I’ve identified as a feminist since I was about nine, so you’d think I’d be thrilled with the fact feminism is so very much on everyone’s lips these days. And I am, but gosh is it bringing some problematic shit with it.
Over recent years I’ve noticed a growing trend: mainstream publications ask women in the public eye, usually very young women, challenging questions about feminism. Which is fine if done in good faith, but it’s a little weird to be reading an interview with some seventeen-year-old starlet who’s been famous for five minutes and see them go from being asked “how do you keep your hair so shiny?” to “how can white women in the public eye acknowledge their own privilege and support intersectionality in an industry that exerts enormous pressure on women to conform and stay silent?” And you know, I could answer that, because I’m in my 30s, I studied gender studies at grad school, and I run a fricking feminist theatre company. If I couldn’t answer it I should quit my job. Is it realistic to expect every woman or girl in the public eye to be able to handle complex and often highly politically controversial questions with a high capacity for blowback, with real intellectual insight and grace, when she’s just trying to promote American Pie 19: The Mortgage Years?
Again, fine to ask if done in good faith. But what inevitably follows makes me believe these questions are often not asked in good faith. Like the Bat Signal, the word goes out to “The Feminists” – journalists around the world phone up every woman who’s even a little bit famous who speaks on or publicly identifies as a feminist, to give that all-important feminist thumbs up or down. And that becomes the global news story: “So-and-so ‘not Doing Feminism Right’ claims other Feminists.” Then the Twittersphere goes to town. I could go into a long debate here about equality feminism and choice feminism and white feminism and the ways in which feminism has been exploited, but my gut reaction here is: who the fuck made you – or anyone – the Boss of Feminism? By all means have your own opinions and voice (and God knows this blog is just my opinion and certainly not an attempt to censor anyone). If you feel a woman’s behaviour is problematic, point it out. But do it on your own terms. When the patriarchal mainstream media comes a knocking you don’t have to let them in.
Most of the reasons behind this media trend are likely purely commercial: stories about tits and catfights sell a whole lot better than reasoned articles about Irish abortion laws. But I genuinely believe there is a patriarchal agenda to pit women against each other in order to debunk feminism and promote the idea that women are too “bitchy” or “contrary” for feminism to be a working proposition.
I am not being paranoid: In 2014, a group of MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) linked to an MRA troll campaign called ‘Operation Lollipop’ staged an underhand plot to create a hoax claiming that feminist organisations were campaigning to outlaw Father’s Day.
This is the best known of many troll campaigns and hoaxes on social media (remember #BikiniBridges?) The war on women is fought on many fronts.
Emma Watson has often spoken out about feminism. Emma Watson also possesses breasts, which she does not always keep covered up. Cue media and social media firestorm.
Now, there are lots of interesting potential areas for debate around Emma Watson (or Beyoncé, or Kim Kardashian, or Jennifer Lawrence, etc. etc.). I’d be fascinated by a proper debate on, for example, the ways in which female child stars balance their own interior journey through puberty to womanhood with publicly reinventing themselves as adult actors in the public eye and what that says about a culture in which youth and pubescence are exploited and commercialised. But I’m really not interested in giving Emma Watson marks out of ten for how well she’s “doing feminism.” Why is this so often the level of mainstream discourse? We’re talking about women’s lives, not their fifth grade book reports.
Ironically, the fact Emma Watson once analysed the messages and iconography of Beyoncé‘s work from a feminist perspective is being mispresented as a personal (and hypocritical) attack on Beyoncé.
There is also a sense that if you are graded and found to not be doing feminism according to what the peanut gallery deems acceptable, you are somehow out of the club entirely. Caitlin Moran has said some problematic as hell shit, but she’s also written an awful lot of powerful and important things (her “farmer analogy” on the exploitation of the female body in pop music is the perfect example of how to succinctly sum up the insidious sexist pressure of pop culture industries without engaging in slut shaming or judging individual women for giving in to/subverting on their own terms [delete as you consider appropriate] that pressure). Amazingly it is possible to recognise that people can say stuff that is stupid and wise and problematic and incredibly important all in the same person; that anyone who never does is actually a bit weird, and that acknowledging and praising the good that people do and say does not (unless they are literally a serial killer, or Donald Trump) mean you are excusing the less-good. Caitlin Moran is powerful and famous enough to sail, like some majestic badger-haired swan*, above it all. Not everyone can – and there are problematic aspects inherent in insisting everyone have the capacity to adhere to a certain standard of debate (which can require a certain level of educational privilege) before they’re allowed a seat at the table.
Point being, it’s important to always have debates about feminist issues and because celebrities are such cultural lightning rods often their words and actions will by necessity spark debate. And we cannot ignore problematic behaviour or censor our own reactions to it. But when did online feminism start feeling so much like the Hunger Games? This is not a ‘stop attacking other women’ rant – well, it kind of is slightly a ‘stop attacking other women’ rant – but it behoves me to point out that feminism is not a competition, there are no medals for being the last woman standing. And you really don’t want to be the last woman standing.
*Obviously that simile doesn’t work at all, I just enjoy the imagery of a badger/swan mashup.