The internet is the best and worst thing to happen to feminism. It's allowed more people to gain a broader and deeper understanding of what it means to think critically about gender. But amplifying the voices of the marginalized also makes them a target. Broadly, this means that women who speak out are subject to "hate" from "trolls" on the internet. More specifically, this means that women who speak out are often subject to vile comments, threats of rape or death, stalkers, and/or crudely vandalized photos of themselves.
No one knows this better than feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the blog Feminist Frequency. Sarkeesian started making YouTube videos critiquing gendered tropes in film and in video games in 2011. Her series Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games drew particular ire from the male video game fan base, making Sarkeesian one of the key targets of the online harassment campaign known as Gamergate. Her home address was leaked, she received lewd pieces of mail, racial slurs, and terroristic threats.
Now, Sarkeesian has moved away from the radioactive world of YouTube and has co-written, along with writer Ebony Adams, History vs. Women: The Defiant Lives that They Don't Want You to Know (October 2, Feiwel & Friends), a book highlighting women throughout history who have been overlooked or forgotten by the history books, including artists, activists, politicians, journalists, and pirates.
"That’s the great tragedy of the way history — particularly western history — has treated marginalized people. It diminishes or elides the accomplishments of anyone who doesn’t fit the standard model of who we’ve been taught are the real heroes, great thinkers, or artists," Sarkeesian and Adams wrote in an email to City Paper. The authors, who appear at Carnegie Lecture Hall on October 3, knew from the beginning that they wanted the book to be diverse, not just focusing on western or white women. They also knew that not all the women included should be framed in uncritical girl-power feminism. It's difficult to laud a woman for her success at overcoming patriarchal obstacles without making it sound like blind praise for her actions. Margaret Thatcher, for example, appears in the book because she was the first woman to be Prime Minister in Europe, but her politics were not ideal (to put it lightly).
"We find ourselves characterizing women like Margaret Thatcher as feminist icons, when her power was built upon the kind of oppression that keeps women and other marginalized groups in a subordinate position," say Sarkeesian and Adams.
Pop feminism has a tendency to gloss over the ugly details. "There’s been an unfortunate tendency within what’s termed 'empowerment feminism' that relies upon a pretty uncritical view of progress; in this schematic, all women’s achievement is worth praise, simply because women have had to overcome so much structural and systemic oppression to achieve anything," say Sarkeesian and Adams.
After the election, there was a surge of flashy feminist books (and shirts and coffee mugs and keychains and jewelry) that serve not so much as an educational tool, but as token for owners to show that they're feminists. It's easy to capitalize on a political stance and just as easy to buy the capital. History vs. Women could fall into that category, if the authors weren't also activists, very much a part of the fight.
"Instead of being a political movement that informs your beliefs, and that you participate in to liberate women, [feminism] has become a term that corporations can co-opt, throw on t-shirts and sell back to us," say Sarkeesian and Adams. "But for feminism to mean anything — for it to achieve anything — it’s crucial that the activism, the bite, the rage, the movement, the actual work, not be removed from it."