Comment, Feminism

It’s Hard Out Here for a Feminist: The Trouble with Public Feminist Discourse

The world of feminism is a hostile place. Paying attention to any public feminist statements will show you this: slip up and be prepared to pay for it.

It makes sense that this kind of thinking exists with feminism. It’s an ideology which requires you to be hypersensitive to a world that has been distorted and skewed, which inevitably results in the same critical inclination permeating everything, including feminist thought. A New Statesman event I attended at Easter this year was my first introduction to this crushingly harsh world. The event was great; thought provoking, affordable. Interesting issues were discussed, and there was a tacit smugness when the word ‘cis’ was mentioned and no one had to explain its meaning. However, immediately after the event, an influx of criticism appeared about it on Twitter for not being inclusive enough.

If you’re going to get tokenistic about it, I think the NS were clear in the attempts they made to be inclusive; they had a trans writer, a black writer and someone on the panel who was over 30, as well as a few other mainstream feminist voices. It sounds so painfully reductive to list people based on which ‘category of oppression’ they fulfill, but this is what the criticism of the debate provoked – justifying oneself by being reductive. ‘Why wasn’t there a man?’ ‘Why wasn’t there a disabled person?’ came resounding out of Twitter, biting back at any positive reaction to a debate.

To actively endorse the argument I am currently making, I will now be diplomatic and cover my own back. No, we shouldn’t just settle, because no, we’re not post-ableism and we’re not post-feminism and we’re not post- many things really, and there are still a lot of issues to overcome. Yet when the discourse of criticism overshadows the message of feminism, are we reducing the space for any constructive consequences? Criticism should be used for improvement, not to silence ideas.

Lily Allen’s video ‘Hard Out Here’ is a great example of this, both in the way it works well to draw our attention to issues in feminism, but also how it garnered vitriolic, unhelpful criticism in a way that overshadowed some pretty successful elements. To sum up basically the last 3 week’s work of every feminist writer ever: Yay! A Feminist Music Video. Boo! It’s racist.

On the one hand, the video functions as a great example of how feminism has worked historically for white, middle class women. I, as a one of those white middle class feminists, don’t immediately see why the video is racist. Considering when I watch the video I don’t spot the issues, because I’m not as hyper-sensitive to racial issues in the way I am to feminist issues, I just get the positive messages. This, if anything, is just testament to how white feminists are a bit shit at spotting racial issues. Susanne Moore makes this statement much more concisely in an article she wrote for The Guardian:

‘Racism works precisely by denying the presence of race. The privilege is to not notice it.’

Lily Allen’s twitter response made it clear that she personally believes it had nothing to do with race, but to quote another relatively reliable feminist source, Jezebel,  ‘Lily Allen doesn’t get to decided if her video has a race problem’. If I’ve learned anything about trying to endorse intersectional feminism, neither do I.

However, one thing I do think is legitimate to comment on is how we

look at feminism in light of this. I’ve read so many pieces recently that have now decided to write off feminism as some collection of closed-minded privileged white girls celebrating how they went a week without shaving their armpits whilst eating macaroons off their battered copies of The Second Sex. Feminism doesn’t just end when it trips up, but gosh do people love to attack anyone who makes a committed feminist statement.

To quote one –

‘That Lily Allen video is a hot mess and I can already hear the resounding clatter of the liberal white feminists as they fall over themselves to talk about how incisive and right-on it is’

Criticism like this is prevalent and unhelpful. The dismissive attitude to any ‘white’ voice contributing to a debate would be as bad a delegitimising a male voice in a debate about feminism. Check your privilege – sure – but also don’t shut voices out because of a physical attribute like the colour of your skin. If someone is blatantly wrong, let them express that view and then understand why it’s wrong, as opposed to internalise it and allow it to go uncriticised, because an environment has been created where they are silenced.

Perhaps this opinion is rooted in the fact that I am basically the main demographic for contemporary feminist writing, but I do feel feminism can adapt to be more inclusive, improve itself and overcome mistakes made in the past. Lily Allen or the NS feminists aren’t the be all and end all of feminist discourse, and mistakes made shouldn’t cause the movement to be written off as some racist ignorant collective. If a video is created that only allows us to draw attention to our own prejudices, we should use it as a constructive tool to overcome those issues, and not to dismissively mischaracterise a movement that has done a lot of good for a lot of people.

By Ruby Lott-Lavigna

Originally Published for The Moose in November 2013