Appropriation in general is a problem in society at large that we see playing out in feminism in a number of forms, including both personal and cultural appropriation.
Feminism has a history of personal appropriation. The words and ideas of nonwhite women, women of color, disabled women, trans women, poor women, queer and lesbian women, have been appropriated and used by feminists in a position of power. In some cases, women have passed them off as their own, or used them without attribution. Cultural appropriation and the ideas used to justify it, like the belief that there is no ‘white culture’ and thus that we white folks are entitled to appropriate other cultures piecemeal for fashion, for spiritual development, for whatever reasons, is also something I see coming up again and again.
Feminism is supposed to be a place where all women have equal value, where all voices are honored and heard. That’s not always how it plays out, though. Feminism, like society at large, is dominated by certain voices, especially white, nondisabled, cisgender, heterosexual ones, some of which refuse to recognize that by engaging in appropriation, they are taking apart the lives of others and in some cases denying people their rights to autonomy and resistance.
Here’s an illustrative fun fact for you, courtesy of soofriends:
The Third Wave was started by Rebecca Walker, a black woman, to address the issues that white second wave feminism wasn’t covering. The Third Wave was supposed to be all about intersectionality, until the hipster middle class white feminists thought it sounded cool to call themselves that.
Appropriation is often done in the name of a supposedly greater cause. Those in power tell us that we should wait our turn. They are working on extending a helping hand, it’s OK for them to speak for us, because they need to speak for us to help us achieve liberation. Even speaking up about appropriation, whether in the form of cultural or ideological, is shouted down.
I brought up the old disability rights movement adage ‘nothing about us without us’ in a recent post. And the same should hold true for feminism. Instead of speaking for people, we should be centering the voices of the people currently relegated to the fringes. When the mouse speaks up to inform the elephant that her tail is being stepped on, it is the responsibility of the elephant to lift her foot. The onus is not on the mouse to wait for the elephant to move, to cut off her own tail to escape, to attempt to dig herself out.
Appropriation is, if you will forgive me, a big elephant in the room in the feminist movement. It’s another example of the way that social power structures, beliefs, and hierarchies transfer themselves seamlessly to feminism, in part because of an ignorance of the roots of the movement that could help feminists resist this transfer.
Yes, but what does this have to do with pop culture? A lot, actually. I routinely see the voices of great pop culture critics being appropriated by women in positions of power. I see pushback when women living on the margins of the intersections challenge appropriation of their experiences for entertainment and teachable moments. And, of course, appropriation is sometimes regarded as a topic that is not acceptable for feminist discussions, which makes it hard to address the role of appropriation in pop culture.
Take the explosive response to Jessica Yee’s post here at Bitch in April. It was a pretty straightforward post, as these things go, discussing the appropriation of Native American and First Nations culture by people who do not belong to these cultures. Appropriation of Native culture is a big problem in the world in general. There’s a whole blog dedicated to showcasing some of the most egregious examples in pop culture. It’s not, in my opinion, an unreasonable topic to bring up on a blog dedicated to pop culture, since appropriation happens a lot in pop culture and appropriation of Native culture in particular comes up rather often.
Writing about Jessica’s post and the response, Thea Lim at Racialicious brought up a lot of the arguments that came up again and again in comments, adding rebuttals to these arguments and pointing out that these arguments come up repeatedly in discussions like this, including discussions in feminist spaces.
‘This kind of blowback is so depressingly standard, and calls immediately to mind the dozens of times we’ve received these types of responses when we’ve asked for ourselves, our cultures and our experiences to be respected,’ she wrote. She also discussed the fact that Racialicious exists specifically because of issues like this: ‘Racialicious is one of the few places where anti-racist people of colour can come together in a safe space to debate the issues (from small to big) of our lives.’
In another post, Jessica asked ‘when does an issue become feminist?’ And I think this cuts to the core of discussions like this that take place in feminist spaces. As an intersectional feminist, I believe that all issues that involve oppression, denial of autonomy, and abuse are feminist issues.
Some feminists, however, seem surprised to encounter them. ‘This is feminism, not social justicism,’ they say. ‘Feminism is about women.’ But, if an issue affects women, doesn’t that make it feminist? If you have, for example, an Indigenous woman telling you that cultural appropriation occurring in pop culture affects her personally and devalues her culture, doesn’t that make it a feminist issue? If you have women demanding to know why their words and ideas are being stolen by the feminist movement and repurposed for profit, isn’t that a feminist issue?