Oh White Ladies… We’re Still Missing the Point

So this happened yesterday:

There were, of course, two immediate reactions: straight up jubilation and love

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And critique:

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Aaannnnndddd this morning, there are articles/radio interviews reflecting the opinions of those who appreciated Allen’s video and those who find it problematic.

For my part, I’m tired of the overwhelming tendency of certain types of feminists to think in purely binary terms. Why does ANY type of critique automatically have to mean complete disavowal? Why can’t adoration of something also include intelligent scrutiny? We are so mired in this debate as to whether something is, or is not ‘feminist’ that many women have forgotten entirely that our lives are actually far more complex then ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Let me put it this way, think about a restaurant experience you’ve had when you really enjoyed the ambience, the staff was really awesome, and yet your dish was pretty bland and actually the wine wasn’t very nice either. You talk about that experience a lot because you aren’t happy to say that it was ‘bad’, but you can’t quite say it was ‘good’ either, and so your explanation requires length and depth. Totally normal, right?

Lilly Allen’s video is, in my (white-lady) mind, wicked for a few reasons. She has pointed a sharply-nailed finger at a misogynistic industry that could care less about women’s voices and experiences and is, instead, out to perpetuate the commercialisation of women’s bodies. Her balloons at the end are my favourite part! The appearance of these balloons is, of course, a reference to the gawd awful ‘Blurred Lines’ video and yet, with her honesty and her satire, she is able to totally take the wind out of the male fantasy of (white) female bodies represented by Thicke’s performance. Yes, more of this please!

HOWEVER, for me, the overwhelming objectification and hyper-sexualisation of black women’s bodies stopped me from giving this video a 5-star rating. Contrary to what Ms. O’Hagan has insinuated, my concern to critique the inherent racism of this video is not an attempt to ‘tear the whole thing down’, nor is it a result of my preoccupation with locating Allen’s video in the ‘not-feminist’ column. It may seem strange, but my response, and the responses of many, many other women, are actually far more complex than the debate surrounding the state of (online) feminism.

To be quite frank white ladies, it simply isn’t about the current terms of this debate at all… we’re still totally missing the point.

Thanks to an amazing scholar I know, I’ve recently been trying to think about why we (as feminists) start first and foremost, with the category of gender. Why do we continue to assume that gender is always the greatest, and most pertinent site of oppression? I know that being women, or being interested in women as human beings, is what brings us all to the ‘broad church’ of feminism, but once inside, our interests vary greatly.

I’ve learned a lot over the last year about my own privilege, and my own whiteness and a large part of this process has been a result of the now-tiresome debates surrounding ‘Feminism’ within popular media. What has become glaringly obvious to me, and what is clearly still totally absent from the radar of many media feminists, is that my experiences of patriarchy, oppression, and discrimination are very raced, classed and embodied. Moreover, because I am white, I appear able-bodied, and I am cis, it is my gender–my being as a woman–which serves as the primary site through which I experience discrimination. That formula might be virtually meaningless when trying to understand the oppression experienced by ALL other women!

A woman who is differently-abled does not, I guarantee you, experience oppression and discrimination primarily because of her femaleness (indeed, there are many disability theorists who argue that differently-abled women are effectively stripped of their femininity) but because of cultural perceptions of her ability. Thus, for this woman, feminism might not necessarily centre on the mythical category ‘Woman’, but would be perhaps concerned with addressing cultural constructions of ‘The Body’. 

This is worth thinking about because as much as certain feminists say they want ‘Feminism’ to be a ‘broad church’, they continue to insist on gender, on ‘Woman’, as the primary category around which we must all rally. When certain online feminists argue that we should no longer discuss whether something is, or is not ‘Feminist’, what they are really fighting against is the dislodging of the category of gender from the primary place of concern for feminists. And make no mistake, the category of ‘Woman’, as framed by ‘normative’ constructions of gender, is white white white. (Here I am echoing the important and powerful work of many, many, many Black feminists and Third World feminists like Sojourner Truth, Alice Walker, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Chandra Mohanty).

The thing is, for some women, other identity categories serve as greater sources of discrimination and oppression and yet those categories are intricately tied up with, and related to their being as women. Surely that matters, surely we should sometimes care about race first, about class first, about sexuality first. Every time a critique is swept aside in order to ‘re-focus’ the debate, to re-draw the attention back to the primary category of ‘Woman’, a new type of oppression materialises wherein all those women whose experiences may be damaged by other types of oppression are told that they don’t matter as much. In this way, I suppose I have to admit that I am concerned with how feminisms are performed, but I have no interest in policing the ideological borders of ‘Feminism’.

Sorry, but I don’t think the critiques of Lilly Allen’s video are in any way unfair, and I don’t think their point can be construed simply as a desire to remove Ms. Allen from the temple of feminism. This isn’t about our expectations of Lilly to be the next feminist superhero. I should think it’s fairly obvious that she is not perceived in this way. The point here is not to ‘tear down’ Lilly’s version of feminism. To continue to insist that all critiques arise because we’re all overly concerned with defining ‘Feminism’ is to assume that for all women, ‘Woman’ is the primary category of concern. This misses the point of current critiques entirely.

If feminisms are indeed about human equality, then we, as feminists, have to recognise the plurality of human experiences including the plurality of women’s experiences with respect to race, class, sexuality, embodiment, nationality, etc. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for feminisms to occasionally take other categories of identity seriously when fighting all the various forms of oppression we, as diverse women, experience.

Lilly Allen’s video can be liked AND critiqued and in fact, for us white ladies, it should certainly include the latter. Yes Allen states that she is employing satire, but as many Twitter feminists have suggested, the video does not depart IN ANY WAY from the videos she purports to mock. Ms. O’Hagan herself recognises the ways in which this video hyper-sexualizes and objectifies black women… if she had just shut up after that point, it would have been a great piece. I don’t know, maybe it’s the journalism, but the need to end on a neat and tidy note, to come to a coherent conclusion containing only one opinion seems to plague some feminists, just as it has here in O’Hagan’s piece. Why pass a verdict? Why insist on being able to say ‘Good!’ and paint all other responses with the ‘Bad’ brush?

I recently watched the conversation between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks hosted by the New School and I honestly cannot think of a more eloquent expression of black feminism. They are magnificent. One of my favourite moments comes towards the end when bell hooks states that we have got to stop thinking in binaries; life is complicated, complex, and in many shades. We are only harming ourselves by continuing to insist that life is or isn’t, it’s there or it’s not, it fits or it doesn’t.

What if we looked at Lilly Allen’s video and instead of saying,

“it IS ‘Feminism’ because she is fighting ‘The Patriarchy’ and that’s the only thing that matters!”

We said,

“I wish she hadn’t perpetuated the oppression of WoC in her attempts to express her own feminist sentiments”?

I’m not talking about a master feminist plan, I’m not asking Lilly Allen for one, but I am trying to hold her accountable–because I do believe she is a feminist and therefore is interested in fighting women’s oppression in myriad forms–for what she has produced, both good and bad. I most also say that I do not think it’s enough for O’Hagan to dismiss scrutiny of this video as frivolous or unrelated to feminist interests. Lilly Allen has gained cultural capital off the backs of women of colour, that manifests in greater privilege both socially and economically. To suggest that videos won’t matter to feminism is to deny the ways in which popular culture and media shape our realities in the West. I find this unwise.

Feminists fuck up all the time. Feminists of all persuasions fuck up all the time. So what? Engaging in conversation with one another about the ways in which we are complicit in each other’s oppression is not ‘tearing down’, it is a recognition of the fact that for some women, their gender is the least of their worries and so perhaps the ‘topic’ of our ‘church sermons’ should, from context to context, from moment to moment, shift focus.

For some white ladies, Lilly Allen’s video shouts feminist manifesto, for some women of colour, it represents another instance of objectification. These two aspects exist simultaneously and in conjunction with one another. We must learn to recognise that the former is not inherently more important than the latter.



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