Title: What is Feminism? An Introduction to Feminist Theory

Author: Chris Beasley

Year: 1999

Publisher: SAGE Publications

In this era where feminism has become a new catchphrase, it is hard to determine what people mean when they talk about feminism. The word “feminism” is spurred here and there, but what feminism? Common knowledge suggests that there are at least three waves of feminism. So, Chris Beasley tries to alleviate our confusion a little bit by authoring a 171 pages book trying to answer the question: “Really, what is feminism?”

Among all branches of feminism that Beasley explains, I am most well-acquainted with radical feminism idea. While reading about radical feminism, I admire the effort that Beasley does by making correlation of every branch of feminism so the readers might highlight what differentiates one feminism from another. Here, she explains that radical feminism and Marxist-feminism share a similar view; that capitalism is the bedrock of patriarchy that oppress women. The difference lies on what oppression predates what; Marxist-feminism is adamant that capitalism predates patriarchy, while radical feminism argues otherwise. The way Beasley explains it makes it pretty much easy on readers to digest.

On the other side, I am worried that Beasley leaves out a lot of important information. In radical feminism alone, there are several keywords that need to be highlighted and are consistent in every radical feminism writing I’ve ever read but Beasley leaves them out. These are women’s liberation, abolition of gender, prostitution, pornography, and surrogacy. It’s also evident that Beasley focuses way too much on comparing radical feminism with other second-wave feminisms such as Marxist-feminism and socialist feminism, instead of liberal feminism with which radical feminism clashes for over years. I then ponder if the lack of explanation in radical feminism analysis alone hints the lack of explanation of other feminisms that I was trying to know.

The consequence of the attempt to simplify such a broad concept of theory is the readers might confuse the lack of explanation of the writer with the lack of the theory itself. Outside of second-wave, third-wave, postmodernism, poststructuralism, and identity politics that most readers who have interest in feminism may have known of, Beasley interestingly discusses the psychoanalytic approach to feminism. This is novel to me. She explains Lacan and Freud methods to feminism in a distinguished section, however, as a person who’s completely alienated from French thoughts, her explanation does not suffice what I need to know from basic. Beasley’s theoretical explanation is really good, but it lacks the elucidation of the feminism’s contribution to the overall feminist theory. Consequentially, the contribution unbeknowst to the readers results in readers failing to weigh the necessity and importance of said feminisms. However, the author may not be at fault, especially if the said theory lacks itself as aforementioned.

The analysis on Freudian and Lacanian feminisms also highlights that contradictory to its general purpose, the book is not for newbie. It felt like we as readers are expected to be familiar with Freud and Lacan’s thoughts prior to reading the book. Being so good at patiently introducing why feminism needs a definition at the beginning, sadly Beasley does not touch this particular explanation. Interestingly, in the subsequent chapter, she patiently delineates Foucault’s thoughts at depth, so the readers understand what part of Foucault’s ideas exactly that she talks about. Still, readers need to understand a bit about Derrida, Foucault, and other classic thinkers before reading this book lest they get lost.

To summarise, What is Feminism? is an admirable endeavour to popularise feminist theory in a simple manner for en masse. Chris Beasley does a generally amazing job there. However, we need to consider that as much as she wants to simplify feminist theory, the feminism itself is complicated and evolving over decades. What is Feminism? is good as a starter, but rigorous reading towards feminist theory is at request if one desires to understand what it actually is.

So, what is feminism? Well, even if I don’t know what it is, I surely enjoy being a feminist.

Thus they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters.

Gabriel Garcia Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

I was in the page 325 of the book quoted above when words started to be blurry and I spaced out. For the last twenty pages I had been losing concentration, and I felt a personal achievement when I managed to remember the characters’ names of said book. That was not the first time it happened. I have been reading One Hundred Years of Solitude for months in an empty hope to finish it as soon as possible. Cafe hopping was not the problem; I have been trying to find the most comfortable place to read ever, but all I got was backache, headache, and an unfinished book.

Don’t get me started on my towering collection of unread books. It is piling on my desk. I left Anna Karenina on page two-hundred-something out of the unbelievable eight hundred pages it has after years attempting to get my interest on it. I often lament on the idea that I used to be a prodigy that has been reading since age three and my mom was so proud of me for it. I read a lot, I was an exceptionally passionate reader when I was in junior high who devoured a book in one day.

I have to accept a bitter truth that I am no longer able to read fiction passionately.

Coincidentally, this waning ability to read entails to my decaying ability to communicate in general; be it verbal or written. I used to be able to write eloquently back then – up until I was junior high, I wrote fiction that I still keep and I enjoy until today. I have so much ideas for fiction and poems that never manifest into words. In high school I completely stopped writing and joined public speaking, until I realised that it was not for me because in real life I stutter a lot and am often lost in finding the right words to say.

Then I sought confidence in communication back to writing; I never find it back. I made this blog. I authored an undergrad thesis. But I still look back at the blog entries I posted here and regret for ever writing them all. I go to various blogs written by people my age and beat myself up for being a bad writer compared to them all.

I came to an uncomfortable conclusion that my inability to communicate well is because language diminishes my experience… and words are reductionist at best. I do not feel the comfort of sharing my thoughts; language is social construct that is shared by millions of people, meanwhile my experience is unique and I stumble in finding words that describe the colorful moods that I am in. I am appalled by the idea of sharing the very personal part of you with the rest of the world. In the end, not communicating it risks no misinterpretation. The best I can do is borrowing ideas here and there despite the fact that there must be some disparity between the authors’ genuine intention and my interpretation of it. This is what we have been doing for millions of years. This is why writing a piece out of your most honest and wildest imagination, a universe of your own–such as fiction–is so damn hard.

The dark side of attempting to communicate is not a new phenomenon. John Durham Peter in his writing describes ‘Communication’ as “…a registry of modern longings.” He elucidates that the desire to communicate oneself is out of loneliness, that one wants to share one’s world with the outer part. This is especially important in a modern era where people feel ostracised from each other’s thoughts thanks to the rise of individualism. However, communication is a double-edged sword; it may build bridge between thoughts, or widen the gap altogether. Language and word are very convenient tools to convey our thoughts, for instance, but the meanings that we entrench to every word are different. Like everything else, meanings are constructed. It is not simply transmitted as it is (this is the critique of Shannon-Weaver communication model; that it is too technical and does not accrue meanings to the realm of communication).

Words, for me, is a simplified way to convey how we experience the world. We conflate “belief of the existence of God, be it in metaphysical or personal conceptions of God” and thousands of other similar ideas to one word: “theism.” Even the word “belief”, “existence”, “God” in themselves have definition and meaning that every individual anchors differently. I would like to borrow Derrida’s statement that best delineates this situation: meanings are slippery. This very post, however specific I design this to be, will be perceived differently by every each of you with your own unique experience of life. Perhaps this is why I find it hard to try to understand fiction again; my experience of the world for the past seven years have been so different from what I experienced when I was twelve. I indulge myself more in real life and stressing over academic life that I have lost the power of imagination. What Leo Tolstoy or Gabriel Garcia Márquez (try to) convey in their books is now barred from difference of background and level of appreciation towards fictitious, alternate realities. The second possibility that I embrace is that I may feel subconsciously uncomfortable with fiction authors and the fact that they endeavour to be “naked” for us all, but we can’t turn our head away. Or perhaps, the problem lies in my anxiety upon understanding that I may not understand them and that something must be left out. For the sake of consistency, my anxiety purports (convinces?) to show that nobody would completely understand what I mean anyway, in return.

Whatever the reason is, as pessimistic as this may sound, I conclude that there are parts of us that will never be filtered out through society’s telescope and remain ours forever. However desperate we may be to stretch our hands to the outer world hoping them to reciprocate, we are–borrowing Sartre’s infamous quote a bit–condemned to be lonely.

*Title borrowed from Peters: Peters, J. D. (2012). Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication.

P.S.: Yes, I am extremely aware that I am making a post on how words are not effective… using words. No need to shove it up my face k.

The towering beauty, around 3.3 km above the sea level that was about to conquer us

The towering beauty, around 3.3 km above the sea level that was about to conquer us

Before hiking! Looked pretty strong, didn't we?

Before hiking! Looked pretty strong, didn’t we?

Sunrise from 2.3 km altitude where we erected our camp.

Sunrise from 2.3 km altitude where we erected our camp.

Amber hue up the sky.

Amber hue up the sky.



The lonesome Mount Sindoro resuscitated by the sunrise.

The lonesome Mount Sindoro resuscitated by the sunrise.

Continuing our journey, prolly around 6 a.m., amidst chilling breeze. This is my favorite picture from the journey!

Continuing our journey, prolly around 6 a.m., amidst chilling breeze. This is my favorite picture from the journey!

Selfie from 3,371 m altitude, casually photobombed by clouds that were lower than my feet.

Selfie from 3,371 m altitude, casually photobombed by clouds that were lower than my feet.

SELFIE FROM THE PEAK! Taken right before some tragedy happened. I regret not taking more pictures; the view was so breathtaking nobody remembered to actually take pictures.

SELFIE FROM THE PEAK! Taken right before some tragedy happened. I regret not taking more pictures; the view was so breathtaking nobody remembered to actually take pictures.

Mount Sindoro--being held hostage by the clouds--played hide and seek from behind the tree branches.

Mount Sindoro–being held hostage by the clouds–played hide and seek from behind the tree branches.

See you some time in the future, perhaps?

There are some moments in my life where I feel a bit strange when I live through them. Weirdly, I can pinpoint exactly what those moments are; a) When I was in ninth grade and sitting in a classroom, b) When I just entered high school, c) When I began college, d) Now–this very second I’m living and typing this post–although some seconds have elapsed between my living and my typing. All those share a similar nuance–yellow. (My melancholic color is not blue) Whenever I remember these moments, I feel “yellow.” At this very moment, I’m living my life as though I’m wearing a yellow sunglasses, that every moment is tinted a bit yellow. I look up, and the sky is slightly more amber during the day. I look around, and everything smells yellow.

NOSTALGIA. Whenever I go through this particular phase of life, I yearn for something unnamed. I recognise the form, the scent, the memory, but not the name. Or perhaps words are just reductionist at best; diminishing what we actually mean. It is somewhere between missing myself from the past, and peace of not wanting the past at all. It is the want to just stop. To just live. To just breathe the yellow breeze and enjoy the elastic time. I feel like absorbing every second, not wanting to aim for anything, just breathe. Inhale and exhale, nothing more. Then, let the yellowness dye my sky and be done with me.

NONCHALANCE. It is a realisation that everything else walks past briskly. That time flew mercilessly and you only want to tighten your grip so you don’t get carried away by the current. It is a desire to stretch time so it glides slower through me and saves me some mercy.  Who knows that this is an epilog of a story. An autumn of my youth. Where skin is a thousand times more sensitive (touch me once and I’ll suffocate). Eyes record cut-up, random scenes they shouldn’t. Just please don’t kiss me; I’ll perhaps burst and vomit vermilion.

DISTORTED REALITY. Just like an amateur 60s European film, my life is cut into scenes with rough, rogue transition in between. A specific scene from four years ago is recalled–the mood, the scent, the feeling. Then the next scene is up; me in 1960s, which is weird, because I was born in 1994. It feels like tiptoeing in between slumbers, curiously nudging dreams but then refusing to engage in them. It is an ephemeral feeling of being a foetus again: alone, non-existing, and existing at the same time. It is the reluctance from being cared about. It is the longing to be left alone so I can be free.


Ca-bau-kan tells a story of Tinung, a simple village woman who was a “ca-bau-kan” or a courtesan in colonial era, set in 1930-1950s. Giok Lan (Niniek L. Karim) narrates her story through her course of looking for her. Tinung (Lola Amaria) was a famous ca-bau-kan who then got involved too deep with Tan Peng Liang (Ferry Salim), a Chinese businessman who dealt with tobacco in Batavia. Falling in love with Tinung, local courtesan who was socially and economically disadvantaged, Tan Peng Liang’s relationship with Tinung invited controversy. They then got separated due to business troubles that Tan Peng Liang’s rivals incited upon him.

Tinung must become a courtesan again at Kalijodo in order to continue her life and her two children. However, soon she got separated with her children when a Dutch couple offered to adopt them and give her money in return. Being left by her husband and childern, Tinung then got forced to be a jugun ianfu—comfort woman for Japanese soldiers. After all that she had gone through, finally she got reunited with her husband again.

The premise alone is supposed to be promising especially because it arose from a particular tempus in Indonesian history where women were considered as sex objects only. However, the film doesn’t manage to highlight all the interesting parts of the story and is somehow rushed. It is never explained how Tan Peng Liang fell in love with Tinung—he just saw her and asked her to dance, and that’s it, while the romance between the two plays a large role in the film. It’s not even believable that Tan Peng Liang, a rich Chinese merchant, would do anything for Tinung while the social disparity between them was just big. Not only that, the character Tinung herself often got lost in the plot while the story focuses on Tan Peng Liang’s business and his rivals. For a name title, she sure seems like a secondary character.

Despite my critics above, I believe that Ca-bau-kan is not bad. I admire Nia Dinata’s effort to picture the characters’ traits as something believable and consistent to the era. For example, despite being well-known for being a feminist filmmaker, Dinata chose to portray Tinung as submissive and simple, a typical village woman on that era. Dinata still chose to emphasize the power that she has, though, despite her silence. The Chinese culture depicted is also authentic and real.

I like Ca-bau-kan, however I’d so watch a remake of this film, hopefully the better version where the story focuses on the main character, closure is given (how’s the relationship of Tan Peng Liang with her former wife? Where was she at the end of the film? How’s Tan’s children’s reactions to their father getting back with Tinung?), and the plot is not discursive. The strength must be maintained, though, through Tinung not being oversexualized (because with this theme, I can only sigh imagining how a male director would make this film) and the good portrayal of the lives on that era.

Overall, 6.5/10.


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