Against Heathers (And Toward Many Feminist Praxes)
[This essay was first published in Feminist Advice From the City of Broad Shoulders, where it appears alongside a lot of other excellent work from people who are activists first and theorists second. You can buy the whole thing in softcover or PDF here.]
I think we can all agree that the word “feminist” is having one of its periodic cultural moments. No day passes without at least a dozen thinkpieces about whether politicians, particular pop artists, beauty companies, a guitar, your dog, or a foot fungus are feminist. You can buy anything you want with the word ‘feminist’ emblazoned on it. You can buy t-shirts and tote bags with women’s words lifted from their original contexts for inspirational-quote purposes. Many of those women are still alive and don’t receive any of the money you just paid for that tote on your arm! The world is rife with commodified signifiers! Ain’t the future grand?
Is feminism having a moment, though? To answer that question, we need to talk about what feminism is, and whether there even is a universal or pure feminism: I would argue that there isn’t. There are many feminisms, many womanisms — so many that I often feel that it’s more useful to actually understanding social dynamics to talk about feminist praxes in action and avoid using the nouns “feminist” and “feminism.” I don’t particularly care what you’re saying; I want to know what you’re doing.
So — let’s talk about what’s going on underneath all those totebags and “self-care” nail tutorials.
Obviously, at a very surface level, this is target market feminism. People are trying to sell you things, and they are using your (presumed) belief that there are deep systemic imbalances in the cultural practices and encoded laws of your environment to do so. (They’re also using your human desire to belong. Please don’t feel bad that you have that desire. Even the spiniest of loners do.) Perhaps you want a thing that puts your ethical beliefs and positions on external display; there are plenty of reasons for wanting such things, and I can respect it. It’s a charm, a little piece of spiritual armor, a signifier to the kind of people you’d like to attract to you and the kind of people you’d like to repel. But what does FEMINIST mean to you? What is your feminist praxis? How does your stated intent map to how you treat people in your day-to-day world? How does it envision how you negotiate institutions, like the legal, medical and educational systems? What do you see when you imagine your feminist future? What are you working towards?
I’m not asking these questions so that I can point my finger at someone and yell “Hypocrite!” — I’m uninterested in self-righteousness. Everyone’s answers will vary. (Personally, I am invested in a sort of sowed-dragon’s-tooth abolitionist feminist praxis; I am working toward a world in which feminist work renders feminism obsolete, not a Gate to Women’s Country-style matriarchy.) I’m asking these questions to point out how many variations of feminist work there are, how many interpretations of feminism there are, how ultimately meaningless it is to identify as a feminist with the assumption that doing so places you within some sort of coherent social group.
And, much more darkly, I am asking those questions to get at how the presumed universality of One Feminism works in the service of capitalism (and thus also racism, misogyny, and so forth, as those imbalances are inherent to capitalism; there must always be people at the bottom for others to have power and resources, and those people have to be socially designated somehow so that order will be self-reinforcing.) For there to be haves under capitalism, there must be have-nots. Which brings me to the Heathers, who acquire and retain their power through keeping dissident feminist voices out of popular spaces and controlling Feminist Branding.
The pundit class of exclusive feminists who seek to define the One Feminist perspective, who make arguments as to whether a Thing is Feminist or Not, used to come primarily from academia. These days, they all have significant media platforms and social followings — institutional backing, just of a different sort, as our public school system erodes through privatization (which, of course, is connected to gentrification) and many jobs become much less connected to traditional institutional pathways. The Ivy Leagues are still in play, as they ever were — not for the quality of education one receives but for the connections made while there. The public personality crisis the media finds itself in as it continues to wrestle with the digital realm doesn’t mean that the corridors to traditional power and platform have been “disrupted,” as some venture capitalists might like you to think. Those corridors to power have just been rerouted. They’re still as exclusive as ever.
And making sure that they stay that way is the domain of the professional pundit feminist, with her universal vision of what is feminism and what isn’t. (In: things you can easily repackage for digestibility and sales; out: anything too thorny, complicated and real.) She’s here to use her resources and authority to absorb ideas from the outside too popular and vocal to ignore and to sift out all that makes them important and necessary (in: Benetton ad-level diversity; out: giving black women and trans women beats other than safe, relatively unchallenging identity politics). The professional pundit feminist has stepped on many necks on her way to her big, bright platform. She has to make sure her bosses aren’t too angry when she gets up there. (Don’t upset the corporate sponsors.) So she makes a big deal out of how much she loves other professional pundit feminists (she may personally hate them) and they post Instagrams together (perhaps accessorized with a token person of color, especially if they’re also a celebrity) when they’re out doing cool nightlife things together, and their domiciles are always neat and kitschy, turned out for show. Their entire lives are public performances: just personal enough to feel real, but in essence a simulacra. They are the Heathers, the mean girls at the top of the heap, willing to kick someone who strays too far from party line way down the mountain at a moment’s notice all while writing about the mean-girl phenomenon and accusing other women who challenge them of internalized misogyny. (Internalized misogyny does exist, it just doesn’t look like ‘not agreeing with another woman.’) They are mostly all conventionally beautiful, even if they claim not to be. Their lives look enviable, and some of their writing may feel elegant and right — they are, of course, not without gift or talent — but who does it serve? What does it protect?
It protects power, of course. And my feminist praxis is to level power, to redistribute it, to destroy the entire thing and rebuild something far more humane and understanding. So I will always be the one banned from the cool-girl lunch table, without any signifiers around my neck, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Many feminisms and womanisms make for more interesting, challenging, productive work. We learn from one another; we help one another. We recognize in one another our vast differences and our many, many commonalities. We see one another as whole and liquid and moving and alive. That is all I have ever wanted anyone to see in me, the reason I started doing feminist work to begin with and what is at the root of how I work: I just wanted to be human too, and I want that for all of us.