The brand everyone's wearing
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The brand everyone's wearing

Stories/262 , Issues/Women , Issues/People of Colour
10th Jul 2017
The brand everyone's wearing
Divya on why we need to ask more from our feminism.
"If a woman says she's a feminist, I'll believe her. Except when it's Ivanka Trump."

Loud laughter followed this pronouncement from Roxane Gay, who had an attentive audience at her feet throughout her Sydney Writer's Festival interview. She is charismatic and irreverently funny. Her catchy one-liners are irresistibly quotable ("We should all be feminists"), or repeatable like mantras ("I'm not interested in perfection. I'm interested in flaws"), or double up as pithy battle-cries ("The future is female"). Importantly, she embodies just the right combination of withering sarcasm, vulnerability and good humour that you want in a modern day feminist icon.

Because a modern day feminism icon she is. Her book,Bad Feminist, was a best-seller, propelling her into mainstream popularity in 2014; she has 209 000 Twitter followers and a wide international fan base. She had a legion of fans, commentators and news outlets spring to her defence afterMamamia's Mia Freedman questioningin a podcast summary(unkindly at worst, misguidedly at best) whether she would be able to fit into the office lift. My question, then, is why does she— and most feminists of her calibre and reach, give a few— insist on just scraping the surface of what feminism could be? Why does the conversation stop when a woman calls herself a feminist? And why do witheringly smart women like Roxane Gay promote this kind of feminism when it is black, poor and oppressed women who are most often left out of it?

"I'm a bad feminist", Gay declares without a hint of irony, "because pink is my favourite colour".The most popular feminism today is one which prides itself, foremost, on allowing women to like pink and still be a feminist. A feminism in which a woman can read Vogue unironically and have a penchant for blow jobs, and still be a feminist. Of course she can. But the most important thing is she must stillbe a feminist.Moreover, she mustcall herselfa feminist. But to exceptionalise an interest in fashion or heterosexual sex is to play into the exact societal manipulations that got us here in the first place. To proclaim that doing so is an act of defiance is to further entrench myths of "goodness" and "badness", to score those lines of division deeper into the earth between us.

Gay's notion of "bad" feminism is, of course, toungue-in-cheek. Being a "bad feminist" for Gay is all about embracing contradictions. And of course, we should. We should embrace the wildly contradictory inner lives of women, the choices we make which constantly force us— either way— to participate in our subjugation. And Gay's "bad feminist" line would be fine if we could all be "bad feminists". I would bow at the altar of any, any allowance for imperfection and incongruity in the unanimity of feminist dicta as it stands now, monolithic and to be honest... a wee bit scary.

But that is not exactly what she espouses. With a smirk, she stage-whispers to her audience, "There are a lot ofgoodfeminists out there who really like telling other feminists what to do...."

The issue is that Gay draws a distinction, putting bad feminists on this side of the fence and "good feminists" on the other. So who, then, is a good feminist? If she isbadfor liking pink, and allowing feminism to be sexy,are thegoodones those who reject feminized notions of beauty? Are they the mightier-than-thouof the First Wave who insist you burn your bra and rap a steel ruler across your (God forbid) painted fingernails?

The real issue at the core of the debate over labels and identities and calling people feminists and people calling themselves feminists— the tired old debate, weary from being wrung out again— is that labels are where the question stops. If we go so far as to demand that women call themselves feminists, then we should hold them accountable in their actions. Not every act by a woman can be a feminist act just because she declares herself a feminist. What if it is simply self-proclaimed, in-your-face... and empty? It is publications like Mamamia who are the purveyors of this label centric feminism, which allows material like Freedman's tone deaf questioning of a black, overweight woman's place in the physical space of media to come into existence.

This is the age of celebrity feminism, where stars are slowly declaring themselves feminists, and often trying to outdo each other in the flagrancy of their methods of doing so. For example, Jessa Crispin, in her book,Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto,points out that Acne sold a USD $650 sweatshirt with "RADICAL FEMINIST" emblazoned across it. Just last week, in the Guardian, Ariana Grande was heralded as a different brand of pop star for her "feminist convictions." Not everyone can simply "Lean In".

Roxane Gay singled out Ivanka Trump as a woman whose actions are incongruous with her words. Perhaps she is not the only one. This is not to say that Ivanka is not egregiously anti-feminist in her complicity. She is. It is all well and good to call yourself a feminist. But maybe words and labels— from anyone, Trump offspring/co-conspirator or not—are not enough in this particular space. Let's not cheer on the women's magazines whose feminism does not extend beyond the white, the slender, the middle-class. Let's not celebrate female CEOs just because they are CEOs, if they are contributing to the oppression of poor women with their environmentally unsustainable company policies. Let's ask for more from our feminism.

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