Friday, November 14, 2014

Further thoughts on Mark Zuckerberg's undershirts

We're all aware of the argument: Given that women in [name a country with a terrible human rights record] are subject to [name an extreme form of deprivation or violence], women in the West have no right to complain about anything. Feminism, in this understanding, is a zero-sum game. Except that that's never the point - the point is to dismiss feminist concerns, not to get feminists to change their priorities.

In a piece that vaguely gestures in that direction, Sally Kohn defends Lena Dunham from her from-the-left detractors (conveniently allowing TNR to illustrate the piece in the way that all lifestyle articles must be illustrated, i.e. with a photo of Dunham), yet objects to those who - ahem - called Mark Zuckerberg's gray-t-shirt comments sexist:

Seriously? Zuckerberg did not explicitly—or, I'd argue, implicitly—contrast himself with women, but merely stated that he finds fashion concerns to be "silly" and "frivolous." If anything, he was referring to his fellow male tech CEOs, like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and his Prada suits; after all, only 6 percent of Silicon Valley CEOs are female. But in criticizing Zuckerberg, Davis and Krupnick relied on a stereotype that he himself did not—that only women care about clothes—and perhaps even reinforced that stereotype in sounding the feminist alarm.
Kohn cites "the risk of feminist overreach." As she sees it, feminist scolds are out to get poor (intentional, intentional...) Mark Zuckerberg and his noble rejection of Prada:
[I]f feminism becomes like the boy who cried wolf—if girls, and women, cry sexism too readily and often—America will stop listening. The minute feminism becomes hypercritical and humorless, it becomes too easy for the mainstream to dismiss our more valid complaints. And let’s be honest, it’s kind of refreshing for feminism to be at the cool kids’ table of society at the moment, fraught and confining though it might sometimes be. Does anyone really want to return to the period of sidelined, shrill feminism?
And so the game is given away. No one who describes any era of feminism as "shrill" - indeed, no one who uses the word "shrill" - is arguing from any kind of pro-feminist position. Now, it's totally fine (if a bit contradictory) for anti-feminist women to write opinion articles. But Kohn is claiming to be criticizing the movement from within, so as to save it from itself. Which seems a bit disingenuous, but who knows. Kohn's basically right about Dunhamgate. Maybe an editor added "shrill"...

What interests me here more than the feminism angle, though, is the crying-wolf one. It's not crying wolf to cite less-than-extreme examples of bigotry, assuming you do so in a way that acknowledges their non-extreme nature. As I've said so very many times, it ought to be possible to call out anti-Semitism that falls short of death camps. So, too, with sexism. That NYMag piece was prominently tagged "casual sexism," for goodness sake! Neither item Kohn cites in any way attempts to suggest that Zuckerberg himself is a particular threat to women. Rather, his comments say something about our culture, and point to a very real reason that women (and others with stereotypically feminine interests) end up dismissed as unserious.

Now, if you're going to write about something - anything - it's a weak rhetorical strategy to open with a big disclaimer about how well aware you are that there are more important things in the world than what you're about to say. That does pose a challenge for those who seek to highlight things that are -bad-but-not-that-bad. Commenting at all has a way of seeming to be overstating the case. I was attempting to address something along these lines, as it happens, in my post about the strudel-commenting stranger. My point there was certainly not that the biggest menace to women today is the possibility that you'll get unsolicited comments about your afternoon cake. Rather, I was trying to convey that there are certain day-to-day... specificities about being female that set women back. And I intentionally don't use the term "microaggression," because for whatever reason, it has a way of coming across as overstating whichever case.


Nicholas said...

"It can't be anti-feminist because there aren't very many women in the relevant group anyway" is a weird, weird defense.

Phoebe said...

Yes, yes it is. (One might even say that "casual sexism" along those lines contributes to the low percentage of female tech CEOs!)

caryatis said...

"Now, it's totally fine (if a bit contradictory) for anti-feminist women to write opinion articles. But Kohn is claiming to be criticizing the movement from within, so as to save it from itself. Which seems a bit disingenuous, but who knows. "

To the extent that any movement needs to be criticized, the people doing the criticism are not going to be at the heart of the movement. If they were, they would be rejected as soon as they started criticizing. It's probably impossible to tell whether Kohn considers herself a feminist criticizing the excesses of the movement, or an anti-feminist trying to undermine it. But you can't rule out the former just because of a particular word she uses.

Phoebe said...


It seems, from the piece, that the author is at the very least quite sympathetic to feminism: "We need that conversation now more than ever, and feminists are driving it."

Re: "shrill," it's... just such a glaring example of a word used to undermine outspoken women, never men. I wouldn't expect a from-within-type critique to be a point-by-point explanation of why everything Jessica Valenti and Amanda Marcotte have ever written is 100% correct. But "shrill" is a bit much.

caryatis said...

I think it's possible to be a feminist in every way that counts without sharing the leftist obsession with "offensive" code words.

Phoebe said...

I suppose it is. But as a reader with limited information, someone's use of "shrill" to describe feminists suggests to me that this is a person who's criticizing the movement from the outside. And... because 'critic-from-within' is a common strategy of critics-from-the-outside, I, as Carrie Bradshaw would say, can't help but wonder.

Phoebe said...

Although... let's look at this in a more big-picture way: Let's say you are someone who believes that such a thing as "casual sexism" exists, and that both Zuckerberg's "frivolous" comment and Kohn's use of "shrill" are examples thereof. I totally get that there's an approach to such words that's over-the-top, and on some level I think that's what Kohn was complaining about. But... how *does* one address these things? It seems like there ought to be some middle-ground between dismissing these things as no big deal, and being all-out offended.