To the Gallows!

Instead of rejoicing in the increasing prominence of feminist ideas and authors, many feminists fight over the intricacies of their respective beliefs. But there is no “right” or “better” feminism.

I like the term “girl crush.” Heck, I even like having girl crushes. Most English girls probably have such a crush on Caitlin Moran right now, and most American girls have a crush on Lena Dunham. Moran, born in 1975, is a columnist for the “Times of London” and the author of the book “How To Be Woman.” Dunham, born in 1986, writes, films, stars in, and produces the HBO series “Girls.”

Moran and Dunham have quickly risen to feminist fame because they don’t pretend to be someone else. They are imperfect, they are human, they are authentic. They are also smart, self-confident, and blessed with a good sense of self-depreciating irony. In her book, Moran writes extensively about being overweight and insecure as a young woman. Dunham often (and quite eagerly) appears naked and acts in uncomfortable sex scenes. What a world of difference to “Sex and the City,” which reduced feminism to a woman’s ability to buy the shoes she craved and to coerce the man of her dreams to put a ring on it, goddammit.

Now an interview by Caitlin Moran with Lena Dunham has sparked a bit of controversy within feminist circles. Or rather, a tweet that Moran sent about the interview. Here’s a bit of context: Lena Dunham has been criticized ahead of the start of season two of “Girls” for writing a series in which all protagonists are white middle class women.

On Twitter, user @lizziecoan asked whether Moran had brought up the race issue during the interview. Moran responded: “Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit about it.”

@lizziecoan’s reaction:


To which Moran responded sourly: “Thanks for your input.”

What followed can justifiably be described as an outburst of indignation. The feminist magazine Bitch refused to publish an interview with Moran against the wishes of the journalist who had been responsible for it, Lorraine Berry. Berry then demanded an explanation from Moran as well as from “Bitch Magazine.”

Moran apologized promptly via email. She wrote:

“I broke my own first rule: Be Polite. But I was frankly offended that this woman thought me and Lena Dunham were somehow conspiring in some undefined racist plot. […] I’m bemused by the notion that there should be rules in story-telling that mean you should have to tell everyone’s story, all the time. Clearly that’s not the case. No one’s ever done it, and no one ever will. I wrote ‘How to Be A Woman,’ not ‘How to Be ALL Women.”

Moran also claimed that her comment was aimed at the series “Girls” and wasn’t intended as a statement about race or feminism in general. Lena Dunham also defended herself, arguing that she happened to be a white middle class girl and did not want to appear presumptuous by speaking for people of other ethnicities whose backgrounds she did not share. However, she agreed to take the criticism seriously and emphasize ethnic diversity for the next season of “Girls.”

Kjierstin Johnson, editor-in-chief of “Bitch,” also provided additional context. She had previously disagreed with Moran on her book (Moran argues, for example, that burlesque shows are good but burkas are bad for women) and felt that Moran advocated a kind of feminism that she, Johnson, could not support. Lorraine Berry eventually published the interview at Salon.

“Who cares?”, we might ask. Why should we bother about a feminist quarrel that is so specific that it barely warrants discussion? The answer: yes, we should care. It’s obvious that different feminist cultures exist (American feminism differs from European feminism, for example). In the US, feminism has advanced from university campuses into talk shows and magazines. It is publicly discussed, and many feminists are public figures in their own right. Contrast that with Germany, where the public face of feminism is still Alice Schwarzer, the long-time editor of a women’s magazine. Schwarzer has been around since the early 1970s.

But the different strands of feminism suffer from a similar problem. Jessica Wakeman eloquently summarized it for the online magazine thefrisky.com:

“There are a lot of times that mainstream feminism bites the hand that feeds it with its treatment of women who are its emissaries. When women are not “perfect” feminists, they get slapped down hard. Intersectionality within feminism is probably the most important thing in feminism today and of course feminists should be called out for fucked up comments. But part of “calling out” should be offering incisive commentary about why it’s fucked up, not just saying ‘BAD FEMINIST!’ […]”

This controversy is less about Moran’s inappropriate comment (a simple misunderstanding sparked the discussion, and a simple apology would have ended it) but about the interaction of different feminists with each other. One of the reasons that Moran became such a prominent figure is that her approach to feminism is easily accessible. You don’t have to sift through gender theory and feminist linguistics to appreciate Moran’s book. The emphasis is on entertaining and engaging thoughts, not on providing a comprehensive feminist theory.

The same holds true for Lena Dunham, whose series “Girls” portrays young women more realistically than almost any other TV series. Instead of rejoicing at the success of the two funny and intelligent feminists – who proudly use the F-word to describe themselves -, critics have pounced on them.

Another recent discussion about Jennifer Livingston is a good example of this unfortunate trend. Livingston, the anchor of a local TV station in the United States, received mail from a concerned viewer who commented on her weight. Livingston reacted with confidence and remarked on air: “There’s more to me than the number that shows up on my scale.” A German feminist collective picked up on the story. They liked Livingston’s confident reaction, but had the criticism that “unfortunately the term ‘overweight’ isn’t questioned by her – as if there was an objective way to judge whether something is below weight, above weight, or of normal weight.” Evidently, Livingston’s brave statement isn’t enough to satisfy the high standards of German feminists.

It’s even more surprising that so many feminists, who quarrel about issues like pornography or quotas for women in management positions, suddenly speak with one voice when it comes to the role of feminism. They demand nothing less than a feminism that is universally valid, incorporates and expresses the identities of women everywhere, and appeals to every woman. The result is too often a campaign against those whose conceptions of feminism don’t meet the high standards. Instead of praising the positive aspects of Moran’s book or Dunham’s TV series, critics concentrate first and foremost on the negative.

Criticism is welcome if it is constructive. In the case of Moran’s tweet, criticism was appropriate. Moran apologized and admitted that her choice or words was unfortunate and open to misinterpretation. That should have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Dunham also gave a very clear answer, and that should have put an end to criticism of “Girls” as well. It didn’t.

Criticism for the sake of criticizing destroys what is good and doesn’t even lead to concrete improvements. Indeed, feminism often thrives on the plurality of voices. Sometimes these voices disagree and fight, sometimes they find consensus. There is no “right” or “better” feminism. Everyone deserves the chance to speak up without the threat of feminist self-censorship.

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