2012-10-27 10:00:03

The Feministing Five: Melissa McEwan

Melissa on the beach with her two dogsIf you read Feministing, it’s almost certain that you’ve heard of Melissa McEwan. More likely, you read her blog religiously. Melissa is the founder and editor-in-chief of Shakesville, an award-winning progressive feminist blog centered around US politics and culture. Originally named Shakespeare’s Sister, the blog was started in 2004 when “George Bush started pissing her off.” She writes about everything from race, politics, pop culture and, one of my personal favorites, fat positivity. She’s an inspirational writer and one of the main pioneers in the feminist blogging explosion that created blogs like the one you’re reading.

She is also a founder and editor at Flyover Feminism, and her work has appeared at The Guardian‘s “Comment is free” and AlterNet. Melissa graduated from Loyola University Chicago where she studied the political marginalization of gender-based groups. (It’s no wonder she’s such an amazing writer! Accordingly, I hope you forgive my inclination to ask her way more than five questions.)

She lives just outside Chicago with three cats, two dogs, and a Scotsman. In her spare time, she volunteers with local animal rescue.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Melissa McEwan. (Make sure to follow her on Twitter @Shakestweetz too!)

Anna Sterling: Tell me about your road to feminism. When did you begin identifying as feminist? How do you negotiate this identity on a day-to-day basis?

Melissa McEwan: I feel in some ways as though I’ve always been on the road to feminism. There are lots of little incidents I remember from my childhood where I was asking questions about gender inequality: Why weren’t women allowed to be pastors or elders at our church? Why could men run around without shirts on in the summer, but not women? That sort of thing. There was always this thread of discordance running through my life: I was being told that women and men were equal, and that I could do and be anything I wanted, but I kept bumping up against evidence that wasn’t true. I identified with feminism as soon as it entered my consciousness. It was like a light coming on. Yes, that’s what I am.

Feminism is more than an identity to me; it’s also my most valuable tool as I navigate a world that is hostile to women. It’s integral to my daily life—in my decision-making, in the way I relate to other people, in the way I view and value myself, in the way I respond to and process misogyny. I wouldn’t know how to live a life that isn’t feminist. I can’t extricate a feminist identity from the rest of myself. Which, of course, is not to say I live the model feminist life—not that I believe there’s one way to live feminism or womanism, anyway. There are times I am obliged to compromise my principles—although vanishingly fewer of them since I left corporate work!

AS: You were an integral part of the exploding feminist blogosphere before it was cool. What makes a feminist blog successful in the long-term?

MM: Any successful feminist blog probably has some magic combination of solid writing, prolificacy, a talent for teasing out and articulating ideas that we’ve all felt intuitively, good community-building, authors with thick skin, and a strong streak of irreverent humor. But there’s a lot of privilege in the feminist blogosphere, too. I am white; I am married to a man; I live in the US; I do not have any disabilities that significantly impede my ability to produce a traditional blog. These things are deeply and inextricably embedded in the success of Shakesville in ways I can’t even fully know.

Surviving heated attacks isn’t the hardest thing for me to navigate, personally. Attacks that are clearly made in bad faith are easy for me to ignore. The thing that’s the most difficult for me, which is a problem for lots of bloggers but is considered super uncool to talk about, is how dehumanizing this work can be—being treated like a content-generating machine, having your work vaguely attributed to the blog’s name rather than your name, being (rightly) held personally responsible for every idea and every image and every word in every post but then (wrongly) treated as if you don’t exist when reminders of your humanity make people uncomfortable, like when you remind readers you need to eat.

This dynamic is particularly pronounced in the feminist blogosphere, for all the reasons that “women’s work” is devalued elsewhere—like that it’s done primarily by women. Plus, there’s the added issue of the ubiquitous expectation that everything on the internet should be free.

AS: Your posts on size and fat-positivity are some of the most moving, persuasive and nuanced takes on this topic. When did you begin writing about this personal subject?

MM: Thank you! I’ve written about it on and off throughout Shakesville’s eight years, although it was probably 2007 in which I started writing about it more regularly. It was January 2007 that I wrote my piece saying “It remains a radical act to be fat and happy in America… Being publicly fat and happy is hard; being publicly, shamelessly, unshakably fat and happy is an act of both will and bravery.” That got a lot of attention, especially from other fat women with whom it really resonated, and I realized there was a need for more explicitly feminist content on fat.

There are a lot of fat acceptance/fat advocacy bloggers who are feminist. But, at the time, there weren’t (m)any feminist political bloggers with a platform as visible as Shakesville’s who centered fat advocacy as a major subject of interest. At the time, there weren’t (m)any other female political bloggers who were fat.

The Fatsronauts 101 series, in which I debunk fat assumptions and stereotypes, began in May 2012 after a thread on thin privilege in which it became evident that that there were key elements to the experiences many fat people share that even thin people who want and try to be allies just don’t understand, or in many cases of which they are simply not aware.

AS: What events, people, experiences or writers have shaped your understanding about fat politics?

MM: More than anything, simply navigating the world as a fat woman has informed my understanding of fat politics. It’s one thing to read about someone getting bullied for being fat, or being body- and food policed even by complete strangers, or being denied appropriate medical care because their healthcare provider(s) can’t see past fat, or paying more for health insurance, or being targeted by national fat-shaming campaigns, or struggling to find fashionable clothes at reasonable prices, etc. It’s another thing to live those experiences, to be the person who has to figure out a way to keep going with her chin up when someone screams “moo!” out a passing car window.

I am grateful to the many writers who specialize in fat advocacy—truly too many to name individually—who have informed my thinking, as well as the many writers whose subjects share a lot in common and/or intersect with fat advocacy, particularly trans* and disability bloggers. I’m grateful to people in my personal life who had good relationships with their bodies before I came to fat acceptance, who modeled for me a better alternative than the internal wrestling match I was hosting, and the people who have loved me unconditionally so that I might love myself the same way.

My perspective has also been shaped by negative example. I don’t have a clear, singular moment of coming to feminism, but I do remember the precise moment I decided I was not going to hate myself for being fat. I was in high school, and I saw my mother, who is an in-betweenie—and who, by the way, is incredibly physically fit and a beautiful woman—reach for the peanut butter in the kitchen cabinet, a spoonful of which is one of her favorite treats. Instead of eating the spoonful of peanut butter she wanted, she put the jar back then slapped herself in the face.

She didn’t know I was watching her; she wasn’t doing it for anyone else’s benefit. She was just punishing herself, in her own private hell, for wanting a spoonful of peanut butter. It was a scary thing for me to see. And it wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like that (nor would it be the last), but it was the time that it really struck me that I had to make a decision about how I wanted to feel about my body, and that I could make that decision. It wasn’t fated. I could choose. Figuring out how not to hate myself for being fat was a long journey from that point, but that was a defining moment for me.

As a blogger, it has been informative to see how the nature of attacks against me are different because I’m fat. All female/feminist bloggers have to deal with a certain brand of vitriol that is very intense and very personal in nature, often taking the form of rape threats, but the stuff directed at me is infused with an observable streak of fat hatred. I’m not just a cunt; I’m a fat cunt. It’s not just that I deserved to be raped; I should be grateful I was raped because I’m so fat and ugly it’s the only way I’ll ever get laid. There are multiple hate sites about me/Shakesville that focus almost exclusively on my weight/appearance. When Shakesville was briefly on its own server, it wasn’t the feminist posts that attracted denial of service attacks—it was fat advocacy posts. If there’s something scary about a woman who asserts her right to have a voice and take up space in the world, there’s something even scarier about a fat woman who does the same.

AS: What role does feminist blogging have in the media landscape today?

MM: One of the best things feminist bloggers—and feminist social media mavens—are doing right now is expecting more. You know, not just being critical of pop culture and news media and shitty legislation, and not just holding people accountable, both of which are also profoundly important, but asking for more, for better, whether that’s seeking meaningful inclusion, or petitioning for feminist laws, or asking corporations to jettison misogyny from their advertising, or expecting comedians to be funny without relying on rape jokes.

I like seeing women demanding more for ourselves and challenging social, cultural, and political leaders to do better. Seeing women expecting more out of their world is amazing. It’s evidence we feel that we deserve more. I love that. That’s confirmation of feminism at work.

AS: What topics garner the most controversy/reactions on your blog?

MM: Anything that invites people to view something in a new way and/or challenges a popular progressive narrative. Like, for example, the idea that no one has a moral obligation to be healthy. That’s still considered a radical concept outside of disability and fat advocacy.

AS: What are your favorite topics to write about?

MM: My favorite topics, which are a common thread across most of the subjects I address, are agency, consent, and boundaries. They are central to so many feminist concerns—reproductive rights, rape culture, economic justice, sexuality, gender, race, disability, body image, family of origin dynamics, colonialism, war. So much of human conflict and oppression is rooted in the simple but ruinous failure to acknowledge and respect each other’s humanity and agency, to trust people to make the best decisions for themselves.

There are similar instincts underlying not trusting women to make the best reproductive choices for themselves and not trusting people of a sovereign nation to make the best determinations for their own governance. Imperialism is inherently hostile to agency. The problems intrinsic to US foreign policy, especially toward developing nations, and US domestic policy, especially toward marginalized populations, are deeply connected. Writing in a way that creates a broad, interconnected view of the various manifestations of contempt for agency and consent is something that feels necessary to me, and I enjoy subjects about which I feel compelled to write. I also can’t pass up a good tearjerker about animal rescue!

AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

MM: Leslie Knope is my favorite fictional heroine. Also, Shakesville was originally founded as Shakespeare’s Sister, which is, by way of a Smiths song, a Virginia Woolf reference. “Judith Shakespeare” is William’s imaginary sister, conceived by Woolf in her essay “A Room of One’s Own” as a thought experiment about women who are denied the same opportunities as men. When I’m asked about my real-life heroines, I think of the women whose names we know, but also of all the Shakespeare’s Sisters before me, who carved out rooms of their own, tiny pieces of space and time, in which they formed the habit of freedom and worked in poverty and obscurity to leave the world a little less hostile place for those of us who would follow. I am indebted to them, and they are my heroes.

AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

MM: I’ll take beans, because they’re so versatile; fresh water, because I want to live; and Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, because infinite squee.

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