From Amy Schumer to Lena Dunham, white feminism cannot truly be feminism
According to herself, Taylor Swift is a feminist: She’s not afraid to be emotional through her songwriting, she’s unapologetically successful, she turns her nose up at degrading and sexist media coverage of her romantic life and she surrounds herself with other powerful women to form her quintessential, always-there-for-her girl squad.
Yet, through these qualities and characteristics, Swift is only a feminist as much as she understands feminism. And if her understanding of feminism is as bland and homogenous as her Instagram girl squad, then she most certainly does not understand feminism.
The fundamental issue with Swift’s feminism is the notion that girl power and supporting women encompasses the definition of feminism. However, feminism, as defined by Merriam Webster, is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” The type of faux-feminism Swift embodies can more aptly be called white feminism: the reframing and redefining of feminism that serves and operates solely for the interests of white, middle-class, Western women. Margaret Jacobsen at Bitch Media provides another definition of white feminism: “Looking out for the white female while stepping over and on top of women of color.”
Swift is not the only white female celebrity to embody this type of feminism. Despite her assertions that she is a feminist, Lena Dunham has been readily criticized for her racist, tone deaf comments about black men, particularly when she implied that NFL player Odell Beckham Jr. ignored her at the Met Ball because he did not find her “fuckable.”
On a similar vain, Amy Schumer, another famous white female comedian, has come under fire for making racist jokes during her stand-ups and, most recently, doing an ill-informed parody of Beyoncé’s “Formation.” Saturday Night alums Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have also casually invoked racism and fatphobia in their comedy.
The fundamental issue with white women like Swift, Poehler and Schumer is that the platform and legitimacy they have, whether consciously or unconsciously, has contributed to the concept of white feminism. And while these celebrities have rightfully been criticized for their problematic feminist practices, the danger lies in fueling false conceptions about feminism that can impact how young women and girls think about and engage with the movement.
“I think it’s very broad because it’s easy to say, ‘Girls can do anything,’” said Cate Young, a frequent writer on feminism. “I think that’s a really nice, feel-good sentiment. But it doesn’t do anything to really change the system that would need to be changed in order to make that a truth.”
For white feminists like Swift, it almost seems as though they became a feminist overnight, switching from disassociating with a term and distancing themselves from it one day to preaching about girl power the next. This whiplash-inducing move, however, is rooted in the rising popularity and subsequent mainstream support of feminism. While being a feminist was largely considered a dirty term decades ago, it has now become a proud label worn by celebrities and young girls alike.
And although the greater acceptance of feminism is indeed promising, the promotion of girl power, whitewashed feminism among celebrities can increasingly warp into opportunistic marketing attempts to boost that woman’s brand. This move is often referred to as brand feminism and shares many similarities with white feminism — both encompass vapid, surface-level depictions of feminism.
“You could focus on bummers like the lack of workable family-leave policies for low-wage workers,” writes Andi Zeisler in her book, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. “But wouldn’t it be a lot easier to seize your power and tap into your inner warrior?”
For white feminists like Schumer, Poehler and Swift, it is not so much about how they can contribute to the feminist movement, but what the feminist movement can do for them. Zeisler’s book provides a critique of brand feminism and the ways it forgets its political and radical roots.
“There’s a mainstream, celebrity, consumer embrace of feminism that positions it as a cool, fun, accessible identity that anyone can adopt,” Zeisler writes in the introduction. “It’s decontextualized. It’s depoliticized. And it’s probably feminism’s most popular iteration ever.”
White feminism is easily marketable, as its lack of tenacity in critiquing patriarchy and its emphasis on empowering women allows it to appear more respectable, and thereby more palatable, to a mass audience. And for stars like Swift, who want to appeal to their audiences but don’t want to incite too much controversy, white feminism becomes an effective way to seem in touch with the sociopolitical sphere without the baggage.
Young said that while there is a place in feminism to support women, it cannot be the only action that is taken.
“It’s fine to say, ‘Oh, well, we should be equal to men,’” she said. “Well that’s great but how are we actually going about making that happen? We need to have an actual plan of action, and I think that’s where things start to fall apart.”
At the same time white feminism seemingly promotes the supporting of women, it fails to offer a substantial critique of capitalism or systemic patriarchy. In fact, because white feminism only prioritizes the experiences of Western, white, middle-to-upper-class women, it ends up maintaining the white supremacist, capitalist structure.
Swift’s own brand of white feminism reflected this dangerous shortcoming in 2015 when she engaged in a Twitter fight with Nicki Minaj. The argument began when Minaj pointed out her lack of a Video Music Award nomination for her work and later criticized the music industry for snubbing the work of black women. Swift, who did receive a VMA nomination, thought Minaj’s tweets were jibes at her. She tweeted: “@NICKIMINAJ I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.”
Of course, what Swift misunderstood was Minaj’s systemic critiques of the music industry. Her tweet’s emphasis on love and support versus conflict completely negates the institutionalization of a European beauty ideal that has helped Swift and hurt Minaj — it simply reduces feminism to a blind, support-all-women mantra without ever employing an analysis of the structures that treat white women differently from women of color.
Young said this is another danger with white feminism: it erases the political qualities and systemic critiques of traditional feminism.
“It allows us to forget that feminism is not just a belief, it’s a political system with specific goals,” she said. “And when we say it’s about making women feel great about themselves, it’s about making them feel empowered, it kind of sands off the edges of what should be specific goals for social and political action.”
Another fundamental issue with white feminism is how it alienates any woman who is not white, financially stable or from the West. For instance, just scrolling through social media photos of Swift and her all-white, European-beauty-standard-fulfilling girl group can convey the message that feminism only operates for certain kind of women. Yet at the same time white feminism prioritizes white women’s experiences, it attempts to hide this bias by homogenizing the experiences of all women and placing all women — regardless of race, class, religion and sexuality — into the same basket.
“Simply because we’re women doesn’t mean we all have the same relationship to the patriarchy, and understanding those differences is key to addressing them,” Young said. “We can’t simply think that a one-size-fits-all approach is going to address all of the issues that we have in our lives.”
While white feminism has increased in exposure, intersectional feminism has also been gaining traction as a more inclusive, unapologetically political type of feminism. First coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, intersectional feminism recognizes the overlapping identities of a woman, from her race to her class to her sexuality, as well as the overlapping systems of oppression that impact each woman’s experience.
Young sees intersectional feminism as the antidote to white feminism because of the ways it recognizes how different women have different issues.
“It recognizes the uniqueness of our issues, and it recognizes compounding identities and compounding oppressions,” she said. “And that each of those oppressions need to be tackled differently.”
With Swift’s current popstar image manifesting that of a wronged victim hellbent on revenge, many wonder if she will ever abandon her unconscious embrace of white feminism for intersectionality — after all, the popstar never once expressed her viewpoints during the 2016 election, nor did she seem to meaningfully participate in the Women’s March. Despite the attention that may be placed on female pop stars and their feminism or non-feminist actions, Young said she advises against putting any person on a pedestal.
“I think that we have to engage with everyone’s feminism critically. … I think that it’s also imperative that we recognize that everyone is at different points in their feminist understanding and we need to give people the room to learn and grow,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that we should never support them again, but it does mean that we have to hold them accountable for how they respond to our criticism and how they move forward in remedying the issue.”
Celisa Calacal is a third-year Journalism major who does not care about Taylor Swift’s girl group. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.