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.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted May 10, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I think feminist expression cannot be uniformly applied because every situation is different, and every person is different. I’ve seen for myself what happens when inspired, young women (and some men) in college have taken their first women’s studies or gender studies class–they want to wear the uniform and be a satisfactory ambassador towards the cause.

    But the process of finding one’s own feminist identity is not elegant, nor is it easy. At times it’s a little embarrassing. I find that one first sort of takes on a kind of orthodoxy, often times, then gradually discovers a means to take these broad concepts and skillfully apply them to their own lives. And that’s a process which takes time, introspection, and also confidence in self.

  2. Posted May 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    On the rare occasions that I witness a form of pop culture having this undercover feminism, I usually get very excited. I like the idea of having feminist ideals being in entertainment for a general audience because a lot of people who might buy into the feminist = man hater stereotype may be positively influenced by it. I do believe there are people who actually agree with feminism, but don’t identify with modern feminism out of fear of the stereotypes, or they think society is post-feminism. If undercover feminism could reach people like that with pop culture, I think that’s a great thing.

  3. Posted May 10, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Feminism, as expressed in the blogosphere, is a fascinating subject with all kinds of great insights, but often too complex to feel like you can call yourself part of it. It’s like a political party with so many different aspects that it’s absorbed. It seems like the feminism that I see online has absorbed trans-activism, ableism, fat rights, and a slough of other issues. So it gets hard to know what set of values you’re identifying yourself with if you label yourself as feminist.

  4. Posted May 10, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    I just wanted to say something here, because undercover feminism is a concept near and dear to my heart. In college I’m doing activist stuff, but I’m going into the entertainment industry specifically so that I can try to make it less full of fail. Ie more women, minority folk, LGBT folk, etc, on screen and as above the line talent. One must have goals.

    I often wonder if I’m betraying The Movement by absolutely taking advantage of my privilege to pretend to be part of the boy’s club for the next several years, but I hope it will have a payoff when I can create some TV show that is progressive and awesome and mind-changing. I’m not sure if that justifies being an undercover feminist, but one can hope.

  5. Posted May 11, 2011 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    I think undercover feminism is not only not bad, it’s necessary (if not sufficient) to make real progress. There are a lot of people who are beholden of stereotypes or misconceptions about feminism, and who instantly become dismissive or inattentive when you start talking about serious issues. “Undercover feminism” can get them to see and grapple with serious problems without provoking a culturally perpetuated automatic lock-down response to feminism.

    Even using feminist language and terminology is trouble, sometimes. I’ve seen people laugh at the idea that bikini calenders in the workplace make for a “sexualized work environment” or “alienate” female coworkers, yet they take you more seriously when you say that it’s disrespectful and off-putting towards female colleagues, even though that’s essentially saying the same thing. Some currents of media condition people to be mindlessly hostile towards feminism, and making progress against these currents means prioritizing the message over the packaging.

    This goes for media as well, and for social justice issues beyond feminism – I know there have been books, movies and video games that try to spread messages of social justice where the developers adamantly deny trying to do so. I don’t have the example to mind, but I know there was at least one case where the creator outright admitted that in order to get the (environmentalist, here) message across to a wide audience, he had to trick the audience into thinking there wasn’t a message at all, because there are lots of people avoid engaging with media they feel they might be trying to preach to them.

    So in short, “undercover feminism” is an important tool in reaching out to people who are conditioned to react impulsively against the label feminism, or of social justice in general, and possibly breaking this conditionning. It can also, in my opinion, be a form of “mainstreaming” of feminist thought – and isn’t that what we want? A world where the label “feminism” is meaningless, because it describe the tenets of our entire culture at all levels, rather than a subset of social vanguards?

    • Posted May 11, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      I actually think Undercover Feminism would help people discover the feminist inside them. Plus I just saw Scream 4 and you’ll never see the ending coming!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

  6. Posted May 11, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I’d love to see a world where feminist ideology is so ensconced that it just defines how we tell a story, or create characters rather than “and the big feminist point of the day is…” It wouldn’t be “undercover” feminism. It would be a sign of change taking hold.

  7. Posted May 11, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Having just read Bossypants, I can tell you that there is nothing subtle about where Tina Fey stands as a feminist. She is one and she’s not afraid to stay it! Extreme feminism can, like any other political movement, isolate others that might be on the fence about it or give reason to those who want material to attack it. Subtle feminism should not be under appreciated, nor accused of not doing enough. As a feminist writer on relationships, wedding traditions and marriage, I can tell you feminist are already on board with most of my content, but I take a more relatable, conversational feminist approach to reach out to those are still blindly accepting the misogyny in wedding traditions. Women will never get ahead together if we keep drawing lines in the sand of you’re either in or you’re out, my understanding of 3rd wave feminism is that its women standing on that very line because we have different perspectives. I know lots of women who won’t call themselves feminists, but I know socially they carry similar values; so after much thought a feminist, to me, is someone who is willing to stick their neck out to help and promote women, personally or publicly. Subtle feminist, extreme feminists, Tina Fey and many of us do that, so it shouldn’t matter how we’re doing it, but that were doing it. I just hope that momentum keeps moving forward.

  8. Posted May 13, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    This indeed an interesting topic. While the technical definition of “feminist” is generally agreed upon, the range of different ways people act out their feminist beliefs is a huge one. Some people start kick-ass websites (holla!), some people protest, sign petitions against unfair legislation, talk to their friends, stand up for others, shout their feminism from the rooftops, or live it out quietly in the way they behave, raise their children, etc.

    So I don’t think that I would consider Tina Fey to be an “undercover feminist.” She’s simply expressing her feminism in a way that’s different than some. And I don’t think the way she’s expressing her beliefs is any better or worse than the way anyone else does.

    While some people may think that Fey is shirking in her “responsibilities” as a feminist, I think that’s she’s doing plenty: she’s paving the way for female writers and comedians to break into a world that is generally considered a “boys club.”

    I’d say that’s pretty awesome.

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