On Subjectivity: Wild Swans, Escher Girls, and Mansplaining

I heard something on Radio 4 this morning that set a fire in my brain. It connected with all kinds of things that have been bubbling beneath the surface for the last few weeks – a bunch of ideas and threads from internet culture and international politics that suddenly aligned themselves and allowed me to step back and see the central point around which they were revolving. I knew I needed to write something about it.

People sometimes throw around the term ‘subjectivity’ in internet discussions, but often it is not clearly defined, so I’d like to start by giving a bit of context to fill in what I mean. As you probably know, if you’ve been around here much, I have a not-so-secret identity as a philosopher. More particularly, I study scepticism, and the philosophy of mind. Philosophical scepticism is the doubt of some foundational aspect of our knowledge – such as that there is an external world, or that there are other minds. The kind of scepticism that interests me is what we call ‘solipsistic external world scepticism’ – the thesis that I might be the only thinking being and the whole of the rest of the world might be a figment of my imagination. Scepticism is something most of us have thought about idly from time to time, and some of us (like me) may have worried about intensely for brief periods, but none of us (it is generally accepted) seem to believe in our day-to-day lives. Yet it is notoriously difficult to disprove. Why is that? Well, it is because we are, all of us, stuck inside our own minds. It is because we find ourselves unable to reason from the subjective to the objective.

By ‘subjective’, in this context we mean that which is unique to our own perspective: the thoughts and experiences that make up our individual world views. Sometimes ‘subjective’ is used dismissively, as a way of discrediting an opinion or ending discussions that have become uncomfortable: ‘That’s very subjective!’ one might declare, intending to imply that the opinion has no real basis in fact; or: ‘Oh, it’s all very subjective, really,’ one might say, ‘I can see we aren’t going to decide this’ as a way of holding off any objections that are being made to one’s view. But to be subjective does not necessarily mean to be ‘merely a matter of opinion’. The dismissive tone is induced by the inaccessibility of mental states to the perusal of others. ‘That’s just not funny!’ is declared, and another responds: ‘Well, humour is all very subjective – just because you don’t find it funny doesn’t mean that it isn’t’. And maybe some things are subjective in this sense – some philosophers have argued that morality is subjective in this way – but it’s important to understand that merely being subjective does not entail that something is invalid, untrue, ephemeral, or to be dismissed.

For the subjective is as praised as it is derided. The history of modern analytic philosophy has been dominated by the Cartesian notion of certainty being grounded in the immediacy of thought. Experiences are untrustworthy – the senses are easily tricked – but thought is ‘directly’ revealed to the self. Although few would now except Cartesian infallibility for all thought (the rise of psychoanalysis has mostly put paid to that), the immediacy of thought and experience is persuasive, and most would hold at least certain types of thought or experience as clearly more certain than facts about the world, which can only be inferred through the veil of experience. Thus, as I can never experience your thoughts and your feelings directly, I can never know what it’s like to be you in the way that I know what it’s like to be me. The objective, here, may be more concrete, in that it is stable and accessible to all, but it is also less certainly known, only experienced through the filters shaped by ones own thoughts and experiences.

OK. Enough philosophy. What does this have to do with Radio 4? Well, as I walked to work this morning I tuned in to a discussion concerning Peng Liyuan, the wife of Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping was selected as the next president of China on 8th November 2012. Peng Liyuan is a celebrity in her own right, being a ‘folk’ singer*, and Professor Delia Davin and Ross Terrill had been invited on the Today programme to discuss her in relation to Chinese politics. It was an odd segment. According to the Today website the discussion was supposed to ‘examine what role [women can] hope to achieve in Chinese politics today’, yet for most of the segment they discussed Peng Liyuan’s relationship to Xi Jinping with some comparisons to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Ross Terrill has written a book on Jiang Qing, and the majority of the questions were directed towards him, instead of Professor Davin, who is described as ‘an expert on modern Chinese society with a special focus on gender’, who was asked what sort of music Peng Liyuan plays. Ross Terrill’s main comment on Peng Liyuan was that she would do best to keep herself entirely seperate from the politics of her husband. I’m not sure he even wondered just who this would be best for, and, to be honest, until I read the precis of the segment on the website, I thought it was a segment on how Peng Liyuan’s existing fame would impact on Xi Jinping’s career, instead of a discussion of women in Chinese politics. I wondered what Mr Terrill thought of Hilary Clinton’s involvement in politics – would he say she should have kept her nose well out of it and focused on doing what would be most complimentary to her husband’s career?

This was bizarre in itself, but then, towards the end of the segment, when the question of chinese feminism was finally raised, the question was directed to the biographer, and not to the woman who is an expert on gender issues in modern Chinese society. I was flabbergasted when Terrill confidently bemoaned the lack of feminism in Chinese society, only able to reference three historical figures who had gained some power through their husbands in the distant past. This, to him, was Chinese feminism. John Humphreys, the presenter, seemed to be expecting this answer – well, of course, the Chinese are sexist, aren’t they? Not like us in the liberated West (where we ignore the female expert when discussing the question of women and power in favour of the male biographer). He allowed Professor Davin a brief comment in what was clearly supposed to be a sentence before the programme closed and handed over to the news. To my relief, she expressed the same shock I did. Indeed, she said something to the effect of ‘Well, I’m glad you did [give me the chance to speak] I wanted to shreik at that comment!’. Because anyone who knows the slightest bit about Chinese history in the 19th and 20th centuries should know that what Terrill said was patently ridiculous and insultingly dismissive.

Wild Swans - cover artI would never in a million years declare myself an expert on Chinese history or women in China, but then, I’ve never tried to write a book about it. What I have done is read a book about it. Wild Swans, to be precise. Wild Swans is written by Jung Chang, and tells the story of her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Her grandmother was born in 1909 and was of the last generation to experience foot binding, she was also a concubine to a warlord. Her mother grew up in an age of turmoil and invasion. Jung Chang recalls that her mother ‘made up her mind to choose her own husband’ having become ‘disenfranchised with the treatment of women and the system of concubinage (see p. 81). Both the Kuomintang and then the Communists offered ideologies that appealed to the liberation of women, and her mother and father joined the Communist party. One of the most moving passages is chapter seven ‘”Going through the Five Mountain Passages” My Mother’s Long March (1949-1950)’, in which Jung Chang’s mother miscarries her first child, having been forced to march in harsh conditions and all weathers despite her evident illness. The reason? Because the Communist Party believed that men and women were equal, and that a woman should therefore be able to march as well as a man, regardless of the conditions.

All of which is not to say that Chinese feminism is a paragon to be emulated. The tale of Jung Chang’s mother’s long march illustrates this with horrifying clarity. There are hard lessons to be learnt here, in that equality of rights can mean respecting that a pregnant woman has different needs to a strong young man – we should not forbid her any and all activities, but this does not mean ignoring her medical needs, or the strains pregnancy puts on a body. The point is that far from being limited to a tiny number of women who gained power through marriage in the distant past, what Chinese recent history offers is a rich and very complicated story of feminist struggle, in many ways more dramatic than that which the ‘West’ has gone through. There is a strong impression that the extreme oppression of women’s lives in the society of foot binding and concubines led to an equally extreme position in the rejection of old attitudes under the new Communist regime.

And this was a thing of which I had no idea until I read Wild Swans. In fact, almost all the Chinese history I know I got from reading Wild Swans. It’s a terrible thing to say, but that was my education. A little bit on the terracotta army, and then it’s Romans, Normans, Tudors and Stuarts. Entirely Eurocentric, and largely Anglocentric. What reading Wild Swans gave me was an insight into someone else’s subjectivity. And boy, did it have an impact. For the first time history came alive to me and I understood why it was important – the value it has in enabling us to understand each other, and where we have come from. Since then I have eaten up history where and when I can find it. It’s been a bit of a random enterprise – an audio course on Ancient Egypt here, a history of Russia there – but I now understand how little I know about the world outside of my own little sphere of time and space, and I’m seeking to correct that. I’m seeking to expand my understanding of other people’s subjectivity.

It’s for this reason that, should I ever make a definitive list of books that everyone should read, Wild Swans would be on it. Alongside, Hamlet, A Room of One’s Own, Meditations on First Philosophy, Last Chance to See, On Liberty, and Existentialism and Humanism, there would be Wild Swans. Because it is an important book in helping us to understand one another. And because no other work of non-fiction has ever made me cry like that.

And yet, a so-called expert on a programme about women and China apparently knew none of this – had no idea that there had been a feminist revolution in China, just as there had been a cultural one. Clearly had never read Wild Swans. And I remembered how I had read Wild Swans and thought that everyone should read it, and particularly that men, and ‘Western’ men should read it… and that there was a very good chance that Wild Swans would mostly be read by women.

Which is not to say that no men would seek the book out or would read it when it was recommended. I recommended it to my ex-boyfriend and he loved it and bought me Jung Chang’s biography of Mao for my birthday as a result. It’s that men are less likely to find it on their own, less likely to pick it up when it is recommended by women. In the same way that a male friend once laughed at me when I asked if he had caught an interesting segment that had been on Woman’s Hour. I forget the content, but it had been relevant to his interests. He laughed because of course he hadn’t heard it – of course: it was Woman’s Hour. And I have often thought, since then, that a lot of the content of Woman’s Hour is stuff that men should hear, and that most never will.

This is not to condemn men. I have a love-hate relationship with Woman’s Hour, as I think many women do. It is important that many of the issues raised on the programme are given time to be aired, and there’s a good chance many of them wouldn’t be if that time were not set aside for ‘women’s’ issues. And yet by labeling them as ‘women’s’ issues it is only natural than men should feel alienated from them. They are being told that this hour is not for them, even that it is composed of content that they will never really understand. It suggests that there is a special women’s subjectivity from which men can only ever be on the outside looking in.

And yet, I often feel alienated by the content and views expressed on Woman’s Hour. I don’t have a family and have no interest in having one, yet a very great deal of the content seems less ‘women’s’ issues than ‘parents’ issues, and it seems to me that by treating these issues as belonging to a special ‘women’s’ domain we reinforce the idea that raising a family is really a women’s business. And yet – and yet I’ve also come to realise that there is a value to my listening to experiences and troubles that are utterly alien to me. I’ll never understand motherhood from the inside – isn’t it important for me to take the time out, sometimes, and listen to what mothers have to say, to try to understand their points of view? Their issues? I think it is, and it is equally important that men do so, too, but these are views and issues that have been shoved into my domain in a way that they are not projected into most men’s. It’s a problem.

It’s a problem we also see reflected in the other big international politics event that has sent the news networks a flurry: the US presidential election. Some of you may have read my piece responding to the evidence that if only white men had voted, Romney would have won by a landslide. I echo a view that has been making a lot of noise since the election. It’s not simply that white men voted overwhelmingly for Romney, despite his terrifying gender and race politics, it’s that Romney supporters were genuinely shell-shocked that he didn’t win, as documented on whitepeoplemourningromney.tumblr.com. It never occurred to them because most Romney voters were part of a privileged world in which they had secluded themselves from dissenting views in the belief that dissent could only ever come from minorities. They had consistently ignored the views of feminists, black voters, hispanic voters, gay voters, transgender voters etc. etc. They even ignored the polls that told them these people were going to turn out in such numbers that Obama would have a clear victory. Why? Because they assumed they knew better about other people’s subjectivity, so they didn’t even stop to listen when people like Nate Silver told them they were wrong. Leading to the simply wonderful moment when Megyn Kelly asked Carl Rove, when he persisted in denying the truth: ‘Is that math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is it real?’

With this in mind, I have also been reflecting on the rise of sites like Escher Girls and Mansplaining: Academic Men Explain Things To Me, or the twitter account @everydaysexism and its associated project. Each of these is part of the rise of women using social media to systematically record their experiences and display them to the world.

Escher Girls records the sexism endemic in the depiction of women in comics, countering the oft repeated arguments that ‘male superheroes wear skin-tight clothing too’ and ‘It’s really just Rob Liefeld, and he draws men stupidly too’. The creator of Escher Girls has said that she had heard the latter point so often that she deliberately didn’t use any Rob Liefeld images until she had posted several hundred images by other artists. The point of Escher Girls is not that all of the poses are impossible (although most of them are) as that women drawn so routinely in such ridiculously sexualised manners that people have stopped noticing just how far much of the industry has departed from reality. And in the this centrally collected place distinctly sexist trends emerge that show that the poses of women in comics (in the vast majority) differ wildly from the poses of men. Check out the ‘Offenses‘ section of the tags to see what I mean – in particular ‘ridiculous fighting stances‘.

Academic Men Explain Things To Me is a much newer Tumblr, posting accounts from female academics who find themselves patronised by male colleagues in a way that clearly differs from how these men would treat a male colleague. This is the phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘mansplaining’. The idea came to prominence in 2008 with Rebecca Solnit’s article ‘Men Explain Things To Me‘, although I didn’t know that when I first heard it. In fact, it was a male friend who first introduced me to the term – we were having a discussion in the perilous depths of FanFicRants, and he was worried that he might be coming across as ‘mansplaining’ (he wasn’t, but I still appreciate that he asked). For those unfamiliar, FanFicRants is an odd place. A LiveJournal community so prone to volatility by the inflammatory nature of its subject matter that its denizens have become some of the most self-aware people I have known on the Internet. Not all, I hasten to add, not by a long stretch! But the fact that if you’re going to rant you should be able to take the flack has meant that it is populated by a bunch of outspoken people who will tell you when you’re wrong. I learnt a lot from them. The JournalFen community, FandomWank, has developed a similar culture.

@everydaysexism works similarly, but more broadly, retweeting the experiences of casual (and not so casual) sexism that women have to go through. The effect is a more thoroughly compelling impression of the cumulative grind of casual oppression that women endure much more powerfully than one woman could convey to a male companion by saying ‘But you don’t understand – it may seem like nothing to you, but I have to live with this every day!’

And yet I worry about these projects. I have the sense (I don’t know how one could possibly know for sure) that most of the followers of Escher Girls and Mansplaining are women. It’s not without value. There’s an intense relief in seeing woman after woman describe an experience so familiar to you and yet so rarely acknowledged until recently. ‘Here – here!’ I say to myself. ‘Here is proof – it’s NOT just me and it’s NOT just sometimes, this shit is everywhere‘. ‘Gaslighting‘ is a familiar experience for most women – we are taught to doubt our own judgements and our own experiences – our own subjectivity – because we are surrounded by men, often in positions of authority, telling us that our experiences are invalid – that we must be wrong, that they can judge what’s going on in our own minds better than we can. It’s really, really important to have resources like this to begin to unpick this ingrained psychological damage. I think one of the most valuable things the Internet has done has been to enable underprivileged people who would usually be silenced by the privileged to get together, grow in confidence via shared experience, and present that experience to a wider world. But it’s only half the story. Men need to listen to these accounts too.

Again, I am aware that some already do so – I am happy to know a great many decent men who keep themselves informed and go out of their way to challenge themselves. Alas, they are still not the majority. What we need to ensure is that these blogs – these collections of experiences – do not become like Woman’s Hour. That they do not alienate men by self-designating as female-only zones. I’m not entirely sure how we do that. I think some of the solution may evolve on its own. I really like the way the ‘redraws’ aspect of Escher Girls has developed to be a dominant theme. The blog no longer simply criticises sexist work; readers send in their attempts to redraw the artwork in a way that preserves the content of the action – even the sexiness of the woman – without the back-breaking sexist overtones. It’s no longer about simply saying ‘Look, this is wrong!’, it’s also about saying ‘Come on, let’s see what we can do together to make this right’.

But at the end of the day I think it still takes a little effort – we always have to go a little out of our way to expand our perspectives. You have to want to understand the subjectivity of the other. Wild Swans gave me a kick up the arse, and I’ve had a few more along the way. All I can say is that I don’t regret them. The only thing I regret is that I have not done more to understand other people. We have to keep on trying. I hope that the short, sharp, shock of the American election to the Republican party will give them the cause for reflection that I’ve seen people talking about on the news and the blogosphere. But I’m not holding my breath. Change doesn’t happen without action, and if you rely on other people to change around you things will either stay much the same as they have before, or you’ll be left behind.

* Professor Delia Davin suggested that her songs are too patriotic to be truly termed folk music.

[Edit: People asked me on Twitter to write a follow-up post linking this to the privilege issues in Geek Culture at the moment. I had originally intended to include something making the connections more explicit in this post, but I was pretty tired by the time I was finished, and the post was already pretty long. I did, however, make a comment following Escher Girls's reply to Tony Harris's intensely sexist rant about 'Fake Geek Girls' over at my Tumblr that makes these points explicit, so if you're interested in my thoughts on the matter you can check them out there.]

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6 Responses to On Subjectivity: Wild Swans, Escher Girls, and Mansplaining

  1. Nyssa23 says:

    I love this! Geek stuff, philosophy & politics all rolled up in one. Plus, now I need to read Wild Swans. *writes it down on books-to-read list like a giant nerd*

  2. Pingback: What You Can Get Away With (Nick Barlow's blog) » Blog Archive » Worth Reading 80

  3. I’m honoured to be included in such a wide ranging and thoughtful post! O_O

  4. Pingback: The Third Annual Serene Wombles | In Search of the Happiness Max

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