What the Hand-Wringing Over a “Backlash” to Feminism Gets Wrong

What the Hand-Wringing Over a “Backlash” to Feminism Gets Wrong

What the Hand-Wringing Over a “Backlash” to Feminism Gets Wrong

Yes, we’re facing new opposition after a wave of progress. But we can’t afford—and don’t deserve—despair.

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Summer 2008. Senator Barack Obama would soon be elected president, after defeating Senator Hillary Clinton in a tough primary fight (and then beating Senator John McCain more easily). The energizing Democratic clash drove a progressive surge, in voting, political engagement, and feminism.

Despite Clinton’s primary loss—feminists, let’s be clear, were divided between Obama and Clinton—it was the heyday of feminist blogging, representing a renewal, for the Web generation, of feminist discourse. Maybe the sometimes-brutal Clinton/Obama clash reminded us that, whichever candidate we supported, feminism was on the loose. Again. And ready to change the culture.

Salon, where I was an editor at the time, had its own feminist blog “Broadsheet;” Slate had “Double X.” There was the pioneer “Feministing,” and of course, from the then-mighty Gawker empire, the flashy “Jezebel.” And many more.

That same summer, feminist, comedian, activist and Daily Show cocreator Lizz Winstead ran a popular public series called Thinking and Drinking. Looking to talk to some younger feminists, she invited two Jezebel writers (14 years later, I’m not going to embarrass them by using their names here; you can follow the link). And they proceeded to spout anything-but-feminist ideas about sexuality, especially rape.

Both writers’ “brands” relied on their honesty about sex, including storied one-night stands and hookups with strangers:

Writer 1: “People are always saying it’s not safe to go home with strange men, blah, blah blah, like Mr. Goodbar whatever…”

Writer 2: “What’s gonna happen?”

Winstead: “You could get raped.”

Writer 2: “That’s happening too, but you live through that.”

Winstead: “Sometimes you don’t.”

Writer 2: “That’s true if they have weapons.”

When Writer 2 talked about her own actual date rape, and Winstead asked why she didn’t go to the police, she answered: “I had better things to do. Like drinking more.” The pair also made dumb jokes about their favorite method of contraception being “pulling out.” These ladies were close to 30, at least.

Later, Writer 1 and Writer 2 and their defenders would insist they were only joking (and ironically, they reportedly blamed Winstead for getting them drunk, as though she were a date rapist). It was also clear that while Winstead was earnestly trying to reach out to younger “feminists,” they enjoyed tweaking the older feminists who would predictably be appalled by their dumb rape “jokes.” And we were.

I admit: I was on Team Lizz (I didn’t know her then, but she’s since become one of my best friends). She wrote in HuffPost: “They had no regard for the people who came that night and paid money to hear them speak. They do not understand the influence they have over the women who read them, nor do they accept any responsibility as role models for young women who are coming of age searching for lifestyles to emulate.” Jezebel’s terrific editor at the time, Anna Holmes, apologized.

In what felt like a time of feminist revival—the peak moment of feminist blogging, for sure—this backlash was unsettling.

Why revive this ancient history? Because apparently, we’re reliving it.

In just the last month, we learned from The New York Times about “bimbo Tik-Tok feminism,” in which young (of course) women dress in fur bralettes and miniskirts, bleach their hair blonde, flash their breasts, and joke about, yes, being “bimbos”—in the name of a new, sexy feminism (that’s supposed to be anti-capitalist, but we’ll get to that later).

The great Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, a former colleague and a current friend, wrote a more sober dispatch from the front lines, citing young women who are not embracing bimboism, but who find contemporary feminism wanting, badly. Headline? “The Future Isn’t Female Anymore.” Ouch.

Author Susan Faludi, who wrote the influential tome Backlash more than 30 years ago, sees another backlash, at least partly in the defection of these young women, and blames “celebrity feminism”: Relying on megastars Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus; embracing Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate coaching book Lean In; even going all in for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Feminists—and all women, whether we know it or not—are going through very crappy times, for sure. But I don’t see this as a genuine “backlash” as clearly as others do.

Let’s run through the main complaints quickly.

The Times’ “Bimbo TikTok Feminism” piece begins: “Are you a leftist who likes to have their tits out? Do you like to flick off pro-lifers?” Chrissy Chlapecka asks the camera in a 51-second TikTok captioned “BIMBOS, RISE 💖‼️” Chlapecka tells writer Sophie Heigney that she identifies as a feminist, but the concept needs to be “reworked.” Heigney earnestly responds: “To dismiss this corner of the internet as totally backward would be to miss the point.” She goes on: “It’s anticapitalist, even anti-work,” citing a video in which a BimboTok comedian dances behind text that reads, “Rule of thumb: All relationships should be 50/50… He works for his money, I spend it!”)

Um, OK.

In Goldberg’s much more substantial piece, editors and writers of the literary journal The Drift share their reservations about the feminism they may be inheriting, but would rather not, like my mom’s antique table that my daughter doesn’t much care about. Asked about their particular contempt for the 2017 Women’s March, which mobilized as many as 4.6 million women at protests across the United States and the globe, editor Kiara Barrow answers:

“A lot of it comes down to feeling like [the march] didn’t do anything. It’s cringe to have tried really hard at something that kind of failed.”

The Drift critique by Elisa Gonzalez, whose mother is a home health aide and special education teacher, is more compelling. “My mother’s life is hard, much harder than it needs to be, and when I take stock of feminism’s current offerings, I see little that would actually ease it.” I think she’s missing a lot of feminist organizing, but her point of view at least has some grounding in reality, in the mistakes of traditional white feminism over many decades.

Faludi, in addition to indicting feminism’s reliance on celebrities, complains: “As #MeToo hashtagging dominated the news in the late 2010s, the Trump administration gutted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and installed scores of anti-abortion judges in the courts.” (As if women could have stopped any of that by abandoning #MeToo?)

Each of these articles has some truth. I want to challenge them though, at least a little.

I can’t with bimbo TikTok feminism. Sorry. It’s supposedly “anti-capitalist” to leave the workforce and rely on a man? You want to come off as dumb? Good job: That’s really dumb. I want to see one of these girls in a fur bralette go work as a home health aide, when her rich man is gone and she has no other options, and then tell me what she thinks is wrong with feminism. (Friends tell me there is genuinely subversive content in #BimboTok, but the Times piece didn’t feature it.) But at least I didn’t see any rape jokes in that silly pink furry corner of the Internet, so as anti-feminist backlashes go, maybe that’s progress?

The women of The Drift mount a more substantive challenge. But still: You claim the Women’s March accomplished nothing? It’s “cringe”? Girl, please. (I’m trying not to cringe, and blare my age, at the use of the word “cringe” as a noun. I want to say, “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen,” but that dates me too. Plus, apparently, “cringe” has happened. We’ll survive.)

Here’s what women did, after they marched: They ran, for office, in record numbers. They founded groups like Run For Something, Sister District, Flippable, Swing Left chapters and most Indivisible groups. In the two years after Trump’s election, tens of thousands of women reached out to Emily’s List and said they wanted to run for office. The women who ran for Congress in 2018 and won gave Democrats the exact number—23—they needed for Nancy Pelosi to take the gavel as House speaker, and to block Trump in more ways.

I’m more sympathetic to the arguments of Drift writer Elisa Gonzalez (her essay is really worth a read), regarding how little she believes mainstream feminism offers her mother, an immigrant working in special education and home health. That’s long been true—but it’s less true than it’s ever been. A new ethic of “care feminism,” valuing and elevating the work not only of mothers but also of teachers, child care workers, home health aides, long-term care providers, low-paid hospital staff, is spreading. It informed the Biden administration’s ambitious if now doomed “Build Back Better” program, which sought to boost wages, training, and funding in all of those care-giving fields, as well as extend refundable child tax credits and provide at least four weeks of paid family leave. All of these speak to the needs of low-wage women of color, as well as the rest of us.

While those proposals are not solely the work of self-identified feminists, many have played key roles: Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors member Heather Boushey, who edited a journal called Feminist Economics, has long pushed for this care agenda to be as prominent a feature of the women’s movement as calls for equal pay and abortion rights.

“Many of us who are leading this work see this as feminist organizing, and always have,” says Ai-Jen Poo, the dynamic founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations. “The idea that the care economy should be valued and treated as infrastructure, worth investing in and supporting as such, is a feminist idea. It’s a surefire way to support racial and gender equity, as they will be jobs that go to women and disproportionately women of color.”

Unfortunately, one man—Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia—blocked that bill, and most of its feminist provisions. Is that feminism’s fault? I don’t think so.

Faludi too suggests that feminism has paid insufficient attention to women at the bottom of the wage and respect ladder. While she acknowledges the NDWA, she ignores the massive organizing project on behalf of low-wage workers of color that Ai-Jen Poo describes.

Her critique of celebrity feminism, too, felt shallow to me. Every successful liberation movement has enlisted celebrities. Who would dispute that singer and actor Harry Belafonte is a civil rights hero? Dr. King went out of his way to recruit Belafonte to the cause very early, in the late 1950s, knowing the power of his reach. Feminists were and are not wrong to get celebrities on board. That was never, and never should be, the ultimate political goal, of course. And I’d argue that celebrities embraced feminism publicly because feminism was hot, not the other way around. But either way: Beyonce performing in front of a giant screen reading “FEMINIST” at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards is not why we’re about to lose abortion rights.

But we are, almost unbelievably, about to lose abortion rights.

Lizz Winstead laughs when I remind her of her Thinking and Drinking with the Jezebels, 14 years later. Like me, she sees an echo of that clash of the feminist generations in the glorification of “bimboism.” But pretty much every generation thinks the previous one did feminism “wrong.” As Goldberg puts it, the movement has suffered from a lot of “matricide,” and it’s hard not to think some of these young women are rejecting not just Mom’s feminism but Mom herself.

Still, Winstead, who founded the group Abortion Access Front, which works to destigmatize abortion, in 2015, has her own critique of mainstream feminist organizations and organizing, that she feels helped to leave Roe—and millions of American women—vulnerable.

“The big marches didn’t provide opportunities to learn about and get involved with different organizations fighting for women and marginalized people,” Winstead said, adding, “When you create that void, people default to supporting big, institutional organizations they have heard of, and the result is the big orgs gobble up resources leaving amazing grassroots organizations struggling. They need to be amplified so they can grow.”

Despite her pessimistic reporting, Michelle Goldberg agrees. “A backlash isn’t just a political formation,” she wrote in her column.

It’s also a new structure of feeling that makes utopian social projects seem ridiculous. The left, feminism very much included, needs people to be optimistic and confident about change. It needs to be able to paint a picture of a better world and enlist people in the adventure of trying to create it.

The most incisive criticism of the recent backlash reporting, not surprisingly, came from women of color. Black feminist and critic Soraya McDonald went all in on Twitter.

Her thread began, “Apparently a number of feminists are demoralized and giving in to nihilism and let me just tell you, I REFUSE. Who has time for that shit? Yeah, shit’s bad! Time to roll up our sleeves.”

McDonald concluded:

The future is still female.
The future is queer.
The future is organized.
The future is joyful.
The future is community.
The future is giving a fuck and doing something, over and over and over and over, even in the face of setbacks. Because that is what Black women do.

That is what a lot of women do. I’m blessed: Whatever form my daughter’s rebellion against me might have taken, it was not rejecting my politics or my feminism. She and most of her friends work tirelessly for social, political, and economic justice. The night Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe came down, I marched to the Supreme Court with her and her friends, young women and men, where I found a reassuringly young, diverse crowd already assembled. Maybe I’m biased, but I’d like a lot more attention to young women like my daughter and her friends than the girls of BimboTok.

There’s no doubt we’re in a phase of backlash. It’s not just abortion: Right-wing extremists are trying to turn back the clock on LGBTQ rights and racial advances as well. But we can’t afford despair. And we shouldn’t be shattered by critiques that are insular and ahistorical. In fact, feminists are championing a wider range of issues than they have in decades. And the fact that there is so much still to win doesn’t mean they’re not still fighting.

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