UPDATE: For a recent critique of intersectional feminism, see this article at the new site Areao by Helen Pluckrose.
As a male, I bridle at having to define the term “feminism”, as my possession of a Y chromosome gives me a perceived lack of credibility. If pressed, I guess I’d say it’s the proposition that men and women should be considered moral and legal equals, with nobody discriminated against on the grounds of sex (or “gender”). I suppose that makes me an “equity feminist”, a species not in good odor.
But that’s not nearly good enough for Jessa Crispin, whose op-ed in today’s New York Times, “What to ask a celebrity instead of ‘Are you a feminist?‘”, is a strong indictment of forms of feminism even more radical than my tepid definition above. Crispin certainly does have street cred: she used to work for Planned Parenthood, and was editor of the feminist literary site Bookslut, which apparently folded last May. She also wrote Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, which came out only five days ago (see the New Yorker‘s summary and review here).
What is Crispin’s beef against feminism? Apparently that the way it’s conceived by most women is it’s not “intersectional” enough, i.e., not tied sufficiently closely to social movements. While most intersectionality for feminists deals with issues of race and ethnicity, Crispin’s view is that feminism is far to cozy with capitalism, neglecting those who are marginalized because they’re poor. As Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker noted:
The most vital strain of thought in “Why I Am Not a Feminist” is Crispin’s unforgiving indictment of individualism and capitalism, value systems that she argues have severely warped feminism, encouraging women to think of the movement only insofar as it leads to individual gains. We have misinterpreted the old adage that the personal is political, she writes—inflecting our personal desires and decisions with political righteousness while neatly avoiding political accountability. We may understand that “the corporations we work for poison the earth, fleece the poor, make the super rich more rich, but hey. Fuck it,” Crispin writes. “We like our apartments, we can subscribe to both Netflix and Hulu, the health insurance covers my SSRI prescription, and the white noise machine I just bought helps me sleep at night.”
That this line of argument seems like a plausible next step for contemporary feminism reflects the recent and rapid leftward turn of liberal politics. Socialism and anti-capitalism, as foils to Donald Trump’s me-first ideology, have taken an accelerated path into the mainstream. “Why I Am Not a Feminist” comes at a time when some portion of liberal women in America might be ready for a major shift—inclined, suddenly, toward a belief system that does not hallow the “markers of success in patriarchal capitalism . . . money and power,” as Crispin puts it.
And Crispin expands this argument in her New York Times piece, which criticizes celebrities who parade their feminism on the red carpet. She takes out, for instance, after someone regarded as a demi-god by places like PuffHo: Beyoncé:
The old feminist archetype — a rejection of all hair products, the swollen bellies and bosoms of the Venus de Willendorf, and oh my god I don’t think they even wear high heels — was at odds with the gazelle-like stature we prefer for female celebrities.That has changed. There has been an aggressive marketing campaign within the feminist community to make it less scary, more sexy. As a result, more women are likely to call themselves feminist, but the word has also lost most of its meaning.
Beyoncé performs in front of a “Feminist” sign. But she is a brazen capitalist who gives private concerts for the executives of corporations like Uber, a company that has a long history of labor and sexual harassment violations. She has been accused of borrowing the work of some female artists, including the choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, or being slow to attribute their work.
What does it mean that she calls herself a feminist? Does it just mean she believes in her ability to make money? Why do we look to famous women to tell us how to feel about feminism?
And that last question is a good one. I wouldn’t, for instance, consider Meryl Streep more of an expert on feminism than someone like Crispin who’s worked in the movement for years.
Although I don’t think Beyoncé performed at Uber before the recent revelations of galloping sexism in the corporation, the excerpt above is a fair indictment. What does Beyoncé mean by “feminism” beyond the fact that she writes about empowering women and becoming successful by taking control of her own life? I won’t question her self-description, but Crispin does, and then lists eight questions she’d like to pose to celebrities interviewed at events. Here they are:
1. Oh, don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to justify why you’re making a movie with a man who was recently arrested for domestic abuse! [JAC: Being culturally illiterate, I’m not sure to whom she’s referring here.] None of my business. But when was the last time you chose to work with a female director, producer, director of photography, writer or key grip?
2. As your body is setting the standards for beauty among preteen girls who also want to be pretty and loved, how hungry are you right now?
3. I love your new line of girl power T-shirts! So chic. Do you know how much the Bangladeshi women and children who sewed them were paid for their labor?
4. If you say you are a feminist, are you more of a bell hooks feminist? A Shulamith Firestone feminist? No, no, Shulamith Firestone, the writer, not a juice cleanse. O.K., well, are you an Emma Goldman feminist?
5. Let’s do a multiple choice! I want to know if your feminism is intersectional. Here are five possible definitions for the word “intersectional” — give it your best shot.
6. Do you know how much your male co-stars are making? Do you know how much the cleaning women on set are making?
7. What is the carbon footprint on your private jet?
8. Oh, so you’re thinking of moving to Canada now that Donald Trump is president? Do you think your life, insulated from his policies by your fame and money, has been affected by his administration?
In other words, she indicts celebrity feminism—and by extension many liberal feminists—because they’re not doing enough for poor women, or poor people in general. They’re concerned with their own status/victimhood/position in society. While some of the questions above are a bit jocular, they all have a serious bite. And I don’t know how to judge them. Is a “real” feminist involved in multiple issues of social justice? If they talk a good game, or write on their websites, but don’t really improve the lot of the poor, can they call themselves feminists?
I have no dog in this fight, as I think the question of “intersectionality” complicates nearly every ideological issue of the Left. Can you be an anti-racist if you’re not at the same time a Crispin-style feminist? Can Christina Hoff Sommers be seen as a feminist if she favors equality of opportunity but not equality of outcome? Does being a feminist mean passing a purity test on every social issue that presses on us now? (I doubt it, if for no other reason than everybody can’t work on everything. People have priorities.) I consider myself a male feminist (but I am loath to say that for fear of opprobrium), but Crispin would vehemently disagree. But does it even make sense to argue about the meaning of the term?
Crispin apparently thinks it does. I’m not so sure. We can argue about the value of combining moral equality of the sexes with other social causes, but that’s a question of philosophy and social activism, not of semantics. After all, Peter Singer would probably espouse the very same goals as Crispin does, at least for wealth, but isn’t ever seen as a feminist, though his recommendations meet Crispin’s test far more than those of many women.
Give your definition below, or state whether you think that definitions of or purity tests for feminism are useful.