For the last few years, I’ve privately called myself a “feminist-nihilist” or “nihilist-feminist,” which is both a bad joke and a halfway lie — if only because “nihilism” doesn’t actually mean what I mean. Nor do I mean apathy or indifference. My relationship to contemporary feminism resembles my youthful allegiance to a Christian god: something that must exist (for reasons that can be more or less defined as “better that it does”), that must be believed in or sought after, but to which I can give only a faithless faith.
As with many practices, religious or otherwise, sincere belief matters less than even half-hearted action, and as with all systems of ideas, dogma is contested. “Feminism” can mean many things — there, that’s my necessary caveat. What follows is pure eisegesis. The feminism I am talking about is the feminism that I, a well-educated millennial writer in a major metropolitan city who has Twitter and Instagram and TikTok and subscribes (or uses friends’ subscriptions) to prestige publications, can’t avoid. This is discourse feminism, The Cut feminism as well as The Baffler feminism, girlboss and anti-girlboss feminism, Andrea Dworkin interpreted by Lauren Oyler in The New Yorker feminism, sex-y feminism, quotations from Audre Lorde feminism, feminist analyses of pop-cultural artifacts feminism, #ReadWomen feminism, pro- and anti-Beyoncé (the capitalist entrepreneur impresario, not the artist) feminism, earnest sharing of ProPublica articles about exploited immigrant women feminism, earnest sharing of infographics and disdain for earnest sharing of infographics feminism, pro-choice (though of course it’s a complicated decision!) feminism, the-personal-is-political/the-political-is-personal feminism — contradictions abound in substance, even style, but it’s party chatter, and even if we’re standing in different corners gossiping about one another, we’re still all at the same party.
It’s a party I know how to dress for, if not how to leave. But I didn’t always. Another necessary caveat: I think it’s cheap to resort to autobiography as evidence of virtue or perspective, but here I’ll do just that. I grew up attending evangelical fundamentalist churches that promoted “complementarianism,” which argues that women and men fulfill different, divinely assigned gender roles, though they are equal in personhood before God. Such nominal equality is rarely the focus of church teachings. Instead, from early childhood, I learned that a woman’s role is to submit, a man’s to lead. When I was six or seven, a minister warned my mother that I had an “unbroken spirit.” This was true, and very bad in a world where a celebrity pastor casually equates hell with feminism. The thing I called my soul rebelled against everything I was told about being a woman, which apparently I was. I hated the idea of marriage, my purpose in life. I never wanted children, also my purpose. The biblical-womanhood industrial complex churned out books that I read in weekly meetings to shape girls into godly women who would not only take up, but embrace, the idea that our adventure in life would be to participate in our husband’s, not aspire to our own. I failed, and after failing for long enough, I came to believe that if I were sinful, I was sinful so completely that I couldn’t be otherwise. My defiance was all negation; I couldn’t imagine a version of femininity in which I could be happy, but I could resist the version that suffocated everything in me that felt like me. Much of contemporary feminism, like my adolescent self, relies on a defensive posture, its energy driven toward negation. (Save Roe!) I am still better at articulating what I refuse to be than what I would like to be. The residue of my past makes me appreciate the power of the drive to negate a threat, and the courage required to preserve, to survive. It also forces me to recognize the limits a defensive commitment imposes on one’s vision: the permanent dream becomes to evade an even worse fate.
For people like me, the even worse fate is often someone else’s actual life. My mother’s, for instance. When my father left us, my mother, after sixteen years out of the workforce, became the breadwinner for eight children. She began by decorating cakes at a grocery-store bakery and pouring coffee at a Tim Hortons drive-thru, both minimum-wage jobs, then became an aide at an assisted-living facility, a tremendous raise at $8 an hour, before she was fired for organizing the staff against unsafe conditions. (For about a year, when I was sixteen, we were coworkers.) Now she works as a home-health aide and a special-education teacher. Unsurprisingly, she’s had Covid twice despite being vaccinated. She also has tens of thousands of dollars in student debt from getting her teaching license. She once told me she fantasized about living in her car, free of a mortgage or rent. There’s a widespread and condescending fiction that poor people don’t talk about ideas, or talk much at all — the reason, I assume, that so many grimly “realist” films of working-class life are tedious and nearly wordless. And it is true that my mother and I have hardly ever talked about feminism, though we have talked about abortion access and debt cancellation and healthcare for all. My mother’s life is hard, much harder than it needs to be, and when I take stock of feminism’s current offerings, I see little that would actually ease it. That would require material transformation of, basically, everything.
Is that transformation possible? In college, when I first read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s articulation of “emotional labor” in The Managed Heart, I called my mother, excited to share a term that so accurately described our past work at the assisted-living facility, where care required that we be consistently kind and understanding even if we were groped, or urinated on, or just in a bad mood. Now, years later, “emotional labor” can denote having to explain attachment styles to your boyfriend. Tracing the migration of a term is often impossible, whatever dictionaries pretend, and in any case is an attempt to read logic into the convergence of accidents. Still, there seems to me something sinister in this particular evolution: a phrase that designated a particular aspect of work (mostly low-income and often feminized) has shifted to describe the vague feelings of women, especially the wealthy and educated, and no longer has much to do with class or work or the particular burdens of anything except a generalized womanhood. This is how once-helpful ideas are typically transformed in feminism: used up into nothingness.
Maybe I shouldn’t forswear nihilism — at least, since I’m dabbling in etymology, in its submerged Latin signification: nihil, nothing. Hell/feminism. Because I can’t see how to end the party. And if we could turn off the lights, what then? If we stand breathing for a moment in the dark, what happens? Can something new emerge ex nihilo?
Elisa Gonzalez is the recipient of a 2020 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She lives in Brooklyn.