be defended from sexism, slutshaming and hatred. All women should be defended against sexist attacks, not just the women we like. That’s kind of how feminism is supposed to work. Leave Kim Kardashian alone.