I have long been interested in questions of legitimate versus illegitimate feminism. Who is allowed and who is not allowed to label themselves feminist? What are the necessary qualifications? Are we feminists simply because we identify as such? Or is there some action required? If there are multiple, highly individualized definitions of “feminism,” then does it follow from this that there are multiple ways to be feminist? Are some simply “right” and others “wrong” or do they achieve or fail to achieve a “true” or “perfect” feminism to varying degrees? In academic language, these questions revolve around two feminist camps: liberal and radical. Radical feminism acknowledges the systemic nature of oppression and argues that, in order to make any real and lasting change, we must first change the current structures in place that support the mistreatment of specific groups of people. Liberal feminism, in contrast, encourages individual women to work within an oppressive system to attain some sort of vague—and perhaps illusory—personal “liberation.” I don’t mean to say that this effort is necessarily wrong or fruitless, only that the approach is quite different from the sort of feminism that a Women’s Studies major is accustomed to thinking about. The general attitude of liberal feminism is “You do you, girl.” Consider HBO’s show, “Girls.” For Lena Dunham, getting naked in every episode is a declaration of comfort in and love for her body in a society that tells her that she is fat and unattractive. Dunham’s character, Hannah, eats whatever she wants, dresses however she wants, says whatever and acts however she wants. All of this is a slap in the face to standards of ideal female beauty and femininity, and in this sense, it can be perceived as a powerful act of feminist resistance.
And yet, most characters continue to fall into typical gender roles/performances, sexualities, and expectations. In one episode, Hannah, who attended Oberlin College, says something along the lines of “I know I’m supposed to reject marriage as an archaic institution that’s rooted in patriarchy, but I don’t care, I just want a beautiful wedding with a beautiful white dress.” On the one hand, Hannah’s confession is a welcome relief for viewers who identify as feminists, but aren’t willing to sacrifice some of their most basic desires. On the other hand, it speaks to the limitations of the liberal feminist approach that we see on television. If viewers aren’t challenged to think differently about these issues, then they are free to remain complacent. In some cases, this complacency amounts to an active (if subconscious) perpetuation of systems of oppression, and this is what is truly troubling about Dunham’s feminism. Brenda Uribe discussed the most glaring example of this in her article below—the issue of representation. “Girls” only speaks to the experience of white, middle to upper class women. This show is bell hooks’ greatest fear—the antithesis of inclusivity and intersectionality. It intentionally blinds itself to difference in a way that is offensive to any viewer who, in one way or another, falls into the category of “other.” That’s not to say of course that we cannot take pleasure in some aspects of the show, even as we feel offended by others. But the question remains: Can it be said that the pleasure we take in Hannah’s resistant femininity is “feminist,” even as she so deliberately excludes the non-white, non-affluent, non-heterosexual, non-college educated from her supposed account of what it’s like to be a 20-something woman?
The answer to this question remains unclear to me. But perhaps when we ask whether “Girls” is a “feminist” show, we are asking the wrong question. Maybe instead we should ask: Does “Girls” challenge today’s normative behaviors, practices, and standards for women that only serve to harm them (e.g. notions of ideal female beauty & proper performance of femininity)?” If the answer is yes, then I can confidently say that “Girls” has had a positive impact on many women’s lives.