Monday, November 24, 2008

The Problem: Mainstreaming Feminism

In a recent article in Time magazine entitled, The New Liberal Order, Peter Beinart asserts that "feminism is so mainstream that even Sarah Palin* embraces the term." 

And with that, Beinart touches on two of the deepest problems of contemporary feminism, mainstreaming and the politics of verbal identity.  Membership, inclusion, participation - whatever term you want to use - is fast becoming a backlash as feminism goes Main Stream.

Can feminism - an ever-evolving charge of empowerment and energy - be mainstreamed?  I say no.  At least, not in its entirety.  One of the most disturbing trends happening is the political mainstreaming of one specific strand of feminism as feminism whole.  This marketing of feminism sells one kind of history, work and concept of female empowerment and, for the right price, conflates mainstream feminism with Feminism (plural). When feminism is explored in media, it is typically referring to White, middle class, educated, US-citizen heterosexual women.  

There are two problems that unfold with this mainstreaming.  The first problem is that it markets feminism as a monolithic group; a group of feminists who desire, believe, and work for the same ideal, which is wildly simplistic and erroneous.  This faux claim of sameness and singularity ignores the diverse work and accomplishments of other feminists who do not fit that category and often go unrecognized. This portrayal of feminism also feeds its gritty US-history of exploitation, racism, neglect, and betrayal of women of color and their communities.

Feminism, as a collective movement, needs to sustain a habit of frequent communication between the movements. Borrowing from astronomy, the Orion is a sisterhood of stars that make up one constellation.  Few can name the individual stars that align the famous celestial sighting, but the sight, in its entirety, is easily recognized by children and sky watchers alike.  Similarly, feminists need to promote and advocate its own plural make-up, and also need to demand that same understanding from reporters, writers, bloggers, educators, and activists. 

Mainstreaming reinforces the one size fits most feminism.  It dissolves the diverse and bright faces of feminism and, in its place, creates an illusion of a bull's eye, with the middle target being the most significant feminists to focus upon.  The problem with the bull's eye visual is the outer circles, once again, become the marginalized.  

Not one group of feminists is more important than others, but it would be naive and foolish to ignore the layered oppression of poor women of color, single mothers with no healthcare or access medical treatment, or violence at the border or against transwomen.  Those most vulnerable need not be in the center, but feminists must be able to distinguish between centrality and urgency.  Not one group is more significant, but there are steep levels of urgency and severity.  While needs are different, they're equally critical to the plural movement of feminism.  Think of the Olympic rings.  You cannot pick one circle without choosing the others as well.  You cannot identify the Mintaka as one star and claim it is the entire Orion belt. Mintaka may be a bright star, it may be necessary, but it's not the Orion.  It's merely a part of it.  

The individual over collective mentality breeds another type of ugliness within feminism.  More and more pop culture is featuring Sex and the City with its racist and classist depictions as the playground for empowerment.  And, more and more are agreeing to sell this one type of feminism for personal gain.  bell hooks wrote in Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory, "As more and more women acquired prestige, fame, or money from feminist writings or from gains from feminist movement for equality in the workforce, individual opportunism undermined appeals for collective struggle.  Women who were not opposed to patriarchy, capitalism, classism, or racism labeled themselves 'feminist.' Their expectations were varied."  

As radical liberation is now confused with sexual freedom, reproductive health is overshadowed by abortion, and the term "women's interest" is conflated with "fashion," it opens the door wider to misrepresentation and feminist evasion. On one hand, you have Sarah Palin, a high powered politician who endorses victims to pay for their own rape kit, to claim herself feminist, and then you have other grassroots workers, community organizers, multitasking mothers working two jobs who would never touch the word with a ten foot pole.  Let me be clear, though.  The problem is not filtering out who is "allowed in,"  the problem is that mainstreaming feminism and individual profiting has sacrificed feminism as a collective, its one strength and hope of saving itself from imploding.

The point of feminism is to work for the radical equality and liberation of all.  It does this through the lens of gender that incorporates the other salient factors of race, citizenship, religion, socioeconomic status, education, and sexual preference into analysis.  Feminism is not looking to form a club with prerequisites, but it does necessitate consistency and accountability. The pejorative history of US feminism mandates a rigorous and nuanced exploration of difference. However, to sustain a movement, those differences cannot be in conflict with the goals of equality.  We need to make space for conversation, but we need not make space for kyriarchal practices in the name of inclusion. 

*Palin later rejects the term because she does not want to "label" herself.

Cross-posted at Bitch Magazine and APA for Progress.


  1. You bring up an interesting point with regards to feminism. But there are those who are in the center of what you called the "bulls eye" who would also want their issues addressed and wouldn't want them ignored because you (or another group of feminists) declared these issues as "not urgent enough" to be addressed.

    But to your main point, I have an issue with labels in general - for the point you raise. Too often, a person can say they are 'liberal' or 'conservative', 'republican' or 'democrat', 'racist' or 'not racist' based solely on how they define that label. And as long as people are allowed to subjectively define what each of these terms means, then will continue to have the same type of confusion on who fits what label.

  2. Brilliant! I think those metaphors were perfect.

  3. Okay, so I'm cross-posting here and on Bitch's blog. Is that bad?

    There is a lot of effort being put into this "feminism is for everybody" sentiment (if you support equal pay then you're a feminist. if you support sex education then you're a feminist. i picture a little feminist fairy running around with a sparkly wand bopping people on the head and magically re-identifying them.), and while this idea certainly can increase the number of people who identify as feminists, increased numbers does not always lead to an increased amount of progressive (dare I say radical) social change. I think that the past 30 or so years shows that it simply creates a 'movement' (can we even call feminism a movement anymore?) that consistently loses more and more of the teeth that it may have one had. By definition, for something to be radical it must depart from what is usual or traditional, and this particular brand of feminism (the one where everyone is included) has the tendency to only reinforce the norm, to the point where I have to consider jumping out of this ship because the world that I experience is not one that I want to conform to, and I'm not trying to be mistaken for "that kind" of feminist. And the reason why I keep my seat is because I agree with Lisa that there are many different feminisms, and I struggle with so many others for recognition of the kind of feminism that I subscribe to, the kind that no one would ever mistake for mainstream because it's nowhere near the status quo, challenging it and "that kind" of feminism day by day, while also trying to remember that we don't all need to be on the same page or use the same pen in order to rewrite the book.

  4. Thank you for the well-written and brilliantly thought-out post.

  5. Wonderful post, Sudy. I've always seen feminism as disobedient and subversive at heart, and mainstreaming tones this down, as Mandy V points out. I definitely agree with you about the marginalization as well. The focus on the bull's eye elides the interconnections of gender inequality with the other salient factors that you listed, as well as with allied social justice movements. Salamat for this.


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