In recent years, it’s been popular for mainstream celebrity profiles to crown individual celebrities as “feminist”—something a lot of mainstream outlets were ready to do as “feminism” became trendy. The narrative of an individualized ascension within a feminist context or landscape is often popularized in this way, and issues of social justice, activist tendencies, and political ideologies are captured as highly specified singular radicalisms rather than part of bigger movements. Tellingly, engagement with gender politics or activism is centered on individual resolutions, but not structural changes. It betrays a limited understanding of social justice, without structural critique, which is fundamentally ineffectual.
In a 2017 piece on Refinery29.com called “Allison Williams Is The Feminist We Need,” published in conjunction with International Women’s Day, the actress is asked, “What other steps are you taking to feel empowered and make a difference?” Williams tells the reporter that she advocates for being vigilant about getting information “from different sources” and also urges readers to “brush up on our civics.” But, from there, she identifies engaging with an activism that speaks to her personally, invoking a very individualized comprehension and assessment of social justice:
That’s what I’m focusing on—the activism work that comes from the heart, the causes that speak to me, the stories that tug at my heartstrings or seem unfair or un-American in some way. That’s where the work should go. That’s the magic sauce that creates change.
Williams’s “magic sauce” comes from engaging with issues that “tug” personally, revealing a very limited threshold for structural change, particularly given that Williams identifies herself in the same piece as “disproportionately lucky” in the context of the activism she participates in:
To say that there has been any moment in my life when I’ve felt disadvantaged would be incredibly tone-deaf and self-unaware of me. I have been so fortunate. Have there been instances in which I think maybe I’ve been treated differently because I’m a woman? Yes—chiefly by the media. But that word— disadvantaged—is not a word that I can, in good conscience, apply to myself. I’ve been disproportionately lucky and privileged, and I intend to spend the rest of my life working off that credit by giving back and paying it forward.
That Williams is portrayed by Refinery29 as both literate of the “privileged” platform she possesses while also continuing to advocate for “causes that speak to me” reveals the logical blind alley of white feminism. The outlet has collapsed the responsibilities of social justice and feminism into a single actress, identifying her literally as “the feminist we need” despite that she shares in the interview that the scope of the issues she tends to is limited, and neglects to explore who “we” refers to in the first place. Broadly, the white feminist “we” is a common record scratch. It’s the place where they tonally and verbally try to broaden their experiences but are actually signaling to us they are narrow. Like in 2013, when author and political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter said in a TED Talk, “But 60 years after The Feminine Mystique was published, many women actually have more choices than men do. We can decide to be a breadwinner, a caregiver, or any combination of the two.” Or when actress, director, and author Lena Dunham wrote in Vogue in 2017, “Nearly 40 years later, we find ourselves asking similar questions about our rights that we never thought we’d have to revisit.” (Dunham posing that these “questions about our rights” were effectively resolved echoes the comment made by Melanie Whelan to The Cut about her son having a CEO for a mother and that “it’s just going to be very different.” There’s the tonal assertion that a collective feminism has already happened, that a gender revolution has settled the score.)
Both statements speak to profoundly white, middle- to upper-class experience—where you can easily navigate myriad choices, where you are imbued with rights you never thought could be taken from you.
But, in 2013, the year Slaughter made those comments, national data revealed that 17.7 million women were living in poverty. And the year before Dunham’s piece appeared in Vogue, the Guttmacher Institute determined that four decades of the Hyde Amendment has meant that one in four women on Medicaid are unable to pursue their constitutionally protected right to an abortion due to cost. But it’s statements like those of both women that perpetuate a white feminist fantasy of broad-strokes changes, rights, and gender wins, sometimes to the point of rewriting history and ignoring present realities.
These same dynamics cause the Williams piece to almost turn over on itself. You have an actress both resisting but, in other moments, embracing an individualized understanding of feminism.
This narrative is similarly employed in a 2019 profile from Bustle.com titled “Rachel Brosnahan Is Standing on the Shoulders Of Giants,” signaling the many women, both in her personal life as well as her industry, that have made her commercial and professional success possible. Yet, when identifying Brosnahan’s activism, Bustle.com tethers her politics to a narrative of self-empowerment:
The other part is much bigger than her—it’s the conversations that people across the country are having “about the ways that we raise young men versus the ways that we raise young women”, she says, to advocate for themselves. An outspoken proponent for causes like Time’s Up and social and political activism (see: her Emmys speech about women using their voices to vote), Brosnahan wants the young girls of today to feel as empowered as she did at their age.
The reference to differences in how children within the gender binary are raised does, for a moment, allude to larger cultural and systemic shifts well outside the personal, as does her encouragement to vote. But the reporting returns this narrative of activism to the self, capping off both declarations with a mandate to “advocate for themselves” and to “feel as empowered as she did at their age.” “Lucky,” a term referenced in Refinery29’s piece on Williams, is once again used to neutralize any race, class, or heteronormative privileges Brosnahan has benefited from:
The actor’s teenage self was, she tells me, lucky enough not to feel too confined by society’s baked-in pressures and demands with regard to her gender. Ironically, that was because she surrounded herself with men, from her dad to her brother to the guys on her school’s wrestling team. “I feel like in a way, because of a lot of the male influences in my life, I missed some of those things that keep young women taking up less space and feeling less comfortable taking up space,” Brosnahan says now.
That Brosnahan is depicted as having inoculated herself against sexism through “male influences” perpetuates the notion that structural misogyny can be evaded through personalized efforts and calculations but also by being “lucky.” But there’s no interrogation as to what “lucky” quantifies. Class, race, cisgenderism, and heteronormativity go unanalyzed and are effectively factored out of this representation of activism and feminism.
There’s a reason that words like “luck” or “lucky” are the terms that have become fluent in white feminist–speak. There’s something very specific that these words accomplish when framing the same wealthy, conventionally pretty people we’ve always given the spotlight to. In a study cited in Rachel Sherman’s book Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, researchers have observed, “The use of ‘luck’ as an explanation for success is significant because it signals an acknowledgment of the uneven distribution of opportunities at the same time as overlooking more structural explanations for maldistribution.”
This critical lack of context surrounding identity, effectively dulled by the shorthand of “luck,” reveals a very specific feminism available to very particular kinds of women—those seemingly who “luck” finds: white, wealthy, ablebodied, cisgender, straight, and with a conventional femininity that is culturally sanctioned. Having gone inward to find their feminism or activism underscores the lack of structural barriers they encounter, but also, how those same identity-based barriers serve them.
When it comes to the narrative of my own life, I’ve become more sensitive to colleagues, family, and friends using this terminology to describe me and my circumstances: I’ve been “lucky” to work in media within a senior capacity. I’ve been “lucky” to go to college. I’ve been “lucky” to find multiple jobs to support myself. Much like those researchers, I see what they are pointing out. But I’ve made the effort to reframe these assessments so that they more accurately depict how I exist in this system.
I’m not “lucky” to have held senior roles, I’m light-skinned. I’m cisgender. I’m conventionally feminine in a way that is constantly culturally affirmed. I’m thin and able-bodied and always have been. I’m not “lucky” to have gone to college. I’m from a middle-class home. I was raised by people who talked to me about books, which we had in the home in the first place, and who had the time and resources to engage with me about them. When you line up all these factors, you’re not looking at random good fortune. You’re looking at the mathematics of privilege and how these distinct advantages have destinies in our America.
It doesn’t mean I didn’t “work hard”—a weird space that I often find privileged people think is what privilege eradicates. But it does mean that I had the opportunity to work hard in the first place. To be let in the room. To be given the confidence and trust from my employers and other institutional guardians that I could accomplish these tasks and objectives exceedingly well. And many people who have intense work ethics and brilliant assessments of culture, politics, and policy don’t get these opportunities because they don’t look or speak like I do.
I’ve gotten a lot more out of public acknowledgments of privilege when they are followed by critiques and explorations of those exact barriers. When that recognition then facilitates structural changes. I’m white and I resent that everyone else at this table is too; how can we access more networks of women of color? I’m straight and I think that’s a problem for leadership given that we are designating coverage for many women’s lives; does anyone know any queer literate women who could take on this project for additional pay?
When you open a statement about being white, about being cis, and about being a citizen, that should be the beginning—not the end.
Copyright © 2021 by Koa Beck. From the book WHITE FEMINISM by Koa Beck, to be published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
Audio excerpt courtesy of Simon & Schuster Audio from WHITE FEMINISM by Koa Beck, read by the author. Copyright © 2021 by Koa Beck. Used with permission from Simon & Schuster, Inc.