Adventures in Thesis Writing: Violence and Softness, Together at Last!

This year I’m attempting to write an honours thesis in amongst keeping my day job, going to Japan for a bit, running Slink Chunk, eating and sleeping (maybe). And, not only am I an enthusiastic overcommiter,  I’m also a notorious follower of tangents. So I thought, in the interest of maintaining my mental health (and having a bit of fun doing it), I might spend a bit of time following these tangents in blog form, and get them out of my system. This is adventures in thesis writing.

First of all, I would like to make a little mention about the two theories I cited in my last post (Sad Girl Theory and Radical Softness As a Weapon). A friend whom I was chatting to about it made the comment that both theories depend upon having quite a bit of privilege, and that there are many circumstances, particularly within intersecting minority groups, where softness and vulnerability as forms of resistance just won't cut it. Now, I totally agree with this, but I also realised that I never addressed it in my last blog post (so I’m going to address it now. Strap yourself in!). 

I found Wollen’s Sad Girl Theory useful in that it offered an alternative narrative to the radical positivity movement that feminism seems to have recently aligned itself (think Taylor Swift and her girl gangs ); the Strong Girl Feminist can be a bit like the Strong Female Character for me, in that while I find it aspirational and inspiring, it can also be a bit lacking. I liked that Wollen’s theory sets out to acknowledge that being a girl (and, as I would argue, trans, or non-binary, or even a man) under patriarchy can be shit, and that we shouldn’t shy away from representing that. It’s not to say that either of these movements are bad; both have things to offer, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge that neither can cover the needs of all those oppressed by patriarchy. 

My aim is not necessarily to argue for one form of resistance against patriarchy being better than another (unless you’re a TERF). I think I am most interested in the ways that we as people can thread our very existences with all kinds of different forms of resistance, and examining how some forms require more or less energy than others (for as we all know, beating down the door of the patriarchy is a relentless and exhausting task.) I truly believe that these forms of resistance can aid us in addition to collective activism; in fact, they may even help in forming collectives of like-minded individuals ready to smash the patriarchy in their own way (check out the gloriousness that is Sad Grrrls Club, for example). This is not to say that we should only take our feminism as far as it concerns our own personal situations; there are queer, trans, PoC voices etc. that continue to go unheard, and it is up to those with privilege to make space for them to speak. Nor should we practice an activism that excludes these groups, or silence their voices. I think the crux of my argument is that being open to alternative forms of resistance can make us all stronger feminists in the end. I’m reminded of a particularly excellent Judith Butler quote as I write this; “my aim was to make life livable, to create a possible space of existence for those whose lives prove unintelligible within the terms of dominant norms of gender and sexuality. All of this amounts to an important struggle with the norm, a challenge to normative violence within the context of a radical untimely politics.” 

My favourite example of small, personal resistance that I like to give when talking about this stuff is the pleasure I take in wearing really pretty, ‘girlie’ dresses that show off my insanely hairy legs. Just watching people try to figure it out when I get on the tram in the morning amuses me to no end, sometimes I even like to imagine their internal monologues; is she a feminist? Or just lazy (answer; a bit of both). If she wants to look pretty, why doesn’t she shave? I thought feminists only dressed like House Elves? Gee, am I confused! It’s not all that much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a form of resistance I can take joy in, it replenishes my energy stores, rather than depletes them. I think we all need things like that if we are going to be able to fight the good fight, and be in it for the long haul. 

That went on for a lot longer than I thought. But now that's sorted, let'ts talk violence!

Margery Hourihan argues that when rewriting classics, simply inverting the gender of the protagonist is not an act of subversion. Women who perpetrate resistance as men (aka punching, kicking, killing with fire etc.), she argues, are not subverting anything; they’re just confirming that the best way to resist is to do so ‘as a man would’. Now, I’m a huge fan of a lot of Hourihan’s work, but I’ve thought (and read) a lot about women doing violence and I have to say I can’t fully get on board with this. As I’ve mentioned before, there is something really satisfying about a girl who can kiss ass. But I can see where Hourihan is coming from; with the dominant narratives for strong girls being girls who fight, emotionality, softness and vulnerability always seems to be pushed towards the ‘weakness corner’ of that binary when we talk about resistance. 

Josephine Hendin, on the other hand, has written a great book about violence as done by women, and has some great things to say about women who do violence. “Violence by women”, she writes “is a communication sent like a letterbomb to repudiate ideologies of the left and right, to disavow the either/or of the liberationist and traditionalist views.” And the language Hendin uses to describe the effects of violent women in literature on the discourse shares parallels with the arguments for the rewriting of popular narratives from the perspective of a female character. As she states, “it’s explosive methods use appropriation and revision to script women’s lives in innovative ways. The literature of violent women provides no simplistic polemic, but rather expresses a gathering of energies and arguments, that, taken together, seize control of the subject of female aggression … in fiction and poetry, violence serves to explode stereotypes, rewriting female scripts from the dark side.” 

So, one of the things I like most about Hendin’s argument is her challenging the idea of absolutes. She argues for violence as a subversive act, in that challenges internalised assumptions and removes the female body from the site of eternal victimhood; the idea that a woman will always be the victim because she is the weaker one (not because of the fucked up societal attitudes towards women keep her there). 

Now, it might seem like both Hourihan’s and Hendin's arguments undermine each other, but I am going to argue that they can be complementary. Basically, I think we need to consider how feminine forms of resistance (such as Sad Girl Theory and Radical Softness) and masculine forms of resistance (such as Hendin’s violence theory)  can come together to create this kind of double subversion. And it is this rejection of absolutes that underpins a lot of  what I’ve been talking about, and the problem I have with the characterisation of a lot of mainstream female characters, in that they are either one way or the other; they’re either super feminine, and that femininity is aligned negatively with weakness (from which they oftentimes need to be saved), or they’re STRONG, meaning that they only express their resistance in traditionally masculine ways, and anything girly can go jump.

The best characters, and the characterisations that I am most interested in, are those that allow female, trans, non-binary and even male characters expressing themselves in BOTH masculine and feminine ways, creating these interesting blends that blur the boundaries and subvert the binary. It is the characters that don’t fit neatly into the boxes of ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ that excite me the most. 

I’d love to get some feedback on characters you like that you think fit this bill; I’m drawing a blank at the moment because my brain is mush, and can only refer to what I’ve been consuming recently, so Nancy Wheeler from Stranger Things, Aiko from the book Asura Girl (which is seriously batshit but so far very enjoyable) and pretty much all the girls in Lumberjanes. I’d like to make a list at some stage, though, so suggestions are most definitely welcome!

 Nancy Wheeler <3

Nancy Wheeler <3