I remember having an argument with the mother of a young girl during the 2016 election. She thought even a symbolic victory would be an important victory, because it was important for her daughter to have a woman president to look up to. “I want her to see a woman president,” she said, “to help her believe that she could become a president herself.”
It’s an oft-touted argument for representation: children need role models – successful people of their own gender or race – in order to become successful in adulthood.
It’s the same conversation we all had when the comic book movie Wonder Woman came out – starring a former member of the Israel Defense Forces who vocally supported Israeli soldiers as they committed war crimes in Gaza in 2014. It’s good for young girls to see strong women out in the world and on our movie screens, we’re told – even if we are mostly watching that woman commit acts of violence.
Wouldn’t it be better for your daughter, I asked, to see women acting with moral integrity? To be out in the world as compassionate and wise, rather than just powerful? I didn’t get an answer.
We have a lot of powerful women for ambitious little girls to look up to these days. They are political leaders, captains of industry, writers, and politically conscious musicians and actors. The one thing they have in common is their willingness to use the feminist label to get ahead, with no thought to the damage they might do to the movement as a result.
Hillary Clinton is still trying to sell herself as a feminist icon – as a “gutsy woman,” as she puts it in an interview she did to support the new four-part documentary about her life and career, Hillary, soon to debut at Sundance. She may have lost the election, but she is still trying to win the narrative by telling a story about a brave feminist leader who went up against a hopelessly misogynistic culture. She may not have become leader of the free world, in this telling, but she paved the way for generations to come.
It’s an easy story to tell because she has so many co-authors. Many women drape themselves in the same feminist uniform, claiming to play solely for the women’s team, hiding any number of gender crimes underneath.
When it comes to actually doing what is best for women, they shrug and plead helplessness. “How could we have known?” Clinton asks, when questioned in the same interview about her longstanding friendship and political relationship with alleged sexual predator Harvey Weinstein. Never mind the fact that Ronan Farrow has publicly accused Clinton’s publicist of trying to kill his first story about the accusations against Weinstein. Or that Lena Dunham has said she discussed Weinstein with Clinton in private. How could she have known? The interviewer didn’t even bother to ask about the Clintons’ association with Jeffrey Epstein.
Neera Tanden – a close associate of Clinton and president of the liberal thinktank the Center for American Progress – has a similar history. She has thrust herself into public life as an example of a feminist leader, going on television and social media to decry the mistreatment of women in politics and culture, yet the organization she leads is rife with accusations of harassment, intimidation and censorship of its female employees.
The problem is not only in politics. Facebook is still throwing women at the media to hide its detrimental effect on our culture – from mass surveillance to alliances with authoritarian governments to its involvement in the spread of propaganda during elections – by paying Teen Vogue, a publication often touted for its “progressive” coverage of feminism and politics, to profile five of its female employees working “to ensure the integrity of the 2020 election”. Its scandal-rocked COO, Sheryl Sandberg, is still giving interviews about the importance of gender equality in corporate culture. While these women do find themselves criticized, occasionally “canceled”, they often find their way back into the centers of attention and power, rehabilitating their images by presenting themselves as some kind of feminist authority or cheerleader of women.
We have a mass media that is complicit in these feminist imaginings, happy to champion any self-declared leader looking to build a career. We have journalists too afraid of losing access to the ruling class to bother asking a follow-up question to an obvious lie. We have columnists too invested in the fantasy of a powerful woman – because they dream of power themselves – to want to offend or challenge hypocrisy. And too often, truly progressive and feminist voices find themselves shut out of the media discourse because their ideas and challenges would be inconvenient to the dominant corporate feminist narrative.
Outlets like the New York Times were happy to champion Clinton’s “record of service to children, women, and families” during her 2016 campaign, ignoring, for example, prison abolitionist activists trying to draw attention to her terrible criminal justice record and her infamous remarks about “super predators”. New York magazine was breathless in their support of a woman president. Rebecca Traister, author of a book about Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign called Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, wrote before the 2016 election, “I have wanted to pull a lever for a woman who is a strong Democrat since I was 9.” And in order to continue supporting her woman candidate, she was happy to ignore Clinton’s hawkish, regime-change-eager approach to foreign policy.
The feminist thinkers and activists and writers who have been working on deeply un-photogenic subjects such as labor rights, abortion access, criminal justice reform, sex work legalization, homelessness and healthcare reform aren’t the ones penning op-eds and signing six-figure book deals, despite the crucially important work they are doing to improve women’s lives. It’s cute white girls.
The real issue of representation in our culture isn’t that there aren’t enough visible powerful women. It’s that what is represented in our culture as feminism is actually corporatism. A truly feminist leader – one who believes in fighting for all women and not just her rich friends, who is concerned with the dignity of all lives and not just her personal ambitions, who is not swayed to lower her standards or sell out to corporate interests in exchange for power – would be a genuine shock to the system.
Jessa Crispin is the host of the Public Intellectual podcast