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The Feminist Monolith: On Purpose and Identity

By Serena Suson

Art by Shena Han

I was capable of love before I ever was conscious of it. I used to be the kind of kid who approached others at the hotel pool while on vacation, who was so outgoing she secured her first — and for nineteen years after, only — boyfriend during pre-school recess. All my stuffed animals, whether they were valiant wizards, accidental oligarchs, or recurrent jesters, found some type of enduring partnership through the stories I used to tell. My imagination, even then, found clarity in one certain telos: I would not let anyone be left behind.

Around the time I began to write, I grew reclusive. With age came knowledge; with knowledge came awareness; with awareness came embarrassment. Adopting a verdant shyness, I no longer bombarded kids on the playground or on vacation: I tended to be a bystander, hoping people would instead come to me. My extroversion languishing, I occupied my time contriving idealistic fairy tales where people mimicked the way I used to and still wanted to be. Casts of stuffed creatures no longer sufficed for my play. On one day I can no longer remember, I put down my toys for good. Newly adolescent, I picked up a pen and began constructing human beings. I had them act out the fantasies in my head, the love stories I no longer lived, the chance meetings I no longer realized. I grew older, but that unspoken mission of mine still whispered through my missive. A singular “I” manifested as the subject of my work, and how desperately “I” feared to be left behind!

Between the ages of seven and eleven, I labeled myself a hopeless romantic. Sweet scenarios from books and movies suckled my writing style while simultaneously sustaining my faith in reality. I fended off the uncertainty of my real-life prospects by dreaming of a far-off future in which I was the object of one undisclosed person’s unremitting affection. I dreamed of dedicating myself to someone; by first demonstrating my devotion to someone else, I figured I could lead someone to be devoted to me. At the time, though I could not muster up the courage to speak to anyone, I dreamed of being in the kind of relationship that bespoke harmony and reciprocity. I dreamed of manifesting the kind of partner whose fictionalization had surrounded me throughout my childhood. I dreamed that I was Elizabeth Bennett, whom Mr. Darcy silently admired for her self-righteousness and wit; I dreamed that I was Usagi Tsukino, whom Mamoru Chiba loved in every lifetime, whether she was a coward or a hero; I dreamed that I was Rapunzel who, while waiting anxiously for her own life to begin, had become Eugene’s new dream. Rather than living, I dreamed it all. I dreamed to have someone, to hold someone. At the time, sex had nothing to do with it.

At the age of nineteen, I fully fashioned myself into a feminist. I conceived myself a fierce agent in an oppressed body, devoting myself relentlessly to the cause of liberation. I thought little of the normative ideas of freedom pioneered by Western, particularly American, feminism — for, how could I, when the term “intersectional” foreclosed all fear of self-identical exclusion? I reified myself as the ultimate feminist subject, self-identifying through resistance. By simply declaring myself averse to all forms of oppression, I ensured that I maintained a comprehensive vision of progress. As a queer woman of color, I waged an ideological war against race, class, gender, sex, and sexuality and declared that I, personally, would dismantle hierarchy and contribute to the discursive reconstruction of society. I pledged vigilance, vowing to do everything I could not to perpetuate the marginalization of myself or others.

Though I continued to entertain the idea of a romantic partner for some time after my feminist debut, I had an inkling that the fairy tale imaginings of my youth were simply that: fairy tales. A little voice in the back of my head, some feminist daemon perhaps, told me that I could dream as long as I liked but, at the end of the day, my purpose was best served for revolution. Artists are not remembered for their partners, she reminded me; martyrs hardly burn for “soulmates.” If I wanted to extend my life’s meaning beyond the eighty-some years I might have, I had to come to terms with that. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was simply better off alone. It was with genuine volition then that, at nineteen, I gave my body up to war. I stripped my body of its material worth and clothed it in the common cause, my morals strapped across my back like ethic camouflage. I planted my stake on the front lines and in solitude refined my ammunition.

Eventually, something shot me in the back. Whenever I stepped back from the fray, momentarily catching my breath to observe the Western front, I could not fathom the fact that I was exhausted. I could not fathom the fact that I was fighting two battles — if not several — at once. I was fighting as a double — perhaps multi-faceted — consciousness, who very clearly, on one hand, wanted to dismantle all forms of oppression in her life and who more vaguely, on another, just wanted to be happy. It took all I could not to direct my weapons on myself, my feminist transcendent half furious every time some other selfish part of me cried out for love. Ducking down below the line of fire, I pressed my hands over my ears. I rocked back and forth in the dirt, whispering words of resistance that kept me from losing my mind. I steeled my senses to renew combat, hoping one day I would be able to consolidate all my desires into one feminist consciousness.

A feminist subjectivity which reconciled my liberatory goals with my own personal inclinations would never fully arrive. If anything had, it would have been pure Americana: it would have aligned with some Western corollary of my ideals but never my entire self. It would have shirked personal gratification for social responsibility, aligning all it could with a freedom-fighter philosophy and leaving the rest to fester. I would have felt ashamed when any remnant of my individual desire continued to persist, to gnaw at my spirit like an unrelenting dog. At the same time, my attitude would have constituted the perfect condition for my desire: only in the displacement of my longing would I have found myself longing at all. Here, the seed of my struggle began to germinate, though I could barely understand it at the time. As long as I maintained my current view of feminism, down to the way I conceived my own agency, I would remain trapped within a cycle that perpetually dispossessed some aspect of life I desperately wished to experience. I could not see a way out of that cycle without rejecting feminism altogether. For a while I ached.

For much of my feminist career, I have required clear categoricals to conceptualize politics. My mindset is scarcely unique: our epistemology as humans seems inevitably to revert to binaries. We prefer to typify cause and effect, to measure pros and cons, to compare and contrast. Even when we consider intersectionality, as it has been institutionalized, we so often conflate overlap with two-dimensional Cartesian coordinates, only ever able to make sense of an identity that is informed by two exclusive categories. Though theoretically accounting for intersectionality, we internally view the ways in which identities coincide as their own separate classifications, which from there constitute their own distinct dichotomies. Jennifer Nash, for example, in her analysis of intersectional theory, remarks how black women often come to symbolize a social category that amounts solely to “black” + “woman,” a tightly-bound, gendered and racialized circle that opposes both “white” and “black men.”[1] Feminist analysts, Western feminist analysts in particular, often form broad assumptions of people in order to issue a socially progressive prognosis. It is a prime fault of theory. Conceptually we struggle to visualize what is contingent; we prefer what is cumulative in order to sum up space and time.

I favored a lot of fixed categories in the formation of my own identity. I saw myself as brown, opposed to white; woman, opposed to man; queer, opposed to straight; feminist, opposed to — I could never quite discern. There I faltered. I was “queer” + “brown” + “woman” on an upward track towards self-realization, and somewhere along or parallel to or in and of the track itself I believed to factor in my feminism. At the same time, I viewed myself mainly as the sum of my oppression, which, through feminism, I wished to obliterate. Even in articulating it now, I struggle to depict how static I considered feminism, how perfectly it appeared to coalesce my entire psychological landscape. For me, it presented no political contradiction. It was a hardened identity, one that I could throw over my others like body armor. It encompassed everything. It shielded me from everything. I perceived the world through feminism, and it painted me a battlefield of black and white.

The part of me that loved was what threw me out of formation. Love had always confounded me. Love flowed in and out of me, a rogue agent that never fell into line with the rest of my conceptualized being. While feminism preferred a portrait of realism to partition the world, love, in the palette of politics, portrayed everything a perfect grey. Still, I recognized the two were not diametrically opposed. I just felt like there was something wrong with the way I loved: feminism, overall, seemed much more informed to me. I wondered whether I was oppressing myself for wanting love. I wondered how to forge ahead. I wondered how I would live without ideology barking canonical orders in my ear. At times, I wondered how the little girl I used to be could have wandered into a war-worn wasteland like this one.

I don’t think my partner expected love to be the thing that kept me up at night. I fell apart when someone held me in their arms for the first time, and I crumbled when we were never able to have sex. For nineteen and a half years, I had had my guard up; and when I finally wanted to lower it, I found my hands still balled into fists. Amidst shame of having deserted the front lines, I could not even physically commit to a form of licentiousness that would have at least let me feel normal. My body heaved with exhaustion, and I hated how powerless I felt to condition it to heal. I wondered, lying in my own bed, why I could not devote my body to someone as much as I could some impersonal cause. I wondered how I could have parsed myself so thinly that, by the time I had fired off a score of artillery, there was nothing left but ash for me.

I have always seen my body as a vessel, something to give either physically or metaphorically, never something in which to be embodied, in which to relish. I have spent my whole life lending it to others, reemerging just long enough from dissociation to move my lips and limbs into place. In pursuit of transcending and advancing present politics, I have inevitably prepped my parts for prostitution. Discreetly did I formulate an expectation that I would have to barter my body for love, informed not only by a heterosexist conception of relationships but also by proponents of Western feminism themselves. They seduced me with enlistment; and, once they had me, they requisitioned my body for perennial combat. Protest prepared me for packets of birth control, which I swallowed dutifully in case I would ever find purpose in them. Still I take those pills, for I do not know who I am if I am not down on my knees, begging to be reified. I do not know who I am if I am not devoted to something.

My partner has stood for none of it. While I take those pills in case — wretchedly, always in case — I contest with the knowledge that they have looked at me the way a child looks at snow. They have “kissed me just to kiss me,” “sucked the rot right out of my bloodstream,” softened every part of me, made love indubitably easy.[2] Sometimes, when I look at them, they grow anxious at my silence, and I must stumble then for some sentimental explanation of my staring. I keep it concise. I am too embarrassed to recount how I melted in their gaze the first time our eyes met, how sure I was in that moment I could take them in for eternity. No identity has ever screamed to me such certainty.

The first time I realized how deeply I was entrenched within a Western feminist identitarian mindset occurred when Saba Mahmood, from the required readings of my WGSS 12 syllabus, put into perspective positive and negative freedom.[3] The West, after all these years, still yearns so desperately to pioneer that it has glorified emancipation in the deconstructivism associated with negative freedom. True liberation, in Western feminist theory, represents a destruction of all oppressive structures. Mahmood, however, recaptured the significance of personal desire for me not in her advocacy of greater positive freedom, defined as the “capacity to realize an autonomous will,” but rather in her rejection of it.[4] She disassociates self-realization and agency from the goals of liberatory politics, recognizing that the “secular reason and morality” that Western feminism exalts does not “exhaust the forms of valuable human flourishings.”[5] She recognizes a value of life that political self-crucifixion cannot fully encompass. That value requires a repurposing of flesh, an embodiment of desire that evades exact categories of what oppresses and what liberates. Wherever that desire falls, I can see how it contributes to the completion of my happiness, and therefore I wish to tend to it. Wherever that desire falls, I cannot be certain I will know its underpinnings, but I care for it tenderly because I am certain I have seen it before. Certainly I have: I see it in my partner every day.

Now twenty, I still feel like I’m fighting. I will wake up from a sleepless night and imagine my bed as a barricade, the whole morning recoiling from the person I love. I will look over at my partner, occasionally speculating when they will leave me behind, the feminist daemon inside of me feeding off of every insecurity I have. Some days my daemon will convince me that the only way to be free is to be alone.

On those days, my partner will drag me out of bed for a walk. They will hand me an earbud and put on Taylor Swift as we wander farther and farther away from my room. They will look at me, their eyes passing over where the lamplight illuminates my skin, and I will look back only when I am convinced they are no longer looking. They will talk of twenty years from now like it is a certainty, and I will find myself dreaming, hoping, and praying beside them like I am eleven all over again. On days like those, I can see it all: Rome, the pyramids, the movies, maybe a small apartment overlooking the city, and a cat with a very silly name. On days like those, I feel free to imagine a future I do not yet fully know. On days like those, I tug my partner closer. On days like those, I remember how wonderful it is that I have never been alone.

I do what I can to remember what a pair entails. I try to stay conscious of it. I find meaning in every single “I love you”; I profess to prove everything that “I love you more” promises. I am still writing, now the love stories I live, the chance meetings I have realized. My mission is for “us,” but I can no longer distinguish us as love’s subjects or objects, as readers or audience. We are much too intertwined for that. All I know is my gaze, and then my body will know something before my mind ever does. I concede. What kind of teleology could I possibly have for that?

[1] Jennifer Nash, “Re-thinking Intersectionality,” Feminist Review 89, no. 1 (2008), p. 8–9.

[2] Leith Ross, “We’ll Never Have Sex,” Republic Records, released March 25, 2022, Spotify,

[3] Saba Mahmood, “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 2 (2001): 207.

[4] Saba Mahmood, “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 2 (2001): 207.

[5] Saba Mahmood, “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 2 (2001): 225.

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