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Feminism, What is it Good For?

Feminism, What is it Good For?

I have known and rubbed elbows with white feminists in the academy for 16 years whose syllabi didn't contain one book by a woman of color, or a journal article, or short story. These women identify as "feminists."

More recently and beyond the walls of academe:

Feminist Ani DiFranco elected to hold an artist retreat (later canceled) on a former slave plantation.

White feminists took to social and print media in an uproar when Jennifer Lawrence's nude photos were leaked yet were strangely silent when Jill Scott was victimized in the same manner a few days later.

New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley used one of the most tired and offensive tropes of black womanhood when describing television mogul Shonda Rimes as "an angry black woman." (And none of her colleagues saw this as problematic.)

Actress Martha Plimpton penned a poorly written response for Dame Magazine (10/13/2014) to Roxane Gay's Guardian article, "Emma Watson? Jennifer Lawrence? These Aren't the Feminists You're Looking For." Understand that in and of itself, the article is not bad but as a response to Gay's piece (how it bills itself) it fails because it takes Gay's words out of context and Plimpton appears not to have understood the major thrust of the article. Unlike a journalist or academic or any person committed to a rigorous engagement with a contestable idea, Plimpton read the article with every defense in check, not with the requisite distance for analysis which is why her thesis is weak, redundant, and reads like the thoughts of a whiney playground kid defending her friends. I might've suggested Plimpton spin her article as a stand alone piece, create arguments OF HER OWN that suggest why celebrity feminists may be just what the "movement" needs (and to leave Gay out of it, which is what she does anyway by misconstruing her words).  Academy Award-winning actress and activist Geena Davis springs to mind for establishing, "the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence the need to dramatically improve gender balance,"--the Geena Davis Institue on Gender in Media.  

I am still waiting for one of Beyonce's white feminist fans––they number tens of  thousands––to write a piece responding to Annie Lennox's indictment that Beyonce's brand of feminism is "lite feminism" (this is essentially what Gay said about certain Hollywood actresses who trot out the term feminism, without contextualizing it in real forms of work and activism).

In a nutshell, Ms. Lennox said Bey's "twerking" wasn't feminist. An attempt to improve your relevance by indicting another woman performer's personal choices is also not feminist.  Ms. Lennox said "twerking" wasn't empowerment. I'm sure that made Bey laugh. She can hold the world in her thrall by making it clap, and that's not empowering? Ms. Lennox, go get your life and good luck on sales with your new album.

Stevie Wonder could see that popular feminism is derailing the "movement."  And isn't it high-time we all accept that though it is 2014, the "movement" is anything but post-racial?  And call out these bogus "feminists" for posturing on themes of 'inclusion for all women' when their thoughts and deeds source grief and pain for non-white women.

But right now...right now mostly I feel bad that Roxane Gay is sad because her tireless efforts to bring truth and understanding to her readers speaks for itself and is not in vain, unlike the responses she, and many of us, often contend with.

I know what feminism is good for in the academy; it is a fantastic framework for scholarly arguments, an easily-accessible lens with which to view paradigm shifts in women's roles in society over time. Feminism as theory has spawned thousands of essays, dissertation chapters (including a sixty-page chapter in my own dissertation on black women jazz singers), books and documentaries.

But I remain curious, beyond the worthwhile projects that grow out of feminist theory, what does feminist praxis look like for today's non-academic, feminist? What are the myriad pockets of the feminist movement actually doing?

I'm aware of the keyboard courage that thousands of feminists claim when they take to social media to rescue each other from media bullying (I was amazed by the number of women who, in the name of feminism, came to Lena Dunham's defense when Dunham was ridiculed for wearing a loud, floral dress many felt was unattractive to an awards ceremony. So, this is what the "feminists" are up to, I thought, listening for Audre Lorde to turn over in her grave.) But surely even the most watered-down version of feminism is bigger than this?

When I listen for the voice of present-day feminist movements and their (explicit) agenda, it is largely silent; too blaring is the noise of pop culture concerns (an evening gown, twerking) which won't advance the movement.



LaShonda Katrice Barnett is the author of debut novel Jam on the Vine (Feb. 2015, Grove/Atlantic) and editor of two volumes on women musicians and creative process: I Got Thunder (2007) and Off the Record (2015). Recent short fiction appears in The Chicago Tribune, Guernica Magazine, New Orleans Review, and numerous journals and anthologies.