What Is the Current State of Feminism’s PR?

I hope everyone had a very nice Let’s-Glorify-Imperialism Day.

I came across this screen shot on failbook (which surprising takes quite a few shots at oppressive cultural patterns) and at first I had myself a mighty wince over seeing all the hackneyed stereotypes of feminism get thrown around.  But then I found the article that the screen shot comes from, and that adds a whole new context: the #sorryfeminists hashtag was created by feminists.  To mock these stereotypes. (here’s the article on Slate):

One of the most frustrating parts of being a feminist is how negative stereotypes created to discredit feminism are now pretty much conventional wisdom. Like the population at large, actual feminists can be funny and sexy, despite our bad rap as sexless and dour. It’s like living in Oz but repeatedly being told you’re in Kansas. That frustration boiled over this morning when Deborah Needleman, the editor of T Magazine (and the stylish wife of Slate‘s own Jacob Weisberg), put up this joking tweet suggesting that feminists dislike women being sexy:

At this point, stereotypes of feminists are mocked so thoroughly that it’s impossible to determine if someone who invokes one is trying to reinforce it, making fun of it, or playing up the ambiguity so that you get a little from both camps. Anna Holmes, the founder of Jezebel, and Irin Carmon of Salon (full disclosure: real-life friends of mine who are, may I say, ridiculously sexy ladies) decided to respond in a way that the Internet does best: embracing the confusion by creating the hashtag #sorryfeminists on Twitter.

It worked. The #sorryfeminists meme is, as I type, expertly tearing apart the idea that feminists hate fun, hate sex, and hate beauty. (It’s also, like any other Twitter meme, devolving into layers of irony and meta-jokes that pretty much stop making sense altogether.

So it seems like there are both people using the #sorryfeminists hashtag to make fun of stereotypes and makes fun of feminists.

Okay and now there’s yet another level.  If you actually look on twitter (#sorryfeminists) there’s a lot of people using this hastag to critique the white-washing and middle-class-centrism of feminism and its public face.   For instance:

#sorryfeminists is fun/funny to people who can afford to be that stereotype, or who have the knowledge to refute that stereotype.

Cutesy side of 2nd wave. What #sorryfeminists is NOT addressing? Those OTHER labels: at worst oppressive/racist, at best willfully blind.

You gotta stop this echo chamber of white feminists who are given book deals to recycle the same tired ideas. #sorryfeminists I’m not sorry.

If I was introduced to white feminism 1st I would’ve NEVER been a feminist. Thank goodness for Black/brown feminist scholars

Feminism has a double PR problem. It still hasn’t shaken some of these ridiculous stereotypes but it also all too often puts forward white middle class women and issues that are particularly (or only) pertinent to white middle class women–so they become interpreted as “the” issues of feminism.
(I sometimes catch myself doing this still: abortion is not the only issue for women’s reproductive rights and health; balancing work and family is not a “new” issue for lots of families;  fighting to gain respect for not changing your last name has little resonance for people whose marriage isn’t recognized as legitimate no matter what they do with their name, etc.)

So in the name of helping improve feminism’s PR, I’m giving a shout out to some of my favorite blogs that join in the dismantling of anti-woman oppression and that address issues that aren’t often given the spotlight:

Because We’re Still Oppressed

Angry Black Bitch

Womanist Musings

Geek Feminism



The Jaded Hippy

16 thoughts on “What Is the Current State of Feminism’s PR?

  1. I’m teaching a feminism class for the first time this semester, and I’m glad this post has come up, because I’ve been worrying that my syllabus is a bit white. And middle class. And ableist. And so on. I was thinking I’d like to add a week of lecture on intersectionality OR material that looks at how feminism leaves out other marginalised voices. Can anyone (sorry to hijack) throw me some suggestions for assigned reading, perhaps? (For a senior-level class.) Thanks!

  2. i taught such a class last spring – my approach was that, while feminist thought is rigorous, it cannot be separated from its origin in concrete political struggle and its history is a contested one. so these voices are essential to include. i suggest: bell hooks, especially “Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory” and “Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression”; Anna Julia Cooper’s “A Voice From the South” (a really effective work to describe difference feminism); Sojourner Truth’s “Aint I A Woman?” works well paired with Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Wollstonecraft; Kimberle Williams-Crenshaw’s brilliant “Mapping the Margins” (the origin of intersectionality analysis in the critical legal theory tradition); Dorothy Robert’s “Punishing Drug Addicts Who Have Babies”; Maria Lugones’ incredible “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception”; Gloria Anzaldua’s “La consciencia de la mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness”; Zadie Smith’s “Speaking in Tongues”; everything by Audre Lorde, especially “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” and “The Uses of Anger.”

    this is just a start: obviously there’s a lot these pieces don’t speak to. unfortunately there is not a good go-to text for feminist philosophy/theory that also includes these pieces (as far as i’m aware, and i looked long and hard). a situation that ought to change.

  3. Stacey, great question. I’ve so much work to do in incorporating other perspectives that I am sometimes really afraid to speak.

  4. Why should a group which is oppressed or discriminated against have to be sexy and funny?

    Should the Palestinians be sexy and funny?

    Should workers in sweatshops be sexy and funny?

    This a question of justice, not of TV rating.

  5. Feminism has, unfortunately, often let me down on trans* issues; radical feminism aside, 2nd wave really let me down. Moreover, the wrong people are often working on such issues these days: cis women who’ve read a couple books (often a predictable selection from about 5-6 sources), thus acquiring a biased and narrow view, before proceeding to theorize, and often discounting strong counter-evidence entirely.

  6. agreed, Rachel; i’m uncomfortable with the PR framing for this reason (which the OP only partially adopts). it’s not just optics.

  7. In response to Rachel and sk, oh ya definitely; feminism doesn’t *only* have a PR problem. Or I suppose I could say, part of the ‘PR problem’ is that feminism is seen as (in part because it too often puts itself forward as) “the” movement for dismantling anti-woman oppression/marginalization.

  8. sk, thanks so much for this list. I had been thinking ‘I just don’t have time! It’s my first time teaching and I should give myself a break’…but really, I think I must make time. I think I must. I hate the idea of giving them an exclusive feminism. Thanks again.

  9. @Stacey. It’s not because it puts itself forward as ‘the’ movement, though. That part is generally fine, at least on its face. It’s how lots of people define feminism. (But maybe you’re right.)

    The point is that some feminists often act against that goal by excluding trans* women from women’s only spaces, for example, by some outdated appeal to gender essentialism (usually). Or maybe some feminists utterly discount the voices of trans people. Stuff like that: the complaint, at least here, isn’t that feminism claims to be ‘the’ movement against oppression and in favour of gender equity. The problem is that the movement against oppression has often resulted in further oppression of heavily marginalized and vulnerable groups such as trans women, and especially trans women of colour.

    Now, that’s changing, slowly, particularly with the new trans/feminism movement.

  10. Just another voice taking issue with the PR construal. I think I have a version of the same issue that Rachel and sk have with it: it paints this as a problem external to the movement (involving how feminism is described to or perceived by the public) rather than internal to it. I prefer what you say in the OP, Stacey, when you say “it also all too often puts forward white middle class women and issues that are particularly (or only) pertinent to white middle class women–so they become interpreted as “the” issues of feminism.”

    The thing is, this sounds like a PR problem where the problem isn’t in getting the message from the practitioners to the public, but the problem is with certain influential/powerful practitioners (that is, alleged feminists [usually those influenced by the 2nd wave]). I’m not sure it makes sense or is helpful to try and isolate a feminist movement independent of these other social justice movements involved in dismantling anti-woman oppression.

    That is, I think one is failing qua feminist if one fails to be also actively anti-racist and anti-ableist and anti-classist and trans-feminist and queer-positive (and sex-positive, against femmephobia, body-positive, etc. etc.) and so on (including all the intersections of these struggles). If this is right, then the problem is as much about PR as it is about taking the feminist movement back from those who are only focused on or interested in the oppression of white middle-class able-bodied neurotypical cis* women.

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