Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, cont’d.

Many of the authors in this collection mix the personal with the political, incorporating their own lived experiences into the creation of their ideological theory. Rey Chow’s essay, Violence in the Other Country; China as Crisis, Spectacle, and Woman, is one example. Chow’s essay deals with what she terms “the King Kong syndrome.” This syndrome, she explains, “is the cross-cultural syndrome in which the ‘Third World,’ as the site of the ‘raw’ material that is ‘monstrosity,’ is produced for the surplus-value of spectacle, entertainment, and spiritual enrichment for the ‘First World’” (84). Chow sees the representation of Chinese political conflict by the Western media as its own form of “surplus-value,” creating entertainment by depicting violence “in the other country.” Her use of the “King Kong” metaphor provides a vivid backdrop for her analysis of Chinese cultural and imperial history.

Chow, herself Chinese-American, incorporates her personal experience into her essay when she discusses attacks from other scholars who accuse her of being too “Westernized” when dealing with an “Eastern” cultural history. Her response challenges the dominant representation of an East/West binary, an opposition that breaks down with the notion of the “Westernization” of the East:

“For someone with my educational background, which is British colonial and American, the moralistic charge of my being ‘too Westernized’ is devastating; it signals an attempt on the part of those who are specialists in ‘my’ culture to demolish the only premises on which I can speak…. The Chinese intellectual knows that she must fight her way into the world precisely because she is already, in one way or another, ‘Westernized.’ In what ways can she speak?” (91)

Chow’s essay is an attempt to reclaim her voice from a world that seeks to discredit her on multiple cultural fronts: she is not American because she is Chinese and she is not Chinese because she is Westernized. Her essay was one of my favorites in the collection.

Another favorite was Barbara Smith’s The Truth that Never Hurts; Black Lesbians in Fiction in the 1980s. Weaving together literary and cultural analysis in a discussion of works by Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde, Smith looks closely at how Black lesbians are depicted in literature. I enjoyed reading this essay partly because I had read two of the three texts she uses in her analysis, which happen to be the two she is most favorable towards. One observation she makes about Walker’s The Color Purple was so perceptive that I actually wished I had read the essay earlier, in order to have the proper response to the statements of a particular anti-feminist colleague.

“Those critics and readers who condemn the work because they find the depiction of men so ‘negative’ never seem to focus on how nicely most of them turn out in the end. Perhaps these transformations go unnoticed because in Walker’s women-centered world, in order to change, they must relinquish machismo and violence, the very thought of which would be fundamentally disruptive to the nonfeminist reader’s world view.” (120)

In order to preserve the culturally-reinforced, gendered identity that has so defined him thus far, my colleague was incapable of any world view where masculinity was not immediately coded as violent and aggressive. No doubt the depictions of men in Walker’s work would strike him as threatening, if he ever in his life found a reason to read her work at all.

I found this essay collection extremely interesting and informative, especially those essays that were most difficult to decipher. I think the book’s strength lies in its inclusion of essays on such different topics, from prison reform to literary analysis, national liberation struggles to postcolonial economies. Yet, an underlying critique of the world economic system permeates each essay, further emphasizing the collection’s assertion that feminism cannot ignore class, economic, and racial oppressions if it wishes to truly improve the lives of the world’s women.

This quotation from Cheryl Johnson-Odim’s essay, Common Themes, Different Contexts; Third World Women and Feminism, is one of the best explanations in the book on why a new definition of “Feminism” that incorporates the needs of “Third World” women is necessary:

“In ‘underdeveloped’ societies it is not just a question of internal redistribution of resources, but of their generation and control; not just equal opportunity between men and women, but the creation of opportunity itself; not only the position of women in society, but the position of the societies in which Third World women find themselves.” (320)

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About Madeleine Gyory

Madeleine is a social media butterfly who tweets (and does some other things) for the Women's Media Center, a media advocacy non-profit based in NY. She loves reading, particularly stories by and about women. She graduated from Barnard College, and has spent time teaching English in Ecuador. Her favorite writers are Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
This entry was posted in 1990s, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Non-Fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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