Bad Feminism

Bad Feminism

Claire Lehmann
Claire Lehmann

“Pop-feminism,” as a movement, valorises feelings above reason, cynicism above hope. It has regressed to a point where anything at all, no matter how irrational or how narcissistic, can be celebrated as ‘feminist’. Articles such as: I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands And Kids And I’m Not Sorryor How Accepting Leggings as Pants Made Me a Better Feminist are shared wide and far on social media as feminist political statements.

Anyone can identify as a “feminist”. Even men who openly admit to domestic violence, such as Hugo Schwyzer. There are no boundaries, no benchmarks and no standards to which feminism will hold itself accountable.

It was not meant to be like this. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her basic hypothesis was that women are capable of reason; just as men are. Yet because women are denied a rigorous education, this capability is rarely expressed.

Wollstonecraft’s achievement was to extend Enlightenment principles to women. Women were rational. Women were not innately ignorant, or naive, but socialised to be that way because their educations were neglected. She wrote that the more educated women became, the better off society would be.

Yet, despite the gains women have made in public life, the model of female empowerment held up by the media, today, is pop-feminism. In magazines and online news-sites, feminism and fashion intermingle. Humanities graduates, who specialize in snark, but not much else, now claim to speak on all women’s behalf.

In 1797, Thomas Gisborne wrote An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female SexStating the case for women to be confined to the home, he argued: The science of legislation, of jurisprudence, of political economy; the conduct of government in all its executive functions; the abstruse researches of erudition … the knowledge indispensable in the wide field of commercial enterprise … these, and other studies, pursuits and occupations, assigned chiefly or entirely to men, demand the efforts of a mind endued with the powers of close and comprehensive reasoning, and of intense and continued application. [emphasis mine].

Fast forward to 2014, and in the pages of ‘proudly female biased’ online news-sites, beauty is showcased over technology and business. Instead of evidence-based feminism, we get anecdote and science denialism.

In December last year, pop-feminist Amanda Marcotte, wrote a piece titled Are Men Hard-Wired to Show Off Around Women? written in response to a Wall Street Journal article about the Cheerleader Effect (the tendency of men to modify their behaviour in the presence of women). Typical of a pop-feminist anti-science piece, Marcotte provides zero links to any of the studies discussed.

Like most pop-feminists, she builds a murky picture of a body of “studies” with dubious outcomes and a sinister premise. We never found out the titles of the studies, authors, or journals from which they are sourced. She writes, “no doubt the data is accurate, but it does not follow that it’s necessarily hard-wired.

After a quick perusal of the studies (some of which can be found here, here and here) I found that the term “hard-wired” is absent from all of them; as one would expect. Psychologists tend not to talk about the brain’s wiring; that’s what neuroscientists do. Psychologists look at function. Neuroscientists look at structure. Despite this ignorance, Marcotte has the gall to “debunk” an entire body of scientific work. Work, it seems, she may not have even read. Work, she has also hidden from the reader.

Almost every time a pop-feminist critiques science or a scientific study, their argument is built on a strawman. In general, pop-feminists misrepresent published scientific work without providing links to primary sources. Pop-feminist articles (found here and here) are generally put-together wholly from second-hand material – stories about studies – not the studies themselves. Not only is this bad feminist critique; it is bad journalism.

It is ironic that in 2014, the women who confirm Thomas Gisborne’s eighteenth century sentiments are feminists who enjoy the most media privilege. (Academics in gender tucked away in universities all over the world, have used close application to develop nuanced ideas). Pop-feminists have not.

And it is sad that we have reached a point where to criticise anything labelled as “feminist” is to invite a slur on one’s character. Slurs of  “sexism” are ubiquitous. Any disagreement – no matter how sensible – is “trolling,” “abuse” a “backlash” or a “silencing”. Women like me, who simply call for feminism to rediscover Enlightenment principles, are labelled “female misogynists” on Twitter. But the slurs really must stop. Writers who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour are not models of empowerment. News outlets should not have to disrespect women’s intelligence to make their platforms viable.

Women should be respected for the originality of their thought – regardless of their conformity to media-sanctioned ideologies. And the feminist label should not protect ill-conceived ideas with impunity.

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Claire Lehmann

Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette.