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What’s wrong with this feminist picture?

March 23rd, 2010 · 11 Comments

You know, I should be feeling pretty damn good about all the mainstream press young feminism has been getting in the last couple days. First, a long, thoughtful, and brave article written by three young Newsweek reporters, calling out their own publication for a kind of lingering sexism that’s hard to pinpoint. Then, yesterday, one of those writers posts a well-written follow-up article about why feminism should matter to young women, which read like a more polite version of Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism (Jessica’s quoted in the article).

It didn’t bother me that most of the points made in these two pieces were just scratching the surface–I am thoroughly ensconced in feminist culture but understand that most Newsweek readers aren’t. And you gotta start somewhere! I get this.

It also didn’t bother me (well, maybe a little) that the three journalists who wrote this story were white. After all, I know many white feminist writers who understand that race and gender and class and geography intersect, and they show that in their writing. If I thought white people could only write about the views of white people, I wouldn’t have written an entire book with another white person displaying just how multilayered young feminism really is. There is certainly a diversity problem in mainstream media–92 percent of television news directors are white, most major newspapers’ staffs are 80 percent white–but white people can be accurate and informed reporters as long as they seek out a range of voices.

Which leads to what did bother me–a lot: In the 3500 words total that Newsweek devoted to the future of feminism this week, amid the 10 people who are quoted in these pieces, not one woman of color shows up. Seriously.

This happens constantly when the mainstream pubs try to cover feminism. It happened in a CNN news segment last June, where the network’s definition of feminism was Angelina Jolie, Hillary Clinton, and Gloria Steinem. It happened at a highly publicized Planned Parenthood event a few months ago called “Voices on Feminism,” which consisted of, yep, three white women.

Some might argue that this is more a reflection of the kinds of women calling themselves feminists rather than the fault of the mainstream media. And it’s true, to a point–although there are millions of bad-ass feminists of color, many women of color do feel marginalized by feminism–these women in Girldrive, for a start. But guess why? Because articles, TV clips, and events like these continue to marginalize them even as they attempt to widen the conversation about feminism. They ignore the young women of color doing feminist work nowadays like Stacyann Chin, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Rinku Sen, to name a few. Not to mention the ones who paved the way for women writers and journalists (Ethel Payne? Alice Walker? Marcia Gillespie? HEL-lo.) These three women at Newsweek didn’t even bring up the issue of race, much less seek out the voices of non-white feminists. This is a huge. Fucking. Problem.

What really gets me is that the majority of young feminist activists do think of feminism in an intersectional way. Just look at the blogger rosters at blogs like Feministing, Feministe, or Racialicious. Just look at the staff at organizations like WIMN or INCITE! or the ladies in Girldrive. Young feminists are trying not to make the same mistake that some Second Wave white feminists made of being blind to race issues. But places like Newsweek, CNN and other mainstream outlets make that a frustrating uphill struggle by painting a whitewashed, monolithic picture of feminism.


UPDATE: Jezebel’s Irin wrote a post riffing off Anna’s post on how the picture is all white women (which, in my opinion, isn’t as important as getting the words and names of feminists of color into the piece, since the photo is of the writers and the women who filed the original Newsweek suit.). But yes, regardless of “how much sense” the photo makes, perhaps the editors should have thought twice about visually representing feminism with these women rather than a cross-section.

UPDATE #2: The authors’ blog, Equality Myth, wrote this in response. I wish I could just call them up and talk to them on the phone. It’s not racism–it’s colorblindness. It’s failing to realize the bigger picture of what feminism means today. It’s choosing to interview Ariel Levy, Rachel Simmons, and Gail Collins–who are all amazing but not representative by any means. There’s also such a thing as constructive criticism, which I think Irin gives.

Tags: Redefining Feminism · Young Women in the Media · Young Women in the News

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 CV // Mar 23, 2010 at 1:54 pm


    Love you, love your blog, love your concern. I hear you.

    You are completely right. Even if we keep in mind that said photo is of the 3 authors, and three of the women who originally brought suit against Newsweek 40 years ago, it *is* in a series called “The Visual Language of Liberation”.

    To make matters worse– of the 18 slides of Newsweek covers over 40 years about feminism & ‘women’? No photos of women of color. Or disabled women, transwomen, pregnant women, fat women, or women presenting in a counterheteronormative way.

    Newsweek the magazine should know better. But again, they are the ones accused of sexism, so we know that they don’t know better.

    However, I do wonder how much anger we should direct at the three journalists themselves. They should get props for having the courage to speak out, and they need to be held accountable for what they see and don’t see.

    But, it may be that they are at (what seems to be) the beginning of their awareness. It takes a while to get it.

    Don’t you remember, when you first cast off the shackles of patriarchy, that it was scary? That you were (probably, if like most) a little unsophisticated in your analysis?

    We need to invite these chicks over to our feminist blogs, invite them into our feminist conversations, and help them catch up.

    I think I’ll go over to their blog EqualityMyth and drop in a comment or two.


  • 2 Nona // Mar 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    @CV–thanks for commenting! Couple things: I wasn’t commenting so much on the photo as the content of the pieces, but the photo just drove the nail in deeper.

    In terms of being a beginning feminist: ignoring intersectionality is not a newbie excuse when you’re writing a long piece that clearly required a lot of research. I even saw on one of the woman’s Twitter feed that it took six months to write! Six months, no inkling of racial consciousness? Why?

    That said, you’re right that it’s not so much their fault as an institutional problem–that ones first foray into feminism through the mainstream media WILL be white as long as the mainstream media itself is mostly run by white rich men. In any case, we need to invite them over to feminist blogs! In fact, I’m going to pose the question to them on their blog too! (Maybe in a nicer way.)

  • 3 elenabella // Mar 23, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    You go, Nona! You are absolutely right about how short-sighted this is. I recently wrote a couple of posts about how odd it is to see clothing catalogs with absolutely no models of color (Sundance and Land’s End): it’s not the same thing as an article focused on sexism in a major magazine, but it really took me aback: In this day and age? The age of Oprah, after all? Surely mainstream media is more observant than that? But apparently not. It made me think they wee saying that in this economy only the white people are buying the new (albeit rather boring) clothes. Not a good business strategy, for one thing. How could the same color blindness cross the top editor’s desk at Newsweek? You gotta wonder.

    Anyway, thank you for your continuing work on issues of intersectionality (I like that word): across gender, race, sex, class, age and cultural niches of all kinds. Call it out!


  • 4 jean // Mar 23, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    Interresting inndeed. But one step at a time, huh ?

  • 5 elenabella // Mar 23, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Here is a blogpost that is more specifically to the point of t his discussion:

  • 6 Nona // Mar 23, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    The plot thickens over at Equality Myth:

    Since it seems to be impossible to comment (ladies, you should fix that!), I’m just going to post an email I just sent to them:

    Hi J and J,

    I do understand what you’re saying, and I know you’re operating under a mainstreamed sensibility. But that’s the whole point–you are the mainstream, and you (Newsweek, not you three individually) have the power to change the existing narrative. That’s what’s so frustrating–it just seems to operate in this vicious cycle. Why did you not quote women of color? Because the majority of the feminists in the spotlight are white. Why is this so? Because mainstream outlets pay attention to them. And so on.

    Also–I didn’t mean that you needed to drop everything and start discussing how race affects feminism. I agree that it would have been, as Raina said, “gratuitous.” I just wanted to see women of color integrated into the fabric of the mainstream narrative—because they are part of what’s going on with young feminism right now, and they are experts on the topic, too. Jehmu Greene is the president of the Women’s Media Center. Melissa Harris-Lacewell is on MSNBC all the time. Just to name a couple. These are mainstream women, yet they get cut out of discussions like these.

    Anyway, I’m glad the dialogue is open, and thank you for your thoughtful response. And I would love to be able to comment on your blog!



  • 7 Sexism & Newsweek: Heaping Scorn & Criticism on Feminist Advocates // Mar 24, 2010 at 7:35 am

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  • 8 elenabella // Mar 25, 2010 at 6:53 am

    Here is some more commentary, too:

  • 9 Sandy // Mar 30, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    We also need to be critical of having the “token” feminist of colour as well. I think many people are realizing the problem of feminism as only focusing on white, middle-class, heterosexual women and are trying to change it by including more feminists of colour. The problem is that once they include the “token” feminist of colour into the equation, the “token” feminist automatically becomes the representation for ALL feminists of colour. Which is WRONG. One person does NOT represent the millions of diverse views of feminism out there. As a feminist of colour, I’ve been asked to have my picture included as part of a “multiracial project” or my words included, but I’m always conflicted – on one hand, it’s great that they’re trying to include more “diverse” voices/faces. On the other hand, I’ve suddenly become the representation of my entire race even though MY views and opinions alone DO NOT represent the rest of the women who share the same race as me. Unfortunately, what gets reported is this – “Look! We got a few feminists of colour to do this survey and they all say the same thing, therefore, ALL feminists of colour are the same!” Or “Look! We stuck a few women of colour into this picture, we’re now multicultural!” Uh, no. We’re still as silent as ever as long as mainstream society continues to ignore our voices and misrepresent us. Nothing pisses me off than when they homogenize women of colour into one group or make them the “token” one!

  • 10 Blissbat Loves Books » Blog Archive » On the Subject of Alliances // Mar 30, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    [...] women and these women and these women represent the feminism I believe in. These women, who are displaying the usual symptoms of [...]

  • 11 Juegos de Casino // Jan 21, 2011 at 12:45 am

    I Will have to come back again to when my course load lets up – however I am taking your RSS feed so I can read your site offline. Thanks.

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