Is Feminism real or BS?
Amanda Ann Klein: Over the last few months there have been a series of high-profile instances of white women — many who identify as feminists — picking and choosing pieces of African-American popular culture and using those images to make a statement: about their own image (Miley Cyrus), about their love for “Orange Is the New Black” (Juliane Hough), about the exploitation of female bodies in music videos (Lily Allen), and about the way women feel about their bodies (Peggy Noland), to name just four recent examples. So, to start this conversation off, do you think this is a trend, a new thing that white feminists are doing, or is it the status quo? And on a related note, why is there such a profound misunderstanding amongst feminists?
Kristen Warner: The misunderstanding is not a trend — it’s more a chronic condition because each time it’s “treated” it goes quiet for a time but then pops back up unexpectedly with mighty force. In the case of these most recent happenings, the only thing that’s really new about it is that the ugly and the egregious behaviors can be disseminated and reacted to much faster than in the past. Discord between white and black feminists is an old story with lots of ugly history that has bred enmity and distrust. And so, it is unsurprising to most of us that the level of “caping” (Twitter slang that describes individuals who try to save so-called innocent, well-meaning folks from being “dragged” or chastised for their inappropriate/incorrect/offensive behavior) for these women is as it is.
As far as why there is such a profound misunderstanding, it’s largely bound in who gets to implicitly count. I often think of the way we were taught in grammar school about the “understood you,” aka the “invisible subject,” when writing imperative sentences. Black women are rarely factored into conversations about “understood” women — witness Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” So when these women are describing feminism, they are often describing it from their place of [white] womanhood, which, yes, has its struggles and disenfranchisements, but it is an entirely different place for women of color and their womanhood. Yet, when the need arises to illustrate how disenfranchised/repressed/vulnerable they feel, black women’s bodies are historically the most familiar vessels used to model and exorcise those feelings.
AAK: I’ve never heard the term “caping” before, but now that you mention it, it does seem to be a prominent side effect of this disconnect among contemporary feminists (a problem, as you say, that has been with feminism since its inception). When these incidents play out in popular culture — and yes, the life cycle of each race-based scandal is much faster, and more intense, because of the way social media functions — I’m not always sure what actions to take. Sometimes I offer my support, sometimes I join the conversation, but sometimes I stay quiet because staying quiet is easy and I don’t need to make choices about what to say or do (which is hard).
When white women stay quiet, leaving women of color to serve as judge, jury and executioner all on their own, that’s incredibly unfair. And then women of color are labeled as being “angry” or “too sensitive.” Meanwhile, there I am, staying quiet. But staying quiet is still a choice and that choice is also a betrayal.
If some women are saying, “This behavior marginalizes us,” then I need to trust those women, even though my worldview doesn’t always include a personal experience of that kind of marginalization. It comes down to this: women need to trust other women.
KW: Ultimately, if white women are going to trust black women and vice versa, there must be some skin in the game. A suggestion: stop spending so much time on the feelings of those who have committed the actions because you believe knowing their intent will determine how best to deal with them. I don’t care about intent. Don’t get me wrong: I care about impact. But intent is not the only way to contextualize, and we treat it as if it is. So, does it matter if Lily Allen has black friends or loves black women’s asses or wishes she were a black woman in her wildest dreams so that she can feel better about her body? Not at all. But the impact of her actions? Yeah. That matters.
AAK: When I think about how I first experienced feminism in college, it was mostly about gender, and, to a lesser extent, sexuality. The idea that women were all experiencing misogyny differently — because of class, because of race, because of anything that was not what I’d experienced as a white, upper-middle-class woman — was just not central to my understanding of feminism as a movement. I saw feminism as a tool for showing me what all women shared, but it was hard for me to use feminism as a tool for understanding what all women don’t share. Recognizing that difference exists sometimes feels antithetical to liberals, but it’s necessary.
At this point in U.S. history, most of the real in-your-face, “Mississippi Burning”-style white racists have died. And because of the decline of that overt racism — “The Help”-style racism — a lot of white people think we’re living in a post-racial society, and act accordingly. Julianne Hough wearing blackface on Halloween is a great example of that kind of thinking. She saw her costume as a “tribute” to a character she liked, but blackface can never be divorced from its roots in racial oppression. It just can’t.
KW: Post-raciality is a mean beast! So one way to make people feel like race is an afterthought is to limit it to those individuals who best represent the way we’ve made abject, overt and explicit forms of racial supremacy. People who wear pillowcases are bad, thus if we eradicate them, we’ve solved the problem. But that assumes we can simply logic ourselves out of racism and racialization. And we can’t. So we’ve disavowed the explicit but we’ve not done away with or admitted the love of Otherness and the ways that playing in the pools of difference helps whites (I’m looking at you, Miley, Brit Brit, Madonna and Lily) form their own identities. Thus, the actual ugly stuff is allowed to expand because it’s viewed as part of growing up. Calling that out — and it’s a pattern so you should get your eyes acquainted to looking at — without black ladies having to say so is a crucial part of the work of attempting to build trust.
In addition, solidarity involves shared ground and womanhood certainly fits that criteria … to a degree. But things go wrong when one analogizes her experience to show empathy. White feminists do this often. Lily Allen is doing this: my body being objectified because of my post-prego weight IS akin to black women’s bodies on display in music videos doing the twerking and the popping and all the other dance moves that make asses perform those hydraulic-like motions.
No. This is not the same. Neither is this: my body is objectified and everyone wants to be someone different, so what if I made a dress for [white] women to wear that allowed them to become someone they fantasize of being: skinny (because no one wants to be full-size) Oprah.
It ain’t the same. I get the desire to connect, but it’s better to try to connect by accepting that I’m saying this is different and painful and try to take that in rather than find something in your life that can be of equivalent pain.
AAK: I’m really glad that we’re getting to false equivalencies, because they seem to be fundamental to how a post-racial vision of the world functions. My understanding of being an ally was (is?) primarily rooted in trying to understand “How would that feel if it happened to me?” instead of “Could I ever imagine a scenario in which this would happen to me?” Those are two very different questions. But in order to ask “Could I ever imagine a scenario in which this would happen to me?” I need to take account of whiteness as a real thing. Whiteness is what’s lingering (literally and figuratively) behind Peggy Noland’s Oprah dress.
It doesn’t matter what Noland intended with that dress, or what kinds of “productive conversations” she started about race (OH MY GOD DID SHE START THIS CONVERSATION?) because only white women have the privilege of looking at Peggy Noland’s Oprah dress and not seeing race there. “Oh sure, race is being invoked there,” we say, “But look, it’s also about BODY IMAGE.” But the privilege of using that filter — the “body image” filter or the “gender” filter — is something only some women have access to. That’s why I’m able to enjoy Lorde. I can see why she’s problematic, but my whiteness allows me to click off that part of my brain and just enjoy that music.
KW: Oh Lorde (that makes me giggle) — I got no beef with the child — I do have issues with white women making her the new Helen Reddy. I appreciate that the young woman read Laura Mulvey — I do. But before you jump out the window with joy and tears, is that enough to make ALL of us appreciate her? I mean, bell hooks wrote about the oppositional gaze — which is what we look at her with when she innocently critiques hip-hop and people applaud her as if that stuff is new. But that’s the discord. Y’all wanna cape her; we’re not yet certain that that one action is deserving of such an honor.
AAK: I won’t lie to you, KW, and tell you I don’t love Lorde because I’ve been listening to “Pure Heroine” for, like, a week straight. But I do understand the critique: “Royals” is about these working-class youths who are rejecting the conspicuous consumption of pop culture, but of course, most specifically, hip-hop culture (Cristal, gold teeth) despite the fact that Lorde’s musical style is so clearly indebted to hip-hop. There’s a disconnect between the “authenticity” of the message of that song and its medium. But goddamn, I enjoy that record.
KW: AAK, I have no issue with you bobbing your head to Lorde as I have, despite my best intentions, done the same. Catchy tunes, man. But again, my issue isn’t with the woman but instead with those who both sell her as the first bite of consciousness to grace the hip-hop stage and who wrap their capes of protection around her because she read Laura Mulvey and thus is ipso facto a feminist who must be shielded by those black female beasts who come to take away our future [white] leaders of feminism. Yes, I’m being hyperbolic with that last line but only because that’s what it FEELS like. All this space has been taken to protect Lorde, but ain’t nobody checked in on us to find out if we’re cool with it. Noland could have checked in and asked if this is appropriate before she made her dress, but she didn’t. And Bob’s your uncle.