I'm So Tired of Hearing About "Good Feminists" and "Bad Feminists"

I hate the Good Feminist/Bad Feminist dichotomy. It reduces what really is a complex task (integrating gender theory into your everyday life) into a binarism where you either reject all the social trappings of "woman" or you suck.

Jun 20, 2013 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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Can I be a feminist and wear lipstick? Are we still really asking this question?

Everything is a text, as my literary theory professor once said, and texts are for reading after all. And lately, in large part because we're constantly having these conversations here, I find myself applying a critical cultural analysis eye to the way mainstream feminism is eating itself.

There are, of course, the issues of intersectional inclusivity. Mainstream feminism prioritizes and universalizes one main brand of experience, one kind of voice. This conversation is being had across social media, by a huge variety of people. Sometimes we have it here, too. And until these issues are adequately answered for, mainstream feminism will fail to support huge numbers of women.

But even with that in mind, it might be a little inflammatory to say that mainstream feminism is eating itself -- obviously it is thriving as a commercial venture on sites like Jezebel. That we even talk about mainstream feminism is a major thing -- it's reached mainstream status and is a household word. We debate the details of it in public on social media. We address it in television sitcoms. Mainstream feminism is a thing that has penetrated our cultural consciousness and it isn't going away.

That's not to say that we are post-feminism. (We aren't post any particular oppression just because someone from that group can be seen in public and probably not be the victim of a hate crime. Hell, for some groups, that "probably" is an overstatement.)

It's just to point out that we have reached the point where lots of people -- including lots of feminists -- think they know what feminism IS, and so they don't necessarily think about it in a critical way.

Enter the straw feminist.

The straw feminist is a hypothetical figure that folks who don't like feminism have made up. The straw feminist has the most radical politics while being as unappealing to men as possible. (Because being appealing to men should be a universal goal or something. My eyes are rolling.)

The straw feminist gets dragged out when folks want to object to feminism. It's a rhetorical construct that people use so they don't have to actually engage with feminist critique of social practices and customs.

There's another version of the straw feminist, though -- one that women present to themselves as a yardstick or purity test. This straw feminist appears as a model feminist -- one who is not impacted by cultural construction, one who is never vulnerable or mistaken or petty or any other human quality. This straw feminist is the Good Feminist against which too many women compare themselves, against which too many women decide they must be the Bad Feminist.

I hate the Good Feminist/Bad Feminist dichotomy. It reduces what really is a complex task (integrating gender theory into your everyday life) into a binarism where you either reject all the social trappings of "woman" or you suck.

That's why we end up with a never-ending series of conversations like this one: Can A Beauty Editor Be A Feminist?

Don't get me wrong -- I think it's an important conversation. But I need it to move beyond the simple yes/no that a lot of people seem to be reaching for. Because people are not simple. Nor is culture. I think people often -- especially on the Internet -- want things to be simple (because simple is easier) but when we use reductionist arguments around complicated subjects, we never actually get anywhere.

So let's talk about this. Let's seriously discuss why a woman involved in the beauty industry might feel the need to not only justify her role as a beauty editor but also defend her ability to do so as a feminist.

The first issue is, of course, makeup. Now, I know it's not cool to acknowledge history and all that when discussing feminism online but in the 1960s and 70s, in what is now called Second Wave Feminism (which had some SHIT and continues to), there was a movement to reject the obligatory things that women were compelled to do in order to be considered attractive to men. High heels and short dresses and makeup -- the point, within that context, was to step outside of the behaviors that were seen as enabling men to objectify women.

At the time, that was a pretty radical act for a lot of women. And, even then, there were others for whom it was no big deal. (There's that failing of mainstream feminism in the way it ignores multiple narratives. But I digress.)

I think there are still plenty of women for whom rejecting makeup and the trappings of the beauty industry is revolutionary. Beauty is, unfortunately, still commonly regarded as compulsory.

But -- and here's where makeup is not simply a black or white issue -- there are and have always been women who wear makeup for other reasons. Because presentation, especially gender presentation, is highly personal and individual and it ties in to class and race and body politics and all sorts of things. 

It's easy, especially 30 or 40 years in, to distill things down to "Makeup is bad." Throw in the disdain many long-time feminists have for "girly" things (which, uh, seems counterproductively woman-hating), and you wind up with women feeling like they cannot both be involved with beauty and feminism. You create a movement that is perceived as exclusive no matter what individual members might think.

This is, as I am sure you can imagine, only beneficial to anti-feminists.

(As distinguished from people who don't consider themselves feminists but who are taking part in the gender-equality conversation regardless.)

There's a flipside to this. Of course there is. And it shows up when people use the Good Feminist/Bad Feminist divide to absolve themselves of responsibility for action.

I don't think Annie Tomlin falls into this -- but if you've ever heard someone say, "I know I should care but I'm a bad feminist," then you've seen this happen. Labeling themselves as a bad feminist excuses inaction and apathy.

Look, I'm not saying that every single person has to care about every single thing at every single moment. We've all only got so much energy and we've also got to make a living, in whatever sense that shapes up. But acknowledging that instead of just labeling ourselves or others as "bad" seems like a pretty important distinction.

Maybe what it boils down to is that we -- if we care about any of this -- must return to nuance and complexity. 

There are fewer political slogans to be found when the discussion is complicated. Those conversations aren't as comfortable and it takes a shitload more effort to have them. But if we are not willing to embrace that complexity, we're never going to get away from these "Do I count as a feminist?" barriers.

That's a problem within feminism that feminism needs to address on an internal basis. And if it's not something feminism -- as a movement, not just as individuals shouting in a vacuum -- is capable of doing, then feminism has yet another serious problem.

Actually, maybe actively embracing complexity is how mainstream feminism can make itself better, can repair the rifts it has created with the women it tends to ignore, exclude, and erase.

If I sound bitter, it's because I'm tired of having the same conversations over and over and over again. We're running in circles and doubling back to swallow our own tails.

None of us can completely separate ourselves from our culture -- nor should we have to in order to critically think about our culture. I mean, maybe I like makeup because women are supposed to like makeup. But I can examine that, consider that, actively interrogate that even as I go to the makeup counter to buy yet another chartreuse eyeshadow.

I would, in fact, argue that women who participate in beauty culture are in a unique and more powerful position from which to change the beauty imperative that some women still feel.

The Good Feminist/Bad Feminist paradigm needs to be blown up. That sort of demand for ideological purity only hurts us. 

If people are looking for a short answer to the "Can I be a feminist if" question, perhaps the best answer anyone can offer them really is simple: It's complicated.