Feminism and Alcoholism

I recently heard a paper at the SEWSA entitled that purported to focus on the intersectionality of feminism and alcoholism. I was intrigued, and had high hopes. The beginning of the presentation shed light on the true nature of alcoholism, emphasizing that it is a medical condition rather than merely a lack of will-power. The presenter then discussed similarities between rape culture and substance abuse, victim blaming, and the stigma attached to the labels “feminist” and “alcoholic”.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, I felt as though the paper did not meet its full potential. The presenter stated that she had attended a few AA (alcoholics anonymous) meetings with her newly sober partner, and had had her “feminist alarms” go off. Essentially, she was struck by the use of the term “him” in the 12 steps and 12 traditions of AA to refer to God or a higher power.

For her, this meant that AA was patriarchal.

Additionally, she saw the emphasis on anonymity as encouraging a continuation of the stigma and preventing individuals from self identifying.

In the AA literature (such as in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,  the supplemental text to the basic AA book) there is a great deal of discussion surrounding this foundational principle. The original intention is to prevent power imbalances (based on identity or occupation outside of the AA rooms) and give individuals who attend the meetings an opportunity to de-center the self. It is my opinion that many AA’s would see this encouragement of anonymity not as increasing stigma that perpetuates the patriarchal and ableist status quo, but instead as an opportunity to attempt to disrupt and provide an alternative to the power imbalances that exist outside of the AA rooms.

The principle of anonymity refers not simply to keeping one’s status as a recovering alcoholic quiet in the “real world”, but additionally to the attempt to keep recovery the sole purpose of AA.

Sure, power imbalances from the outside world are going to sneak in. After all, if you are a white man who is used to speaking over others, that is not going to change just because you walk into an AA meeting. AA is a microcosm of the wider society, so problematic relations between individuals are guaranteed to occur. I am not trying to argue that AA is a perfect utopian society.

I was astounded by the lack of critical inquiry that seemed to go into this paper. The presenter advocated for self-disclosure and the telling of one’s own story (which is one of the critiques she had about anonymity), yet it appeared as though she had not actually talked to any members of AA outside of her husband. She claimed that it was an oppressive structure because the founders had been two men, and the text referred to God as a male. I think that if she had spent more time interviewing and talking with individuals (especially minorities) who had been members of AA for a wider range of time periods her research findings would have been drastically different.

She’s not wrong that the original founders were men, and the earliest forms of AA catered mostly to men. It is also true that the 12 steps refer to “God as we understand him”. But I don’t think that this makes Alcoholics Anonymous unequivocally sexist. I think that an approach that incorporates concepts like José Esteban Muñoz’s disidentification, in which minority groups engage with dominant discourses (such as misogyny, racism, etc.) in complex and nuanced ways. I think it would be extremely interesting to see what the presenter could find in examining how marginalized people use some of the concepts in AA that could be seen as sexist in ways that to them feel positive.

That is a paper I want to see.


i hate my body

A few weeks ago in my class on Theorizations of Sexuality we watched the music video for the song “My Body” by bottoms, a self described “gender-problematizing goth dance band”. This music video.

To briefly summarize, the song is electro, layering the phrases “I hate my body” and “I’m serious”.

The video itself features a conventionally attractive feminine presenting person, alone in a high-end apartment. She is cutting and juicing oranges and playing with a knife while staring seductively into the camera. At varying points the video cuts to her staring off into space for an extended time, touching herself in a bathtub and in front of a fireplace, cutting her leg with a straight razor, and finally cutting off one of her breasts, squeezing it into the home-made orange juice, and drinking it.  

I was struck mostly by the varying reactions from my classmates and have been thinking a lot about the video and its implications since.

The first person to speak up after we had finished watching stated that she was saddened by the video. What she had noticed, based upon her experience as a straight cis woman who often provided pastoral counseling to LGBTQ youth was that so many of them engaged in self-harm behavior. A valid observation, but not what I thought was most important about the video.

Another person in the class saw oppressive femininity. He, a gay cis man, experienced the lethargy and self-inflicted violence as markers of how women are coerced to behave in our society. Also valid, but something was still missing for me.

The juxtaposition of the lyrics “I hate my body” and the obvious (sexual) pleasure of the person in the video stood out to me. It was a reclamation of pleasure and of pain. It seemed to be moving away and criticizing the form of liberal feminism that is prevalent today in which women are encouraged to love their bodies regardless of size or shape. This is not the experience for many women, especially women who are trans or disabled, and the distancing from physical and psychological pain can be alienating. It tells these women that they are “doing womanhood wrong” if they experience dysphoria or discomfort with their bodies.

I imagine that part of my reaction was different because I immediately saw that the individual featured in the video was wearing prosthetic breasts. This probably made the scene with the cutting/juicing of the breast less shocking to me.

It also conjured up questions of realness. I was less shocked because I realized that the breasts weren’t “real”. But what if they were? How did the “realness” of the body in question change how I reacted? How does what we perceive as “real” in terms of body parts or identity change how we react to gender non-conforming individuals in the “real” world?

Perhaps this is related to the construction of a “third space” outside of the agency/oppressed dichotomy that is discussed by Alexander Weheliye in Habeas Viscus. Those in minority positions, especially women and especially black trans women, are criticized as complicit within racist and sexist socialization (see critiques of Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, etc).

The criticism here is that these women are playing into or catering to the male gaze. However, given the intersectional nature of the oppressions that they face, it might not be feasible for these women to be in spaces in which they do not face objectification of some kind. Cis white women might be able to enter spaces in which they are taken seriously as individuals, as academics, as subjects, but is this really and truly possible for women of color or trans women? Perhaps it is not possible for these groups to have unambiguous relationships to their own bodies. White (cis) liberal feminism advocates loving one’s body, but maybe this is not a feasible goal for everyone. Maybe it is not even a goal at all. By queering this binary understanding of pleasure and pain “the bottoms” are sending a message to liberal feminism. The woman in the music video made eye contact for a large part of the video, silently telling us that she knew we were watching. She was performing for us, demonstrating sexual pleasure from the pain she was inflicting upon herself. Even when she wasn’t looking at the camera she was performing, acknowledging that individuals such as herself were never really free from outside gaze.

The message was that she did not care. There was a freedom in her relationship to the audience and to her own body. Her pleasure (and pain) was both her own and performed for our benefit, but we could read it however we wanted. It wasn’t for us, but it wasn’t only for her either.
It was in between, in this third space of not quite object, not quite subject.