So, to begin by stating the obvious: there is a LOT of noise being created right now in and amongst feminists. A lot of it is proving very unhelpful and most of it is pretty damned misinformed or confused and thus, the noise is less like this and more like this. This is unfortunate because a lot of really good, smart, witty women are throwing up their hands and going, ‘Oh for fuck’s sake’! They’re walking away from their Twitter, they’re hiding their Caitlin Moran books under their nightstands and they’re writing articles about abandoning feminism. That’s some messed up shit.
I, of course, am inevitably adding to the din. I’m naturally pretty noisy though so I feel as though I have some excuse but having said that, please let me assure you that my aims are not simply to argue/nag/bitch about the current sloppy state of feminism. I ALSO want to point to the fricking AMAZING things that are going on RIGHT NOW and which are a direct result OF feminism. I know, it’s unconventional; writing not just about the things that are wrong, but also blowing sunshine up your ass about the things that are right. Not very feminist, you say? I disagree. Now bend over.
Caitlin Moran, (now) notoriously interviewed Lena Dunham about the popular show Girls and the results were rather like hero-worship. Many women (the vast majority of them white, may I add) were curious as to why CatMo didn’t grill Dunham on the lack of diversity of the show’s cast. There are two things I want to say about this: one, do you people actually READ Caitlin Moran? When has she ever conducted an interview which was indicative of night-time-breaking-news-journalism??? I mean, aside from her rock n’ roll days where she asked questions which apparently led some of her audience to suicide. But did y’all read the piece she did on Macca? The woman WEPT for gawd’s sake. I’m not saying Moran isn’t CAPABLE of constructive criticism, however that hardly seems to be her journalistic style so I’m a bit confused as to what people were expecting. My second point is rather more likely to make this piece one which will wind up in the ‘scream metal’ pile but I’m a bit fed up so I’m going to say it anyway. All of this pissing and moaning about Girls and CatMo, by a whole bunch of WHITE women, smacks of white guilt (aka ‘white man’s burden‘).
Look, I am NOT arguing for the perpetuation of homogeneity within the entertainment industry. It is absolute and total bullshit that (for example) almost every blockbuster romantic comedy ever made has white protagonists… non-white people can’t fall in love? They can’t be funny? OBVIOUSLY this is incredibly stupid but this isn’t the fault of one filmmaker, it is–like SO MANY social issues–systemic. It takes a lot more than attacking an individual to address this inequity. The issues surrounding race in Hollywood are myriad and the debate about why, how exclusions happen, and what results from these problems is ALSO not new. The ‘solutions’ being bandied about within the feminist debate, however, are not very constructive and in a lot of ways, they perpetuate–albeit inadvertently–the already marked problem of the whiteness of the entertainment industry. Including A (as in one) black character in shows like Girls is not, in my opinion, a solution. It seems as though quite a lot of critics of the show are arguing for this type of inclusion and herein lies the ickiness that is white guilt. Phrases like ‘not a single black face’ give me the creeps because it IMPLIES that the presence of ‘a single black face’ (where the rest of the person is, I’m not sure) would make the production more immune to critique. I’m sorry but having a ‘token black friend’ amidst a white cast is not representative of diversity. Including a black actor, purely for the purposes of fostering diversity, into a show written by a white woman about her own white experience is not widening representation, it is narrowing it. These moves create the illusion that the whiteness of the show has been dissipated because ‘hey, we have a black friend and she can speak to black experiences more generally, so we’re safe! Phew! We’re not being white and privileged’. Rubbish.
It is entirely possible that Girls is a (certain type of) white show about (certain types of) white people. Did you know that the population of the state of Maine (in the northern US) is 94% WHITE?! Shit. You. Not. My point here is that there are people–in many parts of the world–whose experiences are framed by a lack of RACIAL diversity. And not just in the US or the UK. The critics of Moran and Dunham intrigue me because as I suggested earlier, most of them are 1) white and 2) interested in the all mighty and conveniently ambiguous phenomenon of ‘diversity’ and yet I have yet to see a single one of them highlight the fact that Girls features all able-bodied women. Why would disability be any less of a concern within a debate concerned with ‘di-vers-ity’? And if it is simply race they care about, are these same bloggers, Tweeters, journalists, etc. sending Tyler Perry vitriolic posts about the shows and films he produces which happen to have all-black casts? No? Why? Because he IS black and therefore he KNOWS diverse? I know, now you’re looking around all frantic because you DIDN’T say that (out loud) and you would NEVER because gawd that IS racist! You’re right, it is. But here is the ugly truth. These arguments reveal the lurking evil that is white guilt.
Women like Lena Dunham and Caitlin Moran are expected to produce perspectives which are racially diverse–despite the fact that their own lives may not ACTUALLY provide sufficient experiences–because they are feminists, and therefore they argue for equality, and they are white which they should try to correct. This attitude is problematic not only because it perpetuates the privilege of white–including non-white actors in shows like Girls makes them visible and therefore represented in the industry, thanks to the show’s white creators–but it also collapses many layers of identity (i.e., gender, race, class, ability) into one, erasing the complexity of the construction of each of them individually. Let me be very clear, I am not suggesting that simply because Dunham or Moran are writing about their own experiences, that they, as feminists, should back away from fighting racial inequality. HOWEVER, simply casting non-white cast members would only serve to highlight Dunham’s ‘admirable’ adoption of ‘diversity’–whatever that means–and would not actually address the very complex and often uncomfortable relationships between white people with privilege and persons of color. That, is white guilt. Pulling persons of color ‘up from the ghetto’ because one is aware of, and perhaps uncomfortable with, the privilege which comes with being white but absolutely failing to see that this action will not address the deeper, more systemic problems with constructions of race. If you are going to shout at me about this argument you MUST first read this blog. It is a concise, beautiful discussion about the ways in which white allies must be aware of the complexity of constructions of race if they actually want to help, instead of simply perpetuating their own place in the sun.
Jeebus. Speaking of which, I think we need another blast of sunshine before we go on. Better.
Of all the writing I’ve read in response to this debacle, I liked Penny Red’s piece the most. She is respectful, honest and completely aware of the awkwardness inherent in feminism. But I still disagree with part of her argument. She makes the case that both Dunham and Moran claim to be representing all women in their respective projects. By choosing titles like Girls or How to Be a Woman, they are indicating that they expect to speak for all women every where. I absolutely agree that specificity is crucial and it seems a practice we should all adopt, but I feel like Red’s suggestion–that Dunham and Moran elect more specific titles–ties in with my complaints above insofar as it provides a quick fix and in this instance, ignores the larger issues. Even if Dunham changed the name of her show so that it was MORE immediately reflective of its cast, how would that impact the overwhelming whiteness of the entertainment industry? Dunham decides to call Girls, WASPs instead… And, so?!? Then we can all comfortably nod at the white show about white girls and not have to be challenged by the inequity of the industry. Similarly, suggesting that CatMo’s title is not specific enough just seems a little lazy. She discusses, rather thoroughly, the impossibility of feminism being universally representative in her Prologue and although she uses words like ‘polemic’, it is still fairly clear that her book is anchored in her personal experiences and therefore not about all women, everywhere, across all time. Being an academic (in training), I see this kind of thing a lot. People choose titles which pique their readers’ interests and then use colons, brackets, and footnotes to complexify their analysis. Is it sometimes tedious to read things like prologues and footnotes? Hell yes. But no one ever said this was going to be easy and gawd, can we not all just take a deep breath before we fire off yet another oversimplified argument about why CatMo is or isn’t feminism’s best friend? I really, really like Penny Red so whilst I’m being a little bit cheeky, it’s important for me to say that I have a lot of admiration for this woman. I just don’t think her argument holds up.
I have been holding all this in for a number of days and with the deluge of opinions being produced, I hope you can understand why. To be honest, it’s hard to even know what all of this crap is about anymore. I swear when we started there was concern about the ways in which persons of color are excluded or ‘missing’ from the entertainment industry. This, however, quickly deteriorated into discussions about white privilege more generally, then into the whiteness of feminism, and now we’re wallowing in the muck talking about whether we should even BE feminists anymore. I think it’s fricking brilliant that people are constantly challenging and pushing against the formation of ‘norms’ for feminism. I have absolutely no qualms with having difficult conversations about how mandatory it is for feminists to adapt, to grow, and to constantly struggle for dialogue. What I HATE (hate, hate, hate, hate) is the bullshit domino effect of one person/blog screeching that another person/blog has completely cocked up and trying to strip them of their feminist badge, just so that yet ANOTHER person/blog responds with more screeching… IF YOU’RE NOT GOING TO READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE, AND ADDRESS THE DETAILS, DON’T SCREECH OUT MISINFORMATION, please. Why is all of this necessary? Why? If you disagree with someone, there are any number of social media outlets into which you can enter and where you can lay down a damn good argument that neither debases your own credibility nor dehumanizes your subject. Why does everybody have to be 100% RIGHT all the time?!
Here is my main argument (I know, it fucking took me long enough): feminism should not be about being right. Seriously. Stop it. Whether you are an academic feminist or an activist or a feminist man or some new amalgamation which doesn’t have a label (hell yah!), you are valuable and you count. But you are also not the only one. You are NOT alone and at the same time, YOU are not alone. I’m so sick of every feminist trying to come up with the answers. We’ve gotten so goddamned good at critique that we unleash our beasts of fury without hesitation and NOW, fuck knows why, some feminists are responding by trying to explain how it is. That is so destructive and only serves to perpetuate every single critique we make.
If you want to tackle racial inequality in entertainment, let’s shout at THE INDUSTRY! Let’s be ALLIES, and stop trying to be SAVIORS. If you care about the ways in which feminism’s history has been color-blind, class-blind, or blind to disability, let’s keep talking (note: indoor voices this time) to each other and pushing ourselves to include more people in our conversations but let us NEVER believe that we have ticked the requisite box or that we have mined the depths of inequality in all its forms. I want us to stand up and say, proudly, that there are no answers. Feminism is a powerful, important way for us to explore, discuss, critique, and push but it must always be without a conclusion. Conclusions cannot help us. Rules about how one MUST be a feminist can only poison the waters. I want to constantly meet women and men whose own perspective on feminism makes me massively uncomfortable with my own so that I HAVE to reinvestigate why I think the way I do. Stop telling other feminist what to do! YOU don’t know better than the feminist next to you, that’s entirely impossible.
I’m sorry if I lost you somewhere up in the middle. And I am genuinely sorry if you’ve decided that feminism is not for you. This blog, or any blog I ever write, simply cannot hold all the words I would need to discuss why I am a feminist and why I think it is absolutely crucial. I keep trying, sometimes with far more success and sometimes with utter failure. But that’s feminism: a never-ceasing mixing of grand success and utter failure. I hope that makes you feel emboldened because it means that you don’t always have to win, you don’t always have to be perfect.
Having said that, let me end with one more ray of brilliant feminist light, a woman who I find to be totally flawless. In any case, she’s funny as shit.
**This piece has been revisited by the author, read her updated post here**