Feminist Wit

One Dimensional Woman is an absolute classic of contemporary feminist literature – punchy as hell, too. So when we were deciding who to ask to contribute to our Feminist Issue, Nina Power was right at the top of our list. This is her devastating polemic on Feminist Wit…

Illustrations by Ed Tolkien

Feminist Wit – Dare to be Devastating by Nina Power

There is a type of corporate feminism that never seems to go away. Here there is an image of the world in which the world itself is exactly as it should be, only there aren’t enough women in it. The remedy for this imbalance is a simple numerical one: stock the world with women CEOs, MPs, judges and senior police officers, and everything will be just and equal. The idea that there might be something wrong with capitalism, parliamentary politics, the criminal justice system or the police force is buried in a pile of aspirational exhortations, empowerment workshops and a hard-work, competitive ethos: ‘come on, women, pull yourselves together!’. Not wanting to compete on these terms is seen as a kind of character weakness, a betrayal of the gains of feminism: but you have a proper education now! You don’t have to be a wife and mother! You can make (almost) as much money as men do!

Being basically a tory-flavoured individualism with a kind of feminine sheen, this brand of feminism has no analysis of larger structures, and subsequently no critique of them either: the world is all that is the case. But not wanting to play the game, and not believing that feminism is over, job done, hands dusted, means that other strategies are required, other techniques, other analyses. Not wanting to compete, let alone win, is a tactic in itself: a refusal to validate the system, and the world as it is, drawing attention to the holes and cracks in an otherwise supposedly seamless picture. When someone points out ‘why are there no women here?’ at a political meeting or workshop or conference, a gap is opened up: why are there no women here? Are women not interested? Are they too busy? Or do they actively oppose the structure and format of the event at which their absence has become a problem? Refusal is an option, but perhaps there are already too many hermetically-sealed bubbles of self-reinforcement: how to take a pin to them without getting sucked inside?

Nobody wants to be a token, because being a token means your attributes (or at least those attributes attributed to you, which may not be the same as the ones you think are important to you) are being isolated and treated as a means to an end by someone else. Late requests to join all-male panels are transparent in their breathlessness – ‘we really think you’d be the perfect person for this topic’! – you can just picture the meeting just a few weeks before the event when someone suddenly goes ‘shit…no women! Er, ask, er….oh who’s that one, you know, er, wrote about such and such…the one that always speaks…oh her…yeah suppose we’d better’. One can certainly gleefully participate in such events, and maybe even enjoy them but the perpetuation of the same old crap is ultimately unsatisfactory for all concerned – and being a token gets boring, fast.

One, perhaps slightly different, strategy that has long interested me is one that could be described as ‘feminist wit’. Here the idea is to cut across both the structural patterns and the attributed attributes, where you are neither upholding the structure, nor exactly an individual. Partly this is a matter of necessity: you get used to people not wanting to let you speak, who talk over you, who cut you off, who look sceptically at you so that your words trail off, confirming the sceptic’s point (a situation so irritating you want to stab them in the eye). Your time is short because the court is not youras to hold. But you can see the structure of the court – the security guards, the judge, the box, and also the exit – but the judge cannot see what is behind him, and he can only demand that you do not turn your back to him. Your role is that of someone who runs into court, flicks the wig off, smashes the box with a baseball bat and pulls the fire alarm before running out into the sunshine (or rain, more likely). Wit can be funny but it can also hurt: to say something that undermines the entire premise of an argument, and say it briefly and curtly is to treat one set of words like jelly and the other like a sword. Because women are not supposed to be funny, their wit has all the more power: ‘ha ouch ha ouch ha ouch’ – the laughter all the more painful because men are not supposed to be amused by anything women say, unless it falls between the bounds of the legitimately ‘cute’.

“When forced to choose between humour production and humour appreciation in potential partners, women valued humour production, whereas men valued receptivity to their own humour,” said Dr Martin, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario, in a study that asked men and women in their twenties to adjudicate on the question of humour between the sexes. According to a report in the Independent, when asked if they found a sense of humour to be attractive in women, most men said “yes”. However, when they were asked if they would want to be with a woman who cracked jokes herself, the answer was “a resounding no”. Feminist wit would surely laugh hard at the entire premise for the research: of course straight men are going to say they hate funny women, because funny women remind them of the foundationless void that is their very existence. Ha ha ha sukerz!

The witty woman, and there are many throughout history, occupy a role that is hard to pin down. They take nothing seriously because they can see through structures and mock the image of individuality that would see ego and arrogance take centre-stage. That is not to say that what work their wit does reveals nothing of importance – on the contrary, it highlights everything in a flash, which is precisely why it is so unsettling. Wit doesn’t want to be a CEO, or a cop. On the contrary, it wants to destroy the world that makes CEOs and cops possible. Feminist wit is the strategy to end all strategies because it speaks from the vanishing point that is exactly midway between the individual and the collective, the structure and the specific situation. You will laugh, but you will also feel wounded, and it is from such wounds that the real work of politics begins.

Nina Power is a senior professor of philosophy at Roehampton University, co-founder of Defend the Right to Protest, journalist and author. One Dimensional Woman is available on Zero Books.

 Pick up a copy of STRIKE!