Behind the Myth of Benevolence (2014), Titus Kaphar

In past years, I never thought much about Women’s History because, unlike Black History Month, it did not come with sufficient indictments. Black History Month calls attention to interlocking systems of domination that cast black Americans as this nation’s civic trash. Even though the celebratory aspects of Black History Month are far too often cartoonish, this sanitized version of history itself becomes a subject of interrogation. Women’s History Month hasn’t gotten to a point beyond “I am woman hear me roar.” I often find it dishonest in its embrace of “women” without consideration for the divisiveness of race and class. Recent photos and discussions of Gloria Steinem offer examples.

On March 4, 2015, The Huffington Post ran Cavan Sieczkowski article “Gloria Steinem Wears a Clit Ring Like a Boss.” Sieczkowski calls Steinem a “feminist icon and all-around legend” before sharing a story and a photo of Steinem wearing the “Clitoring” posted on Instragram. Among the reasons that Sieczkowski finds this extraordinary is that Steinem once made this assessment of how women’s bodies are discussed:

“I didn’t hear words that were accurate, much less prideful,” she famously said. “For example, I never once heard the word ‘clitoris.’ It would be years before I learned that females possessed the only organ in the human body with no function [other] than to feel pleasure. (If such an organ were unique to the male body, can you imagine how much we would hear about it—and what it would be used to justify?)”

So Beyonce can’t call herself a feminist because she’s hypersexual, sensual, or whatever, but Steinem wears a clit ring and feminists everywhere should stand up and salute?! The fact that Steinem and her fans think these rings and pendants–that cost $130 and $540 respectively–ignores women of color who have historically longed for sexual privacy rather than public scrutiny and who fought for their right to possess their bodies, as well as their sexual lives should celebrate the ornamentation of our actual exposure? Doesn’t work for me.

I find Gloria Steinem’s critique of patriarchy trapped within the purview of her white female body. Forget the “simultaneity” of oppression or “interlocking” systems of oppression, for Steinem, inequality and injustice are solely informed by gender. I remain incredibly appalled by her 2008 op-ed piece in the Times where she completely ignores how race and gender interlock and in doing so, Steinem grants Barack Obama more currency than Quentin Tarantino ascribed to Django. In claiming gender discrimination against Clinton, Steinem writes:

Black men were given the vote a half century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).

If only Steinem could name one black person, ONE, who has been given anything in this country but pain and folly, I might clench my teeth a little less forcefully than I am now given her suggestion that there is a public wage of blackness (see Du Bois). With the passing of the 15th Amendment, all U.S. citizens were granted the right to vote but it wasn’t until 1965 when black people didn’t necessarily have to die casting a ballot (now we die for trying to go home from the store during halftime, asking for help after a car crash, sleeping on the sofa while police officers and a camera crew come to arrest our fathers). With a currency rate about as valuable as Monopoly money, black (wo)men certainly held token positions of civic authority but their tears have never led to the macabre scenes of vigilante justice for whistling offenses…and those tears certainly didn’t win one particular black man sufficient votes to win New Hampshire.

For me, Women’s History Month has had the feel of Steinem’s highly problematic argument concerning Hillary Clinton’s entitlement to, at least, the presidential nomination. Recently, I’ve started creating my own vision of Women’s History Month that looks less reactionary than I once envisioned. Titus Kaphar’s art, the painting depicted above being only one example of an incredible body of work, reflects the possibility for the kind of creative, trenchant, and interesting interrogation of gender that I find more fulfilling than seeing Steinem wear “a clit ring like a boss.”

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