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The Politics of Fantasy: Is There Room For Fantasy in Feminist Activism?

Illustration of two nude mermaids.

Even in these times when sexuality is talked about more than ever before, even as we are beginning to talk about sexual pleasure and not just violations, acknowledging our fantasies isn’t easy, particularly if they are of the kind that seem to defy our politics. I’m talking about feminist politics. Although I’m a feminist, queer, kinky, political activist, here, inasmuch as I can or should choose labels, I’m writing as a feminist and am excitedly hopeful that some of what I’m writing will resonate with others, especially with fellow feminists.

I want to argue that whether we like it or not, we have all kinds of fantasies. I will argue not only that all fantasies are OK, but also that fantasies that defy our feminist politics can teach us a lot. In particular they can challenge the overly rational framework of feminism (and that of all progressive activism, I believe). Fantasies can help us connect with the realm of the unconscious which underlies the messy realities we seek to understand and impact. This is what I’m calling the Politics of Fantasy – the possibility that the seeming political incorrectness of our fantasies can actually strengthen our feminist politics.

I’m remembering a dear friend – for all intents and purposes a hardcore lesbian feminist – who I thought had shared with me pretty much everything worth sharing about herself. On one drunken evening she told me how she thought the penis was an amazing thing. And it was after I helped her find one to play with, and she had woken up with her mouth full of this amazement, that she told me it was that, precisely, which had been one of her biggest fantasies.

Why just her? I sometimes take myself by surprise, too. Like the second time I was to meet a male Dominant[1] who I was considering playing with. The first time was a coffee in the small SDA Market opposite IIT Delhi. The second time was to be in the Rose Garden next to the market. He said He was going to inspect me! I realised later the inspection involved me walking around the Rose Garden, smelling roses, feeling utterly ridiculous, and having to wear a shorter-than-I-would-ever-wear top and tight leggings on my rather large body.

And before going there, I found myself asking Him if I could sit at His feet and not on the bench next to Him. Zoom out. This was me, full-blooded feminist for a good thirty years then, fantasising about wanting to sit at the feet of some random man!

Perhaps fantasies such as these don’t come as a surprise. The point is how they make us feel. I strongly believe that there is no place for political correctness in fantasies. It is okay to fantasise about anything.

Also, for once we can throw consent out of the window. The objects of our fantasies don’t need to give their consent (that is, if they are living creatures as opposed to objects, whose consent we don’t seek in any case). We don’t need to worry about our own consent, to the extent that we can fantasise about giving up consent. The sacred mantra of consent kicks in only when we seek to make our fantasies come true.

Though I’m not saying that all fantasies are okay because they are not real anyway. The binary between fantasy and reality, I believe, is a false one. What we consider to be reality is infused with fantasy. What we do/say/desire/aspire to has much more to do with the unconscious than we imagine.

An example: However real our choice of romantic and/or sexual partner is, all attractions and relationships are fantasy-meets-fantasy. No wonder we might say to others, or at least would like to be able to say, “What in the world do you see in that person?” And we may well have had honest friends ask us the same. Who knows what we see in the other person? It rarely makes any sense. Why that person, or why, when in the face of all manner of good reasons we should exit the relationship, do we cling on to it for dear life?

These familiar questions are powerful evidence of the play of the unconscious. I believe this dimension of the unconscious is a critical one to add to our existing framework of analysis for understanding personal/political phenomena (which includes material realities and ideologies related to gender, class, caste, religion, sexuality, dis/ability, etc.).

Even as I lobby for conversations about the politics of fantasy, I feel that one of the reasons why this is not a topic of feminist discourse is because perhaps, as a feminist, there is something hot about touching what might be taboo for feminism.

Taboo is at the heart of desire. Usually we think of taboos only in terms of controlling our desires. But taboos are what create desires. The stronger the taboo, the stronger the desire. We desire precisely that which is denied to us. And I believe for taboos to ‘do their thing’, of creating desire, we need to take the taboo seriously. If, because of our politics, we understand and reject certain taboos that mainstream society seeks to impose on us, the taboos might not work at all. We will not be able to get off on them. But those taboos which feminism also upholds, or is silent about but clearly disapproving of, might, just might, have the potential to get us off. (These could perhaps be fantasies that seem to be in contradiction with principles of equality, dignity, mutuality, etc.)

Talking about the Politics of Fantasy will, I hope, help a further unravelling of the amazingness of the feminist mantra, “The personal is political.” As my dear friend Apeksha Vohra pointed out to me, for us feminists, ‘personal is political’ has worked more in one direction than the other. On the one hand there is how the political has influenced the personal. And on the other there is how the personal influences the political.

In terms of how the political has influenced the personal, there are many examples in our lives. These include trying to abide by feminist (political) values so that they reflect in the way that we live and such that our words are not hollow words. The political has also helped us make sense of the personal, to challenge within the personal that which is unjust and unfair. For example, as a young woman it was my political understanding as a feminist that helped me make sense of the discrimination I faced within my family.

But to the extent that we can separate the directional flow, how much does the personal inform the political? How much are we drawing from our personal experiences to enrich our political understanding? In the instance of Politics of Fantasy, I believe we can draw upon the inner tension we might experience because of certain difficult fantasies, and see what political learnings emerge from there. In this sense we can move from ‘political is personal’ to ‘personal is political’ (recognising, of course, that there is no binary here).

Having said that, there is a silence around fantasies our feminism might have trouble with, and having argued that actually we should not as feminists have trouble with any fantasy at all, my hope is that we can learn from that place where our fantasies seem to conflict with our politics.

The politics of fantasy might help us connect with that within and around us (and there is so much of it) which cannot be neatly captured by words and the rational mind. Here is an opportunity to connect with the messiness of life, to connect more with how little the mind and the framework of rationality might be able to explain our own desires (and perhaps actions), and to raise, perhaps, a question mark on the certainty with which we assume we know how those we seek to influence are feeling and thinking and why they are acting in the ways that they do.

Here’s an opportunity to shake up a bit the certainty of the ideology of feminism, as also that of other ‘–isms’, much as I love this one. To move from a politics of certainty to a politics of doubt.

The other potential that I see in exploring the Politics of fantasy is the light that fantasies may shed on politics in the larger sense. I’m thinking in particular about the widespread appeal of ideologies or leaders who might make our skin crawl. Our current framework of analysis includes factors such as political disillusionment, false propaganda, defence of privilege, ravaging economic changes etc. And based on this analysis we fight back with facts, more facts, more ideological arguments, which we know have not gotten us very far. Might adding the lens of fantasy and the unconscious help our political struggles too? Perhaps if we connect with the ways in which our fantasies can drive us, or take us over, perhaps it can help us connect with what supporters of political leaders who unabashedly promote bigotry be getting off on? Might there be something in the larger-than-life-ness, the supreme confidence, the certainty, and the I-don’t-give-a-damn persona which appeals to the unconscious? The Big Daddy, perhaps?

[1] In BDSM play, the Dominant is the person who controls the activity.

Cover image by James Scott Edwards; Copyright: Book: Machli Mari Hui