The recent hullabaloo about feminism becoming “trendy” has produced myriad opinions on the phenomenon, most with a heavy dose of hand-wringing. They fret over a lack of theoretical sophistication, or even comprehension, from celebrities and point to working relationships with less-than-feminist (and some downright anti-woman) men to discredit any opinions they dare voice. While remaining vigilant against the co-optation of feminist ideals by capitalist interests should be at the top of every feminist’s to-do list, the movement has a robust and seriously depressing history of marginalizing certain women in the name of “the cause.”
From women of color to sex workers, the movement has excluded (sometimes thoughtlessly, sometimes purposefully) entire swaths of the population it purports to defend and celebrate. Feminism as a political force loses not only its steam, but its authority when we spend too much time policing our borders and identifying what qualifies as feminism according to our limited definitions. We [and by “we” I mean feminists, cultural critics, and the thinking public in general] should be focusing less on what is and isn’t feminist, and more on fostering conversations about feminism. If we continue to build fences to keep out ideas or actions we deem “not quite feminist enough,” we will never move beyond the racism, classism, ageism, and other serious issues that haunt the feminist movement.
To weigh in on the ‘trendy’ debate, I think the questions to ask are “Does this make a statement about feminism?” or “Does this contribute to a conversation about feminism?” rather than “Is this trendy?” I don’t see an inherent problem with an idea being trendy; rather, it is in the manipulation of feminist tropes to sell a product or otherwise undermine feminism’s goals that “trendiness” becomes troublesome. Academics like Angela McRobbie have been guarding against the capitalist misappropriation of feminist ideals for years using the term “popular feminism,” and while ‘selling’ feminism lies in opposition to (what I believe to be) the most basic tenets of feminism, the notion of feminism becoming more popular simply can’t be all bad.
Lena Dunham has played no small role in generating the recent public interest in a social movement that has been “dead” for 15 years. While the third wave is full of media darlings, Dunham’s talent lies in her ability to engage with complex feminist issues in an increasingly popular television series. There has been continual buzz about Dunham and Girls since the series premiered on HBO in 2012 and most of it at least mentions the feminism Dunham wears on her sleeve.
And her stint on Saturday Night Live this weekend did not disappoint — if all you were looking for was slightly more evolved feminist jokes and slightly fewer misogynist sketches. It really felt like this episode was “about” feminism, however meekly they approached the issue, which is heartening after decades of snatching glimpses of progressive politics. The episode didn’t make any radical, or really any courageous, claims. But it did remind a sizable portion of the SNL audience that feminism is still worth talking about.
As feminist viewers, though, we should continue to have conversations about what cultural productions could do better. This week’s episode, and a lot of Dunham’s work in general, is very white and very rich, avoiding issues of racism (ahem – Cecily Strong’s random Venezuelan caricature) and classism (How the hell does Hannah Horvath afford those sweet Park Slope digs?) by pretending they simply don’t exist. There is little discursive space in Dunham’s brand of feminism to argue against the relentless objectification of female nudity or the flattening of female sexuality into a Shoshanna/Hannah dyad where more sex = better sex.
Despite these problems (that should always be pointed out), the episode is contributing to conversations about feminism that are happening in new places, not just on Jezebel or Feministing. Even if Dunham’s feminist politics are mentioned in passing, the mere presence of the word “feminist” may be more exposure to the movement than most people would normally get. And after years of hearing “I’m not a feminist, but…”, why can’t we simply celebrate the fact that Beyoncé and Ellen Page and Lorde (and our neighbors and co-workers and family) are proud to say “I am a feminist”? Instead, their motives are questioned or they are harangued for not fully addressing subtle theoretical arguments in their sound byte or Tumblr post.
Debates are had every day in gender studies departments about how to marry theory and praxis, how to translate our abstract academic work into concrete political acts. Well, here’s one way– get out there and get the conversation started. Bringing feminism to more people through pop culture, even if it’s been watered down, gets our foot in the door. It makes it easier for the more difficult conversations to happen, like how to talk to your partner about a more equitable cleaning schedule or the social construction of biological sex. It is our role as public intellectuals, not to police the boundaries of feminism and point out how people are “doing it wrong,” but to provide guidance and help make connections to theory. And this educational exchange shouldn’t be one-sided; academics and activists should listen carefully to the ways people feel alienated from the feminist movement and think critically about ways to address those gaps. We have a responsibility to maintain intellectual rigor and to critique insensitive or offensive language and behavior, but not by lashing out at those with a newer or different understanding of feminism in their lives.
Lena Dunham’s isn’t the only brand of feminism. I believe everybody’s experiences with the movement and theories are unique and what feels empowering to me may not be for others. In a sense, we all have our own brand of feminism. There should be more room in popular culture for all kinds of feminist voices, to be sure, but the fact that feminism is “trending” should present us with opportunities to expand the conversation rather than obligations to point out feminist transgressions.