Why we make jokes about lesbian feminism

I’ve been revising a paper I wrote a few months ago for the CACS conference at McGill next weekend. The paper is about the political challenge that digital and online technologies pose for grassroots, lesbian-feminist archives. A lot of my reading this past summer focused on queer theories of history and time and since then I’ve been noticing how lesbian feminism is described in more general queer and feminist work, a project helped along by Clare Hemmings’s great new book Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory, recommended to me by Dylan.¬† The best of this work captures the complexity of lesbian feminism as a politics that seems outdated at first blush, but continues to matter and get invoked in curious ways that concepts like “parody” or “nostalgia” can’t account for. Elizabeth Freeman’s idea of “temporal drag” is especially good on this:

[Temporal drag] suggests a bind for lesbians committed to feminism: the gravitational pull that “lesbian,” and even more so “lesbian feminist,” sometimes seems to exert on “queer.” This deadweight effect may be felt even more strongly twenty years after the inauguration of queer theory and politics, in the wake of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, legalized same-sex unions, and The L Word.

Gloria Steinem knew how to work a macrame belt.

Humour seems to be crucial in how a lot of post-2000 queer studies work talks about lesbian feminism. One of the funniest I’ve read is Heather Love’s essay “A Gentle Angry People: The lesbian culture wars” (subscription required). As if the too-perfect “gentle angry people” weren’t enough on it’s own, the essay is full of witty in-jokes like these:

In those days lesbians were a gentle angry people… Lesbianism was still seen mainly as a way of affirming one’s commitment to other women. While desiring your sisters didn’t hurt your chances of qualifying as a lesbian, it didn’t necessarily help them either; lesbianism, as far as I could tell, was more about sitting in circles than sitting on each other’s faces.

AND, on the lesbian culture wars over s/m

Since lesbianism’s raison d’etre in the 1970s was to bust women out of the constraints of patriarchy, the architects of the lesbian nation did not have much use for women who liked to humiliate their sisters rather than empower them.

Love’s essay is but one example; the frequency with which this type of joke is made makes me wonder about the kind of work humour does here. In part, I think it cues an audience to the inadequacy of linear relationships to the past pointed out by Freeman; these jokes are not merely dismissive, like an outright rejection of lesbian feminism’s rigid essentialism, but they do reference these criticisms.

The current draft of my paper has a joke about Ferron and macram√© (hence these photo choices), a joke that I hope gets across an affection that’s critical without being patronizing; a lot to ask of a joke, no doubt.