This past week I had the opportunity to sit on a panel concerning the interplay among feminism, Christianity, and social justice. For an overtly conservative Christian liberal arts school, such a dialogue is undeniably novel, and the discussion went better than we expected. People were genuinely interested in moving past the knee-jerk reactions to a term like “feminism” and digging into exactly how this body of thought describes and combats unjust structures.
Most of the night’s discussion revolved around a common trope of “hip” evangelical pastors and leaders: the tendency to constantly refer to their wives as “smokin’ hot”. We, the panel, quite thoroughly revealed the latent sexism of such a statement, how it reduces the wife to an object and perpetuates a hypocritical practice of sexuality within the church. It was during this discussion that we were met with the only dissenting comment of the night. A young woman in attendance explained to us her desire to be referred to as “smokin’ hot” in public by the man she chooses to marry. She threw out terms like “ownership” in reference to her hypothetical relationship. We, the panel, collectively cringed. In the end, I feel we were able to adequately articulate that her romantic desires, at their core, are by no means wrong, but the way in which she feels they should be expressed simply serve to reinforce the oppressive, patriarchal tendencies of marriage and relationships in general.
Giving this event some thought, I’ve become a bit ashamed of my reaction to that young woman. All she was doing was articulating her desire to love and be loved, using the vocabulary she inherited from the traditions and institutions she grew up in. Our slightly-less-than-charitable initial reactions were due to the vocabulary we’ve acquired in our chosen field of study. Terms like “smokin’ hot” and “ownership” mean something fundamentally different to we, the panel. Our minds jump immediately to the evils of sexism and the abuses of capitalism; the connotations of love and desire washed away through the study of oppressive systems.
I don’t know how that young woman felt as she walked away from the panel. I hope that she might see past any air of hostility and contempt that may have come across, and find that there is something to our critique. And I hope that myself and my fellow panel members and philosophers and thinkers everywhere can work to make our thoughts and critiques meaningful and life-giving to people like that young woman, rather than feeding into that old “ivory tower” imagery.