A box for the Sephora Collection Pink Eyelash Curler. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
My delight at the Susan G. Komen Foundation/Planned Parenthood breakup lasted a glorious forty-eight hours—which is the time it took for the nation’s most prominent breast cancer charity to reverse the decision that it would no longer fund the nation’s most prominent women’s healthcare provider. It might not look like it at first, but Komen’s actions and the ensuing backlash are a huge boon for the feminist movement. The fact that Planned Parenthood will again be eligible for funding in future grant cycles, on top of the $3 million it has raised in the past week, just makes the incident a win-win. But the Komen controversy still has ramifications beyond the budgets of the two organizations: it provided a long-overdue spotlight on the difference between feminism as a brand and feminism as a political movement.
The past decades have seen the rise of a nominally apolitical marketing campaign masquerading as feminism, with Komen merely the most visible symbol. Komen aligns perfectly with what Linda Hirshman labeled “choice feminism”—a moral-relativist approach to feminism that tries to scrub the movement of politics and value judgments in favor of uncritical affirmation of all women’s choices.
In her statement of apology, Komen CEO Nancy Brinker said, “We do not want our mission marred or affected by politics—anyone’s politics.” That’s exactly the fallacy—that somehow women’s health can be narrowed to an apolitical and innocuous agenda. Women’s bodies are the most politicized sites on earth. When women focus on a hyperfeminine aesthetic at the expense of issues of substance, we end up with a hot pink ghetto of goodwill that forfeits the conversation about rights, access and money to the menfolk.
For the past decade, this has been the feminist’s lament: How do we identify the line where feminism becomes a marketing strategy for the very patriarchy it nominally opposes—selling a non-threatening agenda that doesn’t buck the status quo? It’s often hard to tell reclamation from capitulation, and easier to rely on shorthand symbols like, say, the color pink and “you go girl” sloganeering; it’s tempting to assume that everyone’s on the same ideological page. By the time you realize that’s not the case, you’ve already purchased hundreds of dollars of carcinogenic cosmetics and applauded NFL players accused of sexual assault for courageously donning pink shoes.
As the infantilizing blush-hued gear has proliferated, the pink saturation has merged the medical industrial complex with the Disney princess-industrial complex, making women’s health policy some sort of adult dress-up game. In her landmark 2009 essay “Cancerland,” Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, “To some extent, pink-ribbon culture has replaced feminism as a focus of female identity and solidarity…. In the post-feminist United States, issues like rape, domestic violence, and unwanted pregnancy seem to be too edgy for much public discussion, but breast cancer is all apple pie.” Breast cancer has become a safe cause because no one can blame a woman for her cancer but reproductive health—you know, the kind that deals with the fact that women have sex—is where the rubbers hit the road.
There are plenty of high-profile members of the saccharine sisterhood.The Oprah brand often epitomizes this shallow perspective on what actually constitutes feminism. Two years ago, Karen Salmansohn, an Oprah magazine writer, wrote an article declaring herself not a feminist but a “feminine-ist.” “With the word ‘feminism,’ it might have been embarrassing for a man to say he was a supporter because it might sound like he was admitting to supporting of a group of controlling, bitchy women,” wrote Salmansohn. “But with new pro-sexiness, pro-sweetness, pro-balance words like ‘feminine-ist’ and ‘feminine-ism,’ what’s not for a man to love?”
Only slightly less ridiculous is Caitlin Flanagan, who trumpets the revival of traditional domestic roles, representing a positive reprioritization of the traditional hearth and nuclear family, as feminist. And then of course there’s Sarah Palin, who, as Courtney Martin put it, “perform[s] empowerment rather than actually delivering it.”
Even Michelle Obama has had to package her feminism in palatable ways. Rebecca Traister wrote about the first lady’s initial rebranding as “mom-in-chief”—after months of outspokenness on the campaign trail—as a disappointing attempt to secure mainstream approval.Obama’s initial focus on work/family balance issues has shifted to a focus on childhood obesity and support for veterans and military families. As Martin writes: “Who could argue with the importance of…children’s health? She’s even avoiding offending the food lobbies by focusing on the importance of activity, rather than zeroing in on the economically and racially explosive issue of how we eat.” No matter what Obama’s personal ideology may be, the bigger issue is the social pressure she must feel to choose issues that lend themselves to the language of personal responsibility and the nuclear family—rather than a systematic political critique.
Twenty years ago, Anna Quindlen wrote about this same tendency to compartmentalize our sympathy and reserve it for those who conform to socially acceptable behavior.
[W]e have witnessed the canonization of one AIDS patient, a twenty-three-year-old woman named Kimberly Bergalis who says that she “didn’t do anything wrong.” This is code, and so is her elevation to national symbol. Kimberly Bergalis is a lovely white woman with no sexual history who contracted AIDS from her dentist. She is what some people like to call an "innocent victim.”
With that single adjective we condemn those who get AIDS from sex and…dirty needles as guilty…
In terms of the debate at hand, Twisty Faster, the blogger at I Blame The Patriarchy, puts it best:
[Say] an indigent or uninsured woman gets the free mammogram, and it comes up positive, what then? Who is going to pay for her treatment? Cute teddy bears? Volunterrorists in pink baseball caps? Consumer philanthropists eating “Crunch for the Cure” junk food?
With the fresh exposure of that philosophy’s limitations and hypocrises, feminists now have a valuable object lesson. We should realize that activists who compartmentalize between “innocent” causes and the radical struggle ultimately undermine the movement. They cede to our opponents the assumption that women’s bodies can be regulated at all and abstain from critical conversations about the nitty-gritty of health care finance and access. As feminism becomes increasingly co-opted, corrupted and watered down, the biggest threat may not be the declared opposition but the wolf in a particularly rosy shade of sheep’s clothing.