This blog entry inaugurates an increased level of student participation on our blog. Isabel Gonzales is a Women’s Studies minor at SIUE. She is a previous recipient of the program’s Martha Welch award. In this blog entry Gonzales connects an influential work of feminist theory by bell hooks, reflecting on the nature of the feminist movement, to recent developments in “popular feminism” and popular culture.
In her 1984 essay, “Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression,” feminist scholar bell hooks writes on feminism, taking a critical look at the specific brand of feminism that dominated the feminist sphere during the period—a brand of feminism that, arguably, still dominates feminist activism today. This popular brand of feminism, hooks argues, alienates women of multiple-group memberships through problems in its very constitution.
First, popular feminism alienates women in its weak definitions. The popular definition of feminism is that feminism, as a movement, seeks to elevate women to a status that is equal to that of men. Hence the defenses of feminism to anti-feminists of, “Feminism just believes that men and women are equal.” While simple, this definition is problematic in that it does not specify which men it is that feminists are seeking to be equal with. hooks argues that this is intentional, and “popular feminism” creates the illusion of solidarity through vagueness (hooks 51). The solidarity that this vague definition of feminism argues for is solidarity against the vague idea of “sexism” as a whole, rather than the specific multi-modal oppressions that women of varying backgrounds face.
Second, related to the idea of its vagueness, popular feminism alienates women through its focus on the issues of, concerns of, and lived experience of privileged women. As a result, the “popular feminism” that hooks criticizes looks to create solutions to all women’s marginalization on the basis of some women’s very privileged lived experience. This flaw is obvious not only through positioning white, bourgeois women as the “default,” but also in one of its related solutions that comes about as the result of such limited thinking: the focus on separatism and women’s-only spaces within this brand of feminism. In advocating for women’s-only spaces, popular feminism ignores the community that women of color and non-bourgeois women have within their own communities (hooks 54-55). The identity-focused view of feminism that hooks criticizes forces women of multiple identities to choose: they can either embody a new identity—the identity of the feminist, which focuses its attention on the issues of the privileged under the guise of fighting sexism as a whole—or they can reject the identity of the feminist and operate within the existing women’s spaces of their communities. For many women of multiple identities, the choice is clear.
Third, popular feminism alienates women—and as a result, renders itself ineffective—through the focus on feminism as an identity and lifestyle, rather than focusing on feminism as a radical political movement. Through using a narrow, self-centered, identity focus on feminism, the popular feminism that hooks criticism takes a culturally-imperialist role that, through the focus on individual women’s actions, proves itself against the systems of oppression and marginalization that feminism should aim to work against (hooks 55). This can prove alienating, especially to women of multiple identities who are marginalized by oppressive systems and seeking system-level change.
This “popular feminism”—a feminism of identity, rather than action—arguably continues to dominate feminist activism and discourse today. One of the most-common phrases in third-wave feminism is “This is what a feminist looks like.” This phrase is available on all sorts of merchandise, including t-shirts, mugs, and bumper stickers, and it very plainly embodies the alienating, ineffective identity-focused approach to feminism. Rather than focusing on feminist political action, and actions meant to work against marginalization, the phrase “This is what a feminist looks like” focuses on being a feminist. This identity-focus is also reflected in the phenomenon of asking if a work of media is feminist. In stating “This is a feminist movie,” or asking, “Is this book feminist?” feminism becomes an identity that can be sloughed on and off, a badge of approval, rather than political action meant to eliminate marginalized systems. This identity-focus is what hooks argued against, and it is still prominent within feminist discourse, even more than thirty years after “Feminism: A Movement to End Oppression” was published.
In issue five of G. Willow Wilson’s groundbreaking run on Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, the girl who takes on the mantle of Ms. Marvel, delivers one of the most iconic phrases of modern comic books as she creates her superhero costume: “Good is not a thing you are. [Good] is a thing you do” (Wilson). According to hooks, the same could be said for feminism: feminism is not—and should not be treated as—an identity or a badge of honor. Feminism, instead, should be looked at as a goal, a series of actions, and a movement to advocate for (hooks 55). Through framing feminism as not a thing we must be, but as a thing we must do, we create an effective means of political action, we do not force women of multiple group identities to choose between being a feminist and other identities, and we focus on dominant systems of power (hooks 56-57). hooks proposes that through adopting an action-centered definition of feminism, rather than an identity-centered definition of feminism will effectively eliminate—or at the very least, work against—the aspects of feminism that alienate and marginalize women of multiple group identities, and women who are outside of the white bourgeois “norm” that dominates popular feminist discourse.
hooks, bell. 1984. “Feminism: A Move to End Sexist Oppression.” Feminist Theory Reader. Ed. McCann, Carole R and Kim, Seung-kyung. Routledge: New York.
Wilson, G. Willow. 2014. Ms. Marvel #5. Ed. Sana Amanat. Marvel: New York.