In a recent article in Time magazine entitled, The New Liberal Order, Peter Beinart asserts that "feminism is so mainstream that even Sarah Palin* embraces the term."
And with that, Beinart touches on two of the deepest problems of contemporary feminism, mainstreaming and the politics of verbal identity. Membership, inclusion, participation - whatever term you want to use - is fast becoming a backlash as feminism goes Main Stream.
Can feminism - an ever-evolving charge of empowerment and energy - be mainstreamed? I say no. At least, not in its entirety. One of the most disturbing trends happening is the political mainstreaming of one specific strand of feminism as feminism whole. This marketing of feminism sells one kind of history, work and concept of female empowerment and, for the right price, conflates mainstream feminism with Feminism (plural). When feminism is explored in media, it is typically referring to White, middle class, educated, US-citizen heterosexual women.
There are two problems that unfold with this mainstreaming. The first problem is that it markets feminism as a monolithic group; a group of feminists who desire, believe, and work for the same ideal, which is wildly simplistic and erroneous. This faux claim of sameness and singularity ignores the diverse work and accomplishments of other feminists who do not fit that category and often go unrecognized. This portrayal of feminism also feeds its gritty US-history of exploitation, racism, neglect, and betrayal of women of color and their communities.
Mainstreaming reinforces the one size fits most feminism. It dissolves the diverse and bright faces of feminism and, in its place, creates an illusion of a bull's eye, with the middle target being the most significant feminists to focus upon. The problem with the bull's eye visual is the outer circles, once again, become the marginalized.
Not one group of feminists is more important than others, but it would be naive and foolish to ignore the layered oppression of poor women of color, single mothers with no healthcare or access medical treatment, or violence at the border or against transwomen. Those most vulnerable need not be in the center, but feminists must be able to distinguish between centrality and urgency. Not one group is more significant, but there are steep levels of immediacy and severity. While needs are different, they're equally critical to the plural movement of feminism. Think of the Olympic rings. You cannot pick one circle without choosing the others as well. You cannot identify the Mintaka as one star and claim it is the entire Orion belt. Mintaka may be a bright star, it may be necessary, but it's not the Orion. It's merely a part of it.
The individual over collective mentality breeds another type of ugliness within feminism. More and more pop culture is featuring Sex and the City with its racist and classist depictions as the playground for empowerment. And, more and more are agreeing to sell this one type of feminism for personal gain. bell hooks wrote in Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory, "As more and more women acquired prestige, fame, or money from feminist writings or from gains from feminist movement for equality in the workforce, individual opportunism undermined appeals for collective struggle. Women who were not opposed to patriarchy, capitalism, classism, or racism labeled themselves 'feminist.' Their expectations were varied."
As radical liberation is now confused with sexual freedom, reproductive health is overshadowed by abortion, and the term "women's interest" is conflated with "fashion," it opens the door wider to misrepresentation and feminist evasion. On one hand, you have Sarah Palin, a high powered politician who endorses victims to pay for their own rape kit, to claim herself feminist, and then you have other grassroots workers, community organizers, multitasking mothers working two jobs who would never touch the word with a ten foot pole. Let me be clear, though. The problem is not filtering out who is "allowed in," the problem is that mainstreaming feminism and individual profiting has sacrificed feminism as a collective, its one strength and hope of saving itself from imploding.
The point of feminism is to work for the radical equality and liberation of all. It does this through the lens of gender that incorporates the other salient factors of race, citizenship, religion, socioeconomic status, education, and sexual preference into analysis. Feminism is not looking to form a club with prerequisites, but it does necessitate consistency and accountability. The pejorative history of US feminism mandates a rigorous and nuanced exploration of difference. However, to sustain a movement, those differences cannot be in conflict with the goals of equality. We need to make space for conversation, but we need not make space for kyriarchal practices in the name of inclusion.