A couple months ago, the re-release of Exile in Guyville hit the feminist blogosphere like a vibrator to the sweet spot.
When my parents decided to move me from my Canadian home to the southern US, I listened to that album over and over the entire drive. I was an angry, angsty grrrl and it was the perfect soundtrack. That album understood me and my burgeoning sexuality, understood my frustrations and yearnings, understood my recent realization that life was kind of a pain in the ass. That album was my first taste of celebrated female anger and empowered female sexuality (Flower, anyone?) Heck, it was my first taste of feminism and I loved it. I loved it over and over again – so much I wore the tape down and had to buy a new copy. It was an awakening.
Ann from Feministing wrote about Exile in Guyville and her feminist click moment.
Kate Harding called it the album that made her a feminist.
And the Jezebelians dedicated quite a few posts to Liz and Exile.
In the midst of all the ringing endorsements, it felt as if I was missing something huge. Somewhere in my turbulent teen years, I had missed a bedrock of feminism! How could this have happened? Since I generally identify as a feminist (on clear sky days, with a low bullshit count) I couldn’t believe that something as important as Exile in Guyville had slipped under my radar.
I immediately surfed over to YouTube to get all the Liz Phair goodness I could.
I listened to “Flower.” Then I went to “Fuck and Run.” I spent some time pondering “Hot White Cum,” switched over to “The Divorce Song” and then, listened to “6”1.”
After that I gave up.
I checked studio tracks and live performances. I listened for most of the afternoon. But after a few hours burned on YouTube, Liz Phair’s music still left me cold. I looked at the lyrics. I love women with guitars. Everything should have fallen into place. But it didn’t.
Liz Phair didn’t move me at all.
Confused, I composed an email to all of my homegirls, asking them for their thoughts on Guyville. Perhaps one of them understood the mythos of Liz Phair and feminism. I held my breath and hit send.
But, I came back with nothing. Most of the women I sent the email to never even heard of the album. They only had vague memories of Liz Phair, if they knew her at all. Then, I got a response that clarified a lot of the questions swirling around in my head:
I’ve never really be able to get into Liz Phair. Reading Latoya’s question made something click for me – I think along with Le Tigre, L7 and Sleater Kinney it’s a kinda of early 90’s riot grrrl thing that I don’t get – because either/both
1) I wasn’t in North America in the 90’s
2) Like, for eg the anti-consumerist/anti-globalisation movement, it’s a response to a cultural experience I never had.
I feel like the anti-consumerist/anti-globalisation/white anarchist hippie movement is a response to growing up in middle-class white suburbia. So a lot of the language and values that underpin the movement don’t really resonate with me, though a lot of the ideas might. The movement has trouble recognising that it’s part of the culture it critiques – which I think is why it’s generally a hostile place for people of colour. It can’t recognise its own racism/white-centeredness/racial insensitivitity.
The same thing for feminism – mainstream feminism can’t recognise that it’s responding to white women’s needs, rather than women’s needs, ie that the default person is white and that influences feminism. [...]
I think Exile in Guyville (from half-listening to it while my roommates’ listened to it and knowing all the words to that one that goes “fuck and run.” Maybe called “Fuck and Run”?) is a response to going to a predominantly white, middle-class suburban high school and being a white girl, and dealing with white girl pressures.
Uh-oh…is this a white thing I couldn’t understand?
Another friend wrote a reply, saying:
[...] I think a lot of the feminist-leaning publications, for example, are pretty obvious in their mission to please white women. For example, I read Bust and enjoy it, but often find myself thinking…hmm I think this speaks more to my roommate or white friends or hipsters on my block than say a girl like me. And while I am happy to know that Bust includes women of color in its ads and articles, I sometimes feel like I am reading about them more from an observer’s point of view than from one written by someone who identifies with the piece.
I took a little time to think over the responses. Obviously, women of color are not a monolith, so there had to be some women of color, somewhere, who identified with the sentiments of Liz Phair. So maybe I just didn’t ask enough people. However, it also gives me pause that the women I emailed came from varying countries and racial backgrounds, and somehow came to the same conclusion – that Liz Phair’s music was not for us.
That email conversation has been on my mind for the last few months, because to me, it illustrates a lot of the difficulties in uniting under the common umbrella of feminism. The women who relate to Liz Phair feel as though that was a defining album, a pivotal pop-culture addition to the feminist cannon.
And that assumption is fine.
If Liz Phair found a way to articulate your truths and mold them into lyrics that still resonate after more than a decade, that is a wonderful thing. Many of us use music and lyrics to provide insight into our wold, to understand what we are going through, to provide a balm to our aches and the provide the background sound to our celebrations.
The problem comes in when we assume that everyone feels, thinks, or experiences things in the same way. The mainstream feminist canon is limited precisely because it excludes so many voices from the narrative.
So many herstories are written out, because they present an incongruent view of what feminism should be. Or perhaps, because they present the contradictions inherent in feminist thinking – that women live different lives, define liberation differently, have different goals that trying to encompass all the voices becomes tiring. Instead of creating space, making more room for these conflicting yet familiar stories, the tendency is to marginalize voices, to quiet them, to push them off the page.
Liz Phair doesn’t speak to me. Women like Queen Latifah do, as their words are closer to my experience. In my life, there was no room for whispers, no shrinking into corners – black women are expected to be unceasingly strong, able to handle anything, able to deliver what ever it takes to put someone in their place.
I couldn’t get with Liz Phair’s quiet guitar strumming and quiet voice, especially not when booming tracks like “U.N.I.T.Y.” were informing my feminism from early on. Check the verse:
one day I was walking down the block
I had my cutoff shorts on right cause it was crazy hot
I walked past these dudes when they passed me
One of ‘em felt my booty, he was nasty
I turned around red, somebody was catching the wrath
Then the little one said (Yeah me bitch) and laughed
Since he was with his boys he tried to break fly
Huh, I punched him dead in his eye and said “Who you calling a bitch?”
Different lives. Different approaches.
But this isn’t a bad thing.
Ideally, we could have a feminism dedicated to encompassing all our voices. The girls who rock to Liz Phair could do their thing, my girls who are rocking to TLC and Salt-N-Pepa can keep checking for our set, the girls who found what they needed in their worlds in glimpses of feminine rebellion during a rock video – all of us. The folk rockers, the riot grrls, the feminist punks, the rock-a-billy queens and country rebels – we have all got a space at the table.
As Joan Morgan wrote in the founding hip-hop feminist tome, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost,
feminism needs all our voices:
More than any other generation before us, we need a feminism committed to “keeping it real.” We need a voice like our music – one that samples and layers many voices, injects its sensibilities into the old and flips it into something new, provocative, and powerful. And one whose occasional hypocrisy, contradictions, and trifeness guarantee us at least a few trips to the terror-dome, forcing us to finally confront what we’d all rather hide from.
We need a feminism that possesses the same fundamental understanding held by any true student of hip-hop. Truth can’t be found in the voice of any one rapper but in the juxtaposition of many. The keys that unlock the riches of contemporary black female identity lie not in choosing Latifah over Lil’ Kim, or even Foxy Brown over Salt-N-Pepa. They lie at the magical intersection of where those contrary voices meet – the juncture where “truth” is no longer black and white but subtle, intriguing shades of gray.