Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Feminism: It's All Been Co-opted

“If women's leaders seemed to ignore some of the murkier questions raised by the Clinton scandal--for example, what does consensual sex mean between two people so unequal in power?--it is in part because feminism at the very end of the century seems to be an intellectual undertaking in which the complicated, often mundane issues of modern life get little attention and the narcissistic ramblings of a few new media-anointed spokeswomen get far too much. You'll have better luck becoming a darling of feminist circles if you chronicle your adventures in cybersex than if you churn out a tome on the glass ceiling.”

Oh, boy, don’t we feminists know who becomes a darling of the feminist circles and who doesn’t. Incidentally, rambling on about class struggle and exploitation doesn’t seem to make the cut.

“But if feminism of the '60s and '70s was steeped in research and obsessed with social change, feminism today is wed to the culture of celebrity and self-obsession.”
This article got me thinking. So I want to talk about two things:

* The cooptation of the feminist movement by the forces of the status quo
* What the current “feminism” looks like

The Cooptation of Feminism

Ok, yes, the feminism of the 60s and 70s has been co-opted by the ideas of the status quo, but it's far from being the only one. The civil rights’ movement, the hippie movement, the anti-war movement, and, most recently, the environmental movement have all been rewritten, repackaged and resold in a more “harmless” shape.

Naomi Klein writes about this phenomenon in her book “No Logo”, specifically in the chapter “Patriarchy GetsFunky”. She argues that in the early 90s the political agendas of the civil right’s movement and the women’s movement were used to make brand-content and marketing niche strategies. In other words, the brands took a small part of what people were fighting for, the increased visibility in the media of women and minorities, and sold it back to us. 

While I agree with Klein, I would argue that this cooptation has been going on for much longer. I have heard of Coke using hippie-type ideas and images to sell its brand sometime during the 60s. And other people have argued that it was precisely the selling of commodities that undermined the very political movements of the 60s and 70s – people were “sold” what they wanted, and so they didn’t have to fight for it anymore.

Except, of course, that they weren’t. Because what people were sold was not, in fact, political change. What they were sold is something that appeared to embody political change.

We can see this another way: as people began consuming (well) above their basic needs, around the 50s and 60s in the rich West, marketers have had to imbue their products with “meaning”.  And the best way to do that is to leech off things that people already care about.

Most political movements of the 60s and 70s suffered this fate, not just the women’s movement. And this cooptation of political messages by brands and media moguls carries on to this day. You don’t need me to tell you that the environmental movement has been co-opted by industry promising to sell “green products” in exchange for extra cash.

We also have to look at the historical context in which all this happened. The political movements of the 60s and 70s were firmly rooted in the worker’s movement. In fact, that’s where they sprung from, if you believe the myth. So that when feminists talked about “women’s oppression”, they were trying to get a mostly male and pale worker’s movement to recognise that women experience a particular kind of oppression.

Now, the worker’s movement, not being easy to co-opt by “media” or “brands”, was dismantled the old fashioned way. And with it, the ideas that people’s oppression comes from the economic system, was gone as well. Without this base, feminism, like the civil right’s movement, becomes a hollow talk of “media visibility” and “empowerment through products”.

What I’ve tried to do is put “feminism” in context. It’s not just that the women’s movement was co-opted by “girl power”. There’s a whole process taking place here, aimed at hollowing out any political movement that may pose a threat to the status quo. This is powered by an economy desperate to sell more and more each year despite actually running out of things to sell.

So, what does feminism look like today? (I’ll be referring to that feminism described by Ginia Bellafante). 

Deprived of its core, base ideas of class struggle, economic exploitation, reproductive rights, power hierarchies, etc. feminism is reduced to a “feel good” pep talk. Without questioning the pillars of “how the world works” feminism has nothing to work with other than images, culture and stories. And so feminism becomes limited to little more than “changing your frame of mind”. In essence, this is how it works: if you re-frame your oppression as “liberation” or “choice” or “empowerment” it will become much more palatable. (Incidentally, this is exactly how self-help books operate). This is relatively easy to do because the system has always given people “arguments” to justify their oppression, and because, unless you are gang raped, or sold to slavery, your “oppression” looks… palatable, or you can, at the very least, dream of it being more palatable in the future. “If only I could re-think of my oppression as liberation, I will no longer be oppressed but liberated”. This is how the core idea goes. And it works wonders for feminist writers, who get some fame and cash out of the deal, and who can usually tolerate their oppression better than most.

This is what powers so much of the feminist blogosphere. “How I learned to wear high heels” is bound to get lotsa hits. Since the actions of one individual hardly amount to significant social change one way or another, this kind of thing spreads like wildfire. I have seen feminists post on how “empowering” X is and on how “oppressive” X is. Both cannot be true at the same time. Unless we define “True” as “what is true for you”.

A movement with no leadership, with no clear set of goals, and with a flaky understanding of what forces shape the world, can be easily co-opted by market forces and be reduced to what a few individuals think about their individual experience.

The solution, of course, is for feminism to go back to its roots. It's an oppressive system, and that means we can't "choose" to opt out. I do understand the desire to believe that we are not all that oppressed. But while we can be forgiven for "tuning down" oppression in our personal lives, we won't get anywhere if we don't recognize the forces keeping all human beings oppressed.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! I will say more soon.

Mary Tracy said...

Why, thank you!

Anonymous said...

First of all, I just happen to be reading _No Logo_ right now, so this was a very timely piece. As Klein says, feminists in the '90s (and I'd say today as well) use identity politics to argue that we need more diverse representations of women and POC in the media. While an important goal, this simply does not address the fundamental problems with patriarchy.

In fact, I rarely hear "modern" feminists talk about the patriarchy at all. Changing the frame so that our oppression is acceptable is not a good way to free ourselves. In fact, it is harmful, since it ignores the patriarchal thorn in our feet as it works its way deeper in.

Not all "modern" feminists are the same, of course, but I think your critique addresses most of those receiving the most attention these days. I hate to place them all in the same category as strawfeminists, but also, I don’t see any of them responding to posts like this and explaining why “high heels are empowering” is a radical (or even a feminist) perspective. We need to ditch the “true for me” business if this movement is going to take off again.

Thank you for your post.

Mary Tracy said...

Thank you, smashesthep for reading and commenting.

Yay for No Logo! I want to be like Naomi Klein when I grow up.

And here's to talking about the patriarchy, darnit. That's why we are feminists, that's why we are here. That's why we bother in the first place.

(I may have to write about this whole "true for me" business, actually.)

Lindsay said...

You'll have better luck becoming a darling of feminist circles if you chronicle your adventures in cybersex than if you churn out a tome on the glass ceiling.

Wow! I wouldn't have expected Time magazine even to write an article about feminism, much less one that criticizes it for not being radical enough.

Yay, Time magazine! (Well, Yay, Ginia Bellafante, but also yay Time magazine for running her article).

And it sounds like I need to read No Logo. I've read Klein's The Shock Doctrine and found it extremely enlightening, and I have often wondered why things have changed so little in spite of all the big social movements of the 60s and 70s.

Mary Tracy said...

No Logo is the awesome. I particularly liked her description of the modern high street job for young people.

Anonymous said...

Recently read "Nation of Rebels" (sold in Canada as "Rebel Sell", not sure where you are) which was a really fascinating explication of some of what you're talking about here. Good article.

Anonymous said...

I will put it on my to-read list. Thanks for the rec!