From the Screen to the Street: What is Living and What is Dead in Contemporary Feminism?

By Nina Power
  • Nina Power
    Nina Power teaches philosophy at the University of Roehampton and Critical Writing in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art. She is the author of One-Dimensional Woman< (Zer0: 2009) multiple articles on feminism, philosophy, politics and culture.
Book cover from Jessa Crispin, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (Melville House, 2017).

There is a strange simultaneous overlap and mismatch between three manifestations of feminism today: its political presence, its online version, and its theoretical status. In the first place, feminism is today an extremely potent force—from to the #NiUnaMenos (“not one less”) protests in Argentina, Peru, and Chile against femicide and gender violence last year, to the millions of women who attended the global Women’s March in January of this year, to the tens of thousands of women who went on strike in the United States and elsewhere on International Women’s Day (8 March 2017) against exploitative labor (paid and unpaid), against violence, for reproductive freedom, and so on. There is a new militancy, partly brought into focus by the rise of explicit bigotry and misogyny in the form of Trump, MRAs, and the so-called alt-right, but also honed by decades of asymmetrical global capitalist exploitation and punishment of the most precarious women, migrant laborers, and women of color in particular. Capitalism has long been the enemy of all but a very few women. Secondly, a popular feminism seems more dominant than ever, partly due to its online prominence and support by pop stars like Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus. And, finally, there is the feminism of the academy, bubbling along for decades, and surprisingly resilient, despite, and sometimes because of, the inroads made by gender studies and queer theory. How do these three elements (and of course there are other ways of picturing feminism today) relate? How does online feminism link up with street feminism? What role does often complex, difficult feminist theory have in the Internet age? How do capitalism, racism, and sexism intersect? What specific tools do Marxist feminism, anarchist feminism, liberal feminism, or radical feminism provide? Above all, how best to understand the world in a feminist way?

There are difficult questions to tackle and sites of real tension within and without feminism today, including not just what it means to define oneself as a feminist (and to act as a feminist), but what it means to be a woman. While feminism might be popular in certain contexts, in 2016 only 7 percent of British men and women defined themselves as feminists, despite two-thirds of respondents agreeing with the idea that men and women should be treated equally. 1“We Are a Nation of Hidden Feminists,” Fawcett website (15 January 2016), https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/2016/01/we-are-a-nation-of-hidden-feminists/ (accessed 26 April 2017). There are, of course, plenty of reasons to be wary of the feminist label, given its invocation in recent years by the Right as justification for the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq in order to ‘liberate’ the women there, or even just because online feminism seems like such weak sauce, avoiding the tricky, awkward, and society-shattering insights of the second wave in favor of narratives of ‘empowerment’, individual choice, and reassuring men. And yet feminism as a perspective on the world, particularly a feminism that integrates an analysis of sex-based oppression and violence with a critique of capitalism, continues to explain so much so clearly and so quickly that without it we would all be completely lost.

But if feminism becomes less a political outlook and more of a supplement to capitalism, an inoffensive empty slogan, then everything is over. In this regard, there is a certain kind of book that apparently needs to be rewritten every few years. I gave it a go in 2009 with One-Dimensional Woman, in 2015 Dawn Foster did a much better job in Lean Out, and now Jessa Crispin is here in 2017 with Why I Am Not a Feminist. What is the argument? In a nutshell, that liberal or neoliberal feminism (I called it “consumer feminism” or “Feminism™,” Foster called it “corporate feminism,” and Crispin calls it, somewhat confusingly, “universal feminism,” meaning something like “ubiquitous feminism”) is the worst. While my tone was funny (sort of) and irreverent (although often just quite mean), and Foster’s was statistical, investigative, and serious, Crispin’s is disdainful: “If you asked me today if I am a feminist I would not only say no, I would say no with a sneer.” Punka!

2009 seems like a long time ago, but I think still that there is value in being critical toward any political position that appears too easy, explains nothing, and, above all, justifies what you were doing already. In actual fact, The Onion got there a long way before all of us in 2003 with the satirical article “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does”: “Whereas early feminists campaigned tirelessly for improved health care and safe, legal access to abortion, often against a backdrop of public indifference or hostility, today’s feminist asserts control over her biological destiny by wearing a baby-doll T-shirt with the word ‘Hoochie’ spelled in glitter.” 2“Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does”, The Onion (19 February 2003) http://www.theonion.com/article/women-now-empowered-by-everything-a-woman-does-1398 (accessed 4 May 2017). But there is a fine line between drawing attention to the bleeding obvious—that the mainstream version of anything is likely to be a watered-down and possibly even counter-productive version of what it claims to be—and an analysis that is likely to generate thought and action that goes beyond mere polemic and self-indulgent rage. 

But, in the first place, what are we—no-longer-feminists, à la Crispin—supposed to be against? Crispin spends much of Why I am Not a Feminist listing her hatreds: ‘self-empowerment’, female CEOs, female military officers, narcissism, shaming, silencing, endless conversations about which television shows are good and which are bad, aspiration, expensive T-shirts with feminist slogans, feminists “giving blow jobs like it’s missionary work,” identity politics, ‘Internet feminism’, comfort, ‘choice feminism’, faux-radicalism, rotisserie chicken (for some reason), ‘white feminism’, language policing, money, power, capitalism, self-interest, ‘the system’, consumerism, and ‘lifestyle feminism’. 3Jessa Crispin, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (Brooklyn, London: Melville House, 2017), x, xiii and throughout.

But why are these things so prominent, if indeed they are? It has been clear for a long time that the rhetoric of feminism was sometimes used as a useful cover story for violent and malign things—for imperialism, for a particular story about capitalism in the West in which women were given a starring role, for the rebranding of oppressive gender expectations as something ‘empowering’. There is no other way to understand these shifts and phenomena than as general structural features of an economic, geopolitical reality in which some women were given minimal forms of freedom that coincided with the needs of a largely deindustrialized economy, while millions of other women continued and continue to be exposed to large-scale military and economic violence.

So much for structure. Are we so shattered by atomization that we can no longer think collectively? The Women’s March and other mass movements would indicate that this is not so, yet online feminism often seems to be stuck in a quasi-religious cycle of blaming and purging and burning. Crispin’s book also seems to mirror this Crucible-esque situation, in which minor infractions are evidence of some kind of soul-based evil. Crispin calls for “new ideas of what it means to be moral,” noting that women are “halfway in” the system, and thus peculiarly placed to build “something new.” 4Ibid., 22, 65. But Crispin’s take on what this might mean is oddly anti-systemic, self-punitive, and peculiarly individualistic, like the Calvinist inversion of pro-capitalist self-celebration. “You, a woman, are also the patriarchy,” she writes, noting that “most women are not fundamentally better than most men” and in fact, “some women are terrible.” 5Ibid., 62, 103, 136. But feminism in its Marxist or anarchist formulations has no need for this kind of self-flagellation, and in fact, deems this kind of self-punishment actively useless, if not actively damaging. You do not need to think that women are ‘special’ in order to know that our historical oppression proceeds on the basis of our perceived reproductive capacity and that gender is the way in which the hierarchy of sex is reinforced by violence and the threat of violence. But Crispin is oddly blasé on these general points: “There are issues of reproductive rights, sexual violence, and so on,” she writes, “that are still active barriers to women’s freedom.” But, Crispin wonders, “if we are moving toward parity […] does it make sense to base our ideology around our biological identities?” 6Ibid., 60.

But if feminism is anything, it is the recognition that women are constituted as the second sex, as a class, precisely not on the basis of a chosen identity, whatever that could mean, but by the way women are classified and positioned within a social structure. “We are women, but it might be more helpful to think of ourselves as humans first,” Crispin writes. 7Ibid., 60. Would that thinking one is thus be enough to convince everyone else of the truth of the matter? To evacuate sex completely from this analysis is to imagine an ideal substance named “woman” out of which material women can potentially identify out of in order to escape poor treatment. This does not mean, though, that all women have exactly the same experiences, or that feminism ‘reduces’ women to their biology—merely that without some reference to sexual difference means that the history (and present) of the world simply makes no sense. Female fetuses are aborted because they are female; women are raped and abused because they are women; women are treated worse because they are women: accepting this global horror show is precisely to begin to think and act, not to give up and assume that anyone who mentions femicide, for example, is accepting victimhood. In order to act in solidarity, there has to be some common understanding of these structural features, that what unites women, however loosely, however strategically, is the way women are structurally positioned. But Crispin seems to think this happens the other way around: “This idea that women or feminists should appear as a monolith seems to spring from the idea that a show of strength will allow us to overcome our enemies.” 8Ibid., 114. But any genuinely useful feminist analysis points to the multiple differences in the ways in which the category “woman” or “feminist” might be understood in different geographical, political, and economic contexts—it is not something you sign up for like a cult.

Crispin is not alone in failing to pose difficult questions, despite her perhaps repeated invocation of Andrea Dworkin (in name at least). “There was no and is no generosity in the response to radical feminist work, either by women or by men,” she notes, but gives no explanation as to why people might not be so ‘generous’. 9Ibid., 43. Second-wave feminism, particularly in its radical incarnations, is pretty much blamed for everything these days, at least online, and remains widely misrepresented as overly white, man hating, and transphobic. It is deemed to be ‘fun feminism’ because it is critical of the sexual exploitation of women, it obsesses about the patriarchy, and it is judgey and preachy and quite possibly separatist. But it was second-wave feminism, Marxist, anarchist, radical, and the various fusions of these positions that analyzed and named all the problems that remain today. Among many things, sex-based harassment and violence, male violence, the global division of labor, the question of what work is, the sidelining and silencing of women in public and cultural life, women’s complex relation to technology and capitalism, and the politicization of unpaid labor. It looks likely that third-wave feminism (or whatever we might call the mainstream online version) is directly at odds with some of the claims of the second wave. The focus on the individual and a certain narrow version of standpoint epistemology (“you have not experienced this exact thing therefore you cannot talk about it”) cuts off the historical, broad basis for organizing, and the inversion (and analytical neglect) of capitalist exploitation as emancipation leads to a series of smaller and symptomatic wars over work, sex, and collective terminology, which is partly why contemporary debates around sex work and the definition of what a “woman” is often lead to the most vehement clashes.

We can read Crispin’s oddly personal reading of feminism as part of this symptom. Despite her multiple mentions of patriarchy and Dworkin, though without saying why the former still makes sense as an explanatory term or why the latter continues to be relevant, Crispin makes feminism’s task oddly personal. “Men are not our problem, but they are our responsibility,” she writes. We must think about how our “choices affect other people,” how we are complicit in our own subjugation, but feminism has, according to Crispin, spent too much time describing female suffering and having a go at men. For Crispin, feminism looks like a zero-sum game: “Saying or believing that women are special also, by default, dehumanizes men” and that “in order for women to think of themselves as compassionate, they have to think of men as violent.” 10Ibid., 124, 51, 72, 73. But this does not follow: once again, we can discuss the domination of male violence as a dominant feature of social life (the male violence that hurts men and women) without thinking this makes women, usually socialized to be ‘nice’ and ‘diplomatic’, special in any way.

Crispin claims that “it is a dangerous thing to combine a victim mentality with a dehumanizing outlook,” and that feminism has concerned itself too much with outrage, revenge, and punishing men for individual acts of misogyny. Women should be concerned with the “hard work of self-examination,” not complaining about “the power you don’t have.” But while men should not be punished for acts of misogyny, women need to individually internalize this message that these things are structural: “Understanding our own weakness should help us understand that the core of misogyny (and racism, and homophobia, etc.) lies not in the heart of the individual but in the way our society is structured.” 11Ibid., 79, 98, 83, 100. But the two are not separable in any easy way—this is why having a political analysis that is able to explain oppression and exploitation on multiple levels is both necessary and difficult. Crispin does not address intersectional feminism, or the way “intersectionality” has become an online mantra, for better or worse. In 1991, when Kimberlé Crenshaw described how her work would focus “on two dimensions of male violence against women—battering and rape,” and how “the experiences of women of color are frequently the product of intersecting patterns of racism and sexism, and how these experiences tend not to be represented within the discourse of either feminism or antiracism,” she could not maybe have foreseen how the term would take on new and expanded life in the cyber age. 12Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (July 1991): 1241–99. Available at: http://socialdifference.columbia.edu/files/socialdiff/projects/Article__Mapping_the_Margins_by_Kimblere_Crenshaw.pdf (accessed 26 April 2017). Does intersectionality now mean an online hierarchy of positions that has moved away from its original analytic and political strength? This and other unpopular questions are not asked here.

Much of Why I Am Not a Feminist ultimately reads like an argument within a particular class: “people will hate you if you choose freedom over money, if you decide to live a life by your values of compassion, honesty, and integrity.” 13Crispin, Why I Am Not a Feminist, 64. But for many people, these are not choices. Or if they do exist as options, they might be more complicated than Crispin’s quasi-religious image of a life somehow in the midst of yet beyond patriarchy and capitalism: choosing freedom over money makes sense if you have some of the latter, but it is not possible to live on freedom alone.

Feminism for Crispin ultimately becomes almost like a temptation: “How can one ever deal with the overwhelming despair of the world without being subsumed by it?” Instead of dwelling in this terrifying despair, we should, she thinks, “create a world of cooperation and fraternity, and leave behind the notion that one group creates the world on behalf of everyone else.” We must reimagine “the way we order our lives, our homes, our work, our souls.” It is unclear then what use something like “patriarchy” might be as an explanatory term if we can fix things by just being a bit nicer (and are women not always being told to be a bit nicer?). Crispin reminds us that “it is only within the patriarchal structure that women have their freedoms curtailed. Moving beyond that structure means forgoing the rewards that structure doles out for participation. But it also gives you back your agency.” 14Ibid., 46, 126, 150, 90. But for all the talk about how everything should involve vast quantities of hard work, this seems like something of a cop-out: Move beyond patriarchy? How? By using my ‘agency’, that weird contemporary version of individual liberal self-determination? Oh right, yeah, hang on, just popping outside for a minute… I MAY BE SOME TIME!

Crispin’s targets are, on the whole, too easy, and her solutions too vague. It is one of the problems of this kind of polemic, as I well know. Flagellating oneself, or girls, or women, or feminism, or certain kinds of feminists is not difficult. We are constantly taught to do it. We should instead be asking who benefits from this endless critique, and what questions are we avoiding posing because they are too difficult, and too upsetting. Crispin cautions the reader to “beware of easy stories and self-serving narratives,” 15Ibid., 152. but we cannot solve these problems or ask the right questions if we do not think collectively, and draw directly upon the work of earlier feminists. There are no easy solutions to these questions of the overlapping qualities of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy, of the relationship between individuals and the social whole, between men and women, and between equality and difference. Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto is of course a paradoxical kind of feminist text, as the subtitle indicates, but a book that moves beyond the individual and toward the collective (we could call it Why Feminism Is Not an I) might be a better place to start, or rather, and always, continue