The feminism of vulnerability
March 4, 2015
Mar 4, 2015
9 Min read time
The assumption of female vulnerability threatens to invigorate the sexist evils it aims to combat.
Photo: Silvia Sala
Last May, after the Isla Vista shooter’s manifesto revealed a deep misogyny, women went online to talk about the violent retaliation of men they had rejected, to describe the feeling of being intimidated or harassed. These personal experiences soon took on a sense of universality. And so #yesallwomen was born—yes all women have been victims of male violence in one form or another.
I was bothered by the hashtag campaign. Not by the male response, which ranged from outraged and cynical to condescending, nor the way the media dove in because the campaign was useful fodder. I recoiled from the gendering of pain, the installation of victimhood into the definition of femininity—and from the way pain became a polemic.
The campaign extended beyond Twitter. At online magazines such as Impose, The Hairpin, and The Toast, writers from Emma Aylor to Roxane Gay told similar stories in 2,500 words rather than 140 characters. Suddenly women writers were being valued for their stories of surviving violence and trauma. Bestsellers such as Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams portrayed women as inherently vulnerable. The New York Times Book Review recently proclaimed “a moment” for the female personal essayist.
No longer are the news or male commentators telling women they are at risk in the big, bad world, a decades-old manipulative ploy to keep us “safe” at home where we belong. Women are repeating this story for a different effect: women are a breed apart—unified in our experience and responses, distinct from those of men.
This emotional segregation is not good for us. I am worried about the implications of throwing the label “women’s pain” around individual experiences of suffering, and I am even more uncomfortable with women who feel free to speak for all women. I worry about making pain a ticket to gain entry into the women’s club. And I worry that the assumption of vulnerability threatens to invigorate just the sexist evils it aims to combat by demanding that men serve as shields against it.
• • •
Over and over again in the bestselling essay collection The Empathy Exams (2014), Jamison spirals back to an incident from her travels in Nicaragua. A man broke her nose. He came up to her on the street and hit her. She portrays the assault as something approaching a hate crime: “He saw me and he sized me up, just like that . . . whatever he saw [about me]—whatever he thought he saw—it was enough.”
Later we are made to understand that the man took her wallet and her camera, but by then we are already seeing the assault through her eyes, as an incident of particularly gendered violence.
‘He took your wallet?’ someone asked me. ‘And your camera?’
I nodded. I wanted to say: he took my face.
We give our pain meaning, and that meaning alters our experience. Someone else would have experienced the pain of the broken nose as a mugging, which happens sometimes when you are traveling in a poor country with money and expensive items on your body. Jamison experiences the pain as male-on-female violence. The meaning she bestows upon the pain does not simply change her experience; it changes his intention. According to Jamison—who, after all, is the one with the power to tell this story and therefore define its parameters—it was not his intention to steal her possessions for financial gain. His intention was to steal her feminine beauty.
I worry about making pain a ticket to gain entry into the women’s club.
For Jamison and many writers of her generation, from Sheila Heti to Kate Zambreno, woundedness is biologically determined in the female body, quite apart from the effects of an imbalanced and biased society. “Getting your period is one kind of wound,” Jamison writes, which is when I shouted, “Oh go fuck yourself, lady!” into my empty apartment. What is the value, or the validity, of figuring menstruation, of having a female body, as a kind of trauma? She treats it as our original sin. We are born into pain simply by being born into female bodies, and no amount of penance will ever rescue us from our cursed state.
That woundedness is then carried into our male-female interactions. Men respond to our vulnerabilities by either hurting us more or by wanting to protect us. In Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” men break her heart, punch her in the face, assault her friend. When she tries to describe to police the man who punched her, she cannot conjure an image of him; he is simply a man. “He had eyebrows,” is all she can manage. Likewise, the men in her essay collection have no distinguishing features. Their only role is to administer pain or pain relief. After she is hit, Jamison wishes a man could come, pay attention to her, tell her how unfair the assault was. She goes to a bar where she knows some guys; they don’t have names, either. “They saw me right off and knew what I needed.” Men give pain, and men take it away. Perhaps they, too, had eyebrows.
• • •
“People do pain in different ways,” Joanna Bourke writes in The Story of Pain (2014). One way is to tell ourselves stories about it. It is a punishment from God or a diagnosis from a doctor. Pain that comes from the execution of our duties—a wound suffered while saving someone else, perhaps—is more bearable than an injury caused by a freak accident. Certainly men and women are taught to respond to pain differently—suck it up or let it all out—so it is no surprise that they do. But other factors such as religious background and medical history might change the experience just as much.
To test the influence of social learning on pain, psychologist Ronald Melzack conducted an experiment with dogs. He isolated young dogs from birth, protecting them from any painful stimuli until he began to expose them to burns or pricks. He found none of the expected vocalizations, and the dogs did not seem to understand the source of the sensations. They struggled to figure out how to protect themselves from further attack. Melzack concluded that by experiencing pain in a group, we learn how to respond and how to recognize who is doing us harm.
Indeed, “one of the defining aspects of pain,” Bourke writes, “is the extent to which it brings people together in bonds of community.”
Historically this has been true, from the formation of support groups to the gathering of the family around the sickbed. And in the here and now, women share stories of harassment and violence on Twitter in order to create a sense of community.
Under the banner of #yesallwomen, women told of being raped, facing street harassment, being unwillingly touched. Others described not being taken seriously in school or at work. The stories took on a certain shape. Some tweets were considered more representative of women’s experience than others and so were retweeted and favorited more, and other women began crafting their tweets to match. One noticed a kind of one-upmanship, with grievances becoming more and more dramatic. And when an observer pointed out that the most visible tweets were from white women, even though minority women face a disproportionate amount of the world’s violence, some of the white women tweeted to critics to shut up already, all women’s experiences are valid, stop trying to silence me.
This response to criticism should be no surprise. The #yesallwomen hashtag was created out of an impulse to make men listen to women’s version of what happens to them, to hear women’s stories, to have women’s reality validated. But its stridency shut down avenues of communication, especially for those who said: “Not all men do these things.”
• • •
In online essays about the harm that comes to women, comment sections follow a predictable pattern. A few critics question the validity of the essay or the writer’s actions. If, for example, a woman is writing about an abusive relationship, some guy inevitably asks, “Well, why didn’t you just leave?” Then other commenters, a clique that follows the Website’s every post, will go on the attack, accusing the first of X-shaming (slut-, victim-, etc.) the writer. She has exposed herself to the world and must be supported for being so “brave.” Usually the writer will make an appearance too, thanking her readers for defending her against attack.
When I publicly criticized a woman writer’s book for what I thought was an egregious error, she not only sent me a series of increasingly unhinged emails demanding an apology, but soon she sent her Twitter followers after me too. When her book was given a negative review in a respected online publication, she tweeted the link, and the comments section quickly filled with her friends and fans calling for the critic’s head.
The defensive posture, which I have seen only in response to women’s writing, has found its way into the books themselves. The writer anticipates the kind of criticism she might receive and preemptively constructs a straw-man version of the dissenter, so any criticism can be easily deflected. In Bad Feminist (2014), Gay imagines a kind of humorless, hairy-legged straw-feminist, who would find her own more flexible feminism objectionable. How easy, then, for a critic of the book to fall into that stereotypical role. In The Empathy Exams, Jamison parries criticism by imagining that detractors are in denial of their vulnerability. To Jamison, women who don’t believe they are wounded are “post-wounded”: “They are wary of melodrama so they stay numb or clever instead.”
If you are wounded, everything you do is brave and beyond reproach. If you are wounded, you get to say that any portrayal of a woman as lying or manipulative is harmful to the culture and all of the future wounded women. If you are wounded, you get to control what is said and thought about you, and you get to try to create a criticism-free world.
• • •
The world is not a safe place. It harms us, jostles us, exposes us to burns and pricks. So we tell ourselves and each other stories to help us understand the what and the why. If we didn’t we would all be like Melzack’s dogs, unsure who is hurting us or what is to be done about it.
But it is easy to misdiagnose the source of the problem, and once you do, the proper treatment will also elude you. Universalizing our pain challenges the culture to protect us, but it diminishes our individual responsibility. These stories gain traction because they validate what we feel—vulnerable and tossed around—and give us simplistic reasons for why we feel this way. If we claim vulnerability is our natural state, there is nothing we need to change. The world needs to change for us.
Insisting we are distinct from men in our woundedness is an easy and soothing story. Men are the enemy who can redeem themselves by turning their nature to our benefit, by protecting us. But in the end we are estranged from our humanity. Here we are not participants in society; we are merely at the mercy of it.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
March 04, 2015
9 Min read time