Neoliberal Feminism

My “articles to read on feminism this morning” happened to include an interesting pair of explanations as to why so much feminist energy has turned away from collective struggles:

From Sarah Jaffe in the New Republic:
“Zeisler cites Marjorie Ferguson’s 1990 argument about the “feminist fallacy”—the idea that images of powerful women in the media translate into power for women out in the world. In this moment we too often fall under the spell of this and of another kind of “feminist fallacy”: that the success of powerful women will trickle down to the rest of us. In fact, as Zeisler notes, famous and powerful women often mistake what is best for them for what is good for all women; when we put too much weight on the feelings of celebrities, we end up cringing when their uninformed opinions, divorced from solidarity with anyone who might be affected, end up making headlines and even policy, as when Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham put their own feelings ahead of actual research and organizing on the subject of the decriminalization of sex work.

In addition to the feminist fallacy, Zeisler introduces us to what she calls “feminism’s uncanny valley,” the space in which ideas, objects, and narratives offer a superficial similarity to feminism but upon a closer look, turn out to be “deeply unsettling.” Instead of liberation, they wind up being about “personal identity and consumption.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is of course the peak example of such an uncanny valley, but even more insidious than a self-help book for the upwardly mobile are corporate initiatives that purport to “empower” women. Take Walmart’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, launched just months after the Supreme Court ruled against the women in what would have been the largest-ever class action sex discrimination lawsuit, Dukes v. Walmart. The company undertook a massive PR operation to appear woman-friendly, when the most important thing Walmart could do to empower women economically would be to raise its bare-minimum wages. It took further collective action from Walmart’s workers to push the company, finally, into a small wage hike after a series of strikes and protests rippled across the country, led by workers like Venanzi Luna, Tyfani Faulkner, and Janet Sparks.”

And from Abi Wikinson in Current Affairs (a great new publication worth reading):
“Feminist discourse on social media also focuses disproportionately on a relatively narrow range of issues. Sex work legislation notwithstanding, the conversation topics with most traction are concerned with either language, pop culture, or identity. Conspicuously underrepresented is consideration of issues concerning material reality. It’s not that the stuff that is discussed is always unimportant, but it’s a very limited version of feminism that doesn’t position women’s living conditions, their ability to care for themselves and their children, their financial independence and their ability to extract themselves from abusive situations as central concerns.

Partly, this is a reflection of wider trends rather than something specific to social media—U.S. culture has a strong influence on all aspects of the English language internet, including conversations about feminism. From a U.K. perspective, there has always been a weird class blindness to political discourse in the U.S., which lacks the labor tradition of European countries. (Admittedly, the sudden rise of Bernie Sanders may challenge these preconceptions.)

Regardless of wider influences, the very fact that discussions are happening online encourages a disconnect from material reality. Identity and language are the topics most relevant to gender as it’s experienced actually on the internet, so it’s logical—in some ways—that these might be the things that internet feminism focuses on. This would be less of a problem if “internet feminism” was a distinct subsection of the movement, but there are good reasons to believe that online discourse is influencing the priorities of feminism as a whole.”

Now, whether feminism is distinct from other identity-based political movements in being particularly prone to neoliberal cooptation has yet to be convincingly argued, at least from what I’ve seen. That said, whether due to the optics of media coverage or the unique amount of time and energy (and publications seeking the sort of confessional pieces Wilkinson refers to in her piece), feminism may be the richest site to study neoliberal identitarianism in the way these writers (and Andi Ziegler, the author of the book Jaffe is reviewing) do.

As for Wilkinson’s argument that the internet is itself an explanatory factor for neoliberal feminism’s idealist tendencies, it’s unclear how the fact that these discussions take place on the internet causes such a disconnect (in contrast to the wider political and economic influences Wilkinson brackets). However, there is an argument to made that our ability to engage online as feminists, influencing real life feminist organizing – a controversial assertion from Wilkinson but one that I think is undeniably true- will exacerbate feminism’s most individualistic and self-destructive tendencies in the same way it would any identity-based movement.

After all, it’s much easier to dismiss someone’s argument by attacking their character if you aren’t in the same room with them. I’ve seen arguments that tore organizations apart when they took place online play out as productive debates in person due to the basic fact that there is a threshold of commitment to material progress that must be reached for someone to show up to a meeting, and once you and your supposed adversary meet face-to-face in some godforsaken church or library, you realize how much you hold in common.

That said, I remain open to being convinced that there is something distinct in online communication that shapes our political strategies and thinking as well as our social behavior. But for the moment, I wonder if so much attention to the online elements of social movements isn’t one more product of the very media economies and attraction to discontinuities rather than constants that are being identified in these pieces. Both these authors acknowledge and seem open to that possibility, and I can only hope that the next few years see a return to the type of materialist feminist analysis they’re offering.

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