The Failures of Pop Feminism

Illustration for article titled The Failures of Pop Feminism
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Senator Amy Klobuchar, a woman known for being quite abusive to her staff as well as her often misguided attempts at humor, has struggled, since she launched her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, to break out of the very large pack of candidates. Her lackluster performance to date is largely based on her lack of broad name recognition, unlike Joe Biden, and her milquetoast policy ideas, unlike Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, which have combined to doom her campaign. But lately, she has latched onto a different talking point, one embraced by Kirsten Gillibrand until she dropped out of the race: Klobuchar is a woman, and women quite simply are held to a higher standard than men.

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In recent weeks, Klobuchar has pointedly noted the fact that her rival Pete Buttigieg, a man with little governing experience but a long list of largely meaningless superlatives on his resume, is ascendant in the polls. The fact that he’s even in the race points to a double standard, she said. “Could we be running with less experience than we had? I don’t think so,” she told the New York Times earlier in November. “I don’t think people would take us seriously.”

During Wednesday’s night Democratic primary debate, Klobuchar was asked to directly address that comment, and her response doubled down on her contention. “Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise we could play a game called ‘Name Your Favorite Woman President,’ which we can’t do because it has all been men, including all vice presidents being men,” she said, adding, “And I think any working woman out there, any woman that’s at home, knows exactly what I mean. We have to work harder, and that’s a fact.”

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Klobuchar stressed that “what matters is if you’re smart, if you’re competent and if you get things done.” “I am the one that has passed over 100 bills as the lead Democrat in that gridlock of Washington in Congress on this stage,” she emphasized. She added, “And if you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”

Klobuchar is correct in pointing out that a woman with the same resume as Buttigieg would in all likelihood not generate the sort of excitement that has propelled his campaign. But Klobuchar’s embrace of this shallow feminism, best exemplified by the #Girlboss ethos of women getting shit done against all the odds, is ultimately hollow, a celebration of women simply for being women, without examining who exactly these sorts of ideas are meant to empower, and how.

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This disconnect was on display when Klobuchar spoke about the need for paid family leave. (As a Senator, Klobuchar provides 12 weeks of leave for new parents, though as the New York Times reported, her office had a policy, only scrapped earlier this year after it became public, that penalized staffers who took leave.) “We’re way behind as a country in providing paid family leave and childcare,” Klobuchar said on the debate stage, before arguing that it’s unrealistic to provide more than three months of paid leave, despite the fact that many countries offer far more generous leave to parents. She argued that it’s just too expensive to do more, and therefore, impossible—yet another proposal, like free college tuition (which she derided on Wednesday night as akin to “stapling free diplomas under people’s chairs”), that she seemingly views as some sort of unfair giveaway. “I just am not going to go for things just because they sound good on a bumper sticker and throw in a free car,” she said. “We have an obligation,” she added, “to make sure we’re honest about what we can pay for.”

The irony of Klobuchar’s full-on embrace of #GirlBoss feminism—and her disavowal of programs like Medicare for All and a robust paid leave plan that would lead to a marked improvement in millions of women’s material conditions—has gone largely unremarked upon. Klobuchar had “her strongest debate,” wrote the Washington Post political reporter Annie Linskey, one marked by her “serious policy ideas.” Klobuchar’s line about Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump, according to the progressive economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, was the “best line” of the night.

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It’s notable that the debate, which was moderated by an all-women panel, included questions on paid leave, as well as a question about Roe that broadly gestured at abortion. “When women are setting the agenda, the set of priorities are different,” Liz Plank told the Washington Post, celebrating the fact that so many women were on stage and off.

But representation alone doesn’t translate into clear feminist policies, as evidenced by Klobuchar, despite her strenuous effort to paint herself as a woman who gets it (and who is, as her constant joke about raising money from her ex-boyfriends shows, not too angry to boot). But that, I suspect, is what many in the Democratic Party believe women want—celebrities singing “Fight Song” as some sort of girl power anthem, and the mere visual of a woman in power without actual policies that improve the lives of all women. Somewhere out there, in their minds, is a new mom nursing an infant at 3 a.m. with a full workday ahead of her weakly screaming, “Yaaas, queen!!” at Klobuchar through her exhaustion.

Senior reporter, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

westerosironswanson
The Ron Swanson of Westeros

Fair take is a fair take. The central problem with Klobuchar isn’t inherently feminist or non-feminist, though it has deeply feminist implications.

Klobuchar’s problem, at core, is the Democratic Party’s problem since the end of the Reagan Administration. As Alex Pareene once noted, the Democratic Party has spent the last 40 years or so working under the assumption that the most important thing for Democratic Party candidates to be is “serious”, and the way you prove that you’re “serious” is by loudly and strenuously telling your constituents that We Can’t Afford That, and that We Need To Be Adults, and that We Need To Realize That We Can’t Have Everything.

Seriously, it’s right there in her own words:

“We have an obligation,” she added, “to make sure we’re honest about what we can pay for.”

And yet, there is absolutely zero follow-up about, wait, why exactly can’t the richest country in the world match the amount of paid maternity leave offered by, say, Sweden? Sweden is by no means as rich as we are. The trolls and gnomes that live in the Swedish foothills do not send shipments of money down the river that enable the Swedish government to pay for extra maternity leave. Yet somehow, they can manage, and we cannot. Because what’s important is not an actual monthly budgeting (if that mattered, we wouldn’t be running a trillion-dollar a year deficit to fork more money over to the rich), but the appearance of “seriousness”, as demonstrated by performatively telling your constituents that getting what they ask for, and what they need, is just not in the realm of what the Very Serious People think is possible at this juncture. Maybe someday.

What’s different this time is not the performance. It’s that the government’s actions during the Great Recession essentially gave the performance away. It’s hard to performatively tell your voters that We Can’t Afford That, when those voters now know that the phrase never seems to apply when it’s AT&T, or Exxon-Mobil, or Wells Fargo that has their hand out. And Esther Wang is completely correct that the actual practitioners of #GirlBoss feminism are going to be the first to tell Klobuchar, essentially, “No you dummy. I’m asking for maternity leave precisely because I can run a monthly budget and an Excel spreadsheet. That’s how I know that we totally do have the money for this, if we just tax the businesses on your campaign contribution Rolodex.”