Back to Prindle Institute

Cancel Culture and the Possibility of Nuance

image of multicolored speech bubbles

In June of 2021, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie posted a short essay titled “It is Obscene: An Essay in Three Parts” on her website. Adichie, author of award-winning books like Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists, was famously featured in the Beyoncé song “Flawless,” reciting a basic outline of feminist thought between the pop singer’s verses. Adichie’s essay explores her relationship with two former students, who she frames as poisoned by online cancel culture. She laments that her students (and many young people like them) possess

“an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care . . . language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others . . . a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.”

Though the two students are unnamed, the second student was quickly identified as writer Akwaeke Emezi, a young novelist who accused Adichie of transphobia on Twitter. Emezi, a non-binary writer whose debut novel Freshwater was critically acclaimed, has written extensively on black trans identity through fiction and memoir alike.

It’s a bit reductive to label this a “feud,” though many news sources (like NPR, to name one) have succumbed to the temptation. There is clearly animosity between the two parties, but “feud” implies something entirely personal, even petty. While their personal history does come up in Adichie’s essay, it’s more accurate to say that Emezi and Adichie embody diametrically-opposed moral stances towards cancel culture, an opposition partly rooted in a generational divide.

While many have applauded Adichie’s essay, accusations of transphobia have taken over the conversation about her piece. Some wonder if her essay is a smokescreen, an attempt to deflect attention from Emezi’s original condemnation of Adichie’s brand of feminism. Has “Condemning cancel culture has become a reliable way to obscure transphobia,” as writer Aja Romano suggests in their article on Adichie for Vox?

Adichie summarizes her controversial stance on trans women in a 2017 interview. She said in a response to a question about trans identity,

“When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women. But I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords a man, and then sort of change—switch gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology. Gender is sociology.”

While some of these points are generally accepted (trans women indeed have different experiences from cis women), her response has been described as alarmingly close to TERF ideology. Not all trans women possessed much in the way of privilege before their transition, especially if they are people of color. Adichie has also faced criticism for an article she wrote defending J.K. Rowling, who peddles blatantly transphobic rhetoric in the guise of promoting gender equality. At the same time, many critics of Adichie have ascribed bad-faith motivations to Adichie’s actions where there seem to be none. For example, Adichie has come under fire for releasing her essay during Pride Month, even though Pride celebrations are still largely non-existent in Nigeria, and it’s unlikely that timing was a factor here. It’s also worth noting that TERFs tend to be more prominent in first-world countries, where the “feminism” part of the acronym is more palatable. In Nigeria, even garden variety feminism is considered suspect, let alone radical feminism. “Feminist” is less of a neutral descriptor than an insult in most parts of the country, as explained in an article for The New York Times, and many women still struggle to access their most fundamental rights. While she claims in the essay that she actively supports trans rights, the issue may seem alien or extraneous to Adichie. Her cultural background hardly excuses transphobia, but it’s important to consider that not everyone will be fluent in the occasionally dense and ever-changing vocabulary of trans issues in online spaces.

Adichie writes,

“[Emezi] knows me enough to know that I fully support the rights of trans people and all marginalized people. That I have always been fiercely supportive of difference, in general . . . Of course she could very well have had concerns with the interview. That is fair enough. But I had a personal relationship with her. She could have emailed or called or texted me. Instead she went on social media to put on a public performance.”

Claiming to support trans people and actually doing so are two different things, and she continuously misgenders Emezi, who has identified as non-binary for years. But there is still value in her larger point; what purpose did Emezi’s tweet serve? If the goal is to start a productive dialogue with someone and hopefully influence their views, is calling someone out on Twitter the most effective way to go about it? It’s unreasonable to ask trans people to educate every single transphobe they encounter, but in this case, the two had a pre-existing relationship, and as Adichie points out, Emezi could have used that as an opening.

At one point in the essay, she describes Emezi’s tweet as a “a public insult,” which succinctly gets at the problem with public shaming. We interpret such accusations as an attack, an insult; we experience a sense of powerlessness, especially if we aren’t media savvy, which may corner the accused into doubling down on their problematic views, shutting down a conversation before it can even begin. The performative brand of online wokeness Adichie dislikes requires a certain kind of knowledge, a list of phrases to be trotted out without any meaningful discussion of what those phrases mean. While most of this is well-intentioned, it can create echo chambers and ideological rigidity. Twitter, which is generally very American-centric, relies on a knowledge of this vocabulary that often excludes well-meaning older people, ESL folk, and those who aren’t from the West. At its worst, it encourages a culture of hostility to questions made in good faith.

Adichie notes,

“There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness . . . People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter. People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class.”

Some of this may seem extreme, and it’s worth critiquing the conflict with Emezi at the root of this essay, but we should answer her call for nuance, and grapple with both the good and the bad in her piece. Deplatforming her, as Emezi has called for, only aggravates an already massive generational divide and saps humanity from online spaces.

“Not Like Other Girls” and Internalized Misogyny

photograph of two young women of different attitudes

If you were a young person with internet access in the early 2010’s, you’ll almost certainly be able to visualize the “Not Like Other Girls” meme, which proliferated on sites like Deviantart and Reddit about a decade ago. Two girls stand next to each other, the one on the left (usually blonde and dressed head to toe in pink) is labeled “other girls,” and the one on the left (usually brunette, and less cartoonish than her counterpart) is labeled “me.” The “other girl” is the archetypal mean high school cheerleader. She wears makeup, loves boy bands, wears lip gloss, and is ostentatiously vain about her appearance. The girl representing the artist, while rarely being overtly tomboyish, rejects traits associated with traditional femininity. She eats voraciously, reads books, wears baggy or modest clothing, and snubs her nose at pop music. She’s quirky, unpolished, and raises an eyebrow with condescending confusion at her blonde neighbor.

A thousand versions of this image exist; sometimes the “normal” girl sports a mohawk and leather jacket, other times she’s holding an Xbox controller. Regardless of the finer details, the inherent silliness of this dichotomy, and the presumptuous superiority of the “normal” artist, was easy to mock. The meme rose to popularity because it spoke so directly to the experience of preteen tomboyish girls (or really any girl who felt alienated from her peers), but it experienced a wave of backlash as mainstream culture became more sensitive to feminist issues. The “other girl” is almost always a caricature of offensive stereotypes, which is why many have viewed the original meme as a manifestation of the artist’s internalized misogyny.

Internalized misogyny happens when we absorb and regurgitate sexist stereotypes, often subconsciously. Even the most diehard feminist is not completely immune to patriarchal socialization, which is why young women are encouraged to be vigilant with regards to gender norms. A 2009 study on this phenomenon published in the Journal of Integrated Social Sciences explains the manifestations of subconscious sexism:

“women and girls may learn to have low expectations of their capabilities . . . may be treated as if they need to be taken care of . . . may be criticized or ostracized for being assertive, visible, or outspoken, may find their opinions discounted, may be disliked as leaders unless they fit female stereotypes by acting nurturing, may be valued and appreciated primarily for their looks, bodies, or sexualities, may face expectations that they will spend considerable time and money modifying their physical appearance, may need to manage unwanted sexual attention or physical contact from men, [and] may be expected to act passive in sex, dating, and relationships.”

The study notes that this process usually begins in the middle school years, when girls are encouraged to relinquish their preadolescent androgyny and conform to femininity. Girls are made to feel incompetent and powerless, and then pressure other girls to conform with standards that hurt all women.

But at the same time, it’s hard to slap an “internalized misogyny” label on this meme and call it a day. After all, internalized misogyny is more than just a dislike for other women; it has to do with reinforcing power structures. Scholar Greta Olson explains that

“Within a system of hegemonic masculinity, women who have successfully internalized misogyny will be rewarded to the degree that they uphold and enforce the structures of this system to the detriment of other women who are less compliant. By contrast, such women will be treated with hostility who refuse to hold up the prevalent system of male privilege.”

In other words, feminine pursuits may be denigrated, but any girl who steps outside those pursuits is doubly ostracized. Sexism remains a double-edged sword, a fact that this meme (albeit unintentionally) captures with its simplistic dichotomy.

At the same time, the notion that gender-non-conforming girls are somehow too confident or arrogant, and that their unwillingness to conform to social expectations was a ploy to gain male attention or approval (as is so often implied in parodies of the original meme), is deeply misogynistic in itself. As Anusha Ashim explains,

“Many of these anti-’I’m not like other girls’ memes mock the girl on the other side rather than stating that both are equal. The unfeminine girl is portrayed as unhygienic, lazy, bitter, and even jealous. Things like baggy clothing, dark hair, and types of music are associated with her. We must ask ourselves this: Why are we creating another sexist caricature to prove that a sexist caricature is false?”

We’ve reached a point where any criticism or minor aversion to traditional femininity is labeled as internalized misogyny; even a dislike of the color pink, which many women were practically force-fed as children, is deemed a manifestation of their hatred for other women. Internalized misogyny is extremely hard to unpack, and often pits women against one another for arbitrary reasons. Empathy is required on both sides of the artificial divide if we’re to achieve any substantial form of gender-consciousness.

Leaving Britney Alone

photograph of Britney Spears walking through crowd at event

In 2008, writer Stephen Elliott asserted that “It’s challenging to engage in a serious conversation about Britney Spears.” That conversation is no less difficult to engage with in 2021, though the recent documentary Framing Britney Spears encourages us to try.

Much like Marilyn Monroe before her, Britney Spears is a deeply troubled and troubling figure in pop culture. Their lives even follow the same basic arc; a beautiful but exploited blonde girl becomes a much-lauded sex symbol — the embodiment of beauty for her particular generation and cultural moment — and then the whole world watches with glee as she comes crashing down. The difference is that Britney was able to reach a place in her life where she could counteract the narrative that has accrued around her. Framing Britney Spears does this work admirably, reframing her family life, turbulent relationships, and mental health struggles for the age of Me Too. In particular, the documentary examines the questionable way the media treated her, and forces us to ask uncomfortable questions about our collective obsession with the pop star’s messy life.

This story certainly makes us question the ethics of celebrity worship (and celebrity hatred), but the documentary’s version of Britney’s life has made some of the women who grew up with her image uncomfortable. In particular, the filmmakers try to suggest that Spear’s sexualized schoolgirl persona was something she herself crafted, and that interpreting her brand or her songs as misogynistic is to deny her agency. The prudish American public simply resented her overt sexuality, which was a component of her artistic vision. As Tavi Gevinson notes in an essay for The Cut, the documentary has a very specific agenda that this position serves well. Britney is currently enmeshed in a legal battle to break free from her conservatorship, so emphasizing her ability to make choices makes perfect sense.

This image of picture-perfect blonde beauty is something Britney fought for control over, and the evolution of her public persona demonstrates that struggle. The infamous hair-shaving incident is the most iconic episode in her life, and by specifically shaving her hair, she dismantled her own appearance in a way that counteracted her public image. Even her voice reflected a discomfort with her status as an icon. In a review of her 2016 album Glory, one critic describes how “as her career progressed, Britney and her producers began, rather gleefully, having some fun with the fake. Her futuristic-sounding pop songs became sonic laboratories, explorations of emerging technologies in Auto-Tune . . . On songs like the electro-pop collage ‘Piece of Me,’ her voice is robotized to the point of sounding posthuman.” It’s easy to read this shift as the material embodiment of feminist writer Adrienne’s Rich’s observation that “The body has been made so problematic for women that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit.”

But at the same time, there’s something not quite right about reframing Britney as a feminist icon. This is less about whether or not Britney Spears, the human being, holds views that we might describe as feminist, or feminist-aligned. Rather, it’s about whether Britney Spears, the cultural icon manufactured by a corporation, embodies misogynistic stereotypes. In her essay, Gevinson quotes a friend (who, like Gevinson, grew up with Britney’s music and image) on the documentary: “[Britney] was the establishment! She was what we were supposed to be: sexy and young. Not a paragon of independence . . . She was a response to Alanis [Morissette] and the rise of the ‘angry woman’” figure in popular music. As Gevinson explains,

“The filmmakers do not acknowledge how Spears’s agency may have been compromised by her age, the stakes of wealth and fame, or the influence of the adults around her. They also do not engage the messier implications of the virginal-but-sexy stereotype . . . it is absurd to discuss her image from that time as though there were not an apparatus behind it, as though she existed in a vacuum where she was figuring out her sexuality on her own terms, rather than in an economy where young women’s sexuality is rapidly commodified if they are old enough to be discarded.”

So what purpose does it serve to rebrand an artist who represents the epitome of Western beauty standards and behavior as a trail-blazing feminst?

As the public became more aware of Britney’s struggles under her conservatorship, fans began to mobilize. Last April, a group of protesters gathered outside of a city hall in Los Angeles, holding “Free Britney” signs and chanting in unison. Though the protest may have been just a little tongue-in-cheek, the fact that Britney’s fans borrowed political language and set dressing for the sake of their idol speaks to the broader narrative her story has been subsumed into. Whether we hurl vitriol at her or politicize her pain, she must always be a symbol for something, her beauty and tragedy must be appropriated for some end. We can read her as a misogynistic fantasy, a sexualized teenager acting out the fantasies of older men, or we can try to reclaim her as an image of strength. Either way, it seems that we simply can’t leave Britney alone.

Can Hyperfemininity Be Radical?

image of black lipstick kiss on white background

In late November of 2020, Rolling Stone published a controversial article on “Bimbo TikTok,” a nascent subculture that has found a home on the popular video sharing platform. Young twenty-something women are reclaiming the word bimbo, and as EJ Dickson puts it in the Rolling Stone article, they aim “to transform the bimbo into an all-inclusive, gender-neutral leftist icon.” These women, along with the handful of gay men and non-binary people who also embrace the aesthetic, signal their bimbo-ness through Barbie-pink clothing, glittery eyeshadow, and a willingness to appear ditzy.

So how is this revolutionary? Kate Muir, one of the young women interviewed by Dickson, explains that “you become everything men want visually whilst also being everything they hate (self aware, sexually empowered, politically conscious, etc.).” In other words, coupling a hyperfeminine (and as Dickson acknowledges, explicitly sexual) aesthetic with a radical political sensibility creates cognitive dissonance in viewers with a habit of objectifying women. There isn’t really a political manifesto for this nebulous movement, so Muir’s statement is about as close as you can get to a bimbo philosophy.

However, there are a few glaring problems with “reclaiming the bimbo” under the banner of progressive politics. The biggest is that while some women, like Muir, claim to be anti-consumerist, it isn’t really possible to reject consumerism and be hyperfeminine at the same time. Name-brand clothing, makeup, and hair products don’t appear out of thin air; they require a significant investment of both time and money.

Furthermore, the idea that women can fight misogyny by performing hyperfemininity is problematic in itself. Griffin Maxwell Brooks, an engineering student at Princeton and another person Dickson interviewed, said that “The modern bimbo aesthetic is more about a state of mind and embracing, ‘I want to dress however I want and look hot and not cater to your expectations.” Bodily autonomy is a deeply important feminist issue, but when we stop interrogating why we choose to look a certain way, it becomes hollow as an analytical framework. In other words, women should be allowed to dress however they want, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask what cultural forces shape our desires. In a society where women are still expected to perform femininity, how is leaning into femininity not catering to men’s expectations? Why is the bimbo’s version of “hot” revolutionary, despite the fact that it’s just what straight men find attractive? All women, regardless of how they present, suffer from misogyny in one way or another, but it’s ludicrous to propose that women who are conventionally attractive and do buy into hyperfemininity are more maligned than the women who refuse to play ball.

To be clear, the problem isn’t that women are dressing provocatively and wearing fake eyelashes. The problem is that an inherently consumerist aesthetic is being reframed as politically radical. For years, make-up companies have used feminism to sell their products, equating personal expression with the freedom to buy lipstick. But now, companies no longer have to spend millions on market research and insidious campaigns; consumers are doing the work for them. It has become almost impossible to escape consumerism, so young people with radical impulses can only direct their energy into an empty aesthetic, into products rather than activism.

Furthermore, these young women are putting time and money into an aesthetic that remains rooted in deeply misogynistic views about women’s intellectual capacity. Is the bimbo really the best figure to reclaim in the name of sexual liberation? A more truly radical action would be to expand our collective imagination beyond tired and harmful stereotypes, to imagine a new way to be free without the help of old templates.

There is a fun element of campiness to the bimbo aesthetic, and it might have the potential to become a sophisticated parody of misogynistic expectations. Glittery makeup is harmless, but it’s a waste of time to frame wearing it as a political statement. The fact that we feel the need to reframe blatant consumerism as radical is, in itself, deeply troubling.

Is Radical Feminism Inherently Transphobic?

photograph of JK Rowling at book signing for Harry Potter

Trans-exclusionary radical feminists, usually just called TERFS for short, are the bogeymen (or more accurately, the bogeywomen) haunting leftist spaces. A succinct “so-and-so is a TERF” is more than enough to permanently mar an activist’s reputation on Twitter. The word has been so thoroughly incorporated into online slang that it’s more commonly written as “terf,” without any indication that it stands for something specific. Overuse and misuse of the word has resulted in some confusion over what a TERF is, and how to spot one. As the acronym makes clear, TERFS are those who identify with the more radical strains of second-wave feminism, and also believe that trans women are not “real women” and therefore should not have a voice in feminist discourse. The second component of TERF ideology is unquestionably reprehensible, but it’s easy to get snagged on the “radical” part of TERF-ism. How can a movement as ostensibly counter-cultural as radical feminism be the springboard for conservative bigotry, and is it possible to separate radical feminism from TERF ideology?

TERFs are so troubling in part because they cloak their transphobic rhetoric with progressive language. This confusion prompted Cambridge University’s women’s campaign, an organization that protects women on campus and provides resources on feminist topics, to circulate an article titled “How to Spot Terf Ideology.” The article implies that TERF rhetoric isn’t always blatantly transphobic, and can be difficult to understand the implications of for the uninitiated. On a surface level, some tenets of TERF-ism even seem reasonable; one especially prevalent idea is “self-based oppression,” which means that cis women are discriminated against based on biological sex. This is a difficult point to argue with, but it has a few weaknesses. On the one hand, it assumes that all cis women experience share a universal experience of womanhood regardless of race, class, or sexuality. Furthermore, TERFs make it clear that that trans women are exempt from this discrimination.

This obsession with biological essentialism ultimately excludes trans women from feminist spaces, and elevates the cis (and usually white) experience of womanhood as the gold standard. In a recent seminar on TERF-ism, scholar Marquis Bey explained that “TERFs seem to have the power to renaturalize and reinstall or to further solidify the stranglehold of the gender binary, which is in and of itself a mode of violence and violation.” Bey is touching on the contradiction at the heart of TERF ideology; feminism is supposed to break down socially constructed gender roles, including the idea that women are biologically different from men, but TERFs just reinforce the binary. Biological essentialism also forms an ideological bridge between TERFs and the far right, who also bolster their arguments with “biology.” Both movements are also deeply reactionary; as Bey says, TERFs long for “the purported ‘golden years’ of feminist activism, which contrast with this supposed ‘too far’-ness of contemporary radical trans insurrectionary thinking [and] activism.”

So can radical feminism be untangled from TERF ideology, or are the two inextricably linked? Many would argue that they aren’t. Second-wave radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, who is often venerated by TERFs, was a trans ally herself. In 1975, Dworkin explicitly denounced biological essentialism when she said that “while the system of gender polarity is real, it is not true. It is not true that there are two sexes which are discrete and opposite, which are polar, which unite naturally and self-evidently into a harmonious whole. It is not true that the male embodies both positive and neutral human qualities and potentialities in contrast to the female.” This indicates that radical feminism isn’t a monolith. People who use the label can be TERFs, or they can reject transphobia entirely. Anyone can label themselves a radical feminist, so long as they take issue with mainstream liberal feminism and center their politics on gender discrimination. There are many “feminisms,” not just one.

But TERFs claim to speak for all feminists whenever they make headlines. Just this year, J.K. Rowling was outed as a TERF when she refused to renounce her transphobic brand of feminism. Transphobia is splintering the community, as prominent gender theorist Judith Butler pointed out in a recent interview she gave on the J.K. Rowling scandal. “My wager is that most feminists support trans rights and oppose all forms of transphobia. So I find it worrisome that suddenly the trans-exclusionary radical feminist position is understood as commonly accepted or even mainstream. I think it is actually a fringe movement that is seeking to speak in the name of the mainstream, and that our responsibility is to refuse to let that happen.” Even if transphobes make up a small fraction of the feminist community, they threaten to derail decades of consciousness-raising and coalition-building. All feminists, regardless of how they identify, will have to reckon with this growing sense of division.

The Resurgence of Tarot

Photograph of the Moon tarot card propped against a crystal with several other tarot cards arranged in the background

New Age religious practices are on the rise, from neo-paganism to astrology. In 2012, barely more than half of Americans characterized astrology as “unscientific.” Crystal healing and spiritual practices have also made a comeback as a means of individual meditation cobbled from ancient traditions.

Tarot is another practice enjoying a new cultural moment.  It is the inspiration for products sold by GOOP to Dior to Etsy. Tarot card apps abound, including the Golden Thread app which teaches the user the symbolism associated with each card. This fascination is not entirely new – it mirrors the New Age fascination of the 60s and 70s, famously exemplified by Salvator Dali in his Tarot series.

The history of Tarot cards history is somewhat murky. It is speculated that Tarot cards originated as a game akin to contemporary card games. Artist Bill Wolf suggests that the diverse imagery on the cards allowed for creative games where ”the random draw of the cards created a new, unique narrative each and every time the game was played, and the decisions players made influenced the unfolding of that narrative.”

One of the most famous editions of Tarot is the “Motherpeace” version, developed in the 1970s by feminist researchers Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble. The deck depicts feminine figures in ancient mythology and is influenced by the works of Alice Walker. Described by Alice Walker as a “mirror that constantly shows the truest face,” Motherpeace has remained in print since its debut. The appeal of Tarot to second-wave feminism is tied with its emphasis on women’s spirituality. It emphasizes intuition, meditation, and caring spiritual practices as an alternative to institutionalized religious practices that have frequently excluded women, LGTBQ individuals, and other “outsiders” from enjoying equal standing. Tarot similarly enjoys a strong following from the LGTBQ community and people of color.  

Why was Tarot such a recurrent symbol for reclaiming the power of marginalized individuals?  While tarot cards are represented in pop culture as the purview of professional psychics, cards are just as likely to be used by meditation groups, individuals, or friends musing over the twists of daily life over a cup of tea or a tumbler of wine. It is a quintessentially accessible practice that satisfies some need for symbolic representation that institutionalized religion formerly filled for many.

Some of these symbols are less vernacular today than at the time of their composition (hence the proliferation of new editions of the Tarot). The changing decks bear in common that they encourage the reader to see one’s life in more complex ways than one, linear narrative, prompting different possible lenses to one’s current situation. The user learns to develop layered interpretations of seemingly straightforward imagery. While the Death card is notorious in pop culture, its meaning is one of change and transformation rather than intimating literal demise.  

Far from being strictly a divination practice or predicting one’s future, tarot cards are understood as an “invitation to the present moment.”  

Can there be an ethics of Tarot? Taken as a hobby by individuals or among friends, it can be a game or a series of meditation props for evaluating different aspects of life in working through present concerns. The latter could be understood to be a similar practice to meditation, or reading self-help books, but with a randomized approach.  

Professional tarot card readers exist, however. If Tarot cards are essentially random meditative symbols, what sort of services does a paid reader provide?  

People seeking tarot card readers are often at a knotty intersection in their lives, torn about a decision, or stuck in a recurring cycle of behavior. Sometimes they are ravaged by grief or anxiety. In short, people tend to seek out Tarot readers for the same reasons they seek out therapists. But why choose a Tarot reader over a trained therapist? Tarot reader Thom suggests that one reason is economic: most people are not covered by insurance that would enable them to see a therapist for the long-term care that is required to be effective. Thus, Tarot responds to a serious gap in mental health services for many people. While clients pay Tarot readers out of pocket, meetings are often infrequent and reserved for times when the person feels particularly stuck on a question and needs a listening ear.  

Tarot readers typically offer an open and accepting environment and frequently embrace holistic approaches to responding to questions that incorporate the client’s worldview. The use of neutral symbols invites client participation and interpretation, allowing for a more equal power and epistemic dynamic than in a typical clinical situation. A recurring theme among codes of ethics by tarot readers encourages clients to use their own inner guidance. Like therapists, Tarot readers rely on interpersonal skills of listening to clients and helping them to interpret their own narratives through dialogue.  

In some ways, Tarot readers mirror the emotional labour that women often provide informally and without pay, but with remuneration. It is both paid and un-credentialed, and thus occupies a halfway space between the unpaid work characteristic of women, and the accreditation of that labour which demarcates paid caring professions.

The goal of responsible Tarot readers is not to replace professional help for serious concerns. Biddy Tarot emphasizes the importance of referral, sending clients seeking specific answers for health, legal, relationship or financial issues to the appropriate professionals. The ideal Tarot reader seems to offer a safe, confidential and informal space where individuals can talk about their lives in a holistic way. Like the randomness of the cards itself, Tarot readings offer a non-hierarchical approach to finding emotional equilibrium and progress through the unavoidable challenges and joys of daily life.

Self-Care in the Late Capitalist Era

Photo of a lowlit room with candles and a mirror and a bed

As the time for New Year’s resolutions rolls around once more, the term “self-care” is more prevalent than usual. But what really is a “care of the self”?  

For decades, self-care has been associated with women’s empowerment.  In the context of women’s traditional roles as unpaid caregivers, self-care is a radical action: by prioritizing her own needs, a woman affirms that she exists for herself and not merely for others.  Audre Lorde also saw its political potential for individuals marginalized by their race and sexual orientation: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” For people who are typically erased from public life, loving and caring for oneself when society does not is a subversive practice.

The meaning of self-care has gradually come to be associated with enjoying small pleasures in the midst of a busy life, marketed especially to women who still overwhelmingly bear the heavy dual burden of being primary caregivers and workforce labourers. But what happens when late capitalism has permeated the notion of “self-care”, encouraging consumption itself as part of a holistic spiritual practice? Or when a “care of the self” becomes an Instagram label, used to showcase the results of a lip-plumping kit, manicure, or an Insta-filtered and staged $10 macchiato? What philosophy is at stake when magazines and periodicals tout this particular set of soy candles or bespeak aromatherapy or that $2500 per diem psychotherapy and spa program as the self-care du jour?  

Another version of a “care of the self” focuses primarily on bodily wellness. There are positive trends here. The combination of the body acceptance movement with girl power results in a new focus on #strongwomen rather than the thinness ideal long associated with the fashion industry. But some have argued that the #strongnotskinny ideal and its own genre of #fitspo is just as demanding of an ideal for women in its own way as the former, emaciated heroin-chic ideal, despite being a healthier and more rewarding overall goal.  

Even in bodily fitness, consumerist and late-capitalist signifiers of fitness tend to be emphasized over internal measures of physical well-being. Workout clothing has long shifted from repurposed tank tops and sweatpants from the back of one’s closet to a 9.6 billion dollar industry of its own. And the quintessentially American obsession with fitness has led to a series of performative fads, from expensive and restrictive diets that advertise one’s enlightened eating habits to pricey workouts.

But if late capitalism and performing membership of a leisured life have all but subsumed a “care of the self”, what might be an authentic or original version of the concept?  

Michel Foucault explored the Socratic notion of self-care as interlinked with another duty: self-knowledge. The project of self-care for the ancient Greeks, particularly through Socrates, demanded commitment to an ongoing cognitive process – a critical sounding of one’s ideas of oneself and the world. It is only through a relationship to truth-telling via rigorous ”dialectic” (literally, talking or thinking through something) that a person lives up to their own human potential. Socratic dialectic is a pre-modern mode of thought that is not wholly reducible to the scientific mode which relies on an opposition between subject and object to come to “objective” assessments of reality. It falls more under the notion of a “practice” or “techne” in Hellenistic culture.

This cognitive emphasis on self-care is radical for several reasons. It might be tempting, in the context of a biomedical view of the body, to focus on the physical and emotional benefits of learning and of cognitive behavioral therapy. While such effects exist, we could easily become locked in a therapeutic vision that envisions human flourishing and excellence primarily in terms of physiological and emotional factors. Once the parameters of flourishing are so reduced, it is possible to commodify them: the complex of factors constituting physical wellness can be subsumed into ”fitspo” and the richness of emotional lability can be swapped for positivity injunctions of #gratitude, #hygge, and #blessed.  

Instead, ancient notions of self-care invite us to fundamentally revisit our ideas of what constitutes human flourishing. Honest, self-reflective thought is difficult to commodify. As a consequence, a commitment to a discipline of critical thinking that engages oneself and one’s place in the world might represent the most promising subversion of capitalism to date.

This has direct political consequences. Plato would see Socrates’ own death as an exemplary instance of “parrhesia” – speaking one’s truth even when it is costly.  Such disciplined candour is an unavoidably political act in view of the fact that human beings are irreducibly political animals. Audre Lorde’s self-care may be much more appealing to the contemporary reader than Socrates’ — perhaps because self-preservation is a core feature of her version of self-care.  

Some of us today are fortunate enough to live in a society where self-examination and challenging of belief systems do not come at such a high price as that paid by Socrates.  However, late capitalist societies present their own peculiar challenges to self-knowledge where visions of self-fulfillment are daily bought and sold, promised and pursued. This New Year, we might put this meta-resolution at the top of our list: to see how a relentless commitment to truth-seeking can transform our lives and our world.

The Moral Messages of Violence in Media

Season two of the The Handmaid’s Tale returns with darker themes and more overt torture and sexual violence directed at the majority female cast. The dystopian drama depicts the practical consequences of misogynistic theocracy that takes power in the face of environmental collapse and widespread infertility, set in an eerily similar near-future America.

The violence in The Handmaid’s Tale is often compared to another hulking series, Game of Thrones. Both use liberal amounts of violence against women to keep their plot moving, but to different effect:

The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t glamorizing atrocities against women, exactly, or sanitizing them in the way that Game of Thrones or other prestige dramas might sanitize rape. The brutality is the point—the show wants us to experience the logical extension of institutionalized misogyny and theocratic governance.”

Indeed:

In shows like True Detective and Game of Thrones, the focus on female debasement is often criticized precisely because female suffering is positioned as entertainment. What happens on The Handmaid’s Tale is different, as violence against women plays out as a kind of morality tale.”

Visceral scenes in books, TV, and movies are a way of conveying the lived experiences and realities that audiences might struggle to relate to. In speculative fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale, showing in detail what would result from misogynist value systems and authoritarian, theocratic regimes can bring home how horrible the lives of the oppressed would be.

Art helps us to relate to experiences and realities that are different from our own, and can have a positive moral impact for this reason. People that read more novels have been shown to have greater emotional intelligence. However, when the perspectives and experiences are particularly graphic and violent, or run the risk of normalizing or sanitizing the persecution or rate of violence against an oppressed group, this raises questions about the ethics of continuing to portray the experiences of violence in detail.

Should we need to experience the pain of others to have their suffering be morally salient to us?

Legislators who become more feminist when they have daughters occupy an interesting dialectical space. While it is a positive step of course, it is good to adopt policies that recognize the fundamental equality of people the fact that they had to care for a daughter in order to tap into the moral reality is more than a bit distressing.

A further complication is the notion that there may just be an epistemically unbridgeable gap between communities that rely on one another for support regarding their experiences. It may just not always be possible to fully grasp another person’s everyday reality. It would be a great misfortune to discover immovable obstacles might bar someone from fully sympathizing with another person and experiencing the appropriate moral emotions regarding their plight.

Moral emotions such as sympathy, indignation, care, and regret play different roles of significance depending on the ethical theory you favor. Consequentialist views such as utilitarianism focus not so much on the emotional or motivational landscape that leads to action, but rather the result of our behaviors. If you make people have a better life out of indifference or kindness, it amounts to the same thing from an ethical perspective for utilitarians. Other views on morality heavily favor the emotions; care ethics and feminist views focus on our relationships to one another and tending to our roles appropriately. A behavior done out of sympathy would have a different moral assessment than the same behavior done out of indifference.

Given these considerations, we could reflect on art that attempts to bring pain and suffering into view in different ways. If the value in question is one of developing the appropriate moral response to suffering, we may ask: is this really necessary? (Isn’t this a case where we should really be able to get to the moral emotions on our own, as in the case of the legislators realizing women are people only when they’ve faced a daughter of their own?) Or, are there countervailing concerns, such as those raised in the discourse around the sexual violence in Game of Thrones? (Is this violence normalizing an already troubling reality?)

There are rich and nuanced questions regarding the consumption of art that includes graphic and detailed violence against marginalized groups. It puts pressure on how we conceive of our moral burdens in relating to one another, and how we experience the messages media sends us.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

Bathrooms and the Board of Trustees: The Ethics of DePauw’s Restroom Protests

An image of three bathroom stalls, with one stall door open.

In a recent newspaper article for DePauw University’s student newspaper, Madison Dudley interviews five DePauw seniors about their decision to begin a petition. This petition implores certain members of DePauw’s Board of Trustees to end their support of politicians who “support laws that can be interpreted as regulating women’s bodies, fail to protect DACA students, and support the recent Republican tax plan.” The petition campaign was accompanied by posters hung in women’s bathrooms in every stall of every academic building on campus. Each poster pictures a conservative politician’s face, with information about the petition and the expression “He might as well be watching you pee.”

Continue reading “Bathrooms and the Board of Trustees: The Ethics of DePauw’s Restroom Protests”

Telling Stories, Seeking Justice: The #MeToo Movement

"Women's March Austin-1" by Lauren Harnett liscensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

When Tarana Burke served as a youth worker, she heard her “share of heartbreaking stories from broken homes to abusive or neglectful parents.” A little girl, Heaven, reached out to Burke to talk in private, relaying stories of “her mother’s boyfriend who was doing all sorts of monstrous things to her developing body.” Unable to handle the horror, Burke interrupted and directed the girl to a different counselor. Haunted by her response, Burked reflected, “as I cared about that child, I could not find the courage that she had found. I could not muster the energy to tell her that I understood, that I connected, that I could feel her pain.” Shocked and hurt by the rejection, Heaven walked away, and Burke remembers the moment: “I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too.”

Continue reading “Telling Stories, Seeking Justice: The #MeToo Movement”

Should Hugh Hefner be Buried Next to Marilyn Monroe?

An old snapshot of Hugh Hefner smoking a pipe.

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, died on September 27 at the age of 91. A leader in the sexual revolution of the second half of the twentieth century, Hefner has been a controversial figure throughout his life. Playboy magazine launched in 1953 and hurled his empire into mainstream success that spanned media, later including multiple television shows, clubs, restaurants, and the notoriously excessive Playboy Mansion.

Continue reading “Should Hugh Hefner be Buried Next to Marilyn Monroe?”

Fearless Girl, Charging Bull… Sketchy Dog?

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the Wall Street standoff between the Fearless Girl and the Charging Bull sculptures. It’s quite clear that Americans are still split between Team Girl or Team Bull, but now there is a new player in the mix.  Recently, Charging Bull gained a new ally in the form of a temporary installation named Sketchy Dog, who spent his few hours of fame urinating on the girl.

Continue reading “Fearless Girl, Charging Bull… Sketchy Dog?”

Feminism, Privilege, and Trans Inclusivity

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is known for advocating an understanding of feminist values that is inclusive and diverse. Race and gender play important roles in her largely personal works. Best-selling author of “Americanah” and “We Should All be Feminists,” she emphasizes that fundamental to feminism is that “’because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything,” and that, “I matter. I matter equally.” Her focus in much of her writing, especially in her latest project, “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions,” is how to raise a daughter and that feminism is a project that binds mothers and daughters (she discusses the shaming dialog with her mother surrounding her first period, for instance).

Continue reading “Feminism, Privilege, and Trans Inclusivity”

Feminism in 2017: Inclusionary or Exclusive?

At the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference, Kellyanne Conway revealed that she does not identify as a feminist “in the classical sense.” This seems a bit paradoxical, considering the fact that she was the first woman to ever successfully run a presidential campaign, thereby setting further precedents for what women can do. The Oxford Dictionary defines feminism as the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes, but Conway does not believe that is how the current feminist movement is coming across. During her CPAC appearance, she cited the term “feminism” as having “anti-male and pro-abortion” tendencies.

Continue reading “Feminism in 2017: Inclusionary or Exclusive?”

Modes of Morality in (De)criminalizing Sex Work

Liberal ideas of women’s rights and conservative perspectives on sexuality and sexual violence have come to a head in India following the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape case that made international news. On October 12th, India’s Supreme Court ruled on a twenty-year-old case to acquit three men of the rape of a woman who was allegedly engaged in sex work. According to the Times of India, the “vengeful attitude” of the victim to recover money from the suspects after a history of working for the men constituted a compelling reason to forge a fake accusation. Ultimately, the acquittal keeps us asking questions about the nature of sex work as legitimate work, in relation to rape as sexualized violence — mutually exclusive actions with separate motives and disastrous effects on workers and victims.

Continue reading “Modes of Morality in (De)criminalizing Sex Work”

Women’s Resilience and Post-Feminist Sexism

This post originally appeared November 10, 2015.

In 1977, punk pioneer Poly Styrene used loud, screamed, overdriven vocals to revolt against the stereotype that “little girls should be seen and not heard.” In the 1990s, the riot grrrl bands she inspired used similar strategies to shout “revolution girl style now!” In 2014, Rebecca Solnit, who coined the term “mansplaining,” argued that year was “a year of mounting refusal to be silent…a loud, discordant, and maybe transformative” time because the “strong individual voices and the great collective roar of social media” meant that “women are coming out of a silence that lasted so long no one can name a beginning for it.” Women, in other words, could most certainly be heard, and people were finally paying attention to those screams.

Is society’s ability to hear and celebrate women’s noisy feminist voices really evidence of progress, as Solnit claims? Or is loud, noisy “feminist” voice just a different type of oppressive stereotype we expect women to embody?

The short answer is: no to the first question, and yes to the second. The longer answer is that society’s investment in the concept and practice of resilience has some very specific implications for women. Last month I wrote about resilience discourse in general, and argued that it reproduces the relations of domination and inequality that it claims to solve. Here, I want to focus on how individual women’s resilience contributes to institutionalized sexism and racism. We expect women to perform a specific kind of resilience: they must loudly and spectacularly demonstrate that they have overcome patriarchal oppression. Noisy feminism is both a new gender norm for women to embody and a tool white supremacy uses to scapegoat non-white men for lingering sexism.

Traditionally, (white) women were supposed to be passive, silent, and fragile–princesses to be rescued, damsels in distress. Resilience has replaced these older stereotypes; as photographer Kate Parker puts it, “strong is the new pretty.” We now expect individual women to overcome the damage wrought by traditional femininity (negative body image, objectification, sexual assault and/or domestic violence, silencing, etc.): they need to “lean in” and be tough, be “all about that bass,” and so on. Resilience still requires women to be hurt by the same old sexism while also creating a new kind of sexism on top of it. This new sexism has a few interwoven layers: (1) it makes women responsible for fixing sexism, thus maintaining the gendered division of labor that has women cleaning up after everyone else’s mess; (2) treating the negative effects of sexism as individual women’s failure, not society’s failure, it hides the fact of ongoing social injustice behind the veneer of feminist victory; (3) it replaces what gender studies scholars call the virgin/whore dichotomy with the opposition between resilience and lazy backwardsness so that women who don’t appear to be resilient are seen as both abnormally gendered and sexually deviant; (4) it instrumentalizes women, using them as tools to cut the post-racial color line and hide white supremacy behind the veneer of racial diversity.

Though the music videos for both Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” (BBHMM) and Beyonce (feat. Lady Gaga)’s “Video Phone” tell stories about women conquering male dominance, the differences between the videos and reactions to them clarify how (3) and especially (4) work. In each video, the main woman character(s) executes a man that has harmed her. Beyonce and Gaga shoot arrows into camera-headed men, who symbolize the male gaze that objectifies women and reduces them just to their bodies. Rihanna butchers her accountant who embezzled from her, continuing a long line of what Doreen St. Felix identifies as gendered “Love & Theft” from black women musicians. The plot is effectively the same, except for one major difference: in “Video Phone,” Beyonce kills a black man; in BBHMM, Rihanna kills a white one. Beyonce’s performance appears resiliently feminist: she overcomes the male gaze that would otherwise objectify her. Rihanna’s performance, however, was widely critiqued as un-feminist. Though most critics said BBHMM was misogynist because Rihanna’s character kidnapped the accountant’s woman partner, that’s not why it felt un-feminist. Her performance felt un-feminist because it wasn’t properly resilient. Women’s resilience is supposed to point the finger at men of color, especially black men, as exceptionally backwards, misogynist, and incapable of evolving with the times. For example, as NPR reported, the Hollaback! Project’s 2014 video “10 Hours of Walking In NYC As A Woman” edited out all the white men so that black and Latino men appear solely responsible for street harassment. Similarly, non-Western men of color are often portrayed as backwards, regressive remnants of the misogynist attitudes and behaviors that Americans have evolved beyond. BBHMM doesn’t do this: it points the finger squarely at an extremely wealthy white man and blames him for still practicing the old-school (and racist) sexism that he and society are supposed to have overcome. Women’s resilience is supposed to show that some group of non-white men is incapable of overcoming old-school misogyny, and are thus unfit for inclusion in our post-feminist, post-racial, multicultural society–this is how resilience discourse instrumentalizes women in the name of white supremacy. And women who deal with sexism in ways that doesn’t cut a line between regressive non-white men and progressive, diverse society–they’re not resilient. Because resilience is the definitive feature of contemporary femininity, non-resilient women appear deficiently feminine, like they’re not “really” women.

Resilience, as I argued in my last post, isn’t just coping: it’s a way of reproducing hegemonic social institutions. Women’s resilience reproduces sexism and racism in the particular forms that work best with 21st century technologies, international and domestic politics, and media. And that’s why it’s something we expect women to practice. Women have to be resilient, because their resilience is key to the kinds of sexism and racism that hide behind the appearance of post-feminist, post-race multiculturalism. Resilient women aren’t liberated from narrow stereotypes; resilience is just a new stereotype they’re expected to fit.

Animated Television: A Boys’ Club?

For many people, animated cartoons form a central pillar of childhood. Whether they are classics like Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry or newer shows like Spongebob Squarepants and The Adventures of Gumball, cartoons have been a primary source of entertainment for generations of children. Besides the occasional fart joke, such cartoons seem fairly harmless. In their representation of women, though, such shows can act as anything but.

Continue reading “Animated Television: A Boys’ Club?”

Let’s Talk About…50 Shades of Grey (Part I)

50 Shades has swept audiences off their feet, selling 100 million copies worldwide, and making $237.7 million in its global opening in theaters. In many ways, this success could have been predicted by its eerie similarity to other phenomenally profitable franchises (ahem…Twilight), but in other ways, what 50 Shades presents is entirely new. The series follows the love story of an unassuming bookworm girl and an older millionaire businessman—nothing new there. But the catch? He’s into BDSM: he likes violent sex.

At a cultural moment where sex is a hot-button issue, the timing of the movie release couldn’t be more perfect (read: lucrative). But as Emma Green pointed out in her article for the Atlantic, on film, “the Fifty Shades version of hot, kinky sex will become explicit and precise, no longer dependent upon the imaginations of readers.” With the book, interested folks could discretely download the books on their e-readers and choose if they wanted to share their guilty fascinations. With the movie, it’s public.

So now that everyone knows you’re curious, let’s talk about some of the major debates surrounding the movie and the issues it brings to light.

One of the biggest arguments is the sheer volume of sex. With a full twenty-five minutes of pure sex scenes, one has to wonder what the motives are. Is it simply an empty shortcut to boost ticket sales? Or is the motive to open up the viewer to a more liberal approach to nudity and sex? One thing is clear: sex sells. But is there something inherently wrong with steamy sales tactics? Or, more specifically, is there something inherently wrong with using fetishized sex to sell?

This leads us to another point—one that was discussed in the Atlantic article: the movie’s representation of a particular community. The fact is that there really are people who are into BDSM. Some of these people have come forth, claiming that the movie misappropriates, among other things, the level of emotion and consent that’s actually involved. The movie didn’t show the couple talking, going on dates, falling in love… the focus is on the sex. And the moments not in the bedroom are uncomfortable: he sells her possessions, and pops up unannounced, and somehow maintains an constant aura of creepiness…uh, no thanks. As Green put it, “the most troubling thing about the sex… isn’t the BDSM itself: It’s the characters’ terrible communication.”

Now, it could be that the film is riding the wave of sexual liberalism, giving the public insight into a taboo community and ultimately promoting openness. And some feminists will give it this. In her HuffPost article, feminist writer Soraya Chemalay says that, “this not secret, not silent, non-judgmental openness is a feminist success”.

Many have also brought up the issue of class. Yes, this type of rare sexual preference is glamorous in a marble-floored penthouse between two good-looking people. Basically, would it have been as appealing without the helicopter?

This conversation goes on and on, back and forth and then back again. If you’re interested in reading more about the discussions surrounding the movie, as well as my personal take, head over to the PrindlePost.org. Personally, I haven’t read the book, but I saw the movie. I said it was just because everyone else was, but the truth is that I was genuinely curious…which I was 50 shades of embarrassed to admit.