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Vices of Mainstream Feminism

The movement no longer spares a thought for women who fail to claim additional oppressed identities.

· 8 min read
Vices of Mainstream Feminism
Image by Jasper

Three weeks ago, VICE posted a debate about feminism to YouTube. As the framing made clear, this debate would not be conducted exclusively by feminists. Rather, the proceedings were described in the title as a collection of “Anti and Pro Feminists” arguing about “Abortion, Trans Rights, and #MeToo.” As of this writing, the video has more than 1.3 million views.

One of the panellists was Sydney Watson, a YouTuber with more than 800,000 subscribers (to go along with about 437,000 Twitter followers) who self-describes on Facebook as “a right-wing Australian with opinions on politics, feminism and men’s rights.” Following the debate, Watson posted a video titled, “I was on VICE’s insane feminism panel,” which gives you some sense of her opinion about the event. That video, too, now has more than a million views.

Calling it “insane” may be a little hyperbolic. But Watson is right that feminism did not come out of the debate looking good. Sadly, this won’t be a surprise to those of us who’ve been following the state of the movement.

Host Liz Landers, VICE’s chief political correspondent, introduced the debate with the claim that organizers had tried their best to bring together “a diverse group of women.” In some cases where the d-word is invoked, one kind of diversity (viewpoint diversity) is sacrificed so that another type (diversity of identity, which is what contemporary identity politics focuses on) may be prioritized. But that’s not what happened here. Just the opposite: there may have been so much viewpoint diversity that a productive discussion was virtually impossible.

Of the nine panellists, two were transwomen; one had a visible physical disability; and four were women of colour. The two remaining panellists were both white women, not disadvantaged in any further way that was visible or that they noted in their remarks.

So far, so VICE. But in regard to viewpoint, the outlet (nominally) broke from its left-wing stereotype. More than half of the panellists appear, based on their online profiles, to be political conservatives: “American First” proponent Layla Grey, YouTuber Pearl Davis, gun-rights activist Antonia Okafor Cover, transgender libertarian Jordan Willow Evans, and the aforementioned Sydney Watson. The other four who appeared are politically liberal: Eli Erlick (“Extremely queer & incredibly trans”), “Latinx” scholar Omaris Zamora, “DJ/storyteller” Yeldā Ali, and Mindie Lind (whose politics are less obvious, but since she has pronouns in her Instagram bio and self-describes as “Crip AF,” I’m going to call her for team liberal).

Social-media-posted photos of participants in the recent VICE debate on ”Abortion, Trans Rights, and #Metoo.”

If one combines political and identity-based typologies, the two teams may be described as follows: team liberal was made up of a transwoman (Erlick), two women of colour (Zamora and Ali), and a woman with a disability (Lind). Team conservative was made up of a transwoman (Evans), two women of colour (Grey and Cover), and two white women who, as noted earlier, betrayed no obvious further forms of disadvantage. (I’ll come back to why this caveat is important.)

At least two of the panellists who appeared aren’t feminists—including both conservative white women. Watson stated her rejection of feminism matter-of-factly during the debate. Davis, who appeared to see herself as the designated provocateur, went further. In one published outtake, she said that “feminism is, always, and has been [sic] a hate group.” Take a moment to let that sink in: according to Davis, the dominant motivation of a people who’ve historically been denied the right to vote, the right to education, the right to refuse consent to sex in marriage, and many more rights besides, is that they … hate men.

Given that none of these women are exactly household names among the broad public, why were they chosen for this debate? One explanation is that about half have large social-media followings—Watson, Davis, Erlick, and Cover, most notably. And so perhaps VICE producers were simply playing for viewers, inviting women whom they knew would bring large audiences with them. But given VICE’s politics, I doubt it was an accident that white conservative women with no “intersectional disadvantage” cards to play were cast as the anti-feminist villains. In the case of Davis, in particular, the extremist positions she advocated during the debate can’t be blamed on selective VICE editing: based on what I’ve seen of her own self-curated content, these seem to be her actual views. The problem is not that the show misrepresented Davis or Watson, it’s how the show presented women whose only disadvantage is femaleness.

Mainstream feminism teaches women to locate themselves in a hierarchy of oppression, and then to defer to those who are more marginalized. But the question of who is more or less marginalized isn’t typically measured, as one might expect, in relation to one’s femaleness or womanhood. Rather, it’s measured according to other factors, like race, disability, or gender identity. Thus a woman can end up locating herself at the top of the hierarchy—and considering herself the most privileged of women—even though she has suffered childhood sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, repeat sexual harassment in the workplace, pregnancy discrimination at work, and more (even when other women, ostensibly more oppressed than her, have not).

If VICE had featured a feminist white woman (as opposed to an anti-feminist white woman) whose “only” claim to disadvantage was her womanhood, chances are she’d have rushed to prostrate herself in deference to the claims of victimhood offered by others in the room—which, according to the contemporary hierarchy of intersectional feminism, would be seen as more compelling. (In a nutshell: two markers of disadvantage are worth more than one, three are worth more again, and when there’s a tie, trans is trumps.)

Such intersectional assumptions clearly constituted common ground among most of the feminist panellists: when Davis asked what barriers stop women in America today, perhaps expecting that the other women would have no good answer, Lind answered by reference to her disability, rather than to her womanhood. Similarly, Zamora answered in terms of being a woman of colour.

Ironically, these feminists were implicitly expressing agreement with Davis (though they would likely never admit to doing so), insofar as they seemed to share the view that there’s no disadvantage associated with being a woman per se. Another way to articulate this mainstream feminist dogma is to say that women are not disadvantaged as women, but only, more generically, as people. (In case this distinction is not obvious, here’s an example: cancer is a “people” issue, as it can affect anyone; but abortion is a “women” issue, as it affects only women.)

Cover picked up on this point from another angle by launching the now familiar accusation that mainstream feminism has a problem with inclusion because it focuses too much on privileged women, to the exclusion of disadvantaged women. I agree that mainstream feminism has a problem with “inclusion.” But I see the problem as more totalizing: mainstream feminism no longer seems to include women, as women, at all.

I don’t mean this in the by now well-known sense that mainstream feminism is busy including biological males who self-identify as women. It is, of course. But that’s not my point here. Rather, my point is the one made by Catharine MacKinnon more than 30 years ago, which is that there is more recognition of disadvantage when that variety of disadvantage is shared by a man. In her words:

I sense here that people feel more dignity in being part of any group that includes men … It seems that if your oppression is also done to a man, you are more likely to be recognized as oppressed, as opposed to inferior. Once a group is seen as putatively human, a process helped by including men in it, an oppressed man falls from a human standard. A woman is just a woman … so not victimized at all.

What MacKinnon meant is that, by way of example, we can comprehend a black man as being treated as less than fully human, as less than he ought to be treated. But we can’t see a woman that way. Because we think she is different, we think she is being treated as she ought to be. If she really is inferior, then there’s no mistreatment.

Intersectionality doesn’t have to be anti-feminist in this way. Lind, for example, when asked what barriers women face, could have talked about the higher rates of sexual assault suffered by women with disabilities. Instead, she referred to wheelchair ramps—an issue she has in common with men who have disabilities. Zamora could have talked about how black women face greater pressure not to report rape, for fear of contributing to negative stereotypes of black men. Instead, she gave no examples at all.

Any woman literate in feminist theory (and I do mean feminist: women’s studies, not gender studies) could have responded easily to the question of what barriers women face as women today. Not least pornography, a form of hate propaganda against women (if that sounds incendiary, go watch some gonzo porn and come back to me) consumed by many—perhaps most—of the men whom women have no choice but to live and work alongside.

While Davis and Watson did attempt to steer the conversation back to women as women (although they did not use that language, and Davis remained sceptical that women suffer any disadvantage whatsoever), it was difficult to do so: VICE had basically pre-empted any panellist’s ability to make headway in this regard, thanks to the inclusion of two transwomen on the panel.

It’s easy to make sense of what it means for something to be an as-women issue, in contrast to an as-people issue, when your understanding of “woman” is tied to femaleness; but not when your understanding is tied to identity alone. However, it would have taken quite some chutzpah for a panellist—whether liberal or conservative—to insist on this important distinction, as this would have signalled the exclusion of two people whom that panellist would remain stuck with in a studio for a half-day of filming.

Moreover, doing so would have meant alienating someone aligned with one’s own political team. (In this regard, it was a strategic coup on VICE’s part to invite both a conservative and a liberal transwoman.) This problem could have been avoided if VICE had instead invited (female) transmen rather than (male) transwomen. But obviously, they would have then had to face down allegations of “transphobia” for tracking sex rather than identity in their curation of the panel.

Even so, a strategic intervention was available to participants, namely to point out that feminism must triage among many important issues. This includes deciding between issues that affect the most disadvantaged women, and issues that affect most women. So even if one continues to insist that “transwomen are women”—a slogan that was dutifully trotted out during the debate, predictably by a member of team liberal—one could still insist that feminism should prioritise women-as-women issues. After all, most women (even as that term is expansively defined) are female, so such triage serves the great majority of women.

If VICE had really wanted a debate over whether women should be feminists, it could have curated a panel with diverse views on that topic specifically—though that would have crowded out discussion of abortion, trans rights, and #metoo. If VICE wanted a debate over such specific topics, or the state of feminism more generally, on the other hand, it could have curated a panel of feminists, full stop. There’s enough diversity among women committed to some form of feminism without needing to bring in anti-feminists. Instead, the discussion was derailed by the organizers’ attempts to cover a range of specific policy issues while also fielding sceptical claims about whether women face any disadvantage at all.

At least some common ground is necessary for a debate about feminism to be productive. And that common ground must consist of something apart from the false idea that being disadvantaged “only” as a woman is no disadvantage at all.

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