The Empowerment Elite Claims Feminism
But this wouldn’t be so disturbing—after all, what’s the relevance of one Tumblr entry or a single PBS interview?—if it didn’t bolster a recent move by the right to co-opt feminist language for anti-feminist purposes.
We saw it happen when Sarah Palin called herself a feminist. During and after the 2008 election, Palin—along with other conservative and anti-choice women like those at the Independent Women’s Forum and the Susan B. Anthony List—tried to use feminist language to push for a regressive agenda for women. The mainstream media went along, calling it “Sarah Palin Feminism” or “Palin’s ‘New Feminism.’” Suddenly, the simple fact of being a woman was bona fides enough for anyone to adopt the F-word, politics be damned.
Misappropriation so blatant was relatively easy to brush off—even though anti-choice and conservative women’s groups continue to claim feminism. Things get more complicated when powerful organizations or projects that generally support feminist values—like MAKERS, TED or Lean In—lay claim to the term. The surge in popularity is exciting, and the mainstream acceptance of feminist values means broader influence, but it also ensures that the movement’s message is vulnerable to dilution and misuse.
Late last year, for example, Elle UK drew fire when the magazine invited advertising agencies to “rebrand a term [‘feminism’] that many feel has become burdened with complications and negativity.” The same thing happened when Vitamin W Media and Miss Representation held a contest to rebrand feminism with a $2,000 prize attached. Feminist media maker Flavia Dzodan sees efforts to “rebrand” the movement as “an ongoing commodification of politics.” “Feminism as a brand then becomes another product we consume rather than a movement we build and a framework of political analysis,” she says. These efforts to repackage or make the movement more palatable, she notes, also ignore the fact that there is not one “feminism.”
Many feminisms exist, but it’s a singular feminism that’s on display at most mainstream women’s conferences. That one-note feminism epitomizes the tricky space the movement now occupies: one of historic popularity. And as feminist rhetoric has gained acceptance, what it means to be a feminist has become muddled.
Pop singer Miley Cyrus, for example, called herself “one of the biggest feminists in the world” just months after giving a performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in which she twerked in a skimpy body suit and slapped the behind of a black female dancer. As sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom noted at the time, although Cyrus was “performing sexual freedom,” she did so by “maintaining a hierarchy of female bodies from which white women benefit materially.”
Why would Cyrus call herself a feminist? Partly because feminism must have felt accessible to her—which was, after all, one of the key tenets of third-wave feminism, which was dedicated to making the movement as accessible as possible. This has been true of my own work: I founded a blog, Feministing, and wrote books with the goal of getting more young women to identify as feminists. And the surge of online feminism—from blogs and forums to Tumblr and Twitter—has meant that more young people, women especially, are coming to feminism every day.
But trying to mold feminism into an identity that anyone can claim, no matter what they believe about women’s rights, is a mistake. Whereas feminism used to be an active belief system that challenged patriarchy, it is now (at least in the public imagination) “anything a woman chooses to do”—even if those actions directly contradict feminist values.
Now, being pro-choice is not the sole qualification for feminists—but you can’t be a feminist without supporting abortion rights. (Sorry, I said it.)
The fact that organizations like TED want to identify with feminism is proof of the movement’s power. And, ironically, the push to “co-brand” with feminism is a sign that much of the hard work has already been done: powerful people couldn’t comfortably show up at the party until it was well under way.
Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst for RH Reality Check, says that she doesn’t have a problem with the idea of rebranding feminism if it’s in the bell hooks–ian spirit of spreading the word about what feminism is really about. “The problem,” Gandy says, “is that the current rebranding trend does what feminism has always done—exclude women of color and benefit privileged Western feminists.”
The truth is that these groups aren’t trying to make feminism popular; they’re trying to make it theirs. Attempts to “revive” a movement that’s alive and well is about wresting and keeping control away from the activists who made it what it is. This is especially true now, when the move to redefine and rebrand feminism coincides so closely with the increased power and influence of online activists and insurgent younger feminists, specifically women of color.
In the end, what I found so worrisome about TEDWomen was that I was seeing firsthand what happens when “feminism” isn’t defined by feminists. Instead of the messy, nuanced reality, we got a carefully curated package of what powerful people think feminism should be—or, at least, which feminism would be most appealing. Because while comedian Maysoon Zayid, whose hilarious TED talk about living with cerebral palsy, growing up Arab-American, and more was titled “I got 99 problems...palsy is just one,” and Dr. Paula Johnson explaining bias in medical diagnoses are absolutely feminist, their important work is part of an experience that is deliberately feel-good and controversy-free. It’s feminism without the fight.
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