In this author interview, we speak to Sarah Banet-Weiser about her recent book Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny, which explores how these two forces characterise gender politics in the contemporary moment. In this interview, she discusses the relationship between popular feminism and popular misogyny, ambivalence surrounding the prevalence of tropes of empowerment and self-confidence in popular feminist discourses and her experience writing Empowered.
This interview is part of a theme week published for International Women’s Day 2019 (#IWD2019), showcasing and celebrating women’s scholarship across the social sciences and humanities. You can explore more of the week’s content here.
Q&A with Sarah Banet-Weiser, author of Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press, 2018)
Q: Empowered identifies ‘a new era of gender wars’ shaped by the ‘active’ force of popular feminism and the ‘reactive’ force of popular misogyny. Could you explain what you mean by the terms ‘popular feminism’ and ‘popular misogyny’ and how they have come to characterise gender politics in the contemporary moment?
By popular feminism, I mean that we are living in a moment in North America and Europe in which feminism has become, somewhat incredibly, popular. It feels as if everywhere you turn, there is an expression of feminism – on a t-shirt, in a movie, in the lyrics of a pop song, in an inspirational Instagram post, in an awards acceptance speech. Feminism is ‘popular’ in the current moment in part because it manifests in discourses and practices that are circulated in popular and commercial media, such as digital spaces like blogs, Instagram and Twitter, as well as broadcast media. Additionally, for me the popular of popular feminism is, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall argued, a terrain of struggle, a space where competing demands for power battle it out. This means that there are many different feminisms that circulate in popular culture in the current moment, and some of these feminisms become more visible than others. Popular feminism is networked across all media platforms, some connecting with synergy, others struggling for priority and visibility. Popular feminism has, in many ways, allowed us to imagine a culture where feminism, in every form, doesn’t have to be defended; it is accessible, it is even admired.
But popular feminism isn’t the only kind of popular we need to contend with in the current moment. Each time I began to investigate a popular feminist practice or expression, there was always an accompanying hostile rejoinder or challenge, regardless of the mediated space in which it occurred – whether that was social media, or the legal realm, or corporate culture. For every Tumblr page dedicated to female body positivity, there were fat-shaming and body-shaming online comments. For every confidence organisation for girls, there was yet another Men’s Rights Organisation claiming that men are the ‘real’ victims.
Misogyny is popular in the contemporary moment for the same reasons feminism has become popular: it is expressed and practised on multiple media platforms, it attracts other like-minded groups and individuals and it manifests in a terrain of struggle, with competing demands for power. For me, popular misogyny in some ways follows a conventional definition of misogyny: a hatred of women. But I also want to make a more nuanced case for popular misogyny: it is the instrumentalisation of women as objects, where women are a means to an end, a systematic devaluing and dehumanising of women. Popular misogyny is also, like popular feminism, networked, an interconnection of nodes in all forms of media and everyday practice.
I argue in the book that popular feminism and popular misogyny need to be understood as a relationship, where feminism is active in recognising structural inequalities, and misogyny reacts to feminism in increasingly violent and visible ways.
Q: In the Preface and Conclusion, you situate the publication of Empowered in the context of the Donald Trump presidency. How much did Trump’s rise to the position of US President catalyse the intensification of popular misogyny, or is he more of a crystallisation or particularly visible embodiment of existing forces within our societies?
Great question. I think that many Americans were shocked by the election of Trump, but in fact, the cultural and political environment that led to his election had been years in the making. The global economic recession of 2007/2008 certainly played a role – and that recession had a distinct gendered dimension, where many men felt that they were the victims of economic catastrophe, that they lost jobs and security because women were taking positions of power (despite copious evidence to the contrary). And misogyny had been increasingly more publicly visible well before Trump was elected. But I also think that the election of Trump – a known misogynist, who had been recorded advocating sexual assault –did mark a moment in not only the intensification of the visibility, but also the increasingly normalised violence, of misogyny.
Q: I was struck by your argument that ‘it is the presence of ambivalence – both in my own intellectual critique of popular feminism and in the ambivalent spaces these politics create – that is the feminist project for me’ (x). You’ve discussed ambivalence in your previous work, but this line also brought to mind concurrent discussions of ambivalence and feminism, such as Clare Hemmings in Considering Emma Goldman. Could you elaborate on how you see ambivalence as being ‘the feminist project’?
First, I want to say that Clare Hemmings’s work has been incredibly generative for my own thinking about ambivalence – it is so brilliant and provocative. I also rely on the work of Lauren Berlant, especially her thinking on what she calls a ‘female complaint’, which is a fusing for Berlant of feminine rage and feminist rage. This fusing of feminine rage and feminist rage, this intersection of affect, desire and critique, is both enabled by and produces ambivalence. And it is this lens of ambivalence that I see as important to mobilise when trying to understand and parse through the relentless circulation, contradiction and overlap of popular feminisms and popular misogyny.
For the most part, the definition of feminism offered by popular feminisms is cheery and hardly objectionable, based in a familiar discourse of liberalism: feminism is ‘just’ or ‘simply’ about equal rights for men and women. But, because popular feminism circulates in ever-increasing frequency on media platforms, it can also illuminate some of the ways that even this basic definition falls short in the political and material world. And, popular feminism insists on a spectacular visibility, one that taps into desire and yearning and a thinking beyond the often stifling norms of sexual and gendered difference. When this definition is offered up by a beautiful celebrity or through a highly-produced ad, it becomes visible in a new way, which is important because we can at least hear the messages feminism has been trying to impart for so long.
Yet this pleasure at seeing and hearing feminism in spectacular ways eclipses a feminist structural critique. But visibility is often an end in itself. It is not enough for women to just ‘be empowered’ – by whom, or by what? And what are we empowering women to do? By arguing this, I’m not discounting popular feminism, or casting it as vacant of politics. I understand popular feminisms through ambivalence, rather than through a reductive binary that asks us to determine the authenticity of certain feminisms over others. It seems unproductive to me to simply dismiss popular feminism as just another branding exercise that serves the ever-expanding reach of neoliberal markets.
So I think that ambivalence is an inevitable condition of intimate attachment, which is precisely why it is so useful in understanding the media circulation of popular feminisms. And, this intimate attachment is a pleasure in its own right. But, this is not a zero-sum game; pleasure and intimate attachments are political; there is not one authentic feminism that cancels out an inauthentic one. The refusal of this zero-sum game is ambivalence for me.
Q: While your book primarily focuses on popular feminism and the forces of misogyny that react against it to defend men’s power, recently Gillette has attracted attention for its advert urging men to ‘be better’ and change longstanding behaviours associated with toxic masculinity. Do you see such adverts as also part of the discourse of popular feminism, and are they marked by an associated ambivalence?
I think the visibility of the Gillette ad and the varied reactions to it are a really great example of my argument about the relationship between popular feminism and popular misogyny. The ad called out toxic masculinity, exhorting men to stop harassing women, stop bullying and be kinder – and among other scenarios, it features references to #metoo. While there have been many reactions to the ad, the most common has been one of outrage: people have responded swiftly and viciously on social media, calling for boycotts of the company and using the ad as further evidence that there is, as conservative media pundit Piers Morgan claims, a ‘current pathetic global assault on masculinity. Let boys be damn boys. Let men be damn men.’ The ad, and the reactions to it, are precisely marked by ambivalence; an advert that uses the words ‘toxic masculinity’ is so important in this moment. Yet the airing of the ad also encouraged a continuing of some men claiming themselves to be the real ‘victims’ of feminism. The fact that many men who claim to be victims are in fact simply clamouring to retain their positions of extreme privilege is obfuscated by their anger and not-so-righteous indignation. And, let’s not forget that it is an advert, so while the message is important politically, it is also about building the brand of Gillette.
Q: Indeed, one of your observations is that many of the tropes associated with the discourse of women’s empowerment – such as self-esteem, confidence and capacity – are highly conducive with entrepreneurial notions of the self and therefore with neoliberal subjectivities. Do you see a possibility of forging collective feminist resistance outside of a discourse that associates empowerment – explicitly or implicitly – with the accumulation of capital?
I do – but I think it is difficult to do this if feminist resistance is primarily expressed on media platforms that are corporate and capitalist. The social and economic conditions that provide the context for much of popular feminism are in fact capitalist and corporate, and are thus oriented towards individual consumers and users, not collectivities. Thus, popular feminism is often about empowering women to be better economic subjects, not better feminist ones. For me, feminist resistance is about those qualities that are not easily captured by capitalist logic – institutional and structural intersectionalities of gender, race, sexuality and class, or the notion of what Silvia Federici calls ‘the collective subject’.
Q: Within your discussion, you add to existing commentary exploring the particular mobilisation of the figure of the girl as the prime site of social change. Why do you think that the girl has been seized upon as such a powerful symbol of social transformation in the contemporary moment?
I think there are several reasons for this. In many contexts, the girl is seen to be in crisis –whether that’s because of individual self-esteem and self-confidence issues, discrimination in STEM fields or global poverty. Within this context, there is often a neoliberal ‘solution’ to the crisis, either by creating new industries (such as the industry for self-esteem), or by positioning girls in the Global South as harbingers for economic change. So girls are seen as in crisis – and also as an important consumer market. I also think that the increased visibility of popular feminism in the contemporary moment is something that girls help produce and have access to, on multiple media platforms.
Q: Something that also stood out in your analysis was your discussion of narratives of self-esteem and how these are often mobilised and made legible as a response to shaming, therefore ultimately remaining part of a discourse of shame. Do you feel hopeful for the possibility of forging a feminist politics that is not in some form bound up in shame?
Yes, I am hopeful for this possibility – but we need to focus on collectivities rather than individuals in order to realise it. Shaming is about calling out individuals, and while that can be important, it also runs the risk of reducing structural problems to individual ones. For centuries, shame (especially public shaming) has been used to discipline and punish women, so I don’t see how this could be a central logic in a future feminist politics.
Q: In the Preface, you acknowledge the difficulties of writing Empowered and, drawing on Sara Ahmed, of potentially being seen as a ‘feminist killjoy’ in analysing not only the possibilities but also the limitations of popular feminism. Was it difficult to navigate this ambivalence – of being both buoyed and dispirited – in the writing of Empowered? Do you feel it is important as (feminist) researchers to more openly discuss the challenges that particular topics of research can pose for us?
Yes, actually, it was difficult to navigate the ambivalence. But the difficulty is a productive one, I think. Social change is not easy; it is often an alienating and discouraging process. Critiquing the limitations of popular feminism is, for me, an indication of my investment in a feminist project, not a rejection of it. So rather than brush aside the ways in which agitating for social change is difficult (by, say, the media circulation of aspirational messages such as ‘I am beautiful, I am confident’), I think we should discuss how this work is difficult and often takes a psychic toll on us. I think we should share our stories with each other, even or perhaps especially when they are traumatic, as a way of building feminist solidarity and coalition.
This interview was conducted by Dr Rosemary Deller, Managing Editor of the LSE Review of Books blog.
Note: This interview gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.
Image One Credit: Seattle Women’s March 2019 (David Lee CC BY SA 2.0).
Image Two Credit: Rosie the Riveter lunchbox (Mike Mozart CC BY 2.0).