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Faux-feminism, just lean-in, you do have it all, gals, there’s nothing to see here, oh just stoppit now, etc. (emphasis added, as always). 

Popular feminism and popular misogyny

Together, these two stories tell an even bigger tale of a national dynamic that I call “popular feminism” and “popular misogyny.”

cupcake feminismPopular feminism refers to a sort of mainstream, corporate-friendly feminism. It announces itself on self-help blogs that implore women to “be confident in the workplace” and on aspirational Tumblr pages that remind women that they are beautiful despite societal norms that tell them that they’re not. In this way, popular feminism is “safe” – it implicitly encourages more women to work within a system that is already designed to devalue (and underpay) the labor of women.

Like popular feminism, popular misogyny is expressed and practiced on multiple media platforms. Yet its primary goal is to dehumanize and devalue women.

Every time feminism gains broad traction – that is, every time it spills beyond niche feminist enclaves – the forces of the status quo lash back. Skirmishes ensue between those determined to change the normal state of things and those determined to maintain it, who frame the challenges to the status quo as a set of risks that must be contained.

This happened with suffrage and abolition. More recently, it happened to the women who sought to assert themselves within the male-dominated world of video games (the “Gamergate” controversy).

We also see this dynamic in the stories of the Fearless Girl and Harvey Weinstein.

A sanitized version of feminism

The “Fearless Girl” statue was installed in the middle of the night in lower Manhattan on March 7, 2017, on the eve of International Women’s Day.

It faced the well-known “Charging Bull” statue, which, since 1987, has been a global symbol of Wall Street. The bull was intended to be a sign of American “virility and courage” – an “antidote,” in the artist’s words, for the stock market crash of 1986. The bull’s allusions to manliness and a strong sex drive continue to be acknowledged in the popular tourist practice of taking a picture next to (or touching) the bull’s huge testicles.

On the surface, the appearance of a statue that appears to directly challenge the bull is a striking symbol of empowerment.

But let’s not forget that “Fearless Girl” was intended as an advertisement. State Street’s new index fund sought to signal itself as a collection of “gender-diverse” companies, meaning that they have a higher percentage of women among their senior leadership than most global investment companies. (Its NASDAQ ticker symbol is “SHE.”)

To be clear: I believe it is important to praise those companies that hire women in leadership. It is equally important to have women directors behind the camera in the entertainment industries.

At the same time, the recognition of gender inequality in leadership positions is a familiar trope of popular feminism. The remedy is thought to be simple: Have more women “sit at the table.” This is Weinstein’s brand of “feminism” as well: to talk about the importance of hiring more female directors or giving more opportunities to female actors.

But where are the results? Why is it that, despite widespread acknowledgment of gender and racial exclusion in the technology industries, women and people of color remain in the vast minority? Why is it that, despite Harvey Weinstein’s vocal support for feminist causes, just 4 percent of directors of the 100 top-grossing films between 2007 and 2016 were female?

Harvey Weinstein’s public support of gender issues in Hollywood and of female politicians easily gained traction and praise. But in reality, it could have worked to distract people from his behavior and a culture of sexual assault and gender discrimination that undergirds Hollywood.

↠ @ConversationUK