The Media’s Construction of the Feminist

By now, we’ve all seen that tragic Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner: the great, white, soda-wielding savior. If relief from police brutality only required a can of Pepsi, we have to wonder why those silly, social justice warriors didn’t just start with that. Thank goodness Kendall was there to show us the way.

Still, the tragedy didn’t end with the commercial. It extended to some of the think-pieces that were written in response. One of the most glaringly tragic (and, thankfully, little known) pieces was titled, “Kendall Jenner’s Supposed ‘Trauma’ Over Her Pepsi Ad is the Epitome of Performative White Feminism”.

One of my favorite rage-passages from the article:

“Kendall could be focusing on the real issues at hand, such as the fact that Pepsi tried to rewrite the real narrative of political protests across America, speak over minority voices, or you know – the fact that they tried to commodify racial struggle. Yet instead, supposedly she’s worried about her career and her own feelings.”

I know, right? How DARE this woman exhibit any concern over her own career? Shame on you, Kendall. Shame! Ugh. Any sense of self-preservation is totally white feminism, especially when it’s exhibited by a white woman. Eeww!

Here’s the thing, though: When has Kendall Jenner ever claimed to be a feminist? Since there seems to be no concrete evidence that she is a feminist, we could reasonably conclude that Jenner’s claim to feminism has largely been an invention of mainstream media.

Kendall Jenner Cannes 2014 (cropped).jpg

This is Kendall Jenner during happier times, before her Pepsi commercial “activism” threatened her career. By Georges Biard, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In 2015, Huffington Post ran an article titled “Kendall Jenner Just Articulated the Right Way to Say You’re Not a Feminist”. In the article, Jenner was quoted saying “I don’t know much about it, so I can’t really speak on it… I’m not gonna say much because I’d like to be more educated.”

Even after clearly stating that she didn’t know enough about feminism to speak on it, Jenner still hasn’t been able to escape these accusations of feminist-like tendencies. Following the Pepsi debacle, she was photographed wearing a Dior t-shirt with the phrase “We Should All Be Feminists” printed on the front. The shirt, which reportedly sells for $710, has continued to incite accusations of Jenner’s feminist leanings, though it seems that nobody can point to any public statements in which Jenner has called herself a feminist. Perhaps we’re simply supposed to sidestep the possibility that she might have worn it simply because she likes Dior. That couldn’t possibly be the reason, could it? Nope. She must be a secret feminist…or something. It really says something about how low the standards for feminism must be that even non-feminists can be called feminists —-and it isn’t just about Kendall Jenner.

When Megyn Kelly’s sexual harassment claims entered mainstream discourse, the former Fox News anchor somehow became a champion for feminist liberation. In October 2016, Vanity Fair ran the world’s most flattering article entitled “How Megyn Kelly Became An Improbable Feminist Icon”. It seems that Kelly’s claim to feminism was speaking out against sexist, male Republicans. The fact that she’s repeatedly said that she isn’t a feminist seemed to be a non-issue. From the article:

Megyn Kelly’s employment with Fox News combined with her vehement disavowal of feminism still couldn’t shield her from accusations of feminist leanings. Photo By Matt Gagnon

“This wasn’t the first time this election season that Kelly, whose contract is up at Fox News next year, has stood her ground in the face of a seething man defending alleged bad behavior. It’s not the second, third, or, fourth, even. In a historic cycle for women—one in which a female candidate was nominated by a major party for president for the first time in 270 years—it is Kelly who has been the one consistently making headlines for standing up for women. She prodded Trump about his treatment of women more than a year before the Access tape leaked, called out Roger Ailes when sexual harassment allegations against the conservative media kingpin surfaced, defended victims of sexual assault, and negotiated for what could be one of the most coveted cable news contracts in the coming years. It may have taken a few deplorable men to do deplorable things for it to happen, but Kelly has become an improbable feminist icon this election season.”

If being a feminist simply means speaking out when sexism is hitting a bit too close to home, then Megyn Kelly is absolutely a feminist— her well-documented history of anti-feminist remarks and racial demagoguery be damned. Perhaps we’re all just expected to pretend that the White Santa/White Jesus debacle never happened, then. Oh, well.

We could just as easily say the same for Tomi Lahren, another anti-feminist darling of the conservative media machine turned “race warrior” turned victim of sexism. Lahren’s career suffered a blow after an appearance on The View, where she admitted to being pro-choice—but not because she’s a feminist. The statement that shocked conservatives and “allegedly” cost Lahren her job:

“You know what? I’m for limited government, so stay out of my guns, and you can stay out of my body as well.”

Her commentary on small government was the basis for her pro-choice argument and subsequent ousting from The Blaze. This was enough to inspire allegations that she would go the way of Megyn Kelly and become the next Great White Feminist.

From an article on Ebony.com titled “How Tomi Lahren Will Become the Next White Feminist Media Icon”:

“Yes, the same vapid blonde child running her terribly uneducated and overtly bigoted mouth on Glenn Beck’s “news” channel is already positioned to be regarded as a strong, outspoken and courageous feminist. While it may seem like a stretch, the truth is—as I mentioned months ago on Twitter—she just needs to follow what Megyn Kelly did.”

It’s not inconceivable to think that Tomi Lahren could be the next feminist icon. After all, Megyn Kelly’s well-documenting race-baiting and feminism-hating didn’t seem to ruin it for her. However, doesn’t it matter that she, like Kendall Jenner and Megyn Kelly, isn’t a feminist?

Clearly, it doesn’t matter, at all—-but there is something that does matter and it’s as superficial and meaningless as the reasons for why women like Jenner, Kelly, and Lahren get heralded as feminists in the first place: race.

That’s right. White women are always presumed to be feminist even when they aren’t, but especially when they do something that liberals don’t like. We saw this most completely with the election of Donald Trump.

How do you know she’s a feminist? She’s a white woman wearing a feminist t-shirt, that’s how! Photo by Lenagerner (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0

From an article titled, “Feminism 2017: ‘Shut Up, White Women’”:

“Attacks on ‘white feminism’ will do nothing to remedy the Democrats’ electoral disadvantages in key swing states, and may actually increase the Republican margins by alienating some white women who voted for Hillary in 2016, but who resent being scapegoated in the wake of her defeat.

“Relying on the identity-politics formula of ‘intersectionality,’ Democrats let feminists lead them to disaster, and don’t seem inclined to change course. White women who voted for Hillary now find themselves exiled to a sort of gulag, where they will learn why feminism is a synonym for ‘shut up!’”

While the author makes salient points about the potential fall-out from systematically alienating white women voters, the author fails to consider that those white, female Trump supporters were never actually feminists in the first place and, perhaps, wouldn’t have been persuaded to vote against Trump because of feminist arguments. The fact is, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Her loss could more accurately be attributed to the political reaming she endured from both conservative and liberal media outlets, as well as unapologetic gerrymandering. But, let’s not think about all of the other factors. Feminist-bashing and white woman-hating seems to be working pretty well for us at this point. Why should we let facts and nuance get in the way?

In response to this article (assuming anyone outside of my immediate political circle reads it), there will be those outraged and outspoken souls who point to the ways in which white women have been complicit in upholding racist, sexist patriarchal power structures and how they benefit from white privilege. They’ll ask, “Why should we be defending white women?”

It needs to be understood this article is not arguing against those sentiments nor is this a blind defense of all white women. The central concern here is that feminism gets flushed down the toilet as a political theory when every racist, sexist, or ill-informed white woman can be called a feminist for any reasonably progressive or downright stupid thing she may say or do. By unilaterally associating white women with feminism, then any bigoted and ignorant thing comes to be seen as a feature of feminism as opposed to a feature of the racism that gets attached to feminism because of the white people who assume leadership roles within the movement.

Image Source: vindpuss, Flickr, Creative Commons
feminist!

There are no hard and fast solutions to addressing this issue. It’s not like women can only be called feminists if they put in an application and pass a background check, nor can we stop a misogynistic woman from calling herself a feminist if that’s how she identifies. Perhaps, the best recourse we have is to develop an understanding of what feminist political theory actually is. That way, we can tell the difference between women who are actually centering feminist political theory in their politics and those who get called feminists for reasons that just don’t make any sense.