Like so many millennial little girls, I was told I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up — as long as I was home by 11, I didn’t go out with boys, and I stopped having an extra slice of cake at dinner.
I dreamt of participating in a social justice march like those of the ’60s, and felt that I had been born into the wrong generation, without any scintilla of a concept of the frustration, pain, and deep sacrifice that was necessary to elicit even illusory change. I was never taught about the high-pressure fire hoses that were used to mow black protestors down in Birmingham, or the salivating dogs attacking young children — many of the same tactics used a mere two months ago by local police forces against water protectors at the Sioux Standing Rock Reservation.
My credulous dream, with a side of misinformation, is not uncommon, and this weekend it’s finally coming true. The Women’s March on Washington has mobilized a movement of almost half a million women (176,000 are planning to attend, with 250,000 still deciding, Vogue reported) to march on Saturday in solidarity against the narrative rhetoric of the incoming president.
On November 9, 47 percent of white women voters across America woke up grieving the election of a real life internet troll, Donald Trump. (53% of white women voters picked him.) 100 percent of black women across America have known this feeling their entire lives, yet their struggle has never been taken as seriously.
I identify as a Latina Jew — a confusing identity because there really isn’t a community where I feel I immediately belong. As a young girl, I wasn’t Cuban because I was Jewish, and I was always “too pretty” to be a Jewish girl, words I didn’t understand and that sting to remember. I grew up very financially privileged to immigrant parents, but after my parents’ divorce and the year 2008, I realized just how privileged I had been and no longer was. I suffered terribly from OCD as a young adult, and, occasionally, exhausting episodes of mental dysphoria return.
I was sexually assaulted by a family member as well as raped by someone else — I wasn’t in a dark alley and there was no gun to my head like I imagined situations like these to be. I felt safe until the illusion was shattered, realizing the culture I grew up in normalized these encounters. (One out of every six American women has been a victim of attempted or completed rape.) I am a piece of every community the president-elect has talked down to, made fun of, and threatened.
On Saturday, I, along with thousands of others, will march in our nation’s capital, but is it because we understand our collective voice or is it because it will make for good selfies? Will we be there representing the identities in this country that are silenced and persecuted, or will we be there representing the status of our #wokeness, continuing America’s fascination with appropriating black culture?
The problem with commodity feminism
Activism — most notably feminism — has recently become something quite accessible, even for white folk. All we have to do is reach out and touch it, the T-shirts, the celebrities, the corporations. Feminism has become a full-blown trend, packaged and brought to the masses for a sticker price. Marketplace feminism, coined by feminist writer and co-founder of Bitch Media Andi Zeisler in We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, published last year, has turned a movement into a brand, something to be bought, sold, and commodified.
You can wear a T-shirt with FEMINIST printed across the front and affirm your allegiance without ever actually doing anything feminist, let alone checking where the shirt was made or who will be benefitting from its profits. You can buy “feminist” soap from giant corporations like Dove (owned by Unilever!) and pretend you’re washing away the patriarchy. You can step on stage with a giant glowing "FEMINIST" sign behind you if you’re Beyoncé (but Bey can do anything), or give your wife a shoutout when you win a Golden Globe and get all the media attention for just saying thanks if you’re Ryan Gosling, or just make headlines because you say you’re a born-again feminist, as you continue to write songs that put down other women, if you’re T-Swift. There is no collective political action: The individual is celebrated and the community forgotten.
You can be a "feminist" and still be racist and a xenophobe. Feminism isn't including everyone, most often only the white elite. But now that the movement is “in,” you can make money off of it and further your career — (hey, what’s more feminist than that? — or you can proclaim it on a pair of panties and scroll the internet for listicles of feminist cats, instead of taking action to the streets.
Is the Women’s March really about intersectional feminism, or just self-promotion?
The Women’s March is trying to take action. But since its inception, I’ve had to wonder: Is the march really a departure from the capitalistic, white feminism that has emerged from popular culture? Or is it just commodifying a movement rather than supporting it?
The march has faced major criticisms since the day after the election, almost all surrounding race and identity politics. The march takes its name directly from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the world of his dream. This name is a change from the “Million Woman March,” a direct appropriation of the 1997 Philadelphia march for black women of the same name.
The march was originally organized entirely by white women. After extensive backlash for its lack of inclusivity and diversity in their leadership, three women of color were appointed as co-chairs (without any specifically outlined duties): Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour. Posts by women opposing decisions made by the national committee were silenced and deleted on the secret organizer Facebook, leading many state organizers to resign, and the tension began going both ways as white participants began backing out because they felt “uncomfortable” and “unwanted.”
Appropriating is just another way of commodifying. Black women have already done this, yet now it is cool/important/serious because white women organized a march, too.
Still, recently, there have been signs of hope that the march will be a truly inclusive event. ShiShi Rose, a black activist from Brooklyn and one of the Women’s March Instagram administrators is bringing authenticity to the march’s voice of inclusivity. She posted to white allies, “You don’t just get to join because now you’re scared, too. I was born scared.”
A week before the event, the freshly aligned national committee released the Women’s March’s official policy platform, outlining the usual feminist demands, such as equal pay, as well as many radically progressive ones, like federal funding for abortions and supporting Black Lives Matter. The document states their rejection of mass deportation and their requirements for police accountability. It recognizes “that women of color carry the heaviest burden in the global and domestic economic landscape, particularly in the care economy.”
In one statement, the national co-chairs managed to wrangle up a platform that is inclusive to all members of a truly feminist movement -– and they have made pop-culture history because of it. All of a sudden, after weeks of backlash for being too whitewashed, they are bringing intersectionality to the forefront of their campaign, not just by placing three women of color as its face, but by calling for clear action and a departure from the standards at which society is held today. They have proven their platform worthy of the half a million women who will be walking in its name.
I opened the document and thought, finally. I was given a chance to feel confident, to be proud of the mobilization and the quick decision I had made weeks ago to buy a plane ticket and join other women. Until that moment, I had felt mildly ashamed that I had chosen to participate without properly evaluating and unpacking the foundations of the event, and as the discourse continued to unravel, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of something that didn’t clearly stand for anything except getting a bunch of women to show up in the same place.
I stand by every article in their policy platform, and my hopes are that every woman attending stands by them too, even if most marchers, like me, planned to attend the march long before the document came out. Previously, there had been nothing to unify us except our distaste for the president-elect and our anatomy, yet now there are clear principles and policies marchers will represent as they shuffle together in the cold. On Saturday, we will stand for each other — right?
What I want to see at the Women’s March
Will marchers really be there to enact the change necessary to bring the principles of the policy platform into fruition, or will they be there to prove themselves through selfies? Will marchers be there as true activists or off-the-couch digital ones?
On one hand, it doesn’t matter. Hundreds of thousands of women from across the nation will be gathering together against a scary and threatening administration. Their bodies will be there as a solid mass, a reminder that they exist, that they matter. And not just the white ones — the gay ones and the brown ones and the ones in wheelchairs: We all matter. Yet still the question gnaws inside me: If Black women have done this before, and white women didn’t join them, doesn’t this march become a commodification of feminism? After all, its creation was in direct response to the cultural acceptance of feminism and the tangible fear white women felt for the first time from government, and not in uplifting and supporting their sisters since the beginning.
Here is what I want to see at the march: I don’t want to see segregated fistfuls color-blocked by skin on this historic day. I want to be surrounded by a rainbow of women as I march, the pot of gold found in our unified songs, our posters and banners shooting stars in a barren wasteland of the “alt-right,” our hands passing along the flames of freedom with a squeeze. I want to see this massive gathering provide immediate, and forever, relief for the vulnerable — in spirit, and in their wallets.
I want to see hundreds of thousands of women eating and drinking at businesses owned by local women, people of color, and immigrants, to help their communities thrive. I don’t want to see them support big chains profiting from everything they are marching against, and I want them to do their research. All In Service, for example, is an industry-wide DC fundraising event that will be happening this weekend to create inclusive spaces as well as give proceeds from participating bars, restaurants, and coffee shops to local organizations supporting these vulnerable populations.
I don’t want the intersectionality of the movement tokenized and trivialized. I want to see hundreds of thousands of different faces, not just the three the media has chosen to focus on. I want to see each individual marcher’s expressions of frustration, passion, and hope — as dirty and beautiful as it is unbleached. For as many women that will be marching, there are as many ways to say a feeling, use a voice, demand to be listened to; there are as many stories to be unpacked and understood, and as many lives to be freed from the propagandic shackles we’ve carried for centuries.
Will women support each other as we walk? Ask each other how they’re doing emotionally the day after such a fateful inauguration? Will they protect each other if any violence should occur? Will scarves be lent to those who are cold, snacks be shared with those who are hungry? Will marchers slow down so that older and physically limited women can keep up? Will they be there not just to amplify their own voices, but every other marginalized community in the nation, and the world?
I want to see women looking in the eyes of other women, not just checking their phones for “like” updates. I want the experience to be more powerful than any Snapchat could ever portray, raw, and unfiltered (no matter how many you choose to overlay your Instagram photos with). I want us to rise from that moment, phoenixes from ash, glowing together in our power, looking to the future and knowing we’ve got each other’s backs; we won’t leave any of our communities trailing behind.
If women are taking selfies, I want those selfies to be in defiance of everything they’ve been taught to look like, act, or be. I want those selfies to represent them in their most powerful essence — full of awareness and free from shame.
If this is the experience, we’ll have managed to turn marketplace feminism on its head, taking a trend and giving it the depth to become a movement.
If the march becomes an exercise in personal promotion and solidifying self-perceived identities of activist heroes and the #woke better-than-thous, then our insistence on personal branding will have ultimately failed our encompassing collective, progressive politics and all.
I had been waiting my whole life for this march, but only because it fit into the image I had of myself, not because I really understood what it took to make that little bit of difference. You start with yourself if you want to change the world, checking your privilege, and using your voice to speak, as well as listen. You don’t save the world alone; you do it collectively.
In her 1984 book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, black author bell hooks writes, “To emphasize that engagement with feminist struggle is political commitment, we could avoid using the phrase ‘I am a feminist’ (a linguistic structure designed to refer to some personal aspect of identity and self-definition) and could state, ‘I advocate feminism.” There is no need to brand ourselves, fitting our identities in a box, like society always does for us anyway.
We don’t have to call ourselves feminists to lead feminist lives, and perhaps if we stopped individually labeling our identities so that we could sell ourselves better, we’d make a lot more change — together.