Mainstream Feminism Has Failed Us

From the coming fall of Roe v. Wade to the egregious public treatment of abuse victims, we’re witnessing the limits of commercialized white feminism.

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I grew up with girlboss feminism. I was a precocious, lonely kid who loved to read and write — somebody already prone to think she’s the main character — and I dreamed of winning a Pulitzer Prize and escaping my parents, whichever came first. I went to excellent public K–12 public schools, where most kids’ families had more money than mine and the clearest route to overcoming my modest circumstances was being a star student, getting into a great college, and landing a prestigious and high-paying job. Excitingly, this wouldn’t only be a win for me, someone destined to become yet another white girl with a bachelor’s degree, but, because I was determined to shatter a glass ceiling or two, a win for all of feminism! I believed in work: in its ability to set me free. I believed in the other boats, other faceless, nameless women, I’d raise with my tide.

It felt good to be a little girlboss in training, and it felt good to be a feminist. As a teenager in 2010, and a college student in the following years, the feminist blogosphere kept me company and lit fires in my belly. I read, and eventually wrote, for small, smart, special publications: Bitch Magazine, the Hairpin, Jezebel, the Toast. I came into a feminist consciousness reading Jia Tolentino on returning to the University of Virginia, her alma mater, after the publication of the fabricated Rolling Stone story about a horrific rape that took place on campus. I was a college student myself at the time, infuriated with the likes of Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan for frequently shedding doubt on college sexual assault statistics. (This was during those tense years after then-president Obama’s Department of Education issued guidance to schools about addressing sexual misconduct as a civil rights issue under Title IX.) I volunteered with my school’s sexual assault prevention program, and nothing felt more pressing or urgent to me than that my peers and I were believed and supported when we spoke up about our abuse.

The feminism of the aughts — which is to say, white feminism, neoliberal feminism, choice feminism — was all about girlbossing our way out of oppression.

Looking back, I was one of countless young women first driven to feminist organizing by my own perceived victimhood. I now believe in a much wider, murkier gulf between bad sex and sexual assault than I did when I was first radicalized by an awful sexual experience, and I certainly feel differently now about what to do with all the bad men. At 20, I wanted to see rapists jailed and punished; at 30, I believe in abolishing prisons. Perhaps most importantly of all, though, I no longer think that my own persecution under patriarchy is actually all that relevant to my feminism, and neither are my personal decisions. The feminism of the aughts — which is to say, white feminism, neoliberal feminism, choice feminism, take your pick — was all about leaning in and girlbossing our way out of oppression, even though that only really works the closer you are to a cis white guy and relies on the exploitation of poorer women’s labor.

Jia Tolentino’s UVA piece was published on Jezebel, the only one of those publications I so loved still in operation today. (Bitch, a bastion of feminist publishing, shuttered just last month.) Jezebel was an essential corrective to the commercialized feminism of the era. Pop culture is currently reconsidering the cultural wrongs done to women in the ’90s and early aughts, but before the podcasts and prestige TV series, Jezebel had been doing those reexaminations for years. And back when the extent of a lot of magazines’ feminist coverage was asking every celebrity on Earth whether they identified as a feminist (who cares!!!!), Jezebel and other critics across the internet were calling out the problem with anointing powerful cultural figures as “feminist” at all, when they often do so only as a meaningless marketing ploy to further their own ends. Koa Beck, Jezebel’s former editor-in-chief, wrote the 2021 book White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind, explaining in a Jezebel story from the same year that white feminism’s “engagement with gender politics or activism is centered on individual resolutions, but not structural changes.”

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Audrey Gelman (left), founder of the Wing, in 2018 and Emily Weiss, former CEO of beauty company Glossier

Over the past few years, a new wave of girlboss titans who’d dressed their thirst for power and prestige in the language of female empowerment saw their short-lived empires crumble. Perhaps most famously was the demise of the Wing, a women-only coworking space founded in 2016 — the tail end of the Obama era, a “golden age for women in power,” Wing founder Audrey Gelman said at the time. Gelman resigned in 2020 following reports of racist behavior toward members and staff as well as an employee walkout. (She’s since quietly rebranded as the owner of a “new old country store” in Brooklyn, selling tchotchkes to urbanites longing for a simpler though no less expensive life: Gelman’s “reactionary little English village fantasy.”) That same year, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, Refinery29’s Christene Barberich stepped down as editor-in-chief for failing to quell a culture of casual racism at the company. So did Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine. Last week, Emily Weiss, the very last Original Girlboss of the white millennial feminist era, announced she’s stepping down as CEO of the billion-dollar “no-makeup makeup” company Glossier. She held on long after her peers had bowed out, even though she, too, was subjected to a racial reckoning in 2020, when workers described several anti-Black incidents at the company. And there are many others: almost all white women, many of them from affluent backgrounds, who over the past five or so years have finally been held to account for the harassment, exploitation, and/or implicitly or explicitly endorsed racism at the workplaces they’d promoted as feminist projects — or even as female utopias.

To anyone who still believed in the dream of the girlboss, these were cautionary tales: Just because a woman is in power doesn’t mean she won’t abuse it; representation politics will not save us; and, turns out, universal female empowerment is quite literally impossible under corporatism and capitalism, because the only way to accrue power as a woman in business is to rely on the underpaid labor and exploitation of other women, who are probably Black or brown.

Just because a woman is in power doesn’t mean she won’t abuse it.

Meanwhile, for those of us millennials who never started companies, or who never had inherited wealth to jump-start our dreams, the promise of careerism, for feminist reasons or otherwise, seems more hollow now than ever. Throughout the pandemic, my colleagues and I have heard from hundreds of people across the country who have fundamentally altered their relationships with money and work. As one 28-year-old told me earlier this year, “I'm genuinely not sure if I should be saving for retirement or if we're all gonna burn out before then and I should just say fuck it???” Like so many others during the pandemic, I’ve completely lost my ambition.

Millennials have spent the past 10 to 15 years doing everything they’ve been taught to do — working hard, saving when they can, planning for the future — only to be met with sky-high costs of living, a brewing housing crisis, historic levels of inflation, trillions of dollars worth of college debt, and seemingly endless political, cultural, and environmental catastrophes, both the ones happening in real time and those looming terrifyingly close on the horizon. Certainly, girlbossing one’s way into a comfortable standard of living has worked for some, especially those with a helpful head start from their parents, but for many millions more it’s failed spectacularly. Disillusionment with corporate feminism and progressivism more broadly has birthed what writer Jamie Hood called, in a piece last year for the Drift magazine, “the anti-woke cool girl”: a small but culturally influential group where the dirtbag left meets the new right. Hood argues that the girlboss and the anti-woke cool girl — the Hillary Clinton acolyte and the contrarian podcaster who uses the r-word — are in fact “Janus faces of the same coin.” Both “signal the worst possible material congealing in the vacuum left by revolutionary feminism,” which “has felt for some time like a rather stale movement.”

Staid, uninspiring, and stubbornly, racistly white feminism isn’t anything new, of course; this has just been its latest insidious iteration. Betty Friedan’s 1963 blockbuster The Feminine Mystique galvanized an army of middle-class housewives to seek fulfillment outside their historical roles of wife and mother, half a century before her girlboss descendants would preach a similar gospel of work as liberation. In 1984’s Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, which cemented the author and activist bell hooks as a radical feminist thought leader, hooks notes that more than a third of American women were already in the workforce by the time Mystique was published. “Many women longed to be housewives,” she writes, but “only women with leisure time and money could actually shape their identities on the feminist mystique.” hooks demonstrates how Friedan failed to “speak to the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife. … She made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women. In so doing, she deflected attention away from her classism, her racism, her sexist attitudes towards the masses of American women.”

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Abortion rights activists march along Constitution Avenue to the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, May 14, 2022.

For all of white feminism’s failures to uplift women on a personal basis, the structural implications are even more dire. According to the mainstream centrist feminism of Clinton and other She-E-Os, when it comes to systemic solutions to women’s oppression, our job is, simply and infuriatingly, to “vote!” (Throwing your money at either Democratic political campaigns or bloated budgets for the nonprofit industrial complex are two other options, but “vote” is the main one.) Worried about the right taking increasingly successful whacks at abortion access, LGBTQ rights, immigrants, the working and middle classes? VOTE! Following the Supreme Court leak outlining a draft opinion striking down Roe. v. Wade, President Joe Biden encouraged us so: "If the Court does overturn Roe, it will fall on our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman's right to choose. And it will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November."

The end of Roe v. Wade might seem as horrific as it is inconceivable to many cis women whose abortion access hasn’t ever faced serious barriers. Abortion activists and others who have been paying attention, however, have not only seen the end coming for years now, but have long contended with the fact that abortion rights have always been conditional at best. As Melissa Gira Grant wrote for the New Republic following the Supreme Court leak, “those who saw this coming, who never believed the court could save them, who have mostly given up on the Democratic Party’s promises to protect Roe, have hardly been quiet or thwarted. Every local abortion fund launched to bridge the divide between a right and acting on it, every shared how-to on self-managed abortion using misoprostol pills (and mifepristone, if you can get it) — that’s what knowing this moment would come has looked like for years. It’s what surviving the end of Roe has already meant in the 89 percent of counties in this country without a clinic providing abortion, where abortion is already a contingent right [emphasis mine].”

Abortion activists have not only seen the end coming for years now, but have long contended with the fact that abortion rights have always been conditional at best. 

In the next week or two, Roe will fall. Democratic, supposedly feminist leadership will perform outrage and ask voters to donate to their reelection campaign, even after they’ve just fundraised millions in Texas to get an anti-abortion centrist Democrat, Henry Cuellar, reelected over the progressive Jessica Cisneros. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez tweeted that the endorsements showed an “utter failure of leadership,” pointing out that Pelosi’s robocalls for Cuellar were being pushed in the anti–gun control lawmaker’s district on the same day 19 children and two teachers were massacred in Uvalde, just a couple hours away.

It’s tempting to blame the Democrats for apocalyptic things have become, and God knows they deserve plenty of it, but it’s the GOP who are getting exactly what they’ve wanted. The United States, under the tightening grasp of minority rule, is already becoming the Christian nationalist theocracy Republicans have been architecting for decades. People denied abortion care are forced to birth babies they might not be able to feed due to the formula shortage crisis, or care for because of the childcare crisis, or educate thanks to the teaching crisis. Work, where women were supposed to be liberated, and where protections and benefits for mothers are still scarce to nonexistent, remains a living nightmare for most parents. Raising a child in this country is a difficult and often harrowing ordeal. I can’t stop thinking about the nineteen children, babies, killed last week, and the brave and loving educators who died protecting them where police and politicians profoundly and unforgivably failed. How can the US possibly pretend to be a good place for women and children when infants are starving (the price we simply have to pay for our allegiance to a free market, according to Pete Buttigieg) and little kids have to train, as if at war, to avoid their own murder by gun violence?

My colleague Alessa Dominguez argued last year that much of “culture war” journalism, including some that we do here at BuzzFeed News, only lends misinformation campaigns like those against “critical race theory” and trans rights further credence. She uses J.K. Rowling as an example, someone whose anti-trans campaigning “is generally characterized by the media as controversial views” worthy of debate, rather than vicious hate speech that might merit deplatforming. “This scenario comes into play,” Dominguez writes, “whenever powerful people, institutions, or political organizations raise public concerns about the protection of majority groups, especially white women and children.” Notice how often the idea of the perfectly innocent white child is weaponized as a cudgel against minorities gaining cultural and political power.

There are plenty of cis women who otherwise consider themselves politically progressive devoting countless hours of their lives online and IRL to the “gender critical” movement, all in the name, they say, of women and children. These trans-exclusionary radical “feminists,” or TERFs, who deputize themselves as feminism’s true spokespeople — think Rowling writing in 2020 that “we’re living through the most misogynistic period [she’s] ever experienced” and blaming that misogyny on trans women — represent a deep existential threat to modern feminism and where we go from here.

The anti-trans misinformation campaigns that TERFs and other gender fascists have successfully laundered through the mainstream media have disastrous implications. Last week, the far right, including at least one Republican Congressman, falsely smeared a real, living trans woman as the Texas school shooter. Donald Trump, who’s claimed to be an LGBTQ ally despite his administration’s assault on queer rights, has found what Ryan Lizza at Politico calls Trump’s “new obsession”: long tirades at his rallies denigrating trans people, which draw the loudest cheers. Texas just restarted investigating families with trans children for abuse, with the goal of forcibly separating children from their affirming and loving parents — one of at least 238 anti-LGBTQ bills announced this year, according to NBC News, most of them specifically anti-trans.

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Amber Heard

If politics is looking particularly grim from a feminist standpoint, pop culture seems to offer little reprieve. Here, too, misinformation has a large role to play. Johnny Depp’s defamation case against Amber Heard, who, in a 2016 op-ed that didn’t mention Depp’s name, identified herself as a public representative of domestic abuse, has turned the internet into the ugliest place it’s been since GamerGate, or maybe…ever?

The founder of a PR firm for celebrity clients recently told Forbes that “of course it would be a great plus for [Depp’s] campaign if his version is the true version of things,” but the truth, of course, doesn’t ultimately matter. “At the end of the day, what a great PR agency does is to try to shape perception,” the expert continued; he thinks Depp must have the best of the best. “Perception of truth is more powerful than the truth itself, and with the variety of opinions and backgrounds in the public square, it is almost certain that you would find a base willing to give your client a chance to exist and thrive."

Depp has found that base and then some: scores of fans who are dissecting Heard’s every move during the trial, using voice clips of a woman describing abuse on the stand to make jokey videos on TikTok. My former colleague Ryan Broderick calls all these memes “QAnon for millennials.” Other celebrities are getting in on it, and so are brands, influencers, and a whole lot of people hoping to cash in on the chaos. The social media frenzy around this case was clearly fueled by savvy PR (and, to at least an extent, an army of bots, as well as thousands of dollars in advertising from conservative media), but the sad truth is that lots of people have happily accepted the propaganda as sacrosanct. They genuinely believe that the richer, more famous, and more powerful person in this relationship, who once texted a friend that he wanted to kill Heard and then have sex with “her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she is dead,” is not only perfectly blameless but actually the true injured party here. Heard, “who at times was violent toward Depp, and who never made good on a promise to donate her entire divorce settlement to charity … is very far from a perfect victim,” Michelle Goldberg wrote recently for the New York Times. “That made her the perfect object of a #MeToo backlash.”

Depp stans see a cartoonish level of villainy in Heard, someone plotting to take down a great man to serve her own ends — something domestic violence survivors have been accused of since the dawn of time, even though coming forward with accusations almost always means being slut-shamed, harassed, and vilified on a scale proportional to the power held by the accused. It’s bizarre to see Depp’s army continue to insist on his victimhood when he’s clearly already won in the court of public opinion, with pro-Depp content on the internet seemingly outweighing support for Heard to an overwhelming extent. I’m afraid for her. How is she expected to go on?

I’m much more afraid of what this case will mean for other, more marginalized survivors. Marilyn Manson, now emboldened, has filed a defamation lawsuit against his ex-fiancé Evan Rachel Wood, and it’s hard to imagine women with far less money and cultural capital being able to withstand similar retribution for speaking their truths. Experts are worried the trial will provide a blueprint for abusers to exert still more power over their victims.

I’m afraid for so many of us.

What’s worth fighting for in its place is a socialist feminism, one devoted to liberating all women, and all people subjected to gender-based violence and oppression.

These are problems that require feminist solidarity and response across the country; electoralism, putting all our faith in politicians, is clearly not the answer. But neither is nihilism. One of the few good things to come out of the pandemic is an increased awareness of the essential role of mutual aid in our communities. Mainstream feminism might be in her flop era — seems like you only hear about people vehemently self-identifying as feminists these days if they’re making clear that they’re anti-trans “feminists,” specifically — but it has always survived at the community level, where organizers through every political era have worked to keep children fed, to make abortion accessible, to meet their neighbors’ immediate needs. Girlboss feminism was about a select few, individual women, as well as policing the boundaries of womanhood. What’s worth fighting for in its place, unequivocally, is a socialist feminism, one devoted to liberating all women, and all people subjected to gender-based violence and oppression.

The Combahee River Collective, a Black lesbian, feminist, and socialist organization active in Boston throughout the 1970s, outlined as much in a historic statement detailing their beliefs and goals, introducing the world to the concept of identity politics before it was almost immediately co-opted and bastardized by ruling class elites. The collective wrote that “the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation.”

Is a socialist, feminist, anti-racist revolution really possible in our lifetime? It seems too much to hope for. But in the words of author and abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba: “Hope is a discipline.”

Until then, feminism would be so much better served if it ceased to be a branding tool or a marketing ploy. There’s a war on gender minorities playing out, right now, in America. Who cares if you identify as a feminist or not — what are you going to do about it? ●

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