Toward a more inclusive feminism

I’d like to continue the conversation Sarah Nemetz began recently with her article “Feminist icons in the media.” These days, feminism seems to be having a pop culture moment. In light of this, we should be wary of appropriating feminism and repackaging it so as to make it consumable.

I agree with Sarah: Nicki Minaj’s video for Anaconda showcases a woman of color reconstructing her sexuality on her own terms; through it, Nicki exercises agency. That is feminist, and I’m glad we’re discussing it. However, I’d like to begin to criticize the feminism we see in the mainstream media: the lean-in feminism that benefits young, thin, middle and upper class white women while ignoring capitalism, racism, classism and transphobia.

I’d like to note that Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus’s brands of feminism should not be conflated. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that Miley Cyrus is not a feminist at all. Conflating their experience ignores the fact that women of color in the US have historically been otherized, fetishized and had their femininity deemed unruly and denied.

In equating Miley Cyrus’s music video for “We Can’t Stop” with Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” we overlook their differences: namely that Miley is an upper-class, conventionally attractive white woman, and that Nicki is a black woman who comes from a working-class background. Dismissing these differences erases and subsumes Nicki’s lived experience as a black woman under the universal subject of mainstream feminism: middle class and upper middle class cis white women.

Miley Cyrus capitalized on the (literal) backs of black and brown women, and she used thick, dark bodies of women of color as a prop to her thin, white, “ideally” feminine body. In doing so, Miley accumulated social capital, reinventing her image to that of a “bad girl” (because the bodies of women of color are so trendy and edgy) and also accumulated a fair amount of actual capital, lining her pockets by appropriating black culture and black and brown female bodies.

Keeping Miley in mind, then, we shouldn’t uncritically accept the idea that all feminisms are “legitimate.” Choice feminism is sometimes simply feminism that has been appropriated by mainstream media and is, as such, devoid of any radical ethic. Instead, this feminism focuses on an individualist discourse that caters to a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—and that is why it is so attractive and consumable.

Miley Cyrus and Sheryl Sandberg both practice a feminism which may be “empowering” for them as individuals, but does nothing to dismantle existing systems of oppression. In fact, their “feminism” reinforces them. By telling women to “lean in,” Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to strive to succeed within the existing structures of capitalist patriarchy. Like Miley Cyrus, she ignores the differences (in race, class, sexuality, etc.) intrinsic to the category of women. Oftentimes, when privileged white women like Miley Cyrus and Sheryl Sandberg “empower” themselves, they do so by subsuming and silencing the lived experiences of women of color, working class women, queer women and transwomen.

Of course, we each wield power and are complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression. However, when we advocate a universalizing idea of any feminism as “empowering,”­—even if it otherizes, objectifies and oppresses—we are in fact reinforcing the very imperialist and patriarchal structures that feminists set out to disable in the first place.

This brings me to my last point. It’s reductive to think of feminism in binary terms (something is empowering or it’s not). An innate struggle of feminism is how to deconstruct binaries and begin thinking in non-binary terms. By doing so, we refute the notion of historically dichotomous categories: man/woman, colonizer/colonized, self/other. Rather than debating if something is “empowering,” we can begin considering how we all construct sites of agency and resistance within hegemonic discourse, but also how to criticize and combat this discourse on a structural level.

This article isn’t meant to shut down discourse about feminism or propagate the idea that there is only one “good” feminism. Instead, I want to stress that feminism isn’t as simple as the notion that men and women should be equal. Rather, to use bell hooks’ definition from Feminism is For Everybody, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Feminism is complex, intersectional and constantly shifting. There are so many aspects of feminism to engage with; that’s why it’s important that we continue doing so.