I know I said that Feminist Friday posts would be running every other week, but this one is important and timely, so I’m making an exception.
In 2017, hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets to march in protest of newly inaugurated Pres. Donald Trump. Lots of them were wearing these pink hats with cat ears, and I heard them called “Pussy Hats.”
I was a little late to the show, since the so-called pussy hat movement had been in the makings for months, and I’d never heard of it. But I knew that it was at least partially a reference to the president’s disgusting brag about grabbing women by the pussy.
My reaction was, “Oh wow, how funny!” I like a good pun, and I thought the hats were cool. I didn’t give it much deeper consideration until I noticed that several of my trans and nonbinary friends were saying that the hats and the ideology behind them were exclusionary and harmful.
So I took a step back and thought about it. The points my friends were making made a lot of sense to me.
- Not all women have vaginas.
- Not all vaginas are pink.
- Centering your activism and your idea of “what makes someone a woman” around a sex organ is reductive and a default exclusion of any woman who does not have a vagina or uterus.
(My own thoughts as a designer and artist who’s concerned with visual symbolism.)
When you choose a symbol to represent a huge and diverse group of people — say, women, who make up literally half the world’s population — for the purposes of activism on behalf of that group, you start by talking to people at the margins and work your way in.
Here’s why: people at the margins of the group face all the same problems and struggles as everyone else, but they also face problems that you might not have heard about from anyone else.
Of course, a symbol is a distillation of a variety of concerns and arguments into a single image or concept. So, you may not be able to include discrete references to every subgroup, every problem, or every argument within the group. But, you do your damn best to design a symbol that doesn’t actively exclude wide swathes of the population.
The pussy hats got picked up by the media and have largely been presented as a symbol of solidarity for women everywhere. You can’t have a symbol of solidarity for women that excludes any woman who doesn’t have pink genitals or any woman who doesn’t have a pussy. Even if you want to argue that the color pink was not consciously chosen to represent white, cisgender women, there’s all kinds of problematic subtext there.
So, while the hats were supposed to be a unifying gesture, they had the opposite effect. I’m glad that they forced me to look more closely at the focus on genitals in feminist discourse, because I never paid much attention before.
I’m not sharing that to congratulate myself. I’m embarrassed that it took a national movement to make me see this problem. I’m sharing it because I know a lot of cis white women who could stand to hear these things from another cis person.
I understand that the pussy hats may mean something to you, and I understand that for many women the idea that genitals=gender is so commonplace that you have trouble wrapping your mind around anything else.
But activism that is focused on genitalia is a tacit approval of TERF-y narratives that lead to trans and nonbinary people being harassed and assaulted. Everyone should feel safe and supported in a feminist space, and if your fashion accessories are sending the message that it’s okay to hurt and exclude others, you’re contributing to a problem.
Here are some arguments I’ve heard before when making these statements:
Why do you get to police people’s clothing choices? Isn’t it the same as telling women that they shouldn’t wear revealing clothes or commenting on their makeup and hair when they don’t want you to?
No one is trying to police your clothing choices. We are trying to tell you that this particular clothing choice, which is an activist thing and not an every day accessory item, is doing harm to vulnerable people that you may not have considered before. Why do you care more about a pink hat than the potential harm you are doing to fellow humans?
I find the hats personally meaningful. Why should I have to feel bad about that? I’m not trying to exclude POC or trans people!
No one wants you to feel bad. Everyone has things that they find meaningful. The issue is when you express that in ways that cause someone else to suffer. I’m a Christian. I find my faith practice meaningful. I wear Christian symbols on my body. I don’t walk into spaces where I know that lots and lots of people have been harmed by the Religious Right and carry a Jesus Saves sign. Lots and lots of people are saying that the pussy hats (and the focus on genitals in discussions of womanhood) are harmful. They are asking for sensitivity and the space to be heard.
I think women with vaginas should be allowed to celebrate their bodies without having to feel bad about it.
No one wants anyone else to feel bad. Women with vaginas should be able to celebrate their bodies. So should women who don’t have vaginas. All women should be able to feel good about and celebrate their bodies. The problem is not “celebrating your body.” The problem is “equating your genitalia with your gender identity” loudly, in public spaces, and then getting mad when anyone who doesn’t have the same set of genitalia points out that you are causing them harm. Why are you more concerned about your own guilt and hurt feelings than the harm you might do to another person? Why is it so hard for you to recognize that you have to share public spaces?
Many of the women who wear the hats or go on the marches are rape survivors, and they should be allowed to talk about or “reclaim” their bodies in whatever way they need to.
Speaking as a survivor, I think this one is particularly gross. First of all, my rapists did not just rape my vagina. They raped me, my whole person, body, mind, and soul. Being able to reclaim myself and my autonomy is important, but I intensely dislike and object to having that centered around my genitalia. It’s borderline traumatizing in his own right to have my entire person and all of those experiences reduced to something that focuses on my sex organs. If I want to celebrate myself as a woman, there is a lot more to that then what happens to be between my legs.
I don’t want to speak for every survivor. There may be some who do find the “pussy” narratives and the hats empowering, but even if that is true, you don’t get to parade around in public spaces doing something that actively harms other people just because it feels empowering to you.
Statistically, women of color are raped and sexually assaulted at higher rates than (cis) white women, and so are trans sex workers, so your survivor argument is still exclusionary.
The majority of women with vaginas have to deal with rape culture, or with a society that wants to reduce them to their sex organs. The hats are a way of reclaiming their autonomy.
Okay, but trans women have to deal with all of that as well. Claim your autonomy in a way that doesn’t imply that VAGINA=WOMANHOOD. Or that only women who have vaginas face these problems. Or that all vaginas are white (pink). Because none of those things are true, and we’ve now gone full circle back to the original point of the post because you feel like your experiences are more important than the experiences of more marginalized women. Fuck off.
But the Pussy Hats weren’t meant to represent vaginas…!
Seriously? Your actual argument is “The founders of the pussy hat movement were too dumb to realize that pink pussy cat hats would evoke pink pussies for a lot of people and add fuel to an already problematic focus on genitals as a definition of womanhood. So because they didn’t mean that, we shouldn’t hold anyone accountable for the consequences of the movement or what it implies about trans and nonbinary people.”
Okay, let me spell this out.
The play on words from “Pink pussy cat” to “Pink pussy hat” only makes sense as a symbol for women or feminism if you are connecting it in some way to either Trump’s “grab em by the pussy” comment or to the word “pussy” as a term that means vagina. That’s how a play on words operates. Unless there is an implied second meaning already within the culture, the play on words will not work or make sense.
How else do you think “pink pussy cats” might work as a symbol unifying women? Do you think all women like pink? Do you think all women like cats? Give me a break.
The intent may not have been to connect womanhood to genitalia (although that argument is a hell of a stretch in itself) but the result is pretty obvious, and white feminists need to own both the result and the error in judgment that created an enormous movement that trans women and women of color continue to say is exclusionary.
Meanings do sometimes get “lost” or changed with cultural context. One way to minimize that is by thinking about the potential problems with the symbol you’re choosing. Like “Hey, maybe ‘pink pussy hats’ are not the best way to represent solidarity for women.” Good intentions don’t get you a pass for doing something problematic. Most of us don’t mean to exclude anyone.
And once people start reacting in anger and saying there is a problem with this symbol, the responsible thing to do is listen and admit that, whether you intended it or not, your hats evoke a shitload of problematic responses and you should stop trying to insist that they’re inclusive when they aren’t.
Feminist Friday posts go live on this blog every other Friday in 2018. The main topics are rape culture, disability, and LGBTQ intersections.