A new report just released by firm Valenti Martin Media called #FemFuture: Online Revolution recently defined Online Feminism as a movement that centers on “[h]umor, pop culture, fashion, and the punchy, sassy writing, tweeting and memes that online feminists deploy.”
But the movement that refers to itself as “Online Feminism” is actually a clique of 10 or 12 millennial-to-late-gen-X white, class-privileged women based in New York City. Between them, they run—or helped found—all of what those in the know refer to as the Big Feminist Blogs: feministe, feministing and Pandagon. Their politics are centrist or just slightly left-of-center. That is, they are mainstream, but for the fact that they focus on rather arbitrarily defined “women’s issues.”
From here on out, I will refer to this movement as Mainstream American Feminism or, for shorthand, Mainstream Feminism. As you might imagine, it alienates a lot of women who consider themselves feminists. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with fashion or “sassy writing,” but the exclusive focus on these things gives the impression that this is a shallow movement without room for serious problems women face, like institutionalized racism, domestic violence, poverty and any number of other oppressive forces. And it ensures that a small handful of feminists continue to dominate the online feminist discussion, which is actually far broader than the institution known as Mainstream Feminism acknowledges.
It would be one thing if most of the world’s women and girls were simply ignored by
Mainstream Feminism. To be sure, the movement’s silences can be deadly, but sometimes it seems as if Mainstream Feminism goes out of its way to dismiss and scold its critics. Here are just three things that have gone down in the past six or seven weeks. Surely there are more, but these were some of the more egregious and most discussed examples:
February 24, 2013: On Oscar night, The Onion tweeted that nine-year-old African-American nominee Quvenzhané Wallis was a “cunt.” Mainstream Feminists pride themselves on critical analysis of pop culture, but they completely ignored a sexist, sexualized insult against a black girl child. You might give them a pass for being unaware of what happened, except we all know they were live-tweeting the Oscars and following The Onion that night. So, it seems more likely they were ignoring it, hoping none of their troublesome detractors would notice and ask them to respond.
No Mainstream Feminist could be bothered to write as much as a blog post decrying Wallis’ treatment. They couldn’t even manage to link someone else’s fantastic
piece explaining why so many women of color found the tweet hurtful and offensive.
March 7, 2013: Feministe editor Jill Filipovic penned a piece in the The Guardian instructing women not to change their names after marriage because (1) it’s un-feminist and (2) makes you harder to track down on Facebook. Never mind any of the complexities of name-changing or the absurdity of telling women that the truly feminist thing to do is keep your father’s last name—or, frankly, the absurdity of involving yourself in a personal decision like this at all.
It’s a simplistic thesis that garnered lots of page views and insulted a lot of women. Women who critiqued the piece were quickly shot down by Filipovic’s compatriots and accused of being “haters” (Did I mention that Mainstream Feminism is super emotionally mature?). Then, when blogs Flyover Feminism and Are Women Human? hosted a series of brilliant—and much more interesting—first-person responses about the variety of ways we approach naming, neither Filipovic nor her friends responded.
Entire Month of March: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote a book called Lean In that advocates for advancing the status of women through corporate culture. And mainstream feminism has no place for people who ask questions like, “Hm, are we so sure a culture that promotes wealth accumulation for the already wealthy is really where we want to center our feminism?” No less than Katha Pollitt, Joan Walsh, Jessica Valenti, Jill Filipovic, Michelle Goldberg and Linda Hirschman converged to shout down the few women who dared ask this question or worse, openly critique Sandberg’s corporate feminist message.
They were particularly nasty with the excellent Melissa Gira Grant, whose writing on sex
workers actually centers women outside the margins of mainstream feminism. Grant argued, “Women and our social movements do not need a better boss but a more powerful base, from which we can lead on our own terms.” Rather than engaging this point, they attacked her on the basis that it’s “sexist” to critique a successful woman. For focusing on the working class women, women of color and many others who are left out of Sandberg’s vision, Grant was accused of “skirting feminist self-parody.”
In some ways, the Sandberg firestorm provided a great chance for mainstream feminists to clarify their corporate vision for all to see. It gave us a pretty clear picture of what this movement values. And it came in handy just in time for the launch of the #FemFuture report.
There are so many things wrong with this report that I can’t possibly begin to summarize them here. It leaves out a lot of people: online feminists outside the United States, early online feminist writers and educators, feminist sex workers, queer feminists, feminists of color, trans feminists, feminists with disabilities and many more. Moreover, it fails to acknowledge the fact that many do not see their online work and real-life activism as separate entities. I could go on, but really, they left out everyone but themselves, save a side box reserved for trans women and a few name-drops for women of color and earlier online feminist writers.
One of the less discussed features of #FemFuture is its endorsement of feminism as a Sandberg-like corporate feminist movement. There is business-speak all over the report. Its Executive Summary refers to Mainstream Feminists as “movers and shakers.” It wants to provide “innovative” solutions for the problems facing Mainstream Feminism. Toward the end, the report lists more corporate sponsorships as part of its strategy moving forward. It explains:
Online feminists need to recognize that our skills are useful, not just to each other, but also to corporations who have the financial resources to pay for this unique expertise. We need to establish and foster these cross-sector partnerships where corporations hire us to help them create blogging platforms, video, photo-sharing and other digital media that we have mastered. We understand that not every corporation’s mission and operations would fit within the ethical and political framework that many online feminists demand of our partners, but there is still potential here for mutual benefit.
This is exactly what Gira Grant described as Sandberg’s trickle-down feminism, all over again. It’s not that women shouldn’t make money, but that profit-making within the context of a political movement entrenches the Mainstream Feminist hierarchy—and dilutes the movement until its vision mirrors that of the corporation.
I’m just so very tired of these conversations. I’ve been watching these things happen for so many years that I can’t even feel angry about all the people they’re ignoring. The thing that offends me most nowadays is how small-minded it is, how hard it works to make feminism seem “cool” to the masses, how facile its conclusions have become and how bland we have to make ourselves to fit in. How we have to be willing to cast ourselves as “sassy movers and shakers” and how we’re encouraged to treat activism as business. I’m tired of calling out the same ten people every few weeks, and watching people pour themselves into educating these women as if anything is going to change.
I’m tired because Mainstream Feminism is so ridiculously, laughably shallow. So, I’m not
having this conversation on their terms anymore. I’m done with dialogue. Actually, I’ve been done with that for some time. In a time of increased disparity between wealthy and poor, I could not possibly give two shits what they think about anything that matters. They’ve demonstrated time and again that they don’t spend much time thinking about anything that matters.
When I decided to start writing for pay, I took pains to distance myself from mainstream online feminism. Thanks to lots of blog-reading, I’d figured out by then that the movement is often insular, anti-intellectual, exclusionary and extremely averse to constructive criticism. I also discovered that it has the very same argument practically every other month. It goes like this:
A Mainstream Feminist will write something either hostile to or ignorant of differently situated women – that is, women who are not white, upper-middle class, able-bodied, cisgendered and/or heterosexual like they are. Women from the rightly offended community offer constructive criticism. The Mainstream Feminist dismisses the whole thing as a “kerfluffle” or something similarly trivial, and all of her famous feminist friends rally to put the critics in their place. They depict their Mainstream Feminist friend as a besieged and silenced voice. And on and on it goes.
I never wanted any part of this. I’m not merely tired of it. No, I’m aggressively bored by it. I’ve been watching it happen online since about 2006. So, I mostly write about things these mainstream feminists don’t care about: Poverty, education, religion, politics in the South and other assorted things. Obviously these things are relevant to feminism, but they don’t fall under the rubric of Approved Topics for Feminist Bloggers.
A brief primer for future reference: The Approved list includes fashion for white women,
abortion rights for white women, the sex lives of white women and popular culture for and
about white women. Mainstream feminists also tend to frame the whole of feminist discussions about sexuality as defenses of heterosexual hookup culture. And on another note, they often converge around supporting Very Powerful Women—including those who may not have actually advanced feminism, like Margaret Thatcher—based on thin “glass ceiling” analyses. If you’re not sure whether a post you’re reading counts as mainstream online feminism, look for cloying, cutesy, fake compound words with the word “lady.” Seeing words like “ladyboss,” ladyparts” or “ladybusiness”? Mainstream Feminism for sure.
None of this is new. But over the past several weeks, Mainstream American Feminism has been even more aggressively exclusionary and petty than usual. So, fuck it. It’s getting hard to keep ignoring them. I’ve deliberately cast them as a monolith here because they more and more frequently act and move as one. They champion the voices of each other, the ridiculously privileged white women they revere and people who can get them on MSNBC—and callously dismiss the voices of their detractors.
Oh, hey, was this “punchy” and “sassy” enough for you?
UPDATE: Just wanted to note that I draw a distinction between Mainstream Feminism as such, and the report. I do not intend to give the impression that any group of marginalized women often left out of Mainstream Feminism has a uniform position on #FemFuture or this group of people. Also, it’s important to point out that several women of color attended the convening and had ideas included in the report. Judging from online reactions, some felt “name-dropped and watered down,” but others did not. Even so, the report was written by Valenti and Martin, and is not, in my opinion, altogether different in kind from anything I have watched this movement do over the past eight years. But again, I do not want to erase anyone here, and I apologize for not recognizing that I might inadvertently be doing so in advance.