By Aya de Leon cross-posted with permission
I just finished Andi Zeisler’s brilliant new book We Were Feminists Once. Zeisler makes a compelling argument about how neoliberal forces have mainstreamed a version of feminism that isn’t a grassroots movement for gender equality, but gets presented as a set of individual choices about “empowerment” that can be sold to us by corporations, choices that generally serve corporate interests.
Zeisler traces the history of the term “empowerment,” and how it originally came from efforts in low-income communities of color to build economic and political power. Now it’s used to sell tampons, lipstick, and yoga retreats to women.
I couldn’t help but make the connection to Amanda Hess’ recent article discussing white people, social media and appropriation of the term “woke.” According to Hess, like feminism, “It’s a word that arose from a specific context.” In the case of “woke,” the context was “black struggle and has recently assumed a new sense of urgency among activists fighting against racial injustices in Ferguson, Sanford, Baltimore and Flint. When Black Lives Matter activists started a website to help recruit volunteers to the cause, they called it StayWoke.org.
‘Woke’ denotes awareness, but it also connotes blackness.” Her article discusses white people, particularly white men being associated with the word.
Being “woke” isn’t the same as putting in work. As a black woman, I’m deeply invested in feminism and black liberation, for myself and my people. I need my allies to really fight for my communities. I’ve written about race and gender allyship before, and the kind of work it takes. Both Zeisler and Hess’ analysis of these appropriations reveal how fighting for social justice can get confused with posing on social media with the accessories of social justice.
One of Zeisler’s many case studies is of actor Emma Watson, who became the face of mainstream feminism. Watson also factors into Hess’ article: “Matt McGorry [from] ‘Orange Is the New Black’…watched the actress Emma Watson brief the United Nations on the importance of men’s involvement in the feminist movement, and he took it to heart. Now he presents…iconography of feminism and anti-racism [on social media].” Zeisler also discusses how Watson rose to prominence but she contrasts that with Watson’s decision to take the role of Belle in a Disney reboot of “Beauty and the Beast,” which, Zeisler points out, is a misogynist tale of Stockholm Syndrome. I won’t fall into the trap (that Zeisler also points out in the book) of criticizing Watson as a bad feminist. However, I will call it out as a missed opportunity to leverage her fame to call attention to the sexism in Hollywood.
What would it have looked like if she’d turned down the role, and done a press conference about why. I also look forward to see whether, McGorry, the allegedly “woke” white guy that Hess analyzes, will turn down roles that, unlike his current show, actively collude with racism. “Orange Is the New Black” is imperfect around race, but it’s engaging race, class, gender, sexuality in ways we’ve never seen before on TV. He’s been fortunate to also land a role on “How To Get Away With Murder,” connected to Shonda Rhimes. But what will happen when Adam Sandler’s people call his agent. Will he turn down the role, like the Native American actors did with “Ridiculous Six” or will he put his wokeness aside?
How hard to you have to work to be woke? I think of Danny Hoch, who turned down millions of dollars from Nike in the 90s or early 2000s. He refused to take money from a corporation who was the poster child for sweatshop labor in Asia. And then he got huge flak from various people of color in the US who were mad thinking the kind of impact he could have had with that money. Still, I thought that was a pretty woke move, one of international solidarity and certainly not in his personal financial best interest.
And sometimes I wonder about my own wokeness.
This past weekend, I attended two sex work panels at the Oakland Book Festival, and there was some subsequent Twitter beef about the presence or absence of current sex workers on one panel and people of color on the other. The beef started with former sex worker and activist Peechington Marie asking about the representation of black sex workers in the conversation. For various reasons–some beyond the organizers’ control–there were not.
In light of these criticisms, I think about my own position, as I move forward with a novel about sex workers, as an ally. Writing a novel is certainly a lot more work than taking a selfie with a book or fashion accessory. And I have had sex worker activists who helped shape and edit the book, carefully vetting its messaging. But writing fiction isn’t the same as joining a political movement and laboring for justice for sex workers. As Hess points out, “Being an ally means speaking up on behalf of others — but it often means amplifying the ally’s own voice.” in the case of sex workers, in particular, it’s dangerous to even come out as a sex worker, so I can speak openly in part due to my privilege. I got a very modest advance for the book, but I am building my career as a novelist. Hess speaks of “walk[ing] right into the cross hairs between allyship and appropriation.” Still, #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been driving home the need for marginalized communities to be represented in literature, and to be written with respect and full humanity. I feel confident that I’ve done so. I’ve gotten some flak in the past from the sex work community (see tweet) and will likely get more. The book launches in late July. Only time will tell. But I’ve deliberately tried to walk the line between pushing subversive themes and catering to mainstream tastes so that the book can be a social justice tool for politicizing a broader audience.
But if the future finds me working on a Disney reboot of a predatory princess tale, or endorsing empowering tampons, please, wake me up.
Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, Uptown Thief, in July. Her writing and performance work have received acclaim in the Village Voice, Washington Post, Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, SF Bay Guardian and the East Bay Express. A graduate of Harvard College, with an MFA from Antioch University, Aya has been an artist in residence at Stanford University, a Cave Canem poetry fellow, and a slam poetry champion. She publicly married herself in the 90s, and from 1995 to 2012 hosted an annual Valentine’s Day show that focused on self-love. She has written for various media outlets such as xojane, Ebony, Huffington Post, Guernica, Huffington Post, Reductress, Essence, Writers Digest, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, Quartz, and The Toast. She also blogs and tweets about culture, gender, and race. Visit her at ayadeleon.com.