The personal is political
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about that phrase. First used in second wave feminism and popularised by the Carol Hanisch essay of the same name, ‘the personal is political’ is a statement that acknowledges the relationship we have with our identities and the interactions our identities have with society, and positions the two as intrinsically linked. I’d like to talk about it outside of a purely feminist context though. Because when you think about it, everything is political.
I am a working class, northern woman who no longer lives in her home town. These characteristics define me in ways I didn’t expect, from my accent to my experiences.
Because I am a woman I have responsibility over my body but not autonomy. My decisions are up for scrutiny, with millions of people around the world lining up to tell me I’m wrong and immoral.
Because I am from not London I get to watch politicians and peers paint the north as a shit hole, and not take problems of rail, mass unemployment, and lack of opportunities seriously. The only time I see people like me on telly is on Jeremy Kyle or in period dramas.
And as I prepare to leave my country and start a life elsewhere I’ve been thinking about how when I leave I’ll become an expat, not an immigrant. I am leaving a life of safety and stability to travel across the world and be welcomed with open arms and a visa. Having experienced first hand the refugee camps of Calais and demonisation of migration, how am I different (better?) than those fleeing war and persecution. I have a visa waiting for me, with very little effort or sacrifice to get there. I can hop on a plane legally and know my home will be waiting for me if and when I decide to return. This doesn’t seem fair.
There’s a retrospective of Anni Albers at the Tate and it’s really really good. When Albers joined the Bauhaus art school in 1922 she was excited to master a craft, but reluctantly and unenthusiastically found herself in a weaving class. Women at the school were only allowed to take certain classes. Albers, one of the greatest artists of our time, learnt to love this medium as she created new and innovative patterns and geometric shapes. She elevated weaving into an art form, one which she was forced to utilise due to her gender. We will never know Albers as a sculptor, a glass blower, a carver. That doesn’t detract from her genius at a loom, but what if…
The embroider Hannah Hill reached viral notoriety last year after producing a piece that questioned the same establishment Albers found herself restricted by. We see examples of identify and politics and art intertwined in this manner throughout history. We call this art ‘female art’, and we categorise it as such — any art created by a woman is ‘female art’, even if it doesn’t explicitly discuss the female experience. Even if it’s embroidery, weaving, photo manipulation, or painting. We talk about ‘female art’ being confessional, which is often is, but sometimes it’s not and sometimes it’s outwardly political and sometimes it’s not that either — and yet being created by a woman is more distinguishing, and of more interest, than any of the themes or ideas raised.
This happens in music too. Taylor Swift knows that the personal is political. She’s spoken out on many occasions about sexism and misogyny — but when she spoke out recently politics, why was everybody shocked? Is it because her identity does not match your idea of political empowerment?
You say there’s no politics in music anymore, but that’s just because your idea of political music is Billy Bragg. Why is writing pop songs about being a gay man in love any less political than writing about a war? What about rap and grime? Songs about being black and/or poor in a culture that kills your friends because of their skin and/or social economic standing?
Your idea of political is not inclusive enough. Bragg doesn’t speak for me, a young woman in 2018.
I saw a play last week that I’ve been trying to classify in my head — it’s about identity and politics and culture, but also it’s never about any of those things (except for the parts that are), and they all exists in the background but also in the foreground. It was only after my visit to the Tate, and seeing the Albers exhibition that things started to make more sense. The characters relationships they have with their identities and the interactions their identities have with society sit alongside the human feelings of love, care, abandonment, and loneliness.
Side note: can more people just write some fucking three dimensional characters of colour/ who are women AND have complex emotions that aren’t always just ‘life is nice because love’ or ‘life is bad because love’ PLEASE like honestly pals it felt almost shocking to see rather than the norm AND THIS IS BAD ok thanks let’s carry on…
And once you start to see the world through this ‘the personal is political’ lens, it’s really hard to stop. A 45 minute chat with an Uber driver about identity at 1am, and how he found his through being a bus driver when he immigrated to the UK. Kayne not hating Clinton because he couldn’t relate to the phrase ‘I’m with her’. Being touched by a stranger in a pub, because he felt entitled to my body. Bradley Walsh on Dr Who, not wanting to be part of the system that racially abuses Rosa Parks, but having to stand by and watch anyway.
In ways it feels like we haven’t moved much further forward since Barbara Kruger’s ‘Your Body is a Battleground’ piece in 1989. Women are still having to fight for autonomy over their bodies and reproductive systems, and we are still having to explain the concept of consent to a worrying amount of the population. Somedays existence feels exhausting, something I’ve written about extensively, because as a woman I do not have the ability to be ‘non political’.
I find it difficult to disengage with this ‘fight’, even though I know it’s bad for my mental health. The fight is such an intrinsic part of me because it feels like my lived experiences are under attack — and my actions and inactions are judged to be part of the conversation regardless.
Inaction is seen as apathy, but how do we differentiate apathy from exhaustion? Where do we start thinking about self preservation? As Ariana Grande said post breakup “”It’s hard not to bump into news n stuff that I’m not trying to see rn” — and like, yeh same girl.
Maybe there’ll be a point in the future where we can all just be. But watching the ‘Rosa’ episode of Doctor Who shows us how far off that still is.