In all honesty, my identity comes with very few disadvantages at this point in my life. Being a white middle-class college student in Portland, I’m usually treated with respect, assumed to be responsible, and afforded the basic opportunities necessary to lead a satisfying life. I’m also lucky enough to attend University as a young adult, where I’ve recently found a passion for engaging with social justice and Feminism. Since becoming interested in Feminism, however, I’ve noticed a pattern in the way white Feminists are perceived in our culture. Many critics of Feminism openly deride white and upper/middle-class activists, but certain advocates of Feminism are hesitant to take a privileged woman’s Feminist identity seriously as well. White Feminist characters in movies and television are often self-righteous, unpleasant, or over-the-top, and even actors who identify as Feminist themselves sometimes portray white Feminist women as the butt of the joke. Why, if Feminism aims to eliminate prejudice, does this bias exist? From what I’ve noticed, people seem to assume that social privilege (in this case, being white and middle-class) and oppression (experiencing sexism) are mutually exclusive. For that reason, upper and middle-class white Feminists are often seen as inauthentic by default. I’ve encountered this line of thinking numerous times through personal interactions, and have began to notice this image of the irritating, hypocritical, and disingenuous white Feminist woman reflected in pop-culture media as well. Like many stereotypes, this theme seems to appear most often in comedy, where the genre allows actors to go wild overacting their “Feminist” characters. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found three pop culture artifacts that cast my identity—white, female, middle-class, and feminist—in such a light.
The first artifact that came to mind when I began thinking about Feminist’s portrayal in pop culture media is a scene from the animated series, Futurama. Futurama’s third feature-length film, “Into the Wild Green Yonder”, focuses a lot on the theme of environmental destruction and eco-Feminism. Leela, the show’s main female character, takes action against deforestation by joining an Eco-Feminist collective called the “Greenoritas.” The organization’s leader, named Frida Waterfall, is an extreme parody of both stereotypical feminists and environmental protesters. Throughout her appearances in the film, she makes constant bad Feminist puns on common words used by the other characters. Before long, even Leela snaps, and can no longer tolerate Frida’s quirks and irritating and personality. A man voices Frida, and uses a whiny and emotional tone through most of her dialog. After multiple failed protesting stunts, all of which display Frida’s incompetence as a leader, she’s stripped of her title as head of the organization.
Though Frida makes the most blatantly faulty arguments, the entire Greenorita collective is a strong example of a specific character trope; the “Straw Feminist”. Coined by columnist Ellen Goodman in the early 1990s, the Straw Feminist is a satirical embodiment of negative stereotypes about Feminist. Like the proverbial Straw Man, the Straw Feminist’s arguments are flimsy and fallacious. With her famously eloquent sarcastic tone, Goodman explains in a 1994 issue of the Pittsburg Post-Gazette that Straw Feminists are “most helpful for discrediting real feminists, but also handy for scaring supporters away.” TVtropes.org describes the trope as it appears in popular movies and television:
“Straw Feminist: A character whose ‘feminism’ is drawn only for the purposes of either proving the character wrong or mocking them. Typical depictions of Straw Feminists usually present them as misandrists who exhibit Political Correctness Gone Mad.”
While there was likely at least some satirical intention behind the Greenorita characters in Futurama as well, Frida and her colleagues definitely perpetuate the image of the obnoxious and irrational white Feminist woman. Because there’s no positive image of Feminism to serve as contrast in the film, “Into the Wild Green Yonder” seems to portray the Straw Feminist trope to a fault. The film could have poked fun at Frida and still left viewers with a positive impression of Feminism, if only Frida had been given any chances for redemption. But, before the end of the movie, she’s killed off. Rather than highlighting the absurdity of characters like these, the take-away message about the Greenoritas seems simply to be that they’re incompetent.
My second artifact comes from the IFC comedy series, Portlandia. In the series’ famous Feminist Bookstore clips, actors Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein play two women who own a Feminist-themed bookstore in Northeast Portland. Throughout the first two seasons, Both owners speak in monotone, and have very solemn and unamused personalities. The owners seem to seize every opportunity to become personally offended, and in each scene, Armisen and Brownstein are simultaneously whiny and soft-spoken; bossy, and incompetent. In short, they’re frustrating to their customers, and frustrating to watch. The overacting in the skits make clear that the Feminist bookstore owners in Portlandia are made to seem more like eccentric complainers than informed philosophers. Additionally, the fact that they’re white business owners in a trendy neighborhood conveys a sense of privilege, and this is accentuated by their culturally appropriated clothing and accessories. Cumulatively, these details lead me to think that the humor in the Feminist bookstore skit comes mostly from the fact that the owners are hypocritical underinformed. As a viewer, I’m reluctant to take them seriously. I get the sense that they hold themselves up on a pedestal, despite claiming to be liberal and nondiscriminatory. I might consider the Feminist Bookstore skit as more of a funny or satirical character study if it weren’t totally consistent with a real-world negative stereotype; that Feminist white women are really just sheltered, unappreciative, and bored.
Knowing a bit about Armisen’s and Brownstein’s personal lives, I’m sure there’s no blatant anti-feminist message in their work. However, the characters they create and portray are obnoxious in a way that encapsulates negative stereotypes about Feminists, and it doesn’t exactly seem intentional—at least, not in a pro-Feminist way. Kelsey Wallace, a writer for Bitch Magazine, had this reaction as well. In her review of Portlandia’s first season, she explains that the Feminist Bookstore scenes are “tricky.” She points out that on one hand, the show brings Feminism to popular television by filming on location in a real Feminist bookstore, and by starring former Riot Grrrl (a.k.a., third-wave Feminist) Carrie Brownstein. On the other hand, though, she notices how Armisen and Brownstein don’t exactly poke fun at Feminism in the “laughing with you” way. In her review, she links an NPR interview where Brownstein explains that the skit is inspired by the bookstore’s real owners. There’s not really a “you have the wrong idea about feminists” tone to the skits; rather, the skits humor lies in the eccentricity and irritating Feminism of the Feminists themselves. I wouldn’t knock someone for enjoying these skits, since elements of Brownstein and Armisen’s overreacting can be pretty silly. Personally though, I prefer to know there’s strong intention behind controversial representations of women and Feminists. Comedic sketches where the joke is that the woman’s a Feminist aren’t very creative or original; women and Feminism are already mocked in this way by intentional sexism. Plus, if the audience has a limited understanding Feminism, skits like these might simply perpetuate the stereotypes they’re satirizing.
My third artifact comes from Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update Segment, and it features Sarah Silverman and Kate McKinnon playing a two-woman Feminist band. Unsurprisingly, Silverman and McKinnon clearly overact their parts, giving their characters obnoxious and self-important airs. McKinnon especially, as she keeps her eyes wide open throughout the skit, and only speaks in a sharp and direct tone of voice. The news anchor in the skit (played by Michael Che) seems visibly put-off by the two feminist musicians, and his expressions suggest that he’s struggling to stay polite. The “Feminist” points that the two women (“Garage and Her”) argue on the show are really just inaccurate beliefs. For example, McKinnon preaches at one point that “everyone with strength is a woman,” and that “Jesus was a woman.” At first I was a little surprised by Sarah Silverman and Kate McKinnon’s choice to totally mock feminists, and to portray their own political identities in such an unlikable way. I was also surprised by how, instead of making points rooted in actual feminist logic, the two characters argued simply that everyone’s a woman. I imagine fans of SNL would argue that the skit, like Ellen Goodman’s writing on the Straw Feminist, is intentionally satyrical. After watching the skit a few times, I think I understand the statement McKinnon and Silverman are trying to make. Rather than mocking actual Feminists, the comics seem to be poking fun at what we expect feminists to be like. Their dress, statements, and attitudes are absurd, but this might all be intentional. At the beginning of the skit, the two musicians are asked about their views on Marvel’s recent announcement of a new Female Thor character. On the same day this skit aired, people in the real world reacted with hostility to the announcement. Twitter exploded with hateful tweets from people who couldn’t stand the concept. Like this skit, the backlash from Marvel fans at the announcement of a female Thor was outlandish, so Silverman and McKinnon may be aiming to satirize the image of “Feminism” held by the critics of Marvel’s new character. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the dialogue in this sketch just reinforces popular beliefs about Feminism; that it’s is a radical and unrealistic philosophy, and that it’s promoters are self-important oddballs. I wouldn’t be surprised if McKinnon and Silverman had witty good intentions, but I can’t imagine a situation where commentary this complex could be conveyed successfully in a short comedic sketch.
Analyzing these artifacts over the last few weeks has led me to consider white Feminist women’s appearance in pop culture media as a sort of double-edged sword. In a sense, I think it’s admirable that Feminism is receiving more coverage and representation in mainstream media at all. Even though the white Feminist identity tends to be portrayed with accompanying negative connotations (whether intentional or satirical), it’s encouraging to see Feminist characters making up more of the population in movies and television. By stepping back and considering my own social privileged, I’ve also come to understand why some people might feel resentful towards the emergence of more white Feminist women and characters in pop culture media. Middle-class white women like myself belong to our country’s majority demographic, so our voices are heard and represented more often than any other group of women’s. Because mainstream television and movies are skewed to reflect the perspective of majority viewers, male characters are more common than female ones, and non-white female characters are rarer yet (Glascock, 2001). Upper and middle-class white women are also statistically more likely to achieve financial success and independence, which dovetails their opportunity to broadcast personal opinions in meaningful ways. (Think current Feminist icons: Emma Watson, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and so on.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, these privileges make up the basis for many of the negative stereotypes about white women in the Feminist movement. While I wouldn’t necessarily condone stereotypes in any case, I understand that many women face bigger obstacles and harsher discrimination than I ever will. If I were one of these women, I too might be irritated seeing a successful white women talking about oppression.Upper and middle-class white women are also statistically more likely to achieve financial success and independence, which dovetails their opportunity to broadcast personal opinions in meaningful ways. (Think current Feminist icons: Emma Watson, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and so on.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, these privileges make up the basis for many of the negative stereotypes about white women in the Feminist movement. While I wouldn’t necessarily condone stereotypes in any case, I understand that many women face bigger obstacles and harsher discrimination than I ever will. If I were one of these women, I too might be irritated seeing a successful white women talking about oppression.
I think comedy has the potential to get people thinking critically, and it’s really impressive to me when actors and artists make statements by utilizing tropes like the Straw Feminist in intentionally satirical ways. For people already familiar with Feminism, Futurama’s Feministas and Portlandia’s Bookstore Owners might just seem like the light-hearted sketches they are. But it’s important to keep in mind that pop culture media is the first place many people are exposed to certain ideas and communities. Funny as these artifacts might be on the surface, I think it’s vitally important that producers of media and pop culture content consider the impact of their work when they joke about oppressed demographics and controversial movements. In order to avoid perpetuating negative images of women and Feminists, content producers and viewers alike could benefit from familiarizing themselves with common tropes. Speaking from personal experience, it’s much easier to determine whether characters are satirical or simply inaccurate when you’re aware of stereotypes in the first place.
“Feminist Bookstore” scenes, Portlandia Season 1.Writ. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Dir. Jonathan Krisel. IFC, 2011. link
Futurama, “Into the Wild Green Yonder.” Dir. Peter Avanzino. Fox studios, 2009.
Glascock, Jack. Gender Roles on Prime-Time Network Television: Demographics and Behaviors. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. Vol. 45, Iss. 4, 2001
Goodman, Ellen. “The Straw Feminist.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Vol 67, Ver 179. Jan 26, 1994. link
Saturday Night Live’s “Garage and Her on the Female Thor” skit from Weekend Update segment with Michael Che. S40 E2, “Sarah Silverman with Maroon 5.” Oct. 04, 2014. link
Wallace, Kelsey. “Pomp and Quirkumstance.” Bitch Magazine 6 Jan. 2012: Web. 10 May 2015. link