Lean in. The feminist battle cry du jour. There seem to be pervasive and unfortunately simplistic myths in cultural discussions about what feminism “is.” That feminism is only about equality. That feminism is about eliminating sexism or ensuring equal treatment and opportunity for men and women. That feminism is about dismantling the patriarchy. Choose your brand. Lean in. It is, undoubtedly, about all of these things in one way or another, but it’s also about so much more, including the construction of gender, among other issues that get lost in these more easily digested conversations. To be sure, the fact that we talk about feminism in any cultural way is important; in fact, it’s absolutely crucial. My point, however, is that too often these conversations not only seem to be circumscribed but beside the point (e.g. what celebrity did or did not recently “come out” as a feminist). But the thing that bothers me most about the way we often talk about feminism is that we too readily ascribe limited definitions or prescriptions about what “real feminists” look like. There are many, many ways in which ideas about what feminism is or is not, what it should be and do, get co-opted and disseminated both within and without the academy – and that’s a different conversation for a different day. More often than not, however, such prescriptions have a decidedly secular and, more importantly and almost always, a liberal bias. It’s an idea I found myself contemplating over the course of last semester. I took a course on women’s, gender, and sexuality theory this term in which we read a lot. We read many of the heavy hitters, theorists who were at the forefront of burgeoning feminist and queer thought: Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, Catherine McKinnon et al. And while I have found such contributions valuable in much of my own research and thought, the article that truly stood out to me most in the term and the one which I found incredibly important was by Saba Mahmood and entitled “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections of the Egyptian Islamic Revival” (I highly recommend it to anyone interested in feminist theory). Mahmood’s article is anthropological in its approach; she studies a specific “urban women’s mosque movement” that is “part of the larger Islamic revival in Cairo, Egypt.” The women’s mosque movement is, naturally, a religious one; but Mahmood is specifically interested in using this movement and a way of broadening our thinking about what it means to be an “agent.” The women whom Mahmood studies ascribe to many fundamentalist religious ideals, for instance their practice of wearing of the veil and, more pointedly, their meticulous and meaningful cultivation of modesty. They willfully subordinate themselves in ways that western feminists - intent on ridding ourselves of subordination and imploring each other to “lean in” and crash through the glass ceiling - may find hard to swallow. Thus Mahmood uses her investigation, which I’ve too hastily summarized here, to challenge, on one hand, our understanding of women’s participation in traditional and often highly patriarchal religions. More broadly however, and implicit in this analysis, is Mahmood’s understanding that westerners often tend to view such regimes and religious practices as backward, unequivocally repressive ones. What Mahmood strives to show, instead, is that these women’s willing participation in such traditional religious practices is a different but no less important form of agency, and one that is often overlooked or ignored because it defies our too limited, western liberatory assumptions. As she notes in her article, Mahmood seeks to “draw attention to the ways which [the liberal discourse of freedom and emancipation has] come to be naturalized in the scholarship on gender,” and to “uncouple…agency from the progressive goal of emancipatory politics [in which a women’s agency] is largely conceptualized in terms of resistance to social norms.”
Mahmood’s article is not without its own issues. But what resonated about it to me most of all was that at its most fundamental level, it demands a reevaluation about the ways in which we think and talk about what it might “mean” to be a feminist or what we consider, too narrowly, as the definition or ultimate goal of female agency. As Mahmood following Butler importantly recognizes, part of the definitional issue I’ve been describing arises from the fact that notions of agency are culturally and historically specific, born of the structures from which they emerge. That issue aside, what seems to be most useful and insightful about Mahmood’s article is its insistence that we “understand agency not simply as a synonym for resistance to relations of domination, but as a capacity for action that specific relations of subordination create and enable.” Put differently: acting as a female agent (or any subjective agent, really) is not exclusively about resisting or challenging norms or about liberation. There are other operative modes of female agency that are equally powerful and absolutely essential. Hence, my initial point: we need to broaden our conversations.
Television may seem an unlikely source for this broader conversation, but perhaps in some small way it has already begun there. Because I’m obsessed with TV and because the postmodernist in me loves mixing things high and lowbrow, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Specifically, I would suggest that two shows on TV which I particularly enjoy, New Girl and The Mindy Project, may help us to rethink, in part, idea about feminist agency and in a way that is readily accessible and understood. These shows, though fundamentally different from Mahmood’s article, ultimately bring me to the same point. There are inherent problems and limitations in linking the two. Still in much the same way as Mahmood's piece, I would argue that both New Girl and The Mindy Project provide alternative models of behavior that sometimes deviate from what we may think of as “acceptable” (read: good, liberal) female agency and therefore tacitly challenge our sometimes restrictive views. At the center of both New Girl and of The Mindy Project are girly feminists. What I mean to say is that the female characters at the heart of these shows might be dismissively viewed as subordinating themselves to traditional norms of femininity (a la Kim Kardashian, which I’ve talked about before, though slightly less campy). On the other hand, even while embracing normative modes of femininity or female gender roles, the protagonists Jessica Day and Mindy Lahiri, respectively, prove time and time again that they are ambitious, smart, articulate, and independent women who refuse to be silenced or otherwise diminished, in ways that tend more towards what we might think of as liberal feminists. All of this is to suggest, at base, that these women’s girlishness and their traditional femininity, rather than be oppressive or limiting, actually becomes one of the very factors that enables them to act as models of powerful and ostensibly alternative forms (e.g. not just emancipatory or liberatory forms) of female agency. One memorable episode (Season 1, episode 11) of New Girl almost explicitly makes this point; Jess defends her girlishness and, in doing so, powerfully asserts her understanding of herself as an agent and subject:
“I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children, and I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. That’s just weird and it freaks me out. And I'm sorry I don’t talk like Murphy Brown, and I hate your pantsuit and I wish it had ribbons on it to make it slightly cute. And that doesn’t mean I'm not smart and tough and strong.”
It is by no means the same kind of subordination to a highly methodical religious practice in the way of the women’s mosque movement, but Jess' message not altogether dissimilar from the point Mahmood makes. In other words, the notion that girlieness or the confirmation of traditional gender stereotypes or roles should associated with weakness, or that wearing the veil necessarily implies oppression is misguided. The message is then, essentially, the same. The conversation is at least provisionally broadened through New Girl in relatable way. The Mindy Project achieves a similar end, but often more subtly. Mindy Lahiri acts as though her life is a romantic comedy and she is the heroine at its center; she pines over boys and wants to get married. She follows the proverbial "script,” she wants what (patriarchal) society may tell her she wants and she does what she’s "told" supposed to. She subscribes to timeworn, cultural values. That she does all this, however, does not make her any less assertive or confident or feminist. That she follows the script does not make her any less of an independent agent. Her show just implicitly asks us to rethink what following the script may mean or that conforming to certain expectations, traditions or values is not repressive or limiting. Undoubtedly, this is a rather short analysis of two very smart, female-centric shows and there is far more to be said on this topic (I’d welcome any comments). In addition, Liz Merriweather and Zooey Deschanel of New Girl and Mindy Kaling of The Mindy Project have all spoken about the feminist aspects of these shows elsewhere if you’re so inclined to read on.
My point however is that these women seem importantly to be challenging, however subtly, or marginally, our notions of what it means to be feminine, to be a female agent, and to be a feminist. They ask us to rethink our conversations and to revisit our assumptions. And they do, in the space of 20 minutes and in a very public, very accessible way what women all over the world in different ways do, as Mahmood article only begins to show us. Mindy and Jess embrace who they are, girly and preoccupied by perhaps "too traditional" concerns and gender roles, but they don't apologize for it. Instead, this form of subjectivity confers them a strong sense of their own agency. They're not necessarily working to dismantle the patriarchy and they don't have any outright, explicitly feminist agenda in their actions, but they become female agents in their own right and on their own terms (which, in a sense, is one of the points Mahmood seems to want to make of her own subjects). Maybe these are imperfect examples, but they're a start. And perhaps what all three fundamentally and most basically have in common is that they usefully and recurrently remind us that we needn’t and shouldn’t define feminism or agency once and for all and that we should seek to engage in broader and more productive conversations at the cultural level. Perhaps, and to quote another great feminist TV show runner, Tina Fey, the limit (of what it might means to be a female agent or feminist) does not exist – or, if it does, we have not yet explored all the possibles routes that lead to it.
Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project and Zooey Deschanel as Jessica Day in New Girl