I have been writing the philosophy news for this magazine for three years now. It may not have been totally obvious in my first article in the summer of 2016 that I did not have a straight up interest in simply reporting the news, despite my brief commentary on the idea of The Daily Mail attempting to explain to its readers who Aristotle was. But once I hit my stride with full article commentaries on Kanye West’s “philosophy” and my piece on those brave, brave, “academic” hoaxers, it has become clear, at least to me, that sincere journalism is not really my bag. So, this news column will be morphing into something slightly different.
Rather than just giving you a low down of the philosophy news each quarter – even when there isn’t any (I’m genuinely sorry for that article on the rises of philosophy festivals and the column inches filled up with reports of prizes and grants awarded) I’m rebranding. This regular column will now not only be philosophy news – although when there is something to report, don’t worry I’ll still cover it. But in addition, the column (that’s what I’m self-indulgently calling it now), is going to broaden out a bit to include more general “philosophical musings”. Don’t worry, not the type you find on the side of a mug in a withered seaside town. But rather issues that come up in the world of philosophy, but are not exactly “news”, and things that come up outside of the world of philosophy, but might benefit from a philosophical eye. So, with all that in mind, let’s embark on our first new rebranded column proper, and live the life of the mind (I’ll let you work out how seriously to take that title).
As has frequently been observed by feminist philosophers and theorists, there is not a single, unified feminist theory. There are many waves and within and between those waves, many branches and many disagreements. However, within the popular imagination it has often been politically useful to sum up feminism as some version of the idea that men and women are equal, or if you prefer your feminist definitions summed up on a T-shirt previously available from H&M: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”. (They didn’t come up with this, they appropriated it from – depending on your sources – the activist Cheris Kramarae or the writer Marie Shear).
But even if we can use pithy sentences or catchy T-shirt slogans to make a point about the importance of women’s liberation, this does not mean that feminist philosophers and theorists agree on what it is to be a feminist, or what we should do if we are acting from feminist principles. Some of the most difficult and most interesting aspects of feminist scholarship concern themselves with those murky waters that lie in the conflict between respecting women’s choices and remaining committed to feminist liberation. Feminist scholars are still grappling with the issue of whether there is something inherently problematic about women choosing to adopt roles or engage in practices that have traditionally been critiqued on the grounds that they reinforce female subordination. Or, in condemning such choices and ways of life, whether we are denying women’s agency, blaming the victim, or participating in unwarranted paternalism. However, this is all about to change, as one guy has finally figured it all out: Joe Swanberg.
You may recognise Samberg’s name from the world of so-called mumble core films, in which he’s a big player, and his latest Netlix offering Easy, a now three series strong anthology series, conforms to type. Taking the Dennis Waterman approach, Swanberg is the driving creative force behind this endeavour: he writes the episodes, directs the episodes, edits and produces them, all he doesn’t do is sing the theme tune (but perhaps only because there are no words). There is much to object to in Easy: the annoying brothers who run a brewery; the “but it could work for us” take on an open marriage; however, the one that really had me shouting at the TV was the episode entitled “Lady Cha-Cha”, in which as Netflix describes it, “A budding burlesque dancer challenges her girlfriend’s double standards about art, sex and feminism”.
For those of you who may not have seen it, I shall give you a run-down of the key points. After attending a burlesque workshop “initially for fitness”, Chase decides she wants to put on her own burlesque show “for free, obviously” – why for free, Swanberg? Because if she charged she’d be a stripper and that’s not feminist? Chase’s girlfriend, Jo, is clearly not completely comfortable with this idea, although she does not verbalise her concerns. This precipitates a scene in which Chase is talking to another female friend, who reassures her that she must be wrong because Jo, is like, one of the most feminist women she knows, they go to strip clubs together and she “loves it”. To which Chase muses, “what if she thinks feminism’s hot, but it’s just like not hot on me?” Deep. And confusing. I’m not sure what “feminism” is supposed to mean in this context, but I’m sure Swanberg will enlighten us.
When Chase finally confronts Jo directly, Jo reassures her that she supports Chase and her burlesque performance, even if we get the sense she’s still a little uneasy (hey, that’s almost the name of the programme!) However, things come to a head at Jobs feminist art show on women and power. The show features an artist who uses naked dancing models to make some kind of vague point about something. Chase storms out, accusing Jo of being a hypocrite. Because of course, facilitating an art show that uses naked models who you’ve never met and have no connection with, is the same as your girlfriend stripping in public, so if you’re ok with one, you should be ok with the other.
After the fight in which Jo admits she’s uncomfortable with her girlfriend putting on a burlesque performance, Jo laments to her friend, “Are you ever just like a terrible feminist?” Not do you ever feel like a terrible feminist, or are you ever conflicted about your views, but are you, thus indicating that it’s a fact of feminist doctrine that Jo is in the wrong and Chase is in the right. Coz hey, we live in a post-feminist world, right? If you don’t charge, it’s not stripping, it’s burlesque. If you have hairy armpits (as we see that Chase does, when she eventually puts on her burlesque show with Jo now cheering from the audience), then it’s empowerment, not exploitation. I don’t pretend that these are easy topics, but the way Swanberg presents them they are; and that, I think, is deeply unhelpful.
There is important feminist work that addresses the issues this 28 minutes of television attempts to raise, but Samberg’s rendering does not do them justice. To present it as a settled fact that if Jo has an issue with her girlfriend doing burlesque she is simply a “hypocrite”, is unhelpful. Yes, it might be useful to draw parallels between art and other forms of public nudity, and ask why one is deemed legitimate and the other not, but this is not an issue about which Swanberg has anything interesting to say. He fails to get further than the banal point that in both cases, they’re women and they’re naked.
Samberg’s not-so-implicit judgement on the situation disregards the complex feelings we can have about difficult issues and the fruitful conversations such feelings can give rise to. This doesn’t mean that we might not reach the same conclusion, perhaps our considered judgement might also be that you should support your girlfriend’s burlesque show. Or perhaps we might reach the conclusion that both the art show and the burlesque show were pointless uses of women’s bodies that didn’t really have a political point to make about anything. (As an aside, I would like to raise the issue of why Chase’s burlesque act is so rubbish, despite the high-quality routines practiced in rehearsals. This is never addressed). By presenting it as if these are easy topics and that feminism simply provides a check list of “good” and “bad” acts, views, and ways of life, is not only unhelpful, it’s patronising. This programme left me wanting far more from a show that clearly thinks it has something interesting and insightful to say about modern life politics, feminism and love. Spoiler alert: it definitely doesn’t.