Forget #MeToo for a minute. Right now, it’s all about #WhiteWomenBehavingBadly.
Callous comments from two famous white women about other female celebrities of color have hit multiple progressive triggers in recent weeks, causing cancel culture to wrest the upper hand back from COVID-19 on social media. Woke Twitter emerged from quarantine, sleepy-eyed but energized by something familiar to rage around: racism, mean-girl dragging, white entitlement, good vs. bad feminism, sexism, cultural appropriation and cutting boards (seriously).
Singer Lana Del Rey and chef Alison Roman incited firestorms when, in separate incidents, they complained bitterly about the success of female peers, almost all of them women of color. Earlier this month, in an interview with the New Consumer, New York Times food columnist Roman flippantly called Netflix star Marie Kondo a “bitch” and “sellout” and said Chrissy Teigen’s brand omnipresence was “horrifying.”
On Wednesday, Del Rey dropped a lengthy Instagram manifesto addressing age-old criticisms that her work is anti-feminist but that those same detractors give artists such as Beyoncé and Cardi B a pass. They have “number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, [having sex], cheating...” she wrote.
Chrissy Teigen, left, and Alison Roman.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times; Charles Sykes / Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
There’s more to their conversation and complaints, which were reckless and entitled at best, but the reaction was predictable. Women attacked Roman and Del Rey for attacking other women, as if there wasn’t enough scorn, shame and judgment to go around. The two were accused of making racist statements and flaunting their white privilege, and Del Rey was asked by half of Instagram why she hadn’t gone after artists such as Taylor Swift. (Del Rey defended her original post on Thursday, writing, “Don’t ... call me racist”; Roman had her New York Times column suspended, a decision of which Teigen did not approve.)
Constructive debate exists but it’s still making its way through the billows of anger, trying against all odds to reach the light before the possibility of meaningful resolution, or of actually learning from one’s mistakes, is snuffed out.
Outrage as an e-sport is nothing new, of course. Neither is female mud wrestling. We’re also witnessing a dynamic that plays out often among women in male-dominated industries. In music, for instance, there’s been so little space at the top for women, and such a dearth of shared power, that artists like Del Rey fall prey to measuring themselves, and other women, against standards instituted by sexist dudes who ran (and still run) the game.
Women who’ve spent even a fraction of their life in a traditional workplace know that it’s exhausting navigating a system that wasn’t meant for you, or worse, that was specifically designed to keep you out. We’re held to higher criteria for lower pay, given the grunt work while our male peers are given promotions. The lopsided playing field is no surprise.
Our moms warned us that to get ahead we’d have to work harder, be better and complain less than the guys, at least until we were running things. Then all bets were off. Though they hoped the world might change by the time their daughters entered the workforce, it’s still a man’s world, a reality that bears out in study after study. We fight it, work around it, slog through it — and still we persist.
Along the way, however, expectations for for how female colleagues deal with one another have been built on the belief that women generally behave better than men, and that we’re all part of the same gender underclass. Surely we’d all pull in the same upward direction, toward a more equitable tomorrow.
What a lovely idea — if not for racial discrimination, ambition, greed, socioeconomic disparity and everything else that’s part and parcel of a capitalist empire. And let’s not forget an American political machine that sees division as opportunity.
FX on Hulu’s 1970s-era limited series “Mrs. America” chronicles the end of one dream and the birth of dozens more in a drama about the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Its re-creation of Nixon-era pro- and anti-feminist movements is a timely reminder that color entitlement isn’t just a man thing. And it’s also nothing new among women.
In “Mrs. America,” Uzo Aduba’s Shirley Chisholm, right, faces political hurdles thrown up not only by her opponents but also by her white feminist allies.
(Sabrina Lantos / FX)
When the going got tough as conservative factions galvanized around stopping the equal rights movement, black female activists were sidelined by their white “sisters,” infighting threatened to rip the movement apart and women threw one another under the proverbial bus. Which was driven by men, of course.
The patriarchy made the rules, and as fast as we break and bend them, it’s not quick enough. Careers get damaged, people get hurt, conflicts are monetized and sold as cat fights.
And here’s where I’ll shamelessly bring up my time with Gloria Steinem, whom I met and spent time with at the Hedgebrook writing retreat in Puget Sound in Washington. I never finished my book but I did witness what strength in forgiveness looks like.
We were discussing how she’s weathered so many targeted attacks and still remained a vital force. For example, she’d supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008, and it had caused a backlash against her — much of it rooted in race (and some of it perhaps generated in Russia, for all we know now). “It was so painful,” she said. “But don’t hate the player. Hate the game. Otherwise, we just keep getting played.”