Criticism is important, especially from within. We need to push those who want the same things we do, care about the same goals, and are fighting the same battles; we need to push them not in spite of our solidarity, but because of it. We need to push them to be better so that our end goal has an improved chance of succeeding. The message and the agenda behind the cause we champion need constant honing, and that should be done on our terms. If the supporters of a set of beliefs or principles sit by, while others who claim to push the same agenda do so in a way that is perceived as damaging, that serves no one and only further distorts the message. I’ll say it again—criticism is important, especially from within.
But criticism, my friends, is not the word for what I’ve observed from many of my fellow card-carrying members of the Feminism Is Not a Dirty Word Society, US Chapter. Criticism, in the manner in which I’m using it, implies constructive feedback. It implies commentary intended to improve. Most of all, it hints at implicit support—in spite of any disagreement.
I’ve heard many times over how terrible Feminists’ PR is as a group, and I’ve generally ignored the comments. They’ve always sounded borderline misogynistic, and generally smacked of a Paternal desire to patronizingly educate. My feelings on the motives behind this unsolicited advice haven’t changed, but I’m starting to get frustrated with our seeming desire to prove them right.
What started me over the edge in this arena was the backlash following what began as a fairly popular campaign that launched around a month ago: Ban Bossy.
Sidenote: the last thing in this precious universe I want is to continue to fight about the merits or lack thereof of this campaign. Hate it, love it, ignore it altogether, that’s your prerogative. And truly, I find the discourse interesting, but it detracts from my point. This isn’t a piece about Ban Bossy—pro or con.
I have my own thoughts on Ban Bossy, of course. The sociological conditions that the organizers felt necessitated the campaign in the first place are of particular importance to me, as a former “bossy” child and the aunt of two incredible and soon-to-be “bossy” little girls. But my thoughts on the campaign itself are unrelated to my thoughts on how factions of the Feminist community reacted.
The backlash seemed all too familiar. And that’s because it is nearly identical to the vitriol thrown at Sheryl Sandberg (one of Ban Bossy’s heads) last year when her controversial tome, “Lean In,” was released.
Sidenote Number Two: I take back my earlier sidenote. The absolute LAST thing in the world I want to do, beyond all others including even returning to my high school AP history class and volunteering for invasive dental work, is talk about “Lean In” in this piece. Maybe later. Maybe when I feel a bit more brave. But today is not that day, and this post is not that post. For the love of cheese, please don’t make this into that.
Now, I will be the first to admit that there have been many excellent articles of criticism written about both of these movements. I’ve read dozens of them, and I’m here to say that they exist and have merit. These criticisms, if you haven’t caught my point yet, are necessary and I fully promote them. In fact, if you’re among the critics, by all means, write one! Right now, go! You should feel empowered to do so, and I all but guarantee that the resulting discussion among your friends/family/readers will, at the bare minimum, make people think. But again, I’m talking about criticism in its most academic sense.
Here’s where my frustration and derision begin to come into play. Sheryl Sandberg, take her or leave her, is putting something out into the universe. “Lean In” and “Ban Bossy” got people (most importantly, women) talking about what it means to be a Feminist in 2014 and beyond, and they got both her supporters and detractors thinking about how to affect positive change. And hell, some of us are putting those thoughts into action! She is one of many who continues to try and make Feminism a front-and-center point of discussion, instead of a sub-culture. Isn’t that to be encouraged? Can we not all agree that painting her as the villain of the piece doesn’t help to promote anyone’s agenda? Are we not seeing how this just looks like shitty PR?
Furthermore, what does it say about our movement as a whole that we seem to expect every public figure to present a viewpoint on Feminism that is an all-inclusive catch-all? Sheryl Sandberg has a privileged background. She’s white. She’s a wealthy woman. There’s no escaping any of this. But this background does not a pariah make—or rather, it shouldn’t. Does it mean that her viewpoints are likely not as ground-breaking or game-changing as those from a member of a more marginalized group of women would be? Absolutely. And god, am I hungry for a woman from one of those voiceless groups to be pushed into the spotlight. But does it mean we should be kicking women like Sheryl out of the Cool Feminist lunch table because she dared to discuss Feminism through the only lens she possibly could? Yikes. Apparently it does.
The final nail in the proverbial coffin for me came from an unexpected place, and perhaps that’s why it was so enraging. If you’ve ever had a conversation with me that lasted beyond the necessary getting-to-know-you chit-chat, it’s likely that you were brought into the world of my harmless but intense obsession with Her Highness, Queen Beyoncé Knowles Carter, Miss 3rd Ward. All adoring hyperbole aside, she’s inarguably one of the most popular performers of our time and her album/world tour/personal life hasn’t left pop culture news in months. She’s a topic of constant discussion, so it’s natural that varying opinions on her existence in our collective social consciousness should arise. But damn it all, if it wasn’t time for the “Is She a Feminist If She’s Sexual?” and “Is She a Feminist If She Calls Herself Mrs. Carter?” and “Is She a Feminist If She Says, ‘Bitch’?” trolls to come out of the woodwork once again. Here was a female artist who’d made an indelible mark for women in popular culture and music, and most thrillingly to me, who’d unabashedly stood up and identified herself as a Feminist—not slunk off to the dark corner of “Cool Girl Feminists” who wear their dismissal of the movement like a badge of honor. Here she was, trying to be a part of the club, and all we can say is, “Is she Feminist enough?”
Final Sidenote: Just try and come at me about Beyoncé. We can debate that one all day long if you want.
Ya just can’t win around these parts, can you? Either your views aren’t one-size-fits-all enough, or they’re not taking the exact approach I would take, or they just aren’t perfect enough. We eat our own here, so we can hardly blame those who are hesitant to take up the mantle, can we?
You don’t like the track we’re on? Then change it. Write something, make something, say something, build something. Have a critique? Follow the example of #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, and say it and then do something about it. The women that are putting it out there are to be encouraged—if not by agreeing with them, then by changing the discussion with our own positive action, not just by dismissing other views as flawed. Let’s agree to push each other, challenge each other, demand more of each other. But most of all, let’s agree to put a long overdue stop to tearing down from within. Feminism, like all important movements, succeeds when we recognize that it is so much greater than the sum of its imperfect parts.