I recently finished watching The Handmaid’s Tale and looking back, I’ve realized how hungry I’ve been for female perspectives in the media.
With the release of Wonder Woman, I’ve felt not only relief in finally seeing more dynamic women onscreen, but also a growing expectation declaring that from now on, I will accept no less.
And yet, watching Wonder Woman, my favorite heroine – who I’ve always personally felt connected to due to my biracial identity – I’ve noticed that, along with these other female-led media projects, white women have been predominantly claiming the stage.
Perhaps a black woman may pop up from now and again to be the “diversity representative,” however, her identity revolves around the existence of the white lead. I’m ecstatic that the media is finally beginning to wake up and realize that female-led projects are profitable and reputable, but I’m worried that this feminism is only skating by through the privilege of whiteness.
Though I haven’t been the only one concerned about this trend of white feminism (which is hardly a new concept, one that is becoming more evident as more women are being recognized). Both Kadeen Griffiths and The Valerie Complex have noted the race problems within Wonder Woman, noting “the film quietly played into the same misconception that black people didn’t exist in history…Wonder Woman included some soldiers of color, which made the overwhelming whiteness of the civilian crowd scenes that much more unforgivable.”
“The moral of the story is: Wonder Woman not only needs a woman director; she needs women writers as well — including women of color; especially black women.
Moreover, Ana Cottle of The Establishment commented in her analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale that:
“The story still belongs to Offred, a white woman being punished in ways that echo the experiences of black women in America… pretending that the story takes place in a futuristic American society in which racism is no longer a serious issue is not only dismissive — discounting the ongoing prejudice and discrimination that large groups of people within the U.S. still face today — but dubious. It’s difficult to imagine an America ruled by fundamentalist Christian men in which racism wouldn’t be prevalent.”
Colorblind casting and token diversity seem to be the quick-fix answer for many questions on race in these programs. Yet, race is not secondary to womanhood, and actively shouting, “we’re ALL women” – while ignoring the unique struggles and oppression women of color face – isn’t feminism, and it certainly isn’t empowering.
Wonder Woman and The Handmaid’s Tale are not isolated incidents in which white feminism is the only feminism featured. Shows like Girls, The 100, the infamous Suffragette t-shirt incident, along with anything, really, by Amy Schumer, and Sofia Coppola’s recent controversial comment on her film The Beguiled, highlight how whiteness is used as a tool to make white women’s desire for equality excusable.
By erasing, minimizing, or/and demeaning the suffering of women of color, white feminists essentially send the message that they deserve equality with white men not because they are women, but because they are also white – thereby enforcing the racism women of color face.
White feminism, in truth, is not feminism at all.
This lack of understanding (or denial of reality) is reflected within television statistics as well. In Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, and Katherine Pieper’s article “Inclusion or Invisibility?,” the 2015 study of 414 television shows found that onscreen ethnicities were 71.7% White, 12.2% Black, 5% Hispanic/Latino, 5.1% Asian, 2.3% Middle Eastern, and 3.1% other. The representation of women of color was roughly half of each statistic.
Of the 407 directors observed, only two were Black women.
The research concluded that, “The current state of media inequality requires multiple strategies, as different problems merit different solutions. On the whole, inclusivity requires creating an ecosystem in which different perspectives hold value and stories represent the world in which we live.”
WOC filmmakers are currently working on forging this ecosystem.
Though white feminism may have become the default in female representation, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any women of color producing, starring, and writing truly diverse media.
When creating Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay emphasized in interviews with Variety and NBC News that the agency of women of color both behind and in front of the camera was essential to her work. Additionally, just recently the creators of the popular web series Brown Girls, Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey, made a deal with HBO to create a TV show focusing on the lives and relationships of South Asian-American writer Leila and Black-American musician Patricia. Netflix series such as Chewing Gum and One Day at a Time have also asserted the power and beauty of WOC-led media.
While celebrities such as Laverne Cox, Rosario Dawson, Constance Wu, and Viola Davis are making waves, new content creators have found their voice in expressing themselves through the internet as well, establishing miniseries such as Living with Strangers, Flat3, and Shugs & Fats.
There are a plethora of women of color whose stories, perspectives, and visions are being put into production right now, despite the power of white feminism.
However, in order to amplify the impact of their creations into the mainstream and rectify the imbalance in representation in media, white feminism needs to be addressed and dismantled.
Yes, it’s wonderful that there are more female-led projects being appreciated now, but this victory should not be a white victory. Otherwise, it directly betrays (real, intersectional) feminism’s message of equality.