March 10, 2015

No Super Woman: Feminism needs diverse voices because no one woman can be everything

I finally got around to finishing Bad Feminist. That is not a commentary on the book in anyway--I could have read for hours--and instead is a commentary on how crazy life has been recently.

The next to last essay is "Bad Feminist: Take One" and it addresses some serious flaws in feminism, including one that I consider most damaging personally: the idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to do feminism, and that's it. Roxane Gay wrote:

Essential feminism suggests anger, humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles, and a prescribed set of rules for how to be a proper feminist woman, or at least a proper white, heterosexual feminist woman--hate pornography, unilaterally decry the objectification of women, don't cater to the male gaze, hate men, hate sex, focus on career, don't shave. I kid, mostly, with that last one. This is nowhere near an accurate description of feminism, but the movement has been warped by misperception for so long that even people who should know better have bought into this essential image of feminism.

The idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to do feminism, that there is an essentialism to feminism that we can all get to if we only try hard enough, bulldozes over the truth: there is no right way to do feminism, because there is no singular feminism.

We still have a lot of work to do. Feminism has a rather nasty history of whitewashing itself, erasing the contributions of people of color to our cause and even excluding transgendered individuals, which is just mind-boggling--I mean, how can we say there is more to women than our bodies and then exclude people that have different bodies but still genuine feminine experiences? It's illogical.

One of the most common criticisms of feminism right now is that it appears to have been co-opted by wealthy white women who have little in common with much of the masses of women to sell books. Gay addresses this in Bad Feminist when she talks about Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In. The entire essay is well worth a read, but I'd like to share a passage that triggered a thought for me:

The critical response to Lean In is not entirely misplaced, but it is emblematic of the dangers of public womanhood. Public women, and feminists in particular, have to be everything to everyone; when they aren't, they are excoriated for their failure. In some ways, this is understandable. We have come far, but we have so much further to go. We need so very much, and we hope women with a significant platform might be everything we need--a desperately untenable position.

This is probably the most balanced critique of Lean In I have seen, personally.

And it's not just feminists--as Gay points out, it's any woman in the public eye. I think of Hillary Clinton, who is often still painted as a failure in popular culture because her husband was unfaithful. She was not a Good Woman™. I think of Jennifer Aniston, who has been married and impregnated by the tabloids so many times because that's what a woman should aspire to be--a wife, a mother, a Good Woman™. I think of BeyoncĂ©, and the number of times we have debated whether or not she is actually a feminist, even when she stands in front of the word FEMINIST rendered in brightly lit letters several feet tall. Because we just don't know if she is a Good Feminist™.

Here's the absolute truth: No one woman can be all things to all women everywhere at every time. It simply isn't possible. There is no "having it all" in this respect, fellow feminists.

Instead, I'd like to suggest a simple idea. Rather than expecting one woman to be all.the.things, why not amplify a multitude of diverse voices? Women of different backgrounds, trans* women, women of color, women with different challenges--what a world it would be if we united, not to expect one woman to understand and adequately express the challenges that all women face, but to raise up these voices in a chorus, in a tapestry, of the variety of experiences that women everywhere face, each and every day.

Instead of defining one essential feminism, we would embrace feminism in many forms, in many different colors, and perhaps, instead of dissecting each other, we would find a common ground where we could support all of the changes that need to be made to make life better for women--and society on the whole--across the spectrum.

This requires stepping outside of our comfort zones. It requires us to be better allies to a diverse group of people, and right now, it requires an exceptional amount of legwork to find different voices--which, I humbly suggest, should be one of the first changes on our intersectional To Do list.

And of course, it doesn't mean any of us are free from criticism, or that we should be. Discussing our failings, owning them, and committing to improving are absolutely key to growing as a movement, to getting better, and to finding better solutions for women everywhere.

I truly believe that it is only by listening to these different voices and these varieties of experience that we can even begin to understand what work feminism has to do. Right now, the picture is incomplete, and we need those voices to fill it in.

None of us are Superwoman. But together, we're a hell of a team.

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