The individual and society in feminism

This is a guest post by Natasha Gorbert-Hopkins. Natasha is a Philosophy and Politics graduate from the University of Bristol, currently trying to escape her childhood home for foreign adventures. She is having limited success, so keeps herself busy with feminist ranting and occasional blogging.

“I’m guessing a fairly pointless petition of 80,000 signatures is not going to make one iota of difference… IMHO there are more pressing matters in the world, than getting my judgy pants in a twist, about a girl who of her own free will, chooses to get her tits out!”

So said BillOddiesBeard on a recent discussion about the No More Page 3 campaign.

This struck me as an example of the common call to un-arms amongst the anti-feminist brigade; one that intrigues me with its potentially contradictory notions of the relationship between individuals and society.

On the one hand, the anti-feminist claims that there is no point in feminists even trying to make a difference, as their numbers are so small and their power so meagre that they have no hope of standing up against the patriarchal behemoth. On the other hand, they claim that certain individuals – such as Page 3 models – are completely uninfluenced by this same behemoth and, in choosing to undress themselves for a national newspaper, are doing so purely from their own free will.

In one hand, they grant societal status quo such power that it cannot be questioned, before immediately granting that this power is in fact hugely limited.

Perhaps they are assuming that every person who contributes to the power of the patriarchy – in this particular case, the popularity of The Sun newspaper – is acting in the same uninfluenced vacuum as the Page 3 girl. Each individual who works at or buys The Sun is doing so with the full, enthusiastic knowledge that there will be a pair of tits on at least one of the pages. The important factor is that these discrete individuals together make up a greater number than the feminists who question the aforementioned tits.

This is flawed, of course, because it does not accept: a) that the individuals contributing to The Sun are at the same time being influenced by it; and b) that the feminists who oppose Page 3 might have some influential power of their own and might be able to – shock horror! – change people’s minds.

The relationship between society and individuals is a complex one. Take the feminist: we recognise that dominant societal norms have considerable power. We recognise that the constant bombardment of images of sexualised women, hairless women, powerless women and so on both reflects and creates a society in which women are seen as such and behave as such.

However, we do not believe that this dominant patriarchal structure is indestructible – or what would be the point in being feminist? We have to believe in the power of the individual, the power of the group and the “minority”; we have to look to the examples of Emmeline Pankhurst or Rosa Parks or Betty Friedan.

The feminist recognises the essential dynamism of society. We believe that the patriarchal structures – though huge and powerful and sometimes seemingly immovable – are in fact fluid and alterable and weak.

They are not concrete blocks; they are structures of sand. They may be made of billions of grains, they may seem more like skyscrapers than sandcastles, but we know that the constant, determined force of the waves can erode them and move them and perhaps ultimately destroy them.

Photo of an elaborate sandcastle surrounded by the incoming sea by Victoria Pickering, shared under a Creative Commons licence.