The Performance Feminist.

NARAL’s recent board appointment is just the latest in a series of “OH REALLY WTF YO?” moments in an already-fractured movement, another opportunity for a more inclusive approach falling away. Their new appointee’s failures at intersectionality have been well-documented, yet these missteps haven’t stopped her ability to fail upward.

Must be nice.

Though plenty of good people are on the front lines waging wars against “-isms” daily, social media has unwittingly given birth (and a considerable amount of real estate) to a new breed of feminist agitator–one who isn’t so much invested in fighting the good fight as she is, say, getting a spot on The MHP Show. She is lively, verbose and blustery; her showmanship could put the late P.T. Barnum to shame. She is…the Performance Feminist.

Equipped with a Twitter account, a WordPress blog, and an arsenal of quotes from Very Important Feminists at the ready, The Performance Feminist can be seen holding court in the public forum of her choice (though it’s usually Twitter.) She may be an academic from the Dirty South, or a charmed New Yorker with an Ivy League pedigree and a breadwinning husband. She may have cut her teeth writing about sexist tropes in Joss Whedon shows for a popular blog, or she may be a rookie, fresh out of her Women’s Studies class and ready to take on the world–in front of a camera, of course.

While The Performance Feminist claims to be all about fellowship and sisterhood, once she latches on to her cause du jour, civility and thoughtful engagement are on the midnight train to Georgia. Instead of reaching out for an honest conversation, she will man the torpedoes, taking to her blog to assail the characters of any and all perceived foes, real or imaginary. She will rally her troops to petition, boycott and march, all the while patting herself on the back for her good work. She will create conferences and collectives under the guise of sisterhood, all the while neglecting large swaths of girls and women who aren’t in the right age or tax brackets. She will take credit for creating online feminism when, in fact, it predates her involvement. When faced with legitimate criticism, she will dismiss it as jealousy and infighting, or respond with an ill-conceived plan to address the lack of diversity. She will shame and dismiss those who do not fit her arbitrary definition of Feminism, and will take to penning open letters to let her disapproval be known.

She will pay lip service to diversity and intersectionality as she readies herself for her new writing gig, where she will be counted on to offer the “feminist perspective” on a number of recycled, navel-gazing topics: Can a woman have it all if she takes her husband’s name while wearing skinny jeans? Are wearing skinny jeans feminist? What about wearing skinny jeans while watching porn? Meanwhile, other, more pressing matters receive scant attention.

The Performance Feminist never shies away from a topic, even if she doesn’t know much about it. Image is everything; as long as she appears informed no one has to know that her treatise on Chicago violence was based on one interaction with a homeless guy at a Harold’s Chicken while in town visiting a beau. People will praise her for passion and bravery, for her commitment to make the world a better place. It will make her big television debut that much sweeter.

Which is great. For her. The movement, not so much. These antics drown out other voices, like the ones rallying to save broken public school systems across the country, or the ones fighting on behalf of indigenous rights. Or the ones working to improve the conditions of mothers everywhere, working and non. It means little-to-no shine for issues affecting millions of people who don’t live in New York City, whose only means of online access may be through a prepaid cellular phone. It means that the people most at risk will continue to be overlooked.

So how does one avoid being a Performance Feminist? As the famed poet Dewayne Michael Carter once said, Real Gs move in silence, like lasagna. Let your work speak for you. When advocating on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves, remember that they are human beings, not a cause to be advanced; let them tell their own stories in their own words. Use your online platform to facilitate discussions in good faith. If someone calls you out, graciously accept the criticism and learn from it. Talk less. Listen more.  Don’t let your naked ambition alienate those who could potentially change the world.

Of course, all of these things have been said before. But a little reminder always helps.

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5 comments

  1. aconerlycoleman · October 2, 2013

    I may have hooted and hollered while reading this…

  2. Andrea · October 4, 2013

    so that is so freaking fierce.However, if I am honest with myself I have to admit that I have often aspired to be one of those performance feminists. Maybe I wouldn’t have framed myself as such but from inside my doctoral program right now, it seems to be the holy grail. People market and sell their research. Everyone has a research design that really looks like a hook or gimmick. Im all for being accessible but i am sick of feeling like i;m taking a show on the road at conferences. Side note, I really like your last paragraph, about not being a cause to be advanced. This seems to me like the beginning of a wonderful pedagogical approach to research design and the role of reflexivity in ethnic/women’s or any studies. Maybe we wouldn’t ave to spend so much time checking each other with gotchas and could proactively incorporate into the way we teach. Your blog is hella good.

  3. SFP · October 8, 2013

    I really want to thank you for writing this. I live in Texas and I have been really struggling to express my pain and discomfort with the rise of performance feminists in the wake of the Wendy Davis filibuster. I didn’t know how to express my concern until I read this. I’ve done community work for a long time and I’ve struggled with the disinterest of performance feminists in poverty and issues impacting people of color. It pained me that my opinions were dismissed or ignored, that people didn’t reply to me on Twitter or that meet ups with feminists in Austin were so cliquish. I didn’t understand why I being treated this way or why the feminist intellectual elite were acting this way. Reading your blog finally gives me the words to express what I have experienced and why it is wrong. Thank you so much. My heart feels uplifted now. Now that I know what to call it, I know how to deal with it. Love, SP

  4. Pingback: Including Black Feminist Perspectives in “Mainstream” Online Feminist Discourse | Historically US
  5. Dawn Ratz · May 20, 2014

    Simply- thank you for this. I have struggled to articulate this all. I am utterly fed up with the vapid “feminists” who wouldn’t know a “women’s issue” if it appeared out of the Cosmo or Teen Beat context.

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