Some Of Us Are BraveA Roundtable on Feminist Icons and Responsibility

Women in the public eye are more comfortable than ever to claim feminism. It’s not just activists and academics, but authors, actresses, and pop divas, too. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lena Dunham, Beyoncé—it is the era of the celebrity feminist. Having feminism unapologetically front and center in pop culture may introduce more people to feminist ideology. But because feminists are more visible with 24-hour news and social media, their missteps are more visible, too.

In a recent interview, noted writer Adichie, who was made even more famous when Beyoncé used an excerpt from her We Should All Be Feminists speech in the hit song “Flawless,” said she finds it difficult to equate the experiences of trans women with that of women born female, prompting charges of transphobia. Pushback from feminists was quick and vehement: Trans women are women full stop is now an accepted part of feminist orthodoxy.

Adichie cried language policing and insisted at a public appearance that she has “nothing to apologize for.” Meanwhile, the controversy renewed an ongoing debate about the most useful response to fuck ups from prominent feminists—BIG ones that call into question an understanding of intersecting marginalized identities. What to do about Adichie and Dunham and, even, Beysus—all of whom have made contributions to feminism, but have also said and done things contrary to feminist values? We assembled a diverse group of feminists to talk it out.

VIA: Veronica I. Arreola is a professional feminist, writer, and a mom. She works on diversity in STEM issues by day and is a feminist activist at large by night. Veronica is also a board member for Bitch Media. You can follow her on Twitter & Instagram: @veronicaeye.

LFB: Lisa Factora-Borchers works and loves in the following capacities: editorial director at Bitch Media, writer, and mama to two young kids. Twitter musings and food rants: @LFB27.

VH: Victoria Haley is an organizer, bookseller, and student in Indianapolis, in that order. She mostly reads books about gender, race, trees, and art history. You can follow her on Twitter: @buttjovi.

TWH: Tamara Winfrey-Harris writes about race and gender. She is the author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America and a columnist for Bitch. Follow her on Twitter: @whattamisaid.

SR: Sam Riedel is a freelance writer and editor whose work on transgender issues and culture has appeared in Bitch Magazine and The Establishment, among others. She tweets about women’s wrestling, comic books, and things that are probably too personal for Twitter: @SamusMcQueen.

If someone makes feminism a part of their public persona, what do they owe fellow feminists?

VIA: I call myself a professional feminist, so this is deeply personal. I don’t feel like I owe fellow feminists to get everything right, but to do my best and when I screw up, to learn from my mistakes. Thus for household-name feminists, they owe us role modeling on how to apologize, learn, and sometimes to shut up and sit down.

VH: Oh, do we all need to learn to shut up and sit down! Maybe public feminists only owe us to let us know what they don’t know.

I also want to say: Folks who tie feminism or any social movement to their public persona do not owe us education constantly (I am thinking very specifically of people like Trudy—@thetrudz—[who is a womanist], and often talks of being asked to coach for free).

LFB: I don’t see it as a matter of what is owed, I think it’s a matter of what one is responsible for and to whom they are accountable. I don’t look at any feminist and think they owe me something. Maybe because as a Filipina American feminist, it’s always been my belief that no one could speak for me, so I don’t have expectations; no one owes me anything. Speaking specifically to U.S. feminisms, I also can’t ignore how technology has created feminist celebrities and marketplace feminism. We have created power hierarchies inside the fight to transform power hierarchies. Sometimes I wonder if the expectation of something being owed stems from the ongoing struggle to resolve power inequality.

VIA: Oh…I definitely do not think to educate in a formal sense is owed. I will not do work for free, but I do believe we educate in the way we handle our mistakes. Ruth Bader Ginsburg got a lot of crap for her remarks about Colin Kaepernick, but for me, her apology was a lesson. I know people in my life look to me for a lead and opinion on things. I do my best with that trust. Although this is not the same as people in my life who like to challenge every decision I make as a way to test my feminism. The devil has plenty of advocates, step off. To be clear, I use the term professional feminist to mean someone who does her day-to-day work with a feminist ethic. I am not a feminist who makes her living from speeches and writing about feminism.

TWH: That is exactly it, Lisa. I believe that public feminists and women who have commodified their feminism as a “brand” have to be accountable to the core values of the movement. And it is the responsibility of the feminist community to hold public figures accountable—or “call them in” to use the preferred term.

SR: Tamara and Victoria, I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head here with regards to learning when not to talk and the importance of learning from mistakes. I want to take it a step further and say that for me, it’s very important to know that if high-profile feminists’ mistakes cause harm, they’re willing to do the work necessary to mitigate or rectify that harm. That’s not always possible, but I think it’s a big part of the accountability process to attempt it (or should be).

How do we reconcile feminist icons’ contributions to the movement with the shit they get horribly wrong?

TWH: I don’t know. I really don’t. Part of me thinks it’s unproductive to dismiss a prominent feminist’s body of good work because she publicly stumbles over a bit of doctrine. The other part of me believes there are things fundamental to good feminist ideology and if you cannot grasp them then you cannot lead.

I admit to reflexively rolling my eyes when Gloria Steinem’s name is mentioned now. There is no doubt that she contributed greatly to feminism, but I find it hard to separate that from her frankly ignorant and privileged stance regarding Black women during the 2008 election. That has everything to do with being a Black woman tired of white feminists asking women like me to check our race at the door, but also disappointment that an icon and leader—a feminist with decades of experience—still doesn’t get how race intersects with gender for women of color.

How do I square that?

VIA: If we throw out every feminist who makes a mistake, we’d have nothing left. No one is perfect. We need to learn from their public mistakes and figure out how we can personally do better. When Gloria screws up, we have to ask why.

VH: I am thinking about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie right now in a very real way. I do not want to throw her out, and yet I feel hesitant to accept her further contributions. And I also say this as a white cisgender woman born in the United States—I know of other many white cisgender women who are ready to dispose of Adichie, and that feels wrong, when the root of the gender binary is so closely linked to white supremacy and imperialism. Creating a gate around who gets to be called a feminist is buying into either/or thinking, which I think is dangerous.

TWH: Victoria, it was exactly Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the reaction to her recent comments that inspired me to start this conversation.

There is a repeating cycle in modern feminism: A public feminist says or does something fucked up. Some feminists take that woman to task. Another group calls out the callers out, sometimes charging that critics are doing the patriarchy’s work of attacking women or feminists are eating ourselves or that rigidity around doctrine is pushing women away from the movement.

But what do we do? Feminism is being increasingly commodified. We have to defend against the contours of the movement getting squishy.

We expect to sometimes have to educate laywomen about transphobia. Should we have to educate women who position themselves as feminist leaders in the same way? Adichie delivered a speech and published a book called We Should All Be Feminists, made famous by  perhaps the ultimate commodified feminist, Beyoncé. I think Adichie owes the feminist movement to represent it well. At the very least, we damn sure ought to expect her to give an honest and frank apology and then demonstrate that she has learned from her mistake, as Veronica said.

VIA: And we need to accept their apology. I know some will fight me on this, but we are all going to screw up. If we judge the apology to be sincere, then let’s move on. Adichie’s fail on transgender rights was made even worse when she tried to reason it out. I know I’ve failed in that way. I try really, really hard to see all sides and logic things out to the point where I end up failing my own feminism. But I also try to make space for forgiveness of my own mistakes and by extension others’ learning curves and political strategies.

LFB: When I don’t have a precise answer, I focus my energy on asking better questions. I think it’s worth asking why U.S.-centric feminism is so eager to consume and embrace bodies of work, bodies of women, bodies of thought in the name of our own western liberation without regard to how ideologies, cultures, and histories collide for feminists across the globe. I am in no way defending Adichie’s transphobic and harmful comments, but there’s a disconnect somewhere in our movements illustrated by how we embrace intersectionality when a once-praised feminist reveals an undeveloped perspective, western feminists go for the jugular. Instead of talking through how we can address transphobia in our communities, families, and networks, we turn the harsh spotlight on ONE person’s egregious flaw, and then often witness a pile-on. I think there’s a way to hold public leaders accountable without reenacting the shitty power plays we claim to want to dismantle.

SR: I was talking with trans historian Morgan M. Page at a conference recently and she commented (I’m approximating) that “we don’t have conflict resolution strategies, only escalation tactics.” She was speaking in the context of intra-community trans discourse, but I think we can agree that in some ways, this can apply to feminism in general. There’s definitely an all-or-nothing approach to current discourse that’s upsettingly unrealistic; ideological purity is a pipe dream, and we all need time to unlearn our own toxic ideas about ourselves and others.

I will admit that, until I heard her infamous interview and read her follow-up posts, I had no idea who Adichie was. As a fairly young white trans woman, I’m still trying to get through books and talks that apply directly to transness because I have so much catching up to do. So she completely flew under my radar, and I—like many other younger trans folks, I imagine—came to this particular discussion with no particular vested interest in being nice; all I saw at first was yet another apparently-well-known feminist opining both passionately and ignorantly.

Basically what I’m trying to get at is that the idea of a “feminist icon” is itself kind of flawed. Each generation of every community will have different takes on high-profile people (Steinem comes to mind again); just because someone did something laudable in one sphere doesn’t mean others who are harmed by that person should be obligated to treat them with kid gloves. That doesn’t mean reckless vitriol is okay either, but I’m hesitant to overemphasize someone’s past accomplishments when discussing harm they’re doing today.

LFB: “Ideological purity is a pipe dream.” Sam, I love that! Succinct and perfect.

Does some wrong shit just get you kicked off the feminist island?

VH: Yes. And no? The cult of celebrity makes this question much more difficult. Within activist spaces (and I mean the term “activist” very, very loosely), so much of the work we are able to get done relies on our ability to trust the people we work with. If, as a queer woman, I feel I cannot trust straight women due to the comments they’ve made, it is very tempting to kick them off of the feminist island, because I cannot guarantee that their liberation includes mine.

And back to icons—is a public apology what I want from Lena Dunham? Do I boycott Amy Schumer’s book? Maybe yes, and maybe stopping there is not as productive as it is momentarily satisfying…

TWH: I think the bar to be considered a feminist should be higher. Aargh! It doesn’t feel right to say this. It feels like I want a small tent. That’s not it. But feminism does have core values and beliefs, yes?

There is another cycle that repeats itself in modern feminism: Some media outlet asks a young female celebrity if she is a feminist. (Note that I think the media rarely asks this question of young women with good intention.) Young female celebrity, who knows nothing about feminism, says, “No, I am not a feminist.” Many of us then gnash our teeth and shake our heads at her stupidity. Sometime later, the young female celebrity may adopt the label “feminist,” because someone told her feminism is just about women and girls being empowered. And, hey, who doesn’t like that?

But that is not all feminism is about. That’s not even half of it. You can’t be a feminist and a transphobe. You can’t be a feminist and wallow in white privilege. You can’t be a feminist and ignore poor women. None of us are perfect, but we should all be working at being better feminists. If folks don’t get down with the tenets of feminism and aren’t interested in exploring them, I would rather they say, “Girl power, yay!” than claim feminism.

VIA: I forget who started this, but I do prefer to ask people how they do feminism, not if they are a feminist. And if an icon can only do feminism by supporting abortion rights, but not all the other things that make up “choice,” then we know the limitations to their feminism. Hell to the yes to Victoria’s comment about the loose definition of activist, but if an icon’s activism is wearing feminist slogans and showing up at marches, nah…that’s level one. I met an actor who quietly does clinic defense. She may not be an A-list actor, but can you imagine the debate that would be sparked if JLaw and Schumer spent their weekends taking selfies while escorting at clinics? That’s some serious feminist BFF currency.

TWH: “How do you do feminism?” That is brilliant!

VH: Let me know when the small tent goes up—I think that definitely reflects back to the idea of calling in women and people who call themselves feminists, and demanding better of them. Come into the feminist tent, and understand that feminism is a process rather than a singular statement.

LFB: I’m all for showing up for feminism, but I gotta be truthful here, I really hesitate to emphasize who gets to call themselves feminist. Of course, theoretically, you can’t be feminist and be racist, ableist, transphobic, or a supremacist. But the more we emphasize what you have to BE, the less room we are allowing for people in the actual becoming; leave room for mistakes. And when I say leave room for mistakes, I’m not talking about the mainstream feminists who show up, shrouded with unchecked privilege, mess up, give a sorry-not-sorry as they center their feelings. I’m not talking about those people because liberation isn’t about the feelings of the privileged, it’s about transformation. The point of all this is liberation and, in real life, I don’t know anyone who isn’t a work-in-progress. In real life, we and our relationships are just more complex than that.

SR: I think the key is just to identify who’s honest about their mistakes/ignorance and who tries to cover it up to maintain their fem-cred. I’m trans, but also white, and still learning to recognize the burdens whiteness places on Black women; when shutting down transphobia, I need to be very careful about confronting/dismantling my own racism and not letting it color what concerns I have. If I don’t do that adequately, I need to be able to turn around and be accountable myself; if I know I can’t do that, maybe I shouldn’t be engaging in this discussion at all; and if I demonstrate a pattern of engaging anyway, tearing down more than I build, I’m not sure I can complain when people tell me I’m not welcome anymore.

Does a culture of feminist superstars stand in the way of the movement?

TWH: Perhaps the problem here is personality-driven feminism—talking too much about feminist figures, dissecting the ways they do feminism, and not enough talk about the work of feminism.

VH: T, I agree with the idea of personality-driven feminism standing in the way of the actual work done. I feel that a lot of feminist superstars are great starting points for introducing young folks (particularly, young women) to a long-evolving movement, but it has been hard to convince folks to take a deeper dive. In a lot of ways, mainstream feminism has been reduced to celebrity hot-takes and occasional police-thanking marches and seems to be, mostly, defensive. I am not sure how to move past such a dilemma.

VIA: Yes…so much yes. Popular feminist thought is popular because it is basic. It is 101. True intersectional feminism is hard and messy. Feelings get hurt. I joke a lot about how reading Judith Butler makes me feel like an idiot. But the more I read her, the more I read others who use her work, the stronger my feminism is.

TWH: Victoria, I think that is the million dollar question of modern feminism: How to move past the dilemma of pop-culture feminism.

I got a chance to interview Michelle Wallace for Ms. for the rerelease of Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. When we spoke she said that Beyoncé will bring more girls and women to feminism that any feminist scholar ever could. That is true. And Lord knows I loves me some Queen Bey. But Veronica is right that her feminism is 101 feminism. And I don’t know if it helps us if we bring a lot of girls and women to a very surface understanding of our oppression and liberation.

VH: Alas, that was the beauty in her bringing in Adichie, because she is available for a deeper reading into feminism.

Veronica nailed it—intersectional feminism is hard and messy. We must allow space for things to be hard and messy, and we must avoid the urge to oversimplify the complicated business of liberation to catchy t-shirt slogans.

VIA: So Bey brings new feminists to the table, offers up Adichie for deeper feminist thought, Adichie messes up, and then what? I guess that’s what we’re trying to figure out. For me, we don’t throw out Adichie. First, she has provided so much amazing work to wrestle with. Second, what message does that send to new feminists? That you mess up and are off the island? Nah…Stay, but you need to listen to why your feminism is flawed. If we can critique with love, then perhaps we can listen and learn with love when we also screw up.

LFB: With all the love and respect, I disagree that we have to figure out a way to move past pop culture. Look, I love Bey. I thought Lemonade was a global cleansing. I love bell hooks and some nights, I slept on a pillow of her books. I love Adichie. I love some feminist theologians who helped me map my spiritual liberation. I love Gloria Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating, who has spent her academic career uplifting her work. I loved Andy Smith before she was run off the internet. I love Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman for introducing me to the concept of colonization. I love Barbara J. Reyes, a superfly pinay poet who writes directly against patriarchal forces. I love feminist librarians working to preserve feminism in their archives. I love aspects of womanism, mujerista, pinayism, and other feminist empowerment movements. Pop culture and icons are an important part of the movement, but they’re just one part. There’s SO much more. How you “do” feminism, how you learn, how you piece together your feminist story should be a constellation, and mine includes the superstars and the smaller lights. You gotta connect the big and little stars to make a constellation.

TWH: Lisa, you just said a word. I feel like I have grown as a feminist just by having this conversation with all of you. Feminist spaces and dialogue are so important.

A few days ago, I read this brilliant comment online that I think gave me a blueprint for how to look at this stuff. The person essentially talked about falling in love with the truth, not the truth-teller. Truth is eternal where people are inconsistent and fallible. For instance, I can disagree with some of bell hooks’ modern work, but Ain’t I A Woman still helped cement my Black feminism. It is still my truth.

And maybe this is how we build on pop culture (that is what I meant more than “move past”): We share more complicated truths to build on basic truths; we focus on feminisms and not feminists—no matter how famous.

SR: Tamara, I really couldn’t agree more. Where you cite bell hooks, I think of Kate Bornstein; Gender Outlaws enabled me to begin finding my own womanhood, so even though I distance myself from her stances on slurs and such in a modern context, her urgent calls to celebrate difference have informed how I approach intersectionality today.

Building the complicated on the basic is such a good way of putting it. I feel like so many of our arguments come from not having those foundations in place (to go back to Adichie for a second, it seemed as though she was getting ahead of herself in mapping out ideas that fundamentally didn’t fit). If we can get to a place where our public figures reliably lay the baseline and then elevate other voices onto that platform, à la Bey but on a grand scale…maybe we’ll be able to start crafting that unity “white feminism” is so desperate for.

LFB: I love that concept of building on the basic, Tamara and Sam!

“White feminism” has a history of claiming it wants unity, but, in reality, it’s uniformity. I don’t think feminist movements are there on unity yet, but this conversation gets us closer. We listen to each other. We build on what the other person just said. We know that a group of people with their own ideas and stories can come together in a conversation to talk and question how we are and aren’t moving forward as feminists. We all knew coming into this conversation that the priority is how feminism can be better, do better in the future. I think that’s the kind of unity we’re all looking for.

Tamara Winfrey-Harris, a plus-size Black woman with short brown locs, poses in purple lipstick and a purple shirt with gold hoop earrings
by Tamara Winfrey-Harris
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Tamara Winfrey-Harris writes about race and gender. She is the author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America and the forthcoming Dear Black Girl: Letters From Your Sisters on Stepping Into Your Power, due March 2021 and available for preorder now.

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