Popular Feminism: Feminist Flashpoints




This is the fifth installment in a bi-monthly column that will explore some of the different cultural facets of popular feminism, the #MeToo movement, and the contemporary cultural awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace and in daily life. These essays are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to point up the ways the current environment is responding to gender dynamics, sex, and power.

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AS I READ story after story about the sexual assault accusations against US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, I find myself reflecting on what kind of work these stories, published on mainstream and social media and in the blogosphere, do for feminism and gender politics. How should we process this constant stream of updates and angles? The #MeToo movement has often been referred to as a “flashpoint” in gender politics, and here I’d like to think through what a “flashpoint” does — and doesn’t do — for the version of feminism I call popular feminism.

Merriam-Webster defines a flashpoint as: “[A] point at which someone or something bursts suddenly into action or being.” Dictionary.com offers a more sinister definition: “[A] place, event, or time at which violence or hostility flares up.” And still another more technical one: “[T]he lowest temperature at which a liquid will form a vapor in the air near its surface that will ‘flash,’ or briefly ignite, on exposure to open flame.”

The metaphor is useful: feminist flashpoints are media events that, at once, open up and constrain our thinking about feminist futures. They are about light and heat. They can light up an issue and show us the importance, the urgency, of feminist politics. They move feminism into the spotlight. They are also hot, in that gendered abuses of power can ignite and encourage a quick response and commentary. These quick responses, often written from a moralizing perspective, are “hot takes,” whose primary purpose is to attract attention. The hot take is uniquely suited for the digital domain, where, if successful, it goes viral, gets retweeted and memed. (I am, of course, acutely aware of the irony: I am writing a “hot take” on hot takes in this column.)

The hot take depends on the same capitalist circuits of media visibility that provide the light for a flashpoint. These capitalist conditions become the grounding for much of popular feminism, where it is easier to personalize than to critique structure, easier to moralize than to historicize. Like the vapor that ignites at a specific temperature, hot takes often radically, but only temporarily, transform the historical contexts of the situation to which they are responding.

Indeed, feminist flashpoints can obscure the issues they aim to illuminate, because their bright light necessarily pushes complexities into the shadows. Feminism is flattened out, made into something that erases history and neglects to acknowledge its debt to other conversations and other activisms. The focus shifts to individual cases and individuals, on whom it is easier to pass judgment.

There have been several flashpoints in feminism in the past few weeks, and hot takes abound. These stories — along with the Brett Kavanaugh nomination saga — shine an urgent light on the workings of gendered power; however, as flashpoints, they can only illuminate so much:

— Radio personalities Jian Ghomeshi and John Hockenberry, both accused of sexual harassment (and in Ghomeshi’s case, sexual assault), published long-form personal essays in two prestigious American publications, The New York Review of Books and Harper’s, in which they concentrated on their own victimhood;

— Les Moonves resigned as chairman and CEO of CBS, after being accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and sexual assault;

— Serena Williams was the target of sexist officiating in the US Open, and then became the target of both racist and sexist responses to her reaction;

— Asia Argento, an actress who was one of the accusers of Harvey Weinstein, was herself accused of sexual assault by a fellow actor with whom she had sexual relations when he was 17 years old and she was 37;

— Avital Ronell, a professor at NYU, has been accused of on-going sexual harassment of a graduate student while she was his advisor.

Stories about these individuals have been published in mainstream media outlets, and have been commented on in blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook. Hot takes on these issues can raise public awareness, but they can also eclipse the complexities of power — and the fact that there are different kinds of power at play in all of these cases.

What, exactly, is obscured in these stories?

After being accused of sexual assault by multiple women, Ghomeshi received a platform in The New York Review of Books to discuss how difficult it is to be pilloried by the public. The journal’s editors did not, however, give the women he allegedly assaulted a similar space to discuss the lifelong trauma of being sexually assaulted. The piece sparked many hot takes, which concentrated on Ghomeshi and the editorial decision to publish his piece (in fact, the journal’s chief editor soon left the organization due to public outcry), but the personalizing of this case obscures the broader structure that enabled Ghomeshi’s attempt at a “comeback.” This was not a matter of a single editorial decision, and if it is treated as such, it leaves the system more or less unaffected; powerful men will still have the opportunity to control the narrative and historical memory. This is a misogyny problem, not the story of one accused and one unconscionable editorial decision.

When Serena Williams rightly objected to sexist officiating, there were multiple hot takes about her reaction, some of them, importantly, pointing out that she has been subject to this kind of officiating her entire career. Yet almost immediately, other hot takes obscured this history, and the history of black women in general, to opine on “respectability politics,” or how her conduct on the tennis court was unbecoming. This kind of “hot take,” when aimed at Williams, cannot help but carry racist connotations, only reinforcing, rather than illuminating, the long history of unequal treatment for black women.

A similar process of obfuscation occurred around the Asia Argento and Avital Ronell stories. Both were complex cases of abuses of power, of institutional hierarchies. Yet the media obscured these complexities, instead calling into question the fate of #MeToo with sensationalized headlines like “Do Claims Against Asia Argento Invalidate the #MeToo Movement?” In the light and heat of the flashpoint, harassment cases brought against women have been used to undermine the entire movement (and women’s trustworthiness in general); meanwhile, cases that are brought against men are usually treated in a highly individualized way, featuring careful considerations of the degree of each man’s culpability. This imbalance is itself indicative of a broader problem, and has yet to receive proper attention.

Illuminating feminism in the media is crucial, but we also need to think about the mechanisms of this visibility. How are feminist politics seen? Through what channels? The media economy in which feminism circulates the most efficiently, especially that of social media, often ends up warping and constraining its aims. We need to think about the kind of light and heat we give to popular feminism, and about which dimensions of feminist politics are sacrificed to the economy of visibility.

Not every hot take is based on simplistic moralizing. Many feminists — Roxane Gay, Rebecca Traister, Jessica Valenti, Laurie Penny, Moira Donegan, Rebecca Solnit, to name just a few — have offered deep and thoughtful analyses of the various gendered abuses of power that have been coming to light. But the temporality of the hot take incentivizes constant production over reflection. The hot take can be useful for feminism, but only when it supports a more sustained, nuanced form of feminist politics. We need to make sure that the flare of the flashpoint doesn’t end up burning women again.

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Sarah Banet-Weiser is professor and Head of the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Some of the themes captured in this column are explored further in her book, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press, 2018).


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