A SYTYCB entry
Feminism has a branding problem.
It is not a new or surprising problem, but it needs to be addressed and, hopefully, fixed.
Feminism is complicated. Feminism has a lot of grey area. It has a rich and complex history and, like many movements, it is struggling to become more inclusive. We have overtly excluded or ignored women of color, trans* people, gender non-conforming people, lesbians, other sexualities, youth, and more. An entire host of groups of people have, at some point, felt disenfranchised by the feminist movement. Now, due to what mainstream feminists have bundled into a “feminist brand,” we are subtly excluding some of these same groups.
It is harder to brand something as multifaceted as feminism than to brand an object. We often simplify too much when we try. Yes, it makes feminism marketable and comprehensible, allowing the movement to grow, but it also often leads to a less nuanced discussion, a less inclusive movement, and a real lack of understanding of feminism’s past. Our failures in regards to “marketable feminism” can be analyzed through three very separate phenomena in today’s fight for equality: SlutWalks, the discourse surrounding the “War on Women,” and recent definitions of feminism as an attempt to encourage more people to identify as feminists.
I have previously outlined my take on SlutWalks here, but at the time I saw the “marketing problem” associated with SlutWalk as a more isolated issue. SlutWalks are an incredible, empowering, therapeutic event for rape survivors. There is no question that they should exist, but I take issue with their name. Organizers of “SlutWalk” ignored the complex racial dynamics of the word “slut” in choosing this name. When a white woman is called a slut, it generally is tied only to her actions or perceived actions. However, as “An Open Letter to SlutWalk Organizers from Black Women” describes, people of colors’ relation to the word “slut” is historically complicated, because it ties in with slavery and other racist institutions. They claim:
The way in which we are perceived and what happens to us before, during and after sexual assault crosses the boundaries of our mode of dress.
As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is.
Thus, the “SlutWalk” brand is problematic for a large group of women who would otherwise be more likely to support the cause.
The “War on Women” discourse suffers a similar lack of inclusivity. The term is catchy and it took a few months of regular use for me to realize the real problem here: the “War on Women” is not just a war on women, and we should be cautious about framing it as such. This war, or attack, affects far more genders than just one. The term is most often focused on assaults on reproductive freedom, for instance, but not only women can get pregnant. Transmen, gender nonconforming people, and genderqueer people could all have this ability.
Finally, some feminists have most recently tried to garner support for feminism, and in doing so failed to identify the complexities of identifying with feminists. Caitlin Moran is one of the more recent examples of this. On her book, How to be a Woman, she says:
In the book I do a test, and the test is this: if you put your hand inside your underwear and you see that you have a vagina, you check that, that you’re a lady. So the answer to that question is, “Are you a lady,” yes. And then you say, “Do you want to be in charge of your vagina?” and the answer is yes. Then congratulations, you’re a feminist.
I wish feminism were that easy, and I hope that someday, it is. However, we’re too close to an often racist, transphobic, homophobic, classist past to say that every “lady” should be a feminist.
Moreover, this statement conflates vaginas with women, erasing both women without vaginas and people with vaginas that are not women. Thus, it is it’s own example of exactly why not all women or people with vaginas need to identify as feminists. Yes, if you are a woman or you have a vagina, you are under attack. Yes, you should try to fight of the kyriarchy/patriarchy at all turns. But if you don’t feel comfortable identifying with a group that does not always include you to the best of it’s ability, Caitlin Moran should not be telling you that you need to.
Unfortunately, Moran is not an isolated incident. I often find articles asking “Are you a feminist?” The questions tend to simplify things, by assuming if you are a woman, have a vagina, or want equality for all, you are a feminist. These pieces completely ignore that our complicated past–and present–may lead some readers to fight for equality without identifying with feminism.
It is my (perhaps optimistic) opinion that Caitlin Moran, the people behind the “War on Women” discourse, and the organizers of SlutWalk are not, for the most part, intentionally being exclusive. This does not excuse it, but it does beg the question, why? Why does a movement that in recent years has moved closer to accepting and working against interlocking systems of oppression allow these slights?
There are several potential reasons, including a now-inexcusable lack of awareness on the part of organizers. The main problem, however, is marketing. In our society, ze with the catchiest advertising mechanism wins. Who doesn’t look twice at an event called “SlutWalk?” And the “War on Women” is hard to forget. Inclusive language can be gross. It’s wordy. In a discussion or a blog post, it may not be a problem, but in attempts to gain media coverage, it doesn’t always make headlines.
However, while feminism should be garnering all of the support it can through effective marketing, it should not and cannot afford to exclude members and allies for the sake of advertising. We should be above the “marketing game.” An ideal slogan may not be quite as catchy as “War on Women,” but, with a little creativity and discussion, it could include all oppressed groups. It may cost us a few photos in the New York Times, but it won’t cost us our existing support.