From RBG to Lena to Hillary, Let 2016 Be the Year the Memeifying of Women Ended

In late 2015, I was having drinks with a friend and chatting about the pop cultural embrace of zesty, brilliant Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We were worried that RBG was destined to say “something bad” and invite epic backlash. It took a year for our prophecy to come true, but this autumn, when Ginsburg offered a cranky critique of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s choice to kneel during “The Star Spangled Banner” (she apologized, appropriately, the following week), the gleeful RBG-bashing online began.

The criticism of Ginsburg for her comments on Kaepernick was deserved; the exultation in her fallibility was silly; and the moment, soon swallowed up by the election, was ultimately small. But when it happened, it felt like an event both major and inevitable. Why so major? It’s not surprising, after all, that a white octogenarian who is a prestigious employee of the federal government would reflexively defend the national anthem — a symbol of fidelity to that government.

What made the story headline-worthy is the context: young women’s admiration for Ginsburg has made her into a meme, a modern-day heroine. Her image bedecks t-shirts and blogs, and she’s even spawned an SNL impression, all on the strength of her sharp judicial writing, her pioneering career, and her tendency towards progressive positions. Ginsburg deserves to be admired, studied, and written about — but the uncritical veneration enabled by the internet is the perfect backdrop for an inevitable toppling. The winds of fame are fickle; when observers see hundreds of people shouting “SLAYYY RBG” for years, they will relish the moment RBG fails, as it were, to slay.

RBG’s fleeting ignominy exemplified how a phenomenon that once dogged bloggers, comedians and pop stars — enabled by social media — has bled into the political world this election year, going far beyond “your fave is problematic.” I think of it as a cultural wheel of fortune, a revolving pedestal that awaits the whim of internet denizens, who will shove successive figures onto it and worship them until they are summarily yanked off. One minute, someone is the voice of their generation/a feminist heroine/a model of perfection. We use them as shorthand to express everything we want to express:

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Then they say something ill-considered in the perpetual hot mic of the internet and suddenly we’re told that not only are they not brilliant, they’re now so tainted as to be rendered untouchable.

As a young woman, I saw this revolving pedestal first manifest on blogs, and then on Twitter, a medium especially suited to both uncritical retweeting and the attendant venomous backlash. Then, a few years ago, Lena Dunham made an interesting television series and supported Planned Parenthood and she became meme number one. How did her career render her into Fearless Leader of Young Feminism Today? She was unsuited for the role (although she didn’t exactly reject it). But once her imperfections surfaced, she wasn’t allowed to return to just being an oddball young artist; she became the ultimate symbol of clueless white feminism and/or the devil incarnate, depending who you asked. Ditto Amy Schumer, for whom the backlash was swift and predictable. It turns out that one devastating skit about rape culture doesn’t suddenly give you the gravitas of a women’s studies professor.

The phenomenon is present in literature — Elena Ferrante is currently experiencing the beginnings of a backlash — and it happens with historical figures. During the election, for instance, we saw a major tug of war over Susan B. Anthony’s legacy, with breathless commentary celebrating the pilgrims who flocked to her grave with their “I Voted” stickers on one hand, and others pointing out her alliances with racists on the other.

No one epitomized this pattern more than the winner of the national popular vote for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Since her electoral college defeat, she’s been both elevated and lowered even further. Manic excitement over “Hillary sightings” in the woods, imagined conversations she’s having on social media, and vitriolic fury for her campaign’s mistakes are all falling at her feet even as she remains largely absent from the public eye. This hanging of so much symbolic weight on Clinton exemplifies what Jia Tolentino noted earlier this year, writing our need to make women represent more than themselves. “Women still attract a certain kind of heated veneration that can’t yet be entirely separated from hate. The process of anointing an idol is dangerous to our idols, and perhaps to our own psyches, even when conducted on the best of terms.”

To many, Clinton has become the avatar of failed liberal culture and “celebrity feminism” (“She focused on girl-power anthems and cultivated wealthy celebrity surrogates who were incapable of addressing the grievances that fueled Trump’s campaign,” said one side). To others, she’s the martyred angel of our better instincts (“Hillary Clinton’s name belongs on ships, and airports, and tattoos. She deserves straight-up hagiographies ...”).

Clinton is neither of those things, entirely. What she is is a politician who said some good things and bad things, who took brave stands during her campaign and cowardly ones too. Too often we conflate people who espouse progressive values with those values themselves. We turn living, breathing human beings, who have inevitably made compromises to achieve success in a broken world, into memes. In doing so, we set them up for failure; no-one is flawless, and presenting a person as an avatar of (some of) their values also puts those values at risk. Lena Dunham and Hillary Clinton’s failures, for instance, are now giving fuel to a backlash against feminism and identity politics.

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I’ve been thinking all year about why this cycle keeps occurring. Human society and our propensity to hero worship is surely part of it; our brains have an easier time personifying ideas than holding them in the abstract. A corollary to this is a misguided belief that certain tough-speaking establishment figures are radical, because they seem radical compared to others in the establishment.

But let’s be honest: while this pattern can be found everywhere, it’s especially prominent in American early 21st century culture with regard to famous women; specifically famous white women, and specifically white women whose brief period of cultural sainthood ends at the hand of their own racist (or at best, merely thoughtless and narcissistic) celebrity comments.

The furor around figures separated by centuries, like Susan B. Anthony and Hillary Clinton, demonstrates the flaws in the ideology commonly referred to as “white feminism.” This term refers to a specific type of popularly acceptable feminism (you’ll also see it referred to as “Lean In” feminism, or corporate/pantsuit/marketplace feminism). This is an ideology that has invested itself more thoroughly in personalities than ideas. Even in the aftermath of November 9th, as the world seemed to crumble around us, I watched in amazement as my social media timelines re-litigated Hillary vs. Bernie, once again behaving as though rallying behind a figurehead — rather than a set of policies and values — was still the only way we could save ourselves.

White feminism’s obsession with “heroines” mimics the dominant culture’s fixation on strong men (oh hey, President-Elect Trump!). As a result, white feminists’ primary aim is often to plant specific (again, mostly white, straight) women besides men in the halls of power, rather than to open the doors to those halls of power so that the rest of the population run roughshod through them. This explains the racism, classism and homophobia you can find in many unofficial spokespeople of white feminism; this ideology is about elevating a certain subset of women to the same privileged status as men, not ending a system that perpetuates and assigns privilege.

In a society that privileges masculinity and whiteness at the same time, white women occupy a unique place. In the conservative ideal of such a society, we are tasked with being Ivanka Trumps: “accomplished” without being threatening, externally flawless, decorative and procreative in purpose. As a reaction to that constraint, white feminist heroines tend to be (and here I generalize quite a bit) loud, brash, outspoken and powerful in a way that breaks that narrow mold. Thus an obsessive fixation with someone like Dunham, whose mere refusal to be thin or demure on camera seems revolutionary.

Viewers like me, who cannot and could never squeeze one errant thigh into the Ivanka mold, can’t help but feel a thrill when someone who looks and seems more like us show up in mass culture. But if the best we can do is make heroines of white women who are unruly and irreverent on cable TV, they — and we — are doomed. In elevating these women, their white feminist champions make the classic mistake of whiteness: assuming that their individual identification with these women has a quality of universality. As a result, they expect all women to fall in line behind Lena, Hillary, and their ilk.

But as anyone with a passing familiarity with the history of feminist struggle knows, for women of color, queer women, disabled women, sex workers or any others whose oppression looks quite different, the story is different. A figure like Michelle Obama, for instance, is celebrated thanks to eight years of being utterly poised and strong in opposition to the racialized stereotype of unbridled anger that was foisted on her by the right wing and elements of the mainstream, too. (She discussed this with Oprah just a few days ago.) Beyoncé, another idolized figure, manages her press appearances scrupulously, because one imagines she simply cannot afford the kind of offhand verbal incontinence that her white counterparts exhibit so often. Again, this comparison generalizes, only brushing the surface of deep and complex dynamics, including the media narrative around famous women. Still, it’s worth keeping some of these ideas in mind as we take stock of a dismal year whose trajectory mirrored that of its most prominent woman: Hillary Clinton.

Clinton was (and remains) an object of personal and intense fixation for her pantsuited fans, who saw their own journeys in the vitriol she’d received and obstacles overcome. Here was a smart, prepared woman who refused to cater to the male gaze, despite enduring the most vile sexism imaginable. Hillary’s campaign was premised in part, on the speech that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (two white feminist icons, and also, I should note, two former denizens of the revolving pedestal) once made on Saturday Night Live, about her: bitches get shit done.

It was very appealing, even exciting. It didn’t work. Women of color swallowed their doubts and voted, but white women did not unite around their Queen. They instead rejected Clinton’s attempts at intersectionality and stabbed their own identity as women in the back in order to show fealty to white supremacy. They voted for an alleged molester, in droves. They chose the aspirational Ivanka mold. It turned out that white feminists’ assumption of unvarnished sisterhood in our identification with our heroines wasn’t just misguided, it was hazardous, blinding us to the continued existence of our “sisters” who were happy to spit in Hillary Clinton’s face.

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We can be wary of this heroine addiction while also acknowledging that the sexism faced by these figures is real and unimagined. My current fear is that the election result will make any feminist or feminist-adjacent project more vulnerable. The failure and defeat (because two things can exist at once!) of Clinton’s campaign has already led progressive and right-wing men alike to sniff derisively at the strides made by women and minority groups in mass culture. Clinton did the right thing by at trying to address racial justice, LGBT issues, and reproductive rights in her campaign. The error isn’t in her embrace of these issues, but in our own assumption that white America was more “woke” than it was.

The backlash to identity politics we now see across the spectrum makes me think that feminism in its most basic sense is needed more than ever. Feminism: the radical idea that women are people, as the t-shirt goes. What if we simply treated women as people? What if Lena Dunham was just a smart showrunner, and Clinton just a candidate who needed to campaign in Michigan just as much as she needed to show up on Broad City? What if RBG was simply a really good judge, and Susan B. Anthony a woman whose important activist career was marred later on by her capitulation to dark strains of racism?

By their nature, fame and leadership demand compromise. They render purity impossible. By turning interesting or powerful public figures into memefied monarchs, we are flattening them, and more crucially, selling out the groups that they can’t represent. So this year-end message is for my fellow small-letter white feminists (and anyone else who will listen): 2016 reveals the danger of our insistence on universalizing any public figure who shows a spark of strength or rebelliousness.

We can identify with someone, even like and admire (or love) her, and even, to an extent, welcome his or her leadership without surrendering our critical faculties and our own moral compasses to hers. Especially in precarious times, our loyalty must be to beliefs and ideas, not individuals. In 2017 as we look for avenues of resistance to the new administration, a more skeptical approach is merited, one that allows us to take comfort from public figures’ best moments without expecting them to be our pied pipers.