Is Feminism just for the lucky few?

The man that coined the phrase 'destroy the joint' - Alan Jones.

The man that coined the phrase 'destroy the joint' - Alan Jones.

On Sunday, The Age published a feature by Helen Razer in which she sets her sights on the matter of online activism and outrage, and its tendency to be governed by individualism rather than  "material outcomes".

It's a theme that has occupied her of late. So far, I have resisted commenting publicly on her frustrations with popular feminism, save for a few heated interactions on Twitter that have inevitably resulted in observers quipping about "fetching the popcorn".

My reticence has largely been due to that delight certain people take in watching women argue. Razer is correct when she highlights the tendency for online interactions to fall prey to outrage.

Destroy the Joint's Facebook page.

Destroy the Joint's Facebook page.

I don't want a disagreement with a woman with whom I have discussed private, interior issues of the heart to become fodder for salivating onlookers desperate to ridiculously dismiss it as a competition to see who's the "best feminist". Picky outrage is tedious – on that, Razer and I can agree.


But I feel compelled to address some of her more sweeping accusations about modern feminism, and her reduction of it to the flock of squawking birds that make their nests in social media.

Unfortunately, in the specific criticism levelled at online activists Destroy the Joint, Razer seems to assume the 20,000-plus Facebook group is emblematic of all modern feminism, and not the inevitable result of thousands of people becoming aggrieved by examples of sexism so clownish they cannot help but be spurred into action.

To be fair, some of that group's evolution has been clownish also. I recall in particular an incident that occurred months after the issue of Alan Jones and the advertisers on his radio station was done and dusted. DtJ was in the process of trying to transform from a single issue protest group into one that might hold legitimate power as a broad lobbyist and one of their administrators shared with the "Destroyers" (a salutation I still find cringe-worthy) an article on women that had been published in Quadrant. Quadrant is a right wing pamphlet with a tiny audience that publishes very little in the way of sense.

Yet here was DtJ, arousing some of the outrage Razer quite correctly critiqued, asking their substantial following to direct their energy into chastising Quadrant's editors via letter and email.

And to what purpose? Were the "Destroyers" testing the reach of their influence, becoming bullies enamoured of their own collective feminist bark at the possible expense of the movement itself?

I felt Razer's frustrations, although for different reasons. I feared DtJ would actually undo the good work that had been done in re-energising the liberation debate, and put off those who were suddenly proud to don the feminist mantle by reinforcing unpalatable stereotypes. 

I disagreed with tactics that, in my mind, were beginning to make it indistinguishable from groups like the Australian Family Association and the Australian Christian Lobby.

It seemed that DtJ began to use its growing numbers to shut down debate rather than contribute to it - when Richmond venue Station 59 announced plans to host a comedy debate late last year about rape, DtJ rallied its members to try to get the event cancelled. Later, ‘Destroyers’ were accused of finding the venue manager’s home phone number and harassing him there, although the connection was never proven. To what end can vigilante activism succeed without severely damaging the principles of its cause?

Razer also charges DtJ with focusing too much on "Angrily Calling Out Sexism Where (Feminists) See It".

She argues that an enthusiasm for challenging even trivial offences can be co-opted by corporations to disseminate "miserable sexism" to the masses via those fierce opponents who make the mistake of thinking they control the machine and not the other way around.

On this matter, she's quite correct. Even now, I curse myself for falling victim to transparent attempts to troll. (A recent Geoffrey Barker op-ed is a good case in point.) But there's an irony in her constant lampooning of the left's obsession with the minutiae of superficial discrimination.

Judging by her record, no one remains more enamoured of pop culture's peccadilloes than Razer, who has surely devoted more time to discussing rainbow crossings, same sex marriage, popular feminism and choosing one's choice than all the objects of her disdain put together.

And anyway, it's not quite accurate to dismiss DtJ as just an earnest group too distracted by passing moments of outrage and unconcerned with the more lasting consequences of violence and discrimination in women's lives.

It was DtJ that lobbied Telstra to issue unlisted numbers free of charge to women who were fleeing unsafe domestic situations. They were also active in gathering support for recent changes to Tasmania's abortion legislation.

Perhaps these aren't significantly dismantling the economic structures of society that disadvantage women, but neither are they spontaneous outraged responses to superficial sexism that dissipate once their fizz has subsided.

And I'm still left wondering why it's the role of a solitary lobbyist group to be responsible for the comprehensive restructure of the Australian economy.

I don't believe DtJ has the power to drive broad systemic change at a policy level, which is ultimately what Razer's talking about when she refers to material outcomes.

They're an internet lobby group run by volunteers and people whose passion occasionally veers into the kind of earnest, po-faced feminism we associate with radicalised groups of the 1970s. And they are less than a year old.

Why must they shoulder the burden for failing to reinvigorate feminism "correctly"?

Even so, it was those very groups who actually managed to achieve significant material outcomes for women whose discrimination had previously been not just socially, but also legislatively, enforced.

This leads me to another of my problems with Razer’s piece. While highlighting the trigger happy outrage of DtJ, Razer paints ‘Destroy the Joint ally’ Anne Summers as somewhat of a wowser, stomping her feet over ‘misogynist’ urinals in a Sydney restaurant and mistaking the larger issue of art for one of outrageous sexism. Unfortunately for Razer, such a portrayal is misleading. Summers is among a handful of dedicated activists who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s precisely for addressing the issues Razer sees ignored by the current crop of feminists - those being the issues of masculinised violence and feminised poverty. Summers helped found Elsie, the country’s first shelter for abused women. She has spent a lifetime writing and advocating on behalf of women across all economic backgrounds, using her considerable skills to deliver meaningful outcomes to their lives. To portray her as someone who takes a knee-jerk view of feminism’s goal might be a convenient way for Razer to illustrate her point, but it’s completely inaccurate.

And then there are the broader issues with Razer's criticisms of the modern feminist movement. Consider the currently popular term "rape culture". It can't be denied that discussions around rape and violence have found greater traction lately. Some disagree that the concept is a helpful way to discuss sexualised violence, preferring instead to view the incidence of rape as just one part of a larger expression of violence.

I have no problem with this assessment, although I disagree. That the conversations are happening at all is what I care about; we are at last throwing off the tarp that has always shrouded rape. We are finally agreeing that a good deal of it occurs because society simply closes its eyes to it and allows it to.

And yet these recent discussions of rape and culture and whether the twain meet is something that Razer also objects to. Given she repeatedly reminds her readers that one of feminism's core concerns is masculinised violence, it's difficult to understand how she can actively mock the concept of rape culture and those who believe in its existence enough to challenge it on a regular basis.

As a form of violence, rape is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men and overwhelmingly experienced by women. If we're not allowed to discuss the masculinised violence of sexual assault, what fundamental point of understanding is it that we're missing?

I'm left to wonder if even Razer knows what it is she wants from feminists other than to have them quietly listen while she admonishes them for doing it wrong.

There's strength in her agitation for material outcomes, and I appreciate that for her, this is the intellectual force of her feminism. But in referring only to the people who either conduct their activism online or just paddle about in its edges in between living lives in the real world, she makes the error of ignoring all the people and groups behind the scenes (that is, out of the media) who work tirelessly to secure those outcomes.

Take the group that quietly orchestrated not just the distribution of RU486 in Australia, but also having it recommended for a pharmaceutical benefits listing, a move with extraordinary benefits for poor and/or rural women.

Think of what might be achieved if Razer turned her remarkable talent for prose and people-wrangling into working with the people best placed to advocate for these material outcomes rather than critiquing those whose work – much like her own – finds better value in response than policy.

In full flight, Razer is masterful. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I continue to go back to her, despite having lately grown weary of her tirades.

In amongst invective arguments that spray their bullets like a machine gun with no solid enemy, leaving no clear sense of why they've occurred, Razer still has moments of incisive clarity. They're impossible to pin down – not because of their anarchic and slightly deranged approach – but because they slip and slide from one moment to the next with such fluidity the effect is hypnotic.

Unfortunately, this hypnotic effect can leave people so bedazzled, they perhaps miss that the dismounts have not quite been landed; the distance not quite travelled.

While this latest view of the parlous state of feminism asks questions worthy of the very best Razer polemic, they are difficult to properly address in the vast silence of all that she has ignored.

And in their absence, I fear she runs the risk of destroying the points most vital to her argument – her own.