The problem with feminism lite

I apologize for rehashing an old debate, but I came across a Facebook cause yesterday called Forward Feminism. Their tagline states “Bring back the true values of Feminism” and they say that they are “[b]ased off the book Full Frontal Feminism”.

Full Frontal Feminism is what I’m going to call “feminism lite” (BetaCandy calls it Spice Girls Feminism). To my knowledge, the book is aimed at being a non-threatening introduction to feminism for those “I’m not a feminist, but” types. I can understand the logic and I can’t say that I wholly disagree. But at the same time this feminism lite gets marketed as the feminism (not always intentionally, but often through poor wording choices or just because the book becomes popular).

This is especially problematic when the rhetoric is targeted at highly privileged audiences, like FFF was. Many aspects of this have already been covered, especially the white and class privilege aspects (link roundup), but I’d like to address the underlying culture of privilege that feminism lite is a part of and perpetuates, using the Facebook cause that started this post off.

I. The world of feminism lite

The Forward Feminism cause is an unofficial group. As far as I can tell it was started by fans of the book and has no affiliation with Jessica Valenti. This is important because it’s an example of the kind of culture her book is facilitating and it shows the values of the world that feminism lite exists in.

Let’s look at the basic info for the group:

Based off the book Full Frontal Feminism, this is a revival and rebirth of feminism. It is not about man hating and lesbianism, which is often the stereotype of feminism. It is about equal pay, easy access to birth control, fighting domestic violence, and educating women against society’s view of the perfect woman.

I’m not going to address in detail the idea that FFF’s feminism constitutes a “revival and rebirth of feminism” because I think BetaCandy’s post does a good job of establishing that this type of feminism has been around for a while and pointing out some of its flaws. Suffice it to say, though, there’s nothing new or revolutionary in selling feminism to the privileged and that it’s being seen as such just goes to show how easy it is for the voices of non-privileged women to be overlooked and ignored.

II. Reviving the “Lavender Menace”

I would like to look at their making a point of distancing themselves from the stereotype of “man hating and lesbianism”. Now, I don’t know how, or if, FFF addressed this issue at all, but I do know that its target audience was heterosexual women and so simply not discussing the issue would be enough to allow this kind of homophobic thinking to thrive.

“But,” you may say, “is this really homophobia? I mean, they’re just addressing a stereotype that’s often used to dismiss and invalidate feminists as a whole!” Excellent question! To understand why this enters the realm of homophobia, we first need some context via Wikipedia:

The phrase “Lavender Menace” was first used in 1969 by Betty Friedan, president of NOW, to describe the threat that she believed associations with lesbianism posed to NOW and the emerging women’s movement. Friedan, and some other straight feminists as well, worried that the association would hamstring feminists’ ability to achieve serious political change, and that stereotypes of “mannish” and “man-hating” lesbians would provide an easy way to dismiss the movement. Under her direction, NOW attempted to distance itself from lesbian causes — up to omitting the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis from the list of sponsors of the First Congress to Unite Women in November 1969.

[From Wikipedia’s Lavender Menace article]

And a perspective from a lesbian feminist:

Where women are concerned, the line taken is “I don’t want to be a feminist because feminists are all lesbians.” Calling upon homophobic stigma, this claim also presumes lesbianism to be a bad thing with which one does not want to be associated. When young women calmly express the view that they don’t want to be feminists because feminists are lesbians, I am most concerned that these young people are still so comfortable with their own homophobia. Is the existence of lesbians within feminism enough to render the movement disgusting? Are lesbians really considered such socially abject creatures? As a lesbian feminist, the idea that my identity is a source of revulsion to young men and women is not a little disconcerting. There is no point in giving them examples of heterosexual feminists and to do so is again to implicitly disavow all the lesbian feminists. Instead, I would just tell them I find their homophobia utterly repulsive. If they don’t consider themselves homophobic, this might shake them up a bit and open to the way to an actual discussion. If, however, they are happy homophobes, you might be better off finding someone worth talking to.

So, why is distancing oneself from the stereotype homophobic? Because there’s a history out there of mainstream feminism doing exactly the same thing and also because it implies that there is something bad about being a feminist who’s a lesbian. One thing that mainstream feminists have got to realize is that, as much as there’s the idea that feminism is lesbian-friendly, in reality much of the movement is very heterocentric. A problem, I might add, that is reinforced by feminism lite’s well-intentioned but unfortunate focus on showing how much feminists love heterosexual sex. Put another way, feminism lite isn’t homophobic in the hostile sense, but rather in the way that it expresses unaddressed heterosexual privilege.

III. Conclusion

I didn’t write this post to rag on Valenti or her Full Frontal Feminism book, or even to chastise the creators of the Forward Feminism group. We all muddle through our activism in our own ways, and none of them are perfect. I get that, and I also get that what feminism lite is doing is hitting on the parts of feminism that strike a chord with its target audience in order to get them thinking about feminism. It’s a noble goal and a decent strategy.

But it’s not enough. You can’t help other women by only helping yourself, and perpetuating a culture that shows a feminism versus feminisms only has the end result of allowing privilege, and selfishness, to go unchecked. I have said this a thousand times and I will keep repeating it for as long as it takes to integrate it into the movement: feminism can’t succeed if it tries to stand alone and apart from other anti-oppression movements because women aren’t a homogeneous mass. We aren’t the Borg, and we aren’t all privileged in all ways except for our gender.

If we’re ever to gain true equality, we have to do it working with other anti-oppression movements. We need to acknowledge — even on the introductory level — where our privilege lies and we need to understand that feminism isn’t just about getting others to understand us, but for getting ourselves to the point where we can understand others. Focusing on the issues that matter to us is important work, but we can’t let our privileges define what the “true values” of feminism are.

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11 thoughts on “The problem with feminism lite

  1. Thank you! I saw this facebook group a few months back, and my initial reaction was ‘oh yay, a feminist group!’ Of course, once I saw the full frontal feminism and man-hating lesbian bit I instantly hit backspace.

    The other thing about the ‘revival’ and ‘rebirth’ part is that it seems to imply that other contemporary feminists (or perhaps feminists who are not part of the FFF ‘revivial’? who knows) are somehow misguided or unproductive in their feminism, which is pretty insulting. Come on people, just because you learned something new doesn’t mean you’re reinventing the wheel.

    But then again, I’m just a hairy-legged dyke, so what do I know?

  2. I’m embarrassed to admit that while I’ve always seen the reflexive urge to distance oneself from the hairy-legged lesbian stereotype as being wrong for excluding lesbians from a movement that’s supposed to be about equality for all women, I never quite worked out that it is, in fact, homophobic. Thanks for making that point so clearly and providing a handy link for future reference.

    A problem, I might add, that is reinforced by feminism lite’s well-intentioned but unfortunate focus on showing how much feminists love heterosexual sex.

    Thanks for this too – Purtek did a nice job of breaking down much of what was wrong with reactions to the report which said that feminists have better sex lives than non-feminists, but this is important to note, too: our role in patriarchal culture is defined as giving men sexual pleasure and incubating the next generation of humans. If our role in feminism still requires that we like sex with men, that’s really not much better.

  3. “Men are more or less consciously diluting or debasing the meaning of feminism and … some women at least are recognizing from the emotional atmosphere that feminism is somehow threatening to men. In what they mistakenly believe is self-protection, they either say to their (liberal) male associates that feminism is *not really* threatening (because I’m one and your faithful servant) or to their (conservative) male associates that it *is* really threatening (and I’m certainly not one).” — Barbara Hillyer, 1985 (quoted in Joanna Russ’s _What Are We Fighting For?, p. 7)

    The distancing reflex is a scapegoating strategy.

    Disclaimers about not being “man-hating” are reassurances from an oppressed class to their oppressors, and are just as toxic as the homophobia in selling out lesbians, because they pre-empt the validity of an emotion about men as a class and disguise the class conflict in a gendered system. (The “man-hating” strawfeminist also goes hand in hand with essentialist constructions of gender which posit the sexes as natural categories and equate hatred of the oppressor with hatred of the oppressed on that basis, and as such is profoundly harmful to political analysis.)

  4. Disclaimers about not being “man-hating” are reassurances from an oppressed class to their oppressors

    That pretty much sums it up.

    I even worry about this when I say that feminism is not about hating men or considering women superior, because it’s both a clarification of my movement’s goals and a potentially reassuring comment. So what I usually say is, “Feminism doesn’t hate men – the patriarchy does” to open a dialog about patriarchal messages that make men out to be unsophisticated brutes (in order to lower women’s expectations) while feminism both believes men capable of more and expects more of men. Which I hope is not overly reassuring.

    Because even when the truth is reassuring and the reassurance is truth, it invokes the framework of the dominant group being entitled to reassurances while the rest of us are not only not reassured, but met with confusion and anger at the very thought that we shouldn’t just accept the lessened rights and stripped identity that come with not being the dominant group.

  5. If our role in feminism still requires that we like sex with men, that’s really not much better.

    This is part of why I’m a bit more concerned with teaching girls that it’s ok and good to find pleasure in sex period – not so much with the subset of “sexual pleasure” that necessitates sex with a man. I sometimes feel like a corrupter of innocents for harping on about things like “girls should not be ashamed to masturbate!” – but I do think it’s vital that we separate out sexual pleasure and finding sex with men to be pleasurable.

    Of course, sex should also not be the most important issue being discussed, much less the only thing being discussed.

    And BetaCandy – that’s a great answer to the common “man-hating” charge, not the least of which is that it cuts off the unproductive version of “the patriarchy hurts men too!” before it even has a chance to come up.

  6. So what I usually say is, “Feminism doesn’t hate men – the patriarchy does” to open a dialog about patriarchal messages that make men out to be unsophisticated brutes (in order to lower women’s expectations) while feminism both believes men capable of more and expects more of men. Which I hope is not overly reassuring.

    The first problem with that tactic is that it accepts the accusation of man-hating as a valid one. Denying that it is true of feminists in order to deflect its aim leaves it all of its potency as an attack.

    The second problem is that you’re playing a very tricky card with the assertion that “patriarchy hates men”. Patriarchy is a system that benefits men, setting them up above women as a class (or establishing individual male dominance within specific hierarchies). Its ideological forms may seek to disguise that fact by various means, and in its intersections with other oppressions it may create hatred toward subcategories of men, but it is an invalid generalisation as it applies to the class dynamic between women and men. Furthermore, translating the equation “women hate men (and it is wrong)” to “men hate men (and it is wrong)” should lead men to love themselves more, which will hardly impinge on men’s sense of superiority, because they are not in a class conflict with themselves on the same basis as women are!

    (The third problem is that you’re attributing emotions and beliefs to movements and systems, which are not people. Personifying feminism and patriarchy like this idealises them, and that only makes political analysis more difficult, because one must be able to identify the agents within a movement, the relative entities within a system. Women live inside patriarchies too, and “the patriarchy”, in its alternate meaning as a given body of men who may be in power at a particular time, is not a concept that necessarily provides vital information about the political system which also includes the people those men oppress.)

  7. That’s not untrue, Ide Cyan, but I’m talking about using this as a conversational gambit, an opening to a discussion in which all the points you’re talking about eventually unfold – not as an argument in and of itself. With the average offline person who doesn’t care about this stuff and has inherited a view from who-knows-where without thinking about it, you need a (woefully oversimplified) pithy soundbyte to get the conversation started, and that’s the one that’s worked for me. Alas, now that I re-read, the way I shortened the quote here was misleading, since the people I’m talking about wouldn’t know what I meant by patriarchy. For example, one time someone offline was convinced feminists hate men and mentioned how TV makes men out to be morons. I simply pointed out it wasn’t feminists making those shows, was it? It was the establishment, wasn’t it? And that was all it took to make him realize maybe there really wasn’t a grand female supremacist conspiracy out to get him, and from there we made some headway.

    Offline, I’m surrounded by people – women and men – who think women are so lucky they can just make men do anything they want by granting or withholding sex (except undesirable women, and who cares about them?). It takes a lot of soundbytes to break through the crust of the closed mind and get them listening. I know with some of them it’ll never work. But I try anyway.

  8. I simply pointed out it wasn’t feminists making those shows, was it?

    That’s much more specific and to the point, and truer.

  9. This is my first time posting a response here. I’m sorry if it’s too long as I work through my thoughts. I have a dissenting view about the lesbian stereotype. I don’t feel it’s always homophobic to worry about whether or not feminists are portrayed as “mostly lesbians” or other specific groups/types, because such images influence people’s understanding of the applications of feminism. It’s human nature to try to rectify the wrongs that affect you personally. I’m not lesbian, but I do have some class rage after a lifetime of seeing my parents struggle in a so-called “equitable society.” So I gravitate towards movements that speak to my personal glass ceiling, even though I want equality for everyone. So stereotypes that seem to limit feminism’s interests to one group are problematic, not out of homophobia, but because sexual orientation is among all gender/class/race ideas that demand political attention. Using lesbian identity as a defining feature of feminists may be homophobic, but it might also have the effect of distancing non-homophobes who are seeking general political agendas for equality.

    To be honest, I’ve avoided active feminism as a result of one negative stereotype in particular: the idea that feminists fault men as individuals for male privilege as a class. BetaCandy’s phrase “the patriarchy hates men” is a spark of hope for me. In my heart, I know I am a feminist. I agree with the goals and terms of feminism, but I’ve resisted feminism out of an aversion to generalizing male privilege–because, I guess, my father exemplifies the soft-spoken, hard-working, struggling citizen, who didn’t have the luxury of education and who has never expressed a word or act of oppression.

    It’s true, the patriarchy hates men! The patriarchy takes away the voice of male victims. While feminists can–and should–point out inequities of gender, many men can’t point to their exclusion from power, because there is ostensibly no reason for it. This is the patriarchy’s trick on all of us. It sets up a group of powerholders; and people who are visibly identifiable with that group are taught to respect that power (after all, they might be lucky enough to share in it one day, they are told), OR they resent the power but have no voice against it. If we are all given the chance to pursue positions in that structure, we will all be in the “shut up and work harder” boat. It is a system that depends on oppression, using any pretext. So how do we change that? (I don’t know).

    I’m sorry if my response got a little long or noisy–I do get swept with enthusiasm, especially because I realized that stereotypes have kept me at arms length.

  10. You educated me today. I a straight, white woman and never knew that anyone had ever posited a “Lavender Menace.” I’m at a loss, and the implications of this idea stagger me. I don’t understand how one addresses the idea of women’s sexual objectification without asserting that we all have to right to decide how, when, where and with whom we express ourselves sexually.

  11. Well, I followed this link here from another blog, and didn’t look at your home page until after I posted. I didn’t know you’d retired. I hope you do see what I said eventually, because it means a lot to me to know what I learned here today.

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