Feminist-ishThe Straw Feminist Trope

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon is smiling with a guilty expression against a yellow background. Black letters with orange accents say “Episode 1 The Straw Feminist”

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock (Photo credit: NBC)

Welcome to Feminist-ish: a video series deconstructing the feminist-adjacent tropes that we love to hate.

In the first episode of Feminist-ish, Marina Watanabe explores the straw feminist trope, which appears in the films Legally Blonde (2001) and The Big Lebowski (1998), as well as television shows such as 30 Rock, That 70’s Show, and even The Powerpuff Girls. There are also some pretty cringeworthy examples of the trope in Family Guy, but watching Family Guy for the purpose of this video simply isn’t worth it.

Straw feminists are fictional characters who use exaggerated feminist talking points and sometimes even vocally identify with the label itself. These caricatures of feminists typically oversimplify or distort issues of gender and tend to rely on lazy stereotypes. Primarily utilized for laughs, the straw feminist trope usually fails to provide substantive or meaningful critiques of feminism. In the aforementioned examples, comedic straw feminist characters either bring up grievances that are trivial or over-the-top, or they make legitimate claims that are humorously downplayed. Jokes made at their expense essentially boil down to: ha ha feminists!

While the straw feminist trope is often unoriginal and misguided, its strongest examples are when it’s subverted to critique harmful forms of feminism—or behavior justified under the guise of feminism. By pairing different approaches to feminism side by side, the trope can actually provide useful commentary.

Watch the full episode of Feminist-ish below!

Feminist-ish: Episode 1 - The Straw Feminist

[FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT]

[Title sequence with Feminist-ish logo]

[Episode title card: Episode 1 The Straw Feminist]

[voiceover narration over silent TV footage and lo-fi background music]

MARINA WATANABE: In 2001, Cartoon Network aired “Equal Fights,” an episode of the popular children’s show The Powerpuff Girls, featuring a female villain named Femme Fatale. In the opening scene, the city of Townsville is introduced as somewhat of a utopia.

[PPG Clip]

NARRATOR: The city of Townsville—an ideal city where everyone is satisfied with their lot in life. Where the citizens are happy to help each other out. A city where everyone gets their fair turn.

MARINA: The name Femme Fatale is a nod to the outdated archetype of a seductive villainess who uses her sexuality and feminine wiles to lure men to their doom. Of course, Femme Fatale isn’t just your run-of-the-mill seductive female villain. Like many cartoon villains, she has to have A ThingTM. When the bank teller begins filling empty bags with $100 bills, Femme Fatale points a gun at his head.

[PPG Clip]

FEMME FATALE: Men. Can’t do anything right. Who is this? Who is this? It’s Ben Franklin, you idiot—a man. I want Susan B. Anthony coins. Now!

MARINA: Oh yeah, so Femme Fatale’s fun thing is that she loves Susan B. Anthony coins. She also hates men, which is a really fresh, new take on feminism. Listen…it was 2001.

[Clip from 2001’s Shallow Hal]

HAL: You’re saying that all the pretty girls I met lately aren’t really pretty?

MARINA: Femme Fatale is a perfect example of the Straw Feminist trope. Straw Feminists are fictional characters who use exaggerated feminist talking points and sometimes even vocally identify with the label itself. These caricatures of feminists typically oversimplify or distort issues of gender and tend to rely on lazy stereotypes. 

The Straw Feminist can be utilized for two key purposes: 

1. To offer comedic relief by providing an exaggerated characterization of a feminist.
2. To criticize or delegitimize aspects of the feminist movement and ideology. 

Some popular examples of the Straw Feminist trope used for comedic relief include Maude from The Big Lebowski, who is characterized as a sex-positive feminist artist.

[The Big Lebowski Clip]

MAUDE: My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal, which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.

MAUDE, in a different scene: It’s a male myth about feminists that we hate sex. It can be a natural, zesty enterprise. However, there are some people—it’s called satyriasis in men and nymphomania in women—who engage in it compulsively and without joy.

THE DUDE: Oh, no.

[Title Card: Midge from That 70’s Show]

MARINA: In one episode of That 70’s Show, Donna’s mom Midge begins hosting a feminist club in her home. She is frequently characterized by the show as ditzy, shallow, and unintelligent.

[Clip from That 70’s Show]

MIDGE: These meetings have really opened my eyes. For example, the English language is so oppressive to women. I mean, why is it mailman and not mailwoman?

BOB: Why do they even call the mail “mail”? Why don’t they call it femail?

MIDGE: Yes! You see, Bob, now you’re thinking.

BOB: No, I’m not. I’m just being funny because it’s stupid.

MIDGE:: And that’s why you’re part of the problem.

BOB: My wife is a maniac. I’m sorry—a womaniac.

MARINA: And Enid Wexler from Legally Blonde, a lesbian feminist who has a Ph.D. in women studies with an emphasis in the history of combat:

ENID: The English language is all about subliminal domination. Take the word “semester.” It’s the perfect example of this school’s discriminatory preference of semen to ovaries. That’s why I’m petitioning to have next term referred to as the winter ovester.

MARINA: There are also some particularly blatant examples of the trope in shows like Family Guy…but please don’t make me watch Family Guy. I refuse.

In the aforementioned instances, the trope is primarily utilized for laughs and doesn’t attempt to make any substantive or meaningful critiques of feminism. Comedic straw feminist characters either bring up grievances that are trivial or over-the-top or they make legitimate claims that are humorously downplayed. Jokes made at their expense often essentially boil down to “haha feminists!”

However, in The Powerpuff Girls, the trope is also leveraged as a commentary about certain types of people, usually women, who co-opt the language of feminism for selfish and nefarious purposes. For example, Femme Fatale mentions examples of injustices against women to convince the Powerpuff Girls not to arrest her.

[PPG Clip]

FEMME FATALE: Who, besides you, is a heroine in her own right?

BLOSSOM: Ha! There’s Wonder Woman…and…uh. Um. Uh. Wonder Woman…

BUTTERCUP: She’s right! There is no one else!

FEMME FATALE: I’m in the same boat as you. Villainy, too, is a male dominated field. Once you take me to jail, there will be no more female villains in Townsville.

MARINA: Nearly 20 years later, “Equal Fights” is still one of the most controversial episodes of The Powerpuff Girls. The episode received online backlash from feminists while simultaneously being co-opted by anti-feminists as an indictment against feminists as a whole. However, Lauren Faust, who wrote and storyboarded the episode, has expressed regret about the way the episode was received in later years. As a self-identified feminist who later went on to produce children’s media with progressive messaging aimed at girls, Faust’s intentions weren’t necessarily to depict feminists as self-serving villains, but to argue that Femme Fatale isn’t a feminist at all.

In retrospect, the episode fails to fully achieve this goal because it inadvertently positions gendered imbalances in Townsville as petty and unfounded. (It’s a gender utopia, remember?) It also ends with the message that injustices are divorced from gender entirely, and that true equality can only be achieved by treating men and women exactly the same. Which is unhelpful at best and regressive at worst.

[PPG Clip]

MS. BELLUM: Listen, girls. You’re right about one thing. There is injustice in the world.

MS. KEANE: That’s why we have you to protect the rights of everyone.

MARINA: While the Straw Feminist trope is often unoriginal and misguided, its strongest examples are when it’s subverted to critique harmful forms of feminism or behavior justified under the guise of feminism. By pairing different approaches to feminism side by side, the trope can actually be useful.

For example, in the 30 Rock episode “TGS Hates Women,” Liz Lemon hires a new female writer on The Girly Show to combat negative press accusing her show of sexism.

[30 Rock Clip]

LIZ LEMON: Don’t you know? “I’m talkin’ ‘bout a femolution.” -Tracy Chapman. She was a woman, right?

MARINA: However, when she meets the new writer, Abby Flynn, Liz is immediately put off by Abby’s frequent sexual innuendos, use of baby talk, and flirty interactions with the other writers. Liz judges her on the way she dresses, talks, and behaves around other male staff, assuming that Abby objectifies herself for male attention. She even goes so far to say that it’s her mission to “fix” Abby.

[30 Rock Clip]

JENNA: Like you fix a dog. We’ll sterilize her.

LIZ: NO! I’m gonna show Abby that she doesn’t need to act like this.

MARINA: Despite Liz’s pretense of caring about Abby’s wellbeing, when she confronts Abby, it becomes clear that Liz is operating out of shame, rather than genuine concern for other women.

[30 Rock Clip]

LIZ: I’m trying to help you.

ABBY: By judging me on my appearance and the way I talk?

LIZ: God—Abby, you can’t be that desperate for male attention.

ABBY: You know what, Liz? I don’t have to explain myself to you. My life is none of your business.

LIZ: Except it is because you represent my show and you represent my gender in this business and you embarrass me.

MARINA: Even worse, Liz’s desire to prove that Abby is putting on a front to attract men literally puts Abby’s life in danger.

[30 Rock Clip]

LIZ: Abby this is for your own good. Tough love time.

*plays video clip of Abby doing standup under the name Abby Grossman with a different appearance*

ABBY: I don’t know where you found that, but I am taking it down.

LIZ: It’s time to stop hiding. A young person helped me online post this on JoanofSnark.com.

ABBY: You stupid, meddling bitch.

LIZ: Yes! There’s your real voice. There’s Abby Grossman. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, “We are all—”

ABBY: Do you understand what you’ve done? You have signed my death warrant.

LIZ: How’s that now?

ABBY: My ex-husband is going to see this, he’s going to find out where I am, and he’s going to run me over with his car again. I changed my appearance to get away from him.

LIZ: Oh, cause I thought it was like…pressure from society.

MARINA: Instead of downplaying the role of sexism and the ever-present dangers of violence against women, 30 Rock uses an exaggerated situation to bring attention to these issues. Liz Lemon’s feminism comes from a place of feeling superior to other women, and the episode shows that despite her intentions, she is still susceptible to sexist biases. Throughout the episode, Liz’s feminism is depicted as performative: she misquotes women of color, puts an abuse victim’s life at risk, and ultimately, assumes she knows what’s best for other women. In the context of the episode, Liz isn’t in the wrong because she’s a feminist—she’s in the wrong because she’s using feminism as a guise to police other women.

The reason 30 Rock subverts this trope (rather than perpetuating it) is because the episode’s message is not that you shouldn’t be a feminist, but that you should strive to be a better feminist. And that’s the difference between an anti-feminist trope and a trope subverted to bring attention to feminist issues.

[End Credits: Written and edited by Marina Watanabe, designed by Jessica de Jesus, copyedited by Evette Dionne, music by Yoo Soo Kim and Sun Channel Music]

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by Marina Watanabe
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Marina Watanabe is Bitch’s senior social media editor. Previously, she hosted a web series called Feminist Fridays. She’s also been called an “astrological nightmare.” You can find her on Twitter most days.