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Does Power Feminism Exist? last web event

ari_hall's picture

            The definition of power feminism is the act of a woman amassing power in a male dominated capitalist society, and breaking through the gates that have historically held women back from powerful positions. These women inspire others that it is possible for them to reach power in this patriarchal system. But is power feminism real? Can the power of one individual woman liberate us all? Does the feminist agenda of this individual speak to the intersectional identities of others?

Author and feminist activist bell hooks believes that power feminism is not real, she states: “Power feminism is just another scam in which women get to play patriarchs and pretend that the power we seek and gain liberates us.” To further explore why she does not believe in power feminism I turn to hook’s critique of Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg. In Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In, hooks analyzes Sandberg’s book Lean In, and the advice she gives as a self-claimed feminist. Hooks makes three main critiques of Sandberg: she does not include or consider the perspectives and identities of women of color, she does not recognize the challenges of women in poverty, and she does not seek to challenge the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.


Sandberg challenges all women to “lean in” despite biases in the workplace, however as a privileged white woman she cannot speak to the systemic challenges that women of color face in society. One example of a challenge to leaning in is marriage. Sandberg stresses choosing a supportive partner and holding off on marriage and raising children in order to get far in your career, however because there is a significantly low percentage of Black women that are married, high achieving Black women are often advised by family and friends to “lean back” if they ever want to find a man. There is a misconception about high achieving Black women that they have unreasonably high standards in partners because of their high positions (especially male partners) and therefore they will not be able to find a husband, especially a Black husband, who is good enough for them.  These women are seen as picky and pretentious, whereas for a white woman, not plagued by statistic of single motherhood, finding a partner that supports their career is viewed as an advancing a feminist agenda.  

Other stereotypes that limit women of color from easily “leaning in” are the view of them, especially Black and Latina women, as sassy, loud and aggressive. Angelica Perez-Litwin of Huffington Post writes: “An assertive Latina at work risks being seen as ‘difficult’ or ‘opinionated.’ A confident voice level makes her ‘confrontational’ or ‘loud.’” When women of color do lean in they are often faced with the racial and ethnic barriers that white women do not have to face. In a recent article in Politico by Michelle Cottle, first lady Michelle Obama was critiqued for not leaning in enough; being too silent on political agendas and putting the role of motherhood above being an independent, educated activist, and in total declaring her a “feminist nightmare”. However, columnist at Salon, Brittney Cooper rebutted this stating: “black women were never viewed as ‘unthreatening and bucolic.’ That narrative has been the sole and privileged access of heterosexual, middle-class white women.” Because of the stereotypes black women face, “leaning in” has to be done with caution to prevent being further stereotyped and dismissed.

Even from earlier decades, the first wave feminist movement was geared to allow white women have an advantage in leaning in. As bell hooks mentions in Feminism is for Everybody, the main burden at the time for middle-class white women gaining equality was that they were confined as housewives. Women of color on the other hand had always been balancing work and domestic chores and so instead of the “dangers of confinement in the home”, staying at home would be seen as a “freedom” to women of color (hooks, 38). Leaning in also works so well for white women in a white male capitalist patriarchy because “white men [are] more willing to consider women’s rights when the granting of those rights could serve the interests of maintaining white supremacy”(hooks, 4). To the white male patriarchy, if there is going to be some change in the system, they rather it benefit white women, than people of color, to maintain the racial hierarchy. Therefore for women of color gaining success in this system is doubly against them.  

In her book Sandberg does acknowledge that she comes from a wealthy background, but in proclaiming her work as a feminist manifesto should make her advice more accessible to women in lower classes, but does not. Sandberg says that she mainly leaves the monetary concerns to be dealt with by her husband, and within the whole book barely mentions the concern of money. bell hooks however calls her out on this in Dig Deep stating; “her silence on the subject of money in Lean In undermines the call for genuine equality. Without the ability to be autonomous, in control of self and finances, women will not have the strength and confidence to ‘lean in.’” Throughout the early feminist movements, similar to the way the intersectionality of race is ignored, issue of women from privileged classes are the only ones focused on because they have the material power to “attract the mass media” (hooks, 37). Privileged white women also live in the security of knowing that if they do work outside of the home they have a better chance at getting a better paying job than working-class women. To bell hooks power feminism does not work exactly because of the continued subordination of working-class women, who are stepped on and ignored so that privileged women can gain equality to men. To hooks feminism is about helping all women become “economically self-sufficient”, and therefore when women “with class power opportunistically use a feminist platform while undermining feminist politics”, they are only “keep[ing] in place a patriarchal system” (42-43). Like the white patriarchy would rather allow white women rights than to have people of color gain power, similarly the white capitalist patriarchy, would much rather have women of higher class in more power than those in subordinate classes.

Lastly, hooks criticizes Sandberg on her failure to challenge the white male capitalist patriarchy. Sandberg takes a very first wave feminist approach on gaining access into higher positions in the corporate world in that she focuses solely on gender equality, and that gender equality she speaks about only speaks to white privileged women. Radical activist Mary Barfoot describes this type of feminism that by only wanting to have what men have then you must also mean to try to attain it through the same means that he did: “If we’re Dick’s sister and want what he has gotten, then in the end we support that system that he got it all from.” Similar to Barfoot’s description is also how hooks describes Sandberg: “she comes across both in her book and when performing on stages as a lovable younger sister who just wants to play on the big brother’s team…. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged.” Sandberg is merely just trying to “fit in with the guys”, and by not creating a space where all women can reach the same level, she is acting against women just like the men she is in companionship with.

Part of not challenging the system means not questioning the role that men play in keeping women out. Hooks lets us know that not once in Lean In does Sandberg mention what males need to do in order to change the system and “unlearn sexist thinking”. In this way she takes on a role of victim blaming for the women that do not reach the positions that she has. Like many others who often try to give advice on how women can reach new heights in the corporate world, or climb the corporate ladder, they always put the burden on the women to adapt and change themselves in order to make it in the system, but never question the men or system itself, which was made to keep women out. With this type of feminism women will never be able to gain full equality because no matter how hard they work, the system will always be working against them and in turn they will be working against themselves (hooks, 43).  

Within this structure of power feminism, due to the lack of opposition to the system, and the maintence of keeping women of color and working-class women subordinate, power feminism works to try to hide this by projecting the image of one powerful female as representative of the whole female community.  Sandberg’s use of her voice as the voice for other women instead of only “white women from privileged classes is one of the flaws in the representation of herself as a voice for feminism.” In this way Sandberg is keeping down women with intersectional identities which in turn is maintaining the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Because of these very things bell hooks believes power feminism is a scam. It makes us believe that we too, like Sheryl Sandberg can beat the system, when in reality individuals like Sandberg only perpetuate the system and therefore do not make it possible for other women to gain access to equality, which contradicts the notion of feminism.

The possibility of power feminism is also impossible because Sandberg still does not actually have all the power and equality that men do. She still must act and dress up a certain kind of way so that the media and general population likes her. And this image of her was created and enforced by the white male dominated mass media. Hooks argues that:

Had the conservative white male dominated world of mass media and advertising not chosen to hype her image, this influential woman would not be known to most folks. It is this patriarchal male dominated re-framing of feminism, which uses the body and personal success of Sheryl Sandberg, that is most disturbing and yes threatening to the future of visionary feminist movement. The model Sandberg represents is all about how women can participate and “run the world.” But of course the kind of world we would be running is never defined. It sounds at times like benevolent patriarchal imperialism.

So in fact, Sandberg really is not in control and the men that control the media and the images of her that go out are still superior entities. Granted she is very powerful and influential, her success cannot fully bring about the equality for all women because she herself in fact does not have full equality and justice, and she herself does not advocate for the full equality and justice of all women and men to end sexism.

The Age of Beyonce

            Like Sandberg, many have critiqued famous hip hop singer Beyonce for her powerful position and attempts to fufill feminist agendas. Given the recent release of her new album the Visual Album, and Beyonce’s claim to putting forth a feminist agenda, it is important to call her feminism into question, and whether she too tries to emulate power feminism. Beyoncé is very privileged in that she is a top recording artist, has sold millions and is married to a rap legend, Jay-Z, who is also a multi-million dollar recording artist and highly recognized around the world. In one of Beyoncé’s newest songs and most popular thus far off the new album, entitled Flawless, takes the feminist words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and incorporates them into her song:

We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls – you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful otherwise you will threaten the man. Because I am female I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. A marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing. But for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: A person who believes in the economic, social and political equality of the sexes.

            But in the song Beyoncé almost seems to contradict this notion. The very beginning of the song, and the most infamous line is “bow down bitches”. Here Beyoncé wants to put other women beneath her and make them respect her for her high status and position, but not in the same sense of competition that Adichie was speaking about, but mainly for her glamorized lifestyle and sexualized figure. In the same song she states “I know when you were little girls, you dreamt of being in my world”, calling out her superiority over other women. As someone trying to be a feminist it is ironic that she commands them to "bow down" to her and admire her. And in most of her video’s she is seen “toasting up all sorts of caviar dreams and champagne wishes, including the following: being surrounded by butlers and maids; unapologetically riding private jets and being draped in diamonds, furs and exclusive and hard-to-pronounce labels.” Here, her feminist platform clearly is not accessible to all. 

            In another one of her songs, Pretty Hurts, Beyoncé criticizes the mainstream ideal of beauty however throughout the video and all of her other videos she is completely glammed up with makeup and fashionably clothing. While her lyrics attack the system, her appearance and actions perpetuate it. Similarly, another contradiction she throws into her “feminist” album, is her video Drunk In Love, with husband Jay-Z, who misappropriates the domestic abuse of Tina Turner, while Beyonce dances around half-dressed willing to submit to “her man”. In many of her video she tries to take back sexuality and reclaim her sexual nature as unexploitative, but walks on a thin line between reclaiming her sexuality as a feminist power move, and perpetuating the ideals of beauty and sexuality for male attention.

In many of her songs on the new album, she uses feminist anthology as self-empowerment, but leaves other women out of the loop. Like Sandberg, she goes against the essence of feminism, which is to help other women achieve equality by challenging the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.  Beyoncé’s feminism is what would be described as power feminism, but it is not really feminism because it does not end the sexism carried out by mainstream society.  

Many other female artists also attempt to raise feminist agendas through their music, such as Katy Perry or Lily Allen, but often only focus on the mere desire to have what men have, and often do this at the cost of other women, and within the same structure that puts women down. The concept of power feminism seems ideal, and in a way it may be seen as helpful because it brings to the table the topic of feminism, which is not usually discussed in mainstream media, however it only brings to light the feminism that works for white women, or privileged women, and ignores the struggles that the majority of women face in society. In this way hooks says that:

These new and seemingly modern ideas about women and especially young women are then disseminated more aggressively so as to ensure that a new women’s movement will not re-emerge.” …McRobbie then contends that “feminism is instrumentalized. It is brought forth and claimed by Western governments, as a signal to the rest of the world that this is a key part of what freedom now means. Freedom is re-vitalized and brought up to date with this faux feminism.”

            Because of the “feminist” work of those in power, feminism is re-created to satisfy and work for the white capitalist patriarchy. It pretends to acknowledge and be working for the rights of women, but does nothing to break apart and reconstruct the system of inequality. The mass media that is controlled by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy allows these images and promotes them because it’s just enough to allow women to believe they are gaining and advancing in society, while it insidiously perpetuates and continues the systemic injustices that bar all women from full equality.

Power feminism, because of its opposition to bell hooks definition of feminism as a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression, is therefore not real and cannot function as a form of feminism. The high status achieved by “power feminists” is gained through putting other women down, it often ignores intersectional identities, and it only presents one limited perspective of the female struggle as the overarching narrative for all women. Power feminism does not challenge the white male dominated capitalist patriarchy, but instead uses it to benefit one single individual, which thus “undermines feminist theory” (hooks, 41). This form of feminism fails to call into question the role men take on in the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and how their roles affect inequality. Power feminism is therefore a mirage that tricks people into thinking that all women can beat the system and achieve equality, but without changing the system which is inherently against women, it is not real.