Is it time to call out 'bad feminists' in order to make the progress we desperately need?
Can all women be right? Can feminism accommodate all perspectives on female empowerment? Or are some notions of femininity and empowerment inherently toxic?
While selecting and researching the women for our International Women’s World Series of articles, I was reminded just how different feminism has been in the past and just how broad the term ‘feminist’ can be today. This is something we’re told we must celebrate, but it got me wondering, can all women be right if they use a word so diversely that it loses any concrete definition? Is it better for the movement to accommodate all views so that the term feminist loses its status as a dirty word and becomes popular? Or do we need a tighter definition of what the feminist cause is today if we are going to work together in a women’s movement? Are there some strategies which further the cause, while some, though they claim to be feminist in their intent, that hurt its aims?
She described a ‘chasm’ between feminists and girl bosses, citing Anna Birley, Labour councillor and one of the Reclaim These Streets organisers, as epitomising a kind of luke-warm, sell-out, ‘feminism’ when she was asked whether Police Commissioner Cressida Dick should resign over police actions at the vigils and protests and she answered
“No, we’ve not called on Commissioner Dick to resign,” she said. “We are a movement of women seeking to support and empower other women. And as one of the most senior women in British policing history, we don’t want to sort of add to the pile-on.”
For Shadijanova, ‘Representation politics has created the same kind of cognitive dissonance that celebrates Priti Patel being a woman! of! colour! in charge of dehumanising refugees and immigrants. Yas queen! An aspirational CEO of xenophobia!’
It was a welcome break from the obsession with feminism entailing one tenet only, all women must support all women making their own choices, whatever those choices may be, and whatever effect those choices may have on other women.
For a long time I have been feeling like I might be forming a similarly unpopular opinion on the subject.
I found myself nodding along some years ago, for example, when listening to bell hooks critiquing Beyonce at the New School debate ‘Are You Still a Slave: Liberating the Black Female Body.’ The clip was much discussed at the time, as bell hooks identified ‘a part of Beyonce that is in fact anti-feminist, that is assaulting, that is a terrorist, especially in terms of the impact on young girls.’
hooks questions whether tirades against feminism ever originate with powerful men anymore, and argues that instead they tend to originate in the image making business. I recognised truth in what she was saying. To me, Instagram in particular is a space where famous women, or women seeking fame and validation, feed us images of their sexual availability, their desirability for the male gaze, and their existence as a visual object who may have something to say in other spaces, but whose voice is not present in the images they present there and can easily be ignored. And I don’t see how that helps me, or any other women except those who also wish to achieve fame and fortune through the visual commodification of their bodies.
There have been a number of voices who’ve talked about how this kind of feminism is particularly distanced from the experience of working class women and working class women of colour. Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism, for example, argued that ‘mainstream feminism is not on basic survival for the many, but on increasing privilege for the few.’ And as the #MeToo movement came to middle class liberals’ attention via Hollywood, some pointed to the financially thankless hard work of Tarana Burke who, achieving no status or public validation, had been working tirelessly on her non-profit organisation Just Be, an all-girls program for black girls aged 12 to 18 where she coined the term MeToo in 2006 in a bid to help girls talk about their experiences of sexual abuse.
I don’t say this because I particularly dislike Instagram glamour. I am drawn to the spectacle of it, casually interested in the celebrity gossip that runs alongside it, and somehow fascinated by the representations of femininity that are so traditional as to almost be kitsch claiming to own a spot next to Mary Wollstonecraft, Angela Davis, Kim Crenshaw and bell hooks in the feminism halls of fame. I don’t hate these women for their compliance - this is such a difficult world to succeed in and some of them come from backgrounds without a great number of options for success in front of them. Even for those from privileged backgrounds, making a career out of commodifying the self can be appealing and much more lucrative than most regular jobs. But I don’t like the denial that their behaviour is compliance. And I don’t particularly buy the argument that it is empowering, even personally for them let alone for me and womankind, either. I would love somebody to explain to me, what someone like Emily Ratajkowski’s sexualised images exist for except to fuel male fantasies and fan the fires of female inadequacy in a bid to live up to those same unreal ideals. I don’t want to take away the choice each woman has over what to do with their bodies, how they display them, when and who to, but I do find it misleading to then cover their personal reasons for making those choices under the cloak of feminism. There have always been some women who know how to exploit patriarchy, but that is not the same as overthrowing patriarchy or mounting any kind of structural challenge that could liberate other women. Let’s be honest, if feminism succeeded in ending the dehumanization and objectification of women, Emily Ratajkowski and others like her would be out of a job. All women should be free to make their own life choices, but that doesn’t mean that every choice that they make advances the feminist cause.
Owning something as a personal choice rather than an act for the good of a movement is scary. In a way, these women are disempowered by claiming to be feminists because it shields them from having to own up to their motivations and take responsibility. It’s just another way to avoid being faced with a woman’s personal desire. I think it would be healthier to hear a woman say, ‘Maybe this is the wrong thing to do for the feminist cause. Maybe I want to do it anyway,’ when they post a normative nude on Instagram, rather than, ’I’m doing this to empower all of you.’ That kind of honest, thorough process would allow us to better tease out what the act means both personally and politically. It would work towards dismantling patriarchal expectations if we want to, and it might force us to admit that this is not something we want if we find, on reflection, we like things as they are.
Of course, it’s not the case that a woman needs to be defined as entirely feminist or entirely unfeminist. Someone could post self-objectifying pictures on Instagram but work in a women’s shelter at the weekend, and whilst their social media habits might not be advancing the feminist cause, their work in the shelter still would be. It’s certainly not my intention to group women into saints and sinners, but we can discern between action that is helpful and actions that are not.
Allowing all definitions of feminism to co-exist, and turning on those who want to question their own and other women’s choices, or explore how those choices help or hinder the movement, means that big and important questions about how women are choosing to live don’t get to be discussed. It ends up with a kind of forced disinterest in how women are living. ‘She had plastic surgery – that’s just her choice,’ ‘she believes in the institution of marriage – that’s just her choice’, ‘she lives by Sharia Law – that’s just her choice’, ‘she finds porn empowering – that’s just her choice’…In a way we are claiming that all of these acts are meaningful to our lives because we are all women and these acts are feminist, but in another way we are saying ‘it doesn’t matter to me how women live and what they do.’
So, we are no longer allowed to ask, how do we achieve feminist goals, because we are no longer allowed to choose between the many things that women can decide to do. Whilst there are lots of individual choices going on, there is no communal choice and no communal voice that is allowed to emerge, except for the one that says, ‘you all can do whatever you want and that’s what feminism is.’ Even though we cling to the concepts of woman and feminism, the way we talk about both really seems to mean that all we believe in is individualism, and we no longer see the value in collective nouns like woman or feminist. The libertarian impulses of contemporary feminism are rendering the ideology all but meaningless.
I hesitated before writing this because I thought, ‘I’m not allowed to say this.’ But if Cressida Dick can’t be asked to resign after the bizarre police re-enactment of violence against women at the vigil/protests last week just because she’s a woman and women’s choices and women in power are always a good thing…then I should be allowed to speak my mind in an online article.
We need to be able to reflect critically on our own actions and of those around us who claim to be furthering our interests. And for this re-evaluation of feminism to have any positive functions those two things have to happen at the same time, we have to be honest about what our own actions are motivated by and whether we think they advance other women as well as just advancing us as individuals, and we have to look at other women’s actions with the same lens through which we view ourselves.