Tina Fey, Scream 4, and the pros and cons of “undercover feminism”

In this insightful article on the F-word blog, Lara Williams asks a truly provocative question: “can non-overt feminism be the most radical of all?”

She notes that “having watched both Scream 4 and the concluding episodes of French crime-drama Spiral this week, I was struck by how feminist both were. And yet, on closer inspection, I was pushed to find distinctly feminist tropes in either.”

And she goes on to conclude:

“Though casually progressive, both Scream 4 and Spiral are not overtly feminist. Yet in an entirely uncongratulatory and unpoliticised way, they represent true gender equality – the good and the bad in men and women. And isn’t that (or to me at least) what feminism is all about?”

I had similar thoughts when I heard that Tina Fey’s book Bossypants is the number one book in America.

Has a funny, feminist book finally captured the heart of America? Or has a book that happens to have a famous female author avoided the dangers and pitfalls of aligning itself with overt feminism?

The answer is unclear. Tina Fey’s feminism has been the topic of much discussion. But I’m less interested in the “is she or isn’t she” question than I am in the implications that the ambiguity around her politics, or at least her ability to eschew labels, has afforded her mainstream acceptance.

I have always felt that it’s important to be visible with my politics. If I don’t stand up for what I believe in, who will? But these latest pop culture phenomena beg the question: is there something to be said for the strategic value of “undercover feminism”?

I “came of age” (read: went to college) in a time when smug, certain, even snarky feminist blogging was novel, groundbreaking, and refreshingly assuring.

The content was smart and interesting, sure. The analysis was well-informed and spot-on. But what really drew me in, emotionally speaking, was the tone of the posts: consistent, on-message, and above all else, unflinchingly confident.

The tone of these blogs made me, in turn, feel more confident in my beliefs. It helped me come to feel that I was not alone in my politics, and ideologies, and perhaps better yet, that the people who shared my beliefs were so balls-to-the-wall, bad-ass, prominent, and unafraid, that there was no reason for me to feel timid or afraid either.

All that to say, the certainty of the feminists I encountered made me feel more certain, too.

I recognize that this is a strategy of movement-building. By drawing a clear, dark line in the sand marking where you stand on any one topic or issue, you make it easier for others to stand on your side with you. Such a strategy comes in handy when galvanizing a base of people to come together around shared values and visions. But what are the long-term consequences of displaying such unyielding confidence towards issues that are often complex and difficult? And is there also a role for less explicit feminism in the midst of all this?

I don’t necessarily have answers to these questions yet, but I do feel they’re important to explore (and would love to hear your thoughts in comments). It seems to me that in an ideal world, those who identify strongly with the feminist label (“overt feminists”) and those who may espouse feminist beliefs or ideals but don’t necessarily feel a need to identify (“undercover feminists”) would have a mutually respectful and beneficial relationship with each other, and not a combative one. After all, we share at least some commonalities of vision, even if we have differing strategies for achieving that vision. But my lived experience has shown me that this is more easily said than done. Instead of reveling in the overlap, we often find fault in the various and diverse expressions of feminist ideals, leading to infighting, ineffective activism, and general haterade. There has been more than one time when I’ve judged someone for not having the guts to call herself (or himself) feminist when I know they agree with me on most or all of the issues. I’ve come to believe, however, that I should have been thanking them, rather than judging them. Because the truth is that the success of Tina Fey’s book is good for women and feminism, just as subtly feminist themes in Scream 4 are, just as feminist blogging is. We all help pave the way and make the space for each other to survive and thrive. Which is why, overt or undercover, loud or quietly proud, folks with feminist values who are following their own personal path to self-realization are OK by me.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is a writer and advocate focusing on race, gender, and sexual and reproductive rights. In addition to her work at Feministing, Lori is an Associate Director at Planned Parenthood Global. Lori has previously worked at the United Nations Foundation, the International Women’s Health Coalition, and Human Rights Watch, and has written for a host of print and digital properties including Rookie Magazine, The Grio, and the New York Times Magazine. She regularly appears on radio and television, and has spoken at college campuses across the U.S. about topics like the politics of black hair, transnational movement building, and the undercover feminism of Nicki Minaj. In 2014, she was named to The Root 100 list of the nation's most influential African Americans, and to the Forbes Magazine list of the "30 Under 30" successful people in media.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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