Guest post by Alison Piepmeier of Baxter Sez.
I'm giving a talk at Auburn University next week about why feminism still matters. In part of the talk, I map out a familiar feminist concept about oppression operating on three levels--the individual, the symbolic, and the institutional. The individual level is pretty self-explanatory: our thoughts, feelings, and actions perpetuate racism, sexism, and homophobia. The institutional level is a little harder for my students to grasp: this is where we see sexist or other oppressive ways of thinking helping to structure our societal institutions. The higher up we look in economic, educational, political, and religious institutions in our society, the more likely we are to see straight white men--that's an example of oppression operating on the institutional level.
And then there's the symbolic level. This is the realm of ideology, imagery, symbolism, and narrative. It's the realm where common sense is created and perpetuated. Most of my research focuses on this level. I'm studying zines created by girls and women, for instance, and one of the reasons I find these little funky self-produced booklets so fascinating is because they're intervening in the symbolic realm, offering resistant interpretations of familiar icons of girlhood or ideals of femininity.
On the left you'll see a page from the zine Mend My Dress by Neely Bat Chestnut in which she's creatively messing with the Cinderella myth. This issue of her zine is all about her relationship with her grandmother. Here she layers an excerpt from a description of a 1950s mental institution and a sentence from the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Little Match Girl" over repeated images of the fairy godmother from Disney's Cinderella. I won't go into great detail here, but I think this is an incredibly complex zine. Chestnut's stories of her conflicted (and heartbreaking) relationship with her real grandmother, who was institutionalized for mental illness, undermine the fairy-tale images of the grandmother she reproduces on this page. Her zine shows us that the fairy godmother isn't actually coming, and that the Cinderella story is a lie--an appealing lie, but one that doesn't help women.
So all of this is leading to a question (two questions, really). When one of my colleagues read over the talk, she observed that much of the activist work young feminists are doing these days seems to take place at the symbolic level: zines, blogs, magazines about pop culture, books, even Radical Cheerleading. Is this accurate? And if so, is it because we live in an increasingly mediated, informationally overstimulated, visually frenetic cultural moment--a moment in which the symbolic seems to be where all the action is?