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Where mainstream feminism gets it wrong

Stop trying to label everything and/or pressure people to identify as feminist – and other ways we can stop feminism becoming another vacuous buzzword

Few things elicit a string of dread-filled groans and eye rolls from me quite like mainstream feminism. I’d liken it to ricocheting between screaming into the void and genuinely wondering if there’s some sort of invisibility cloak you’ve been donning since birth, or watching a film for the zillionth time yet still being enraged by the epically shitty ending. Resting at the fulcrum is the running myth that the big, bad wolf of patriarchy needs conquering and we’ll all harmoniously coexist immediately upon its demise. Of course, the giant elephant in the room is the seismic disconnect looming among all women, rooted in centuries of racism, prejudice, internalised dominance, and a violent past and present so great even the eradication of sexism wouldn’t instantly remedy the wounds. Between centring able-bodied, middle-class, cishet (cisgender hetero) white women, skipping important dialogues and fusing the extremely varied experiences of WoC, mainstream feminism’s meagre performance of support has grown synonymous with White Feminism.

So, it’s about time we have the talk. It can be pretty unpleasant and even downright uncomfortable, but, just like a good romp in the sheets, oh, the magic that can happen when we vocalise what we need and give way to a willingness to learn, instead of defensively offering a laundry list of struggles we’ve endured every time our privilege is highlighted. (Privilege doesn’t mean you’re exempt from hardship; however, it does mean you’re able to freely navigate spaces and are granted opportunities denied to others. Most of us have some degree of privilege.) Women of all backgrounds have baggage to unpack with one another. If we veer from these uneasy but necessary conversations and avoid seeking clarity of each other’s experiences and perceptions of the world, talking about girl power and unity seems almost laughable. Here, we explore seven ways mainstream feminism is completely getting it wrong.

“Not everyone holds a vested interest in kumbaya-ing their way to a brighter tomorrow, and that’s OK”


Championing wilful ignorance and those who feign oblivion to the detriment of other women of colour has pretty much been the ethos of mainstream feminism. Relevant as ever, bell hooks perhaps said it best in her 1984 book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center: “Like (Betty) Friedan before them, white women who dominate feminist discourse today rarely question whether or not their perspective on women’s reality is true to the lived experiences of women as a collective group. Nor are they aware of the extent to which their perspectives reflect race and class biases…”

One such person is Miley Cyrus, 2013-2015’s dearest cacophony of brazen sexuality and shameless appropriation. The singer has mastered the art of doing egregious shit under the guise of free expression: employing black bodies as props, disregarding black female agency, commodifying and debasing black female sexuality, exploiting black people to perpetuate harmful stereotypes – among many, many other things. Another is Taylor Swift, anointed as the girl’s girl of our time despite crafting an entire persona around faux-victimhood, all the while never truly being taken to task for her continual dismissal of WoC. When we endorse such figures, lauding their feminism and glossing over the implications of their behaviour, or ignore the grievances of WoC, similarly to that of patriarchy and men in the face of sexism, what message is sent to those beyond the safeguard of whiteness?


You’re so angry. You’re bitter. You’re being too harsh. You’re overreacting. I don’t see colour. You’re not helping your cause. It’s not a big deal. Why are you making this about race? All women face challenges… stop pitting women against each other. These are allegations you’re flooded with as a WoC when implicitly being asked to centre fragile feelings and comfort above your own humanity. Not everyone holds a vested interest in kumbaya-ing their way to a brighter tomorrow, and that’s OK. Too often, PoC are tasked with the emotional labour of hand-holding others through the ins and outs of their lived oppression while they experience it. Frankly, you don’t get to police the way marginalised people express their hardships, ever, especially when you play a vital role in maintaining the very systems that oppress them. Honing in on how an issue is vocalised, rather than what’s actually being said, remains little more than a disparaging tactic to derail important dialogues and dodge personal accountability.


A tsunami of liberation, intense clarity, and everything sweet washing over you is what first discovering feminism can feel like for many. Perhaps it offered an accessible language for your beliefs, or perhaps it unveiled a whole new realm of opportunities and perspectives. Once the high subsides, mainstream feminism does a brilliant job muddling the line between craze and necessity. Do we need heightened visibility of trans-humanity because it’s on trend or because trans people, namely trans women of colour, remain sorely underrepresented and dying at historical rates, with an average life expectancy of 35? Does enquiring whether celebrities are feminists make magazines progressive, or does filling their pages with actual wide-ranging representation? In the scurry to jump on the bandwagon to Femtown, it’s easy to forget the movement is, well, a movement and way of life, rather than the next fleeting fad.


Sporting armpit hair may not be as revolutionary as you think. Ditto on the unwavering quest to #freethenipple on your timeline. Important acts of resistance? Incredibly liberating? Spurring a series of dialogues rooted in dismantling repressive systems? Historically a valuable means of protest? Challenges dated ideologies of femininity? YES! But when our feminism refuses to venture beyond the confines of bare breasts, body hair and Instagram essays voicing dismay with censorship, it may be time to pack it in.

Feeling obligated to pry and distort your body solely to appease the male gaze or fulfil toxic societal expectations is unacceptable. We should all feel we have the option and know we have the choice concerning all aspects of our bodies. So, yes, let’s not shave, wax or alter our bodies unless we feel like it. Let’s rage with our tits out (or in) and rock that sheer top (or parka) to our heart’s content. Let’s explore and assert our sexuality as we please, offering no apologies or elucidations – ’cos there ain’t no party like a female autonomy party! But let’s also remember to regularly engage and listen to marginalised voices. Let’s remember that, while these issues hold weight, people are tethered to the harsh reality of institutional racism, systematic oppression, transphobia and much more every day. We can rock the sickest underarm hair to grace a Tumblr dash and exemplify an understanding of these dire matters through action. Let’s remember balance.

“Be genuine in the content you’re producing. Slapping the title ‘feminist’ on anything or touting your work as a haven for all girls inevitably comes with accountability”


On the precipice of being insufferable and the greatest place ever, something about mainstream feminist art spaces has felt acutely awry and distinctly exclusionary. On the one hand, it’s an empowering safe space filled with trailblazers; inspiring creatives assume agency of their identities and yield supportive platforms for every person imaginable. Women, trans, genderqueer and non-binary people of colour have their voices amplified and push untold narratives on their own terms. On the other hand, there exists a cliquey hotbed of White Feminists-in-denial spouting tired rhetoric about girls versus the patriarchy, while sidestepping the lack of intersectionality in their own work and feminism. Perhaps the biggest chunk of irony: countless artists being celebrated for their fresh portrayals of girlhood, subversions of the male gaze, and ‘diversity’ so clearly lack a cognisance beyond the scope of whiteness and white womanhood. That’s not to say artists must illustrate every underrepresented person imaginable – but be genuine in the content you’re producing. Slapping the title ‘feminist’ on anything or touting your work as a haven for all girls inevitably comes with accountability.


Every time I get wind of a completely out-of-touch article or witness a racially insensitive company tweet, I wonder: Who OKed this? What kind of voices are in that staff? Media coverage through the lens of mainstream feminism consistently fails to take intersections of an identity into account, intersections such as race, gender identity, class, ableism and sexuality. Writer and New York Times bestselling author of Bad Feminist Roxane Gay hit the nail on the head in a series of tweets: “Diversity is never about quotas or political correction. It’s about filling a writer’s room or an editorial space with diverse points of view. So, when you have a racial, class, ability, education, gender, sexuality, diversity, you have people who will recognise things others won’t. And of course, you need MULTIPLE diverse points of view, so no one is burdened with being THAT person, every damn time. Also generational diversity.”


Something feels profoundly icky in telling others they should identify as feminists. Sure, often it’s a well-intentioned way of saying: ‘Let’s ensure we, and succeeding generations, can all comfortably live the lives of our choosing and have access to the same political, social and economic privileges.’ Simple. But to dismiss White Feminism’s domination of mainstream spaces or the legacy of racism embedded in the women’s liberation movement is a dangerous oversight. Embracing the label or using one period isn’t the be-all and end-all. Shout out Sojourner Truth, Ida B Wells, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and innumerable other WoC, without whose contributions (feminist tag or not) the movement today simply wouldn’t exist. Whether someone opts to identify as a womanist, feminist, or nothing at all, we must remember the deep-seated discomfort many PoC have with the ‘feminist’ label is always valid, even if, by definition, they already are one.

Please note: While the term ‘women’ is used for brevity in this article, we do respect and acknowledge this includes and is not limited to femme, genderqueer, and non-binary people