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Running Header: Can Feminist Criticism
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Can Feminist Criticism Enrich the Museum?
Daniel D. Gross and Susan G. Baack
Communication and Theatre Department
Montana State University-Billings
1500 30th St. Billings, MT 59101
(406) 657-1745
[email protected]
General Education
Montana State University-Billings
College of Technology
[email protected]
Paper Presented to the
Western Communication Association
San Francisco, California
February 2005
Can Feminist 2 of 6
Feminist rhetorical criticism seems a natural springboard to analyze discourses about
displays that have traditionally been unquestioned. This paper examines the ways in
which feminist use models of criticism. The paper proposes a model for doing feminist
rhetoric in the museum in such a way that it eliminates the muting power of patriarchy.
Can Feminist 3 of 6
Can Feminist Criticism Enrich the Museum?
Well, it all depends. Listen to the words of some leading feminists on feminism:
bell hooks says, “A central problem within feminist discourse has been our inability to
either arrive at a consensus of opinion about what feminism is or accept definition(s) that
could serve as points of unification” (hooks, 1984, p.17). In the same article hooks
quotes Carmen Vasquez who states,
We can’t even agree on what a “Feminist” is, never mind what she would believe
in and how she defines the principles that constitute honor among us. In key with
the American capitalist obsession for individualism and anything goes so long as
it gets you what you want. Feminism in American has come to mean anything
you like, honey. There are as many definitions of Feminism as there are
feminists, some of my sisters say, with a chuckle. I don’t think it’s funny. (p.17)
And how about the words of Camille Paglia,
Most of the women in academe who pretend to be feminists are not. They do not
know the history of feminism. They never studied history, anthropology,
psychology, biology. And that is why, for all their attacks on the canon and
tradition, they created an instant canon of their own, all the more false (p. 58).
And she on goes to state, “That’s why they are absolutely irrational when you try to argue
with them. They have accepted passively certain received truths, and they have not
thought them through. They cling together in bands, and never listen to anyone outside
their group.” (in Cherry et al, 1997, p. 58)
About now you would like to jump in and say, “Just a minute, feminists just want
equality. What’s so difficult with that point of agreement?” Well before you can finish
the statement/question bell hooks is back with this piercing observation:
Most people in the United States think of feminism or the more commonly used
term “women’s lib” as a movement that aims to make women the social equals of
men. This broad definition, popularized by the media and mainstream segments
of the movement, raises problematic questions. Since men are not equals in white
supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to
be equal to? Do women share a common vision of what equality means? (p. 17)
So, can feminism enrich Museums? It doesn’t look good. How can a nuclear
reactor power a city in a state of meld down?
Well, despite these discouraging words (Strange words for the West, aren’t
they?), but for one I think Feminists perspectives have much to offer all of society, our
various institutions, and of course one of those institutions museums. But, practically
how, given the opening statements? Well, here we go.
Can Feminist 4 of 6
First, why does feminism have to be united to be strong? That’s a male
observation if I ever heard one. Great movements, great stories are rich and varied, if not
self-contradictory even when they seem to be referring to the same topic. Take the Bible,
a best seller, and in one part God is saying this and another that. It still sells and effects
people deeply. Logical consistency is way over played. In fact, it’s a male rhetorical
construction. Humans are not simple or consistent; nonetheless, thrive while moving
down the road in pursuit of “life, liberty and . . . happiness.”
Second, why not stick with the idea of equality (if we need some unifying theme),
but clarify it to mean equal in the enjoyment of freedom. That’s were the work is to be
done, and where we can all hang our feminists caps. Thank God for how President Bush
as made this clear to us in recent years.
Third, I teach feminist rhetorical theories, they contain the freshest ideas in the
discipline. But, I’m sorry, Camille, theories are contradictory when held up to and
compared one to the other. One feminist is saying this, another that. One is black, one is
Hispanic, another is Caucasian, some very angry and with cause. They come to the
conversation from a myriad of directions. And, just because they’re women doesn’t
mean they agree. In fact, some of the most male ideas reside in female bodies. I know. I
was raised by a woman and have two sisters. In fact, some of the most male stuff I’ve
read lately is that of Paglia. So, how could feminist sound in harmony?
Theories are just good guesses as to how it all fits together. And, until we don’t
need them anymore to navigate reality, they will appear as foggy glass as we try to
envision the true nature of reality. A little Plato here? Or, was it Paul, the Apostle.
I for one, believe that at least one feminist theory of rhetoric holds some enriching
qualities—invitational rhetoric (Foss et al). Yet, so much of the talk surrounding the
theory is meta-theory. In other words, critics of the theory are more interested in how it
measures up to their epistemological perspectives. Other critics claim that the theory is
really just a back door strategy and thus nothing but patriarchal rhetoric in disguise.
Those slick “willy” feminists. But, in all of this “after-the-fact” talk has anyone really
looked at the content of invitational rhetoric and let it speak? What I’m referring to are
the three major tenets of safety, innate value, and freedom of choice. These beautiful
tenets are not just from one feminist, but several--Kramerae, Gearhardt etc. Some are
radical, and on the surface contradictory. But, let’s apply it to the museum.
What if, and of course that’s theory talk if I ever heard it, a museum applied invitational
rhetorical criticism? What would it look like?
People coming to view that aesthetic wonders would experience a place that was
communicating to them they are safe here both psychologically and physically. A place
where they can have their innate value as a human being affirmed, and they can exercise
freedom of choice. What if the museum applied this to their PR work. Why wouldn’t
visitors invite themselves to such a place?
Can Feminist 5 of 6
Millions of people visit museums every year. What overriding impression is left on these
visitors? If the impression is a feminist one, as applied here, then not only the museum
but civilization in general will be enriched and improved. This strong statement of
course merits clarification and support.
These fine papers are a beginning to that end. How?
People coming in would see how history is not like a rock, but like clay that can be
molded to make everyone revel in its shape.
People would see how science can go misrepresented. How science if from a feminist
perspective might appear soft and not hard? What if atoms are energy and not particles?
If particles, then when they hit, they hurt. But, if energy then renewal. We could pass
through walls and not see them as barriers to choice.
And, what if we practice invitational rhetoric, and the world created is one in which the
lion freely invites itself to lay down with lamb? What if we study war no more? What if
we turn our swords and guns into beautiful works of art? What if people felt like inviting
themselves to the displays and left changed because they chose to transform themselves?
Then what?
Well, there it is. Thanks.
Can Feminist 6 of 6
Foss, K.A., Foss, S. K., Griffin, C. L. (ed.) (2004) Readings in feminist rhetorical
theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Foss, K.A., Foss, S. K., Griffin, C. L. (1999) Feminist rhetorical theories.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hooks, b. (1984) “Feminism: A movement to end sexist oppression.” In
Feminist Theory: From margin to Center. South End. pp.17-31.
Paglia, C. (1997). “The feminist iconoclast: An interview with camille paglia.”
Interview by Timothy J. Madigan. (eds. Cherry, M., Flynn, T., and Madigan, T.) In
Imagine there’s no heaven: Voices of secular humanism. Amherst, NY: Council for
Secular Humanism.
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