Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny by Sarah Banet-Weiser
by: Isabelle McNeill , January 24, 2020
by: Isabelle McNeill , January 24, 2020
In April 2019, the Swedish streetwear brand Weekday released their Weekday Swim campaign, directed by Sara S. Boljak, an artist and photographer who also runs a lesbian strip club in Stockholm. Boljak was given complete creative freedom to create the publicity material for Weekday’s Spring/Summer 2019 swimwear collection, which she produced with an all-women collective of photographers, musicians, animators, make-up artists and models. The resulting advertising images show women viewed intimately from un unusual overhead perspective, against a cream, watery backdrop. Wearing the minimalist swimwear, the women’s differences and individual traits are emphasised (hairstyle or shaved head, tattoos, body shape, skin colour) as well as their togetherness: the women are shown touching or in connecting patterns, in groups or pairs. They create interesting shapes, tessellating or linking in a chain of bodies and outstretched hands. Sensual pleasure is evoked in the women’s glowing skin, the liquid surrounding them (enhanced in the video by Florynce Love’s fluid electro music and Amalie Smed’s motion graphics), the tangle of limbs embracing in togetherness.  In interviews, Boljak said that Weekday had given her, ‘the chance to rewrite and reclaim these expressions, that have been previously monopolized by patriarchal structures.’ She explains that she sees the work as an extension of her activism and work with LGBTQ youth. She admits that ‘swimwear is difficult to portray in a light that doesn’t expose women in a weird and sexist way’ but that she chose the ‘bird’s eye’ view to counter the male gaze: ‘I’d rather the bird’s eye be my gaze and not ‘his’, not owned by any gender’. (Schlutt 2019) The site simultaneously released video interviews with the women creatives who worked with Boljak, including the models, further emphasising feminist collaboration.
Exploring the photographs and videos, I felt uplifted by the visibility of feminism in this campaign, moreover a feminism that was non-white and non-heteronormative. It was exciting to see a major brand amplifying women’s creativity and celebrating diverse beauty, while actively promoting discussion and critique of the male gaze. It so happened, however, that I came across this campaign in the same week that activists launched their own campaign against the H&M group, of which Weekday is a part. A collaboration between the Clean Clothes Campaign and the online activist group WeMove.EU, a petition charged H&M with profiting from their image as an ethical, sustainable brand, whilst failing to pay a living wage to all those in their supply chain.  In other words, while the exciting, sensually appealing feminism of Boljak’s campaign for Weekday was encouraging a target audience of young consumers to buy their swimwear, the company as a whole was profiting from textile workers living in poverty. While millennial feminists in the UK celebrate, women in Cambodia are working for ‘starvation wages’. The disparity seems particularly stark if we consider the point made by the activist group Labour Behind the Label: ‘H&M would only have to reallocate one year of its annual advertising budget to muster up living wages for its Cambodian workers for six and a half years’. (Malik Chua 2018)
This example exposes some of the complexities of contemporary popular feminism, its networked visibility and its entanglement with global flows of capital and power. Sarah Banet-Weiser takes on these complexities with lucidity and sincerity in Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (2018). Her timely book provides powerful, practical conceptual tools for thinking about popular feminism and its correlative misogyny. Through a series of compelling examples, Banet-Weiser formulates a theoretical and critical vocabulary for understanding the workings of and problems with popular feminism in an age of neoliberal hegemony and social media. Like many of the best arguments, Banet-Weiser’s is grounded by a simple, yet illuminating idea: that in our age of proliferating, networked images, popular feminist economies of visibility are ascendant at the expense of a politics of visibility. Among others, Banet-Weiser draws on Angela McRobbie’s (2007, 2009) analysis of postfeminism and Catherine Rottenberg’s (2014) work on neoliberal feminism. These analyses of feminisms which bolster mainstream politics inform Banet-Weiser’s critique of popular feminism: with its emphasis on ‘empowerment’, it encourages women to be ‘a better economic subject, not necessarily a better feminist subject’. (Banet-Weiser 2018: 21) She combines this with an extension of Robyn Wiegman’s (1995) discussion of ‘economies of visibility’, in which gendered and raced bodies become both legible and commodified through popular representations. In a world of networked, multiple media platforms, where being visible increasingly entails an economic value, feminist visibility becomes an end in itself rather than leading to political change: ‘visual representation becomes the beginning and the end of political action’. (Banet-Weiser: 23) While it is crucial for marginalised and oppressed groups to be recognised, to be seen and heard, in order to pursue social justice, it is helpful to distinguish such demands for representation from a model of ‘trending’ (a pervasive phenomenon stemming from social media) which for Banet-Weiser is about ‘making oneself available for normalization’ (2018: 24) and, crucially, ‘is economized and bounded by corporate logics and desires’. (2018: 25)
Most of us have probably noticed that, as with everything else it touches, advanced neoliberal capitalism has commodified feminism and other kinds of activism, selling us t-shirts and necklaces in exchange for the public visiblity of feminism as a trend. Like Banet-Weiser herself, we might even have had fleeting moments of optimism, as we have been able ‘to imagine a culture in which feminism, in every form, doesn’t have to be defended; it is accessible, even admired’. (2018: 1) The hope we might be tempted to buy into is that of consumer power: if feminism makes money perhaps it will become the norm, leading ultimately to a lasting acceptance of equality? Banet-Weiser is not dismissive of such power, which is, after all, at the heart of the ‘popular’ itself. She recognises that ‘popular feminist expressions and practices are important for public knowledge’. (2018: 184) But what Banet-Weiser’s book does very well is to reconnect some of the different aspects of contemporary culture that appear separate, or that it is easier to keep separate. Reading it, for example, made me especially alert to the link between the two campaigns mentioned above, the marketing for Weekday Swim and the Clean Clothes Campaign action against H&M. We cannot ignore ways in which the visibility of popular feminist success stories can work actively to obscure the exploitation and oppression of other women. Banet-Weiser shows throughout the book that visibility works differently and unequally for different people, different women, different bodies. Visibility can also mean a spotlight or surveillance: it can be dangerous. ‘Marginalized subjects, subjects of difference, are punished and disciplined precisely when the spotlight falls on them’. (2018: 26) Economies of visibility have tended to privilege young, white, conventionally beautiful, heteronormative images of femininity, fostering a feminism that disavows intersecting structures of inequality such as racism, transphobia and class privilege. For example, Banet-Weiser shows how the activist work of Tanara Burke, the African American sexual assault survivor who created the phrase ‘me too’ in 2006, was subsequently effaced in the #metoo movement. (2018: 16-17) Furthermore, case studies of popular feminist advertising, such as CoverGirl’s #GirlsCan, show how corporate messages of empowerment encourage individual confidence and self-esteem rather than exposing structural barriers. (2018: 53) In this way, hypervisibility, geared towards (monetised) ‘views’ and ‘likes’, actually works to obscure and ramify the workings of neoliberal patriarchy and its fundamental dependence on systemic inequality.
The subtitle of Empowered points to another, related aspect that Banet-Weiser draws out in the book: the connection between popular feminism and popular misogyny. The Preface opens with a description of the author’s daughter’s reaction to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. ‘It is difficult,’ she wrote at the time, ‘to explain to young women, who see and experience a volume of messages and initiatives telling them to be confident, to lean in, to just be empowered, why a known misogynist and racist has just been elected President’ (2018: ix) Her project is driven by a quest to understand how it is that, with feminism more ‘popular’ than ever, misogyny is also so resurgent, claiming positions of real authority and power. Banet-Weiser examines such power in the light of what she calls the ‘funhouse mirror’ of popular misogyny, in which feminist critique in its most visible and popular forms is consistently recast in terms of an injury to men. She engages with the tactics of ‘men’s rights’ groups, the ‘manosphere’ and gaming-based harassment to expose the way tropes, images and taglines are repeatedly (and sometimes violently) recuperated and deployed in order to diminish the perceived power of popular feminism. One example is the Edmonton Men’s Rights Organization’s re-use of the slogan of a Canadian rape-awareness group (BWSS), ‘Don’t Be That Guy’. Designed to encourage men to act more responsibly in relation to sexual consent, the BWSS campaign included text such as, ‘Just Because She’s Drinking… Doesn’t Mean She Wants Sex.’ The men’s group turned this into: ‘Just Because You Regret A One Night Stand… Doesn’t Mean It Wasn’t Consensual’, with the key slogan becoming, ‘Don’t Be That Girl’. (2018: 56) Popular feminism and popular misogyny, Banet-Weiser demonstrates, compete for ground within an economy of visibility, in which a misogynistic mirror is often held up to attack feminist statements. The problem is that the weight of history stacks the odds against feminism: ‘the legacy of patriarchy legitimates misogynistic arguments as common sense, allowing for the conversion of misogynistic ideas into action with terrible efficiency’. (2018: 33) When feminist discourse is commodified, with visibility as an end in itself, its ideals become particularly vulnerable to this default logic.
Banet-Weiser’s argument moves through key themes that help to illuminate the relationship between popular feminism and popular misogyny. Having demonstrated the workings of the ‘funhouse mirror’ in the first chapter, the following chapters crystallize around ‘Shame’, ‘Confidence’ and ‘Competence’ as discursive fields within which popular feminism and misogyny compete. Considering the prevalence of ‘shaming’, for example, reveals interdependencies between body positivity movements and the trolling, slut-shaming and harassing of women in online platforms. In the terms of popular feminism, we must ‘love our bodies’ and to do so we must expose them to potential humiliation: ‘Can you love your body in a culture that says you should hate it? If you can, then you can become a digital life, your own brand, your own industry’. (2018: 69) The twin concepts of injury and capacity form a conceptual strand running throughout the book. Popular feminism emphasises the ‘injured’ self-esteem of young girls (primarily white and middle-class) and aims to restore their ‘capacity’ to love themselves, their faces and bodies. Banet-Weiser’s analysis of the ‘Am I Pretty’ genre of online videos (2018: 78-83) exemplifies this structure, as girls post videos that both expose their low self-esteem and invite bolstering validation. They often receive misogynistic reactions, producing further injury. As with online shaming, the logic of injury and capacity works in a mutual relation between popular feminism and misogyny, as well as feeding ‘a lucrative market that targets young, middle-class girls as its consumers’. (2018: 80)
The correlation becomes ever clearer as we progress through the book: the more visible popular feminism becomes, with its demands that the injuries done to women and girls’ self-esteem, confidence, and perceived competence be repaired, the more violent the misogynistic response. The last chapter’s focus on the technology industries is particularly revealing because these industries are at the heart of the ‘popular’ in the age of digital information and networks. It is here that organised, popular misogyny is often at its most blatant, for example in the creation of an online game called ‘Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian’, which encourages and enables the user to brutalise an avatar of the feminist vlogger well-known for her videos criticising the representation of women in games. (2018: 131) While popular feminism remains focused on developing the entrepreneurial self in the fields where contemporary power is situated, such as the tech industry, popular misogyny responds defensively and recuperatively: ‘it is dedicated to securing, and continuing, capitalism as the privileged site of patriarchy’. (2018: 135)
Empowered argues convincingly, however, for a politically engaged, intersectional feminism that focuses on action and resists, rather than consents to, the neoliberal capitalist hegemony. Significantly, this depends on solidarity and community rather than on the self. Whether self-esteem or self-confidence, the focus on individual women will always betray collective politics and benefit the most privileged. Playing on the slogan that supported Hilary Clinton against Donald Trump, Banet-Weiser calls out the popular feminism that declares ‘I’m with her,’ not ‘We’re with each other’ (184) Rather than a feminism that is ‘all the rage’ and which becomes recuperated by the ‘hateful rage of misogyny’, Banet-Weiser urges us to transform popularity into ‘a lasting feminist rage’, ‘directed at a racist and sexist structure’. (2018: 185)
Anna Misiak has argued that just such a rage is on the rise in response to Trump’s politics in the US, which has shaken western women’s confidence in their social and political power. (2018) Misiak’s cautiously optimistic article argued that social media has indeed fostered an increase in solidarity and helped to channel women’s rage into action. Certainly, it is hard to disagree with Banet-Weiser’s observation that so-called ‘hashtag’ activism ‘often becomes something retweeted or reposted rather than engaged politically’. (2018: 141) Yet, it is also hard to dismiss the idea that collective action can sometimes be made possible through social media networks, their power to connect people and to influence public debate: Misiak makes the connection between the #Timesup campaign, for example, and the increase, albeit small, in Oscar nominations for women. When Twitter feminists critique the way the black British novelist Bernadine Evaristo was made to share the Booker prize with a white woman (Margaret Atwood) whose mainstream fame was already far more established, is it too far-fetched to hope that such consciousness-raising will help to change the way women writers of colour are treated and valued in the future? In other words, how can we and should we engage with economies of visibility in order to bring about real political and social change?
This question brings me back to the example of Weekday Swim 2019. After all, I encountered both sides of that story through information networks: the advertising campaign and the denunciatory petition. Whether or not the latter is effective, it clearly aims to go beyond visibility and effect change by holding large corporations to account. To do so, it must be seen. Making visible has always been an essential part of feminist action, but in order to channel feminist rage into political change, what needs to be visible are the very mechanisms by which feminist ways of seeing (such as Boljak’s creative vision) are systematically recuperated. I think ‘filter bubbles’ and play a role here, one that is not much explored in Empowered. Part of the problem identified by Banet-Weiser stems from the separation and hierarchisation of different forms of visibility through echo chambers nurtured by algorithms that generate profit. These tend to ‘confine us to our own information neighbourhood, unable to see or explore the rest of the enormous world of possibilities that exist online’. (Pariser 2011: 222) This can entrench marginalisation. Boljak was at least officially commissioned, while the labour of others remains invisible, such as when Flavia Dzodan’s words on intersectionality were commercialised without context and without her permission. (Dzodan 2016) In the piece ‘My Feminism Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit’, which triggered a huge number of commodities emblazoned with the title phrase and refrain, Dzodan also proposed playing ‘connect the dots’, noticing angrily the gaps through which feminism repeatedly fails women of colour. (Dzodan 2011) Writing for a blog, Dzodan received no compensation for her labour, while her catchy phrase was turned into kitsch objects that made money for other people: a deep irony as this once again diminished the voice and visibility of a women of colour. This shows how the dots fly apart when the articulation of anger and protest becomes recuperated into hypervisibility. In a networked era, part of intersectional feminism’s work is to seek out the connections, to join the dots as Dzodan advocates. More than just ‘making visible’ or even using the camera in a different way, we need to burst bubbles in order to look for, expose and reintegrate all that is obscured and buried by economies of visibility.
 The petition is now closed but the site is still active at the time of writing: https://act.wemove.eu/campaigns/Living-Wages-HM (last accessed 21 November 2019).
Banet-Weiser, Sarah (2018), Empowered Feminism and Popular Misogyny, Durham: Duke University Press.
Dzodan, Flavia (2016), ‘My Feminism will be Capitalist, Appropriative and Bullshit Merchandise’, Athena Talks, Medium, 9 August 2016, https://medium.com/athena-talks/my-feminism-will-be-capitalist-appropriative-and-bullshit-merchandise-d1064490d8fb (last accessed 2 December 2019).
Dzodan, Flavia (2011), ‘My Feminism Will be Intersectional or it Will Be Bullshit’, Tiger Beatdown, 10 October 2011, http://tigerbeatdown.com/2011/10/10/my-feminism-will-be-intersectional-or-it-will-be-bullshit/(last accessed 10 January 2019).
Malik Chua, Jasmin (2018), ‘Why Is It So Hard for Clothing Manufacturers to Pay a Living Wage?’, Vox, 27 February 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/2/27/17016704/living-wage-clothing-factories (last accessed 21 November 2019).
McRobbie, Angela (2007), ‘Postfeminism and Popular Culture: Bridget Jones and the New Gender Regime’, in Yvonne Tasker & Diane Negra (eds), Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 27-39.
McRobbie, Angela (2009), The Aftermath of Feminism, London: Sage.
Misiak, Anna (2018), ‘The Lessons We Have Learnt: How Sexism in American Politics Sparked Off the New Feminist Renaissance’, MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture, No. 1, https://maifeminism.com/the-lessons-we-have-learnt-how-sexism-in-american-politics-sparked-off-the-new-feminist-renaissance/ (last accessed 21 November 2019).
Pariser, Eli (2011), The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You, London: Penguin.
Rottenberg, Catherine (2014), ‘The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism’, Cultural Studies Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 418-437.
Schlutt, Marcel (2019), ‘Weekday Swimwear Spring/Summer 2019’, Kaltblut, 27 April 2019, https://www.kaltblut-magazine.com/weekday-swimwear-spring-summer-2019/ (last accessed 21 November 2019).
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