Feminist imagination and daring to dream: bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry

On Saturday morning I watched the conversation between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry. I sat there and, half way through, I realized I was seeing the feminist event of the year. This is not hyperbole, these two Black women, exceptional thinkers each in their respective fields, sat down and dissected in a bit over an hour and half, many of the issues that currently affect our politics. After I was done watching I searched for commentary across feminist media or at the very least, political analysis from woman centered media. There was hardly any. There were plenty of links to the video but hardly any acknowledgment of the substance of their conversation. I was mostly interested in a follow up; namely, where do we go from here? Or better said, where do we stand, in relation to what bell hooks, one of the greatest public intellectuals of our time, exposed in regards to the white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy? The truth is, as far as feminist media goes, it seems we go nowhere.

On Friday I quickly scribbled a post expressing my distaste for both Jezebel’s coverage and head patting of and the words of Joss Whedon in regards to defining feminism. As it often happens, I wrote that post in haste and mostly because what I wanted to say was too long for a Tweet. I was equally disgusted by his erasure of our collective feminist history, attempting to rename something that does not need renaming, especially from a cis, white man and by Jezebel’s uncritical praise of his attempt. My quickly written post has been shared hundreds of times both on Twitter and Facebook and someone in the comments linked me to a discussion of the post taking place on the Facebook page of Guerrilla Feminism. I read the comments of the post and laughed heartily. Mostly I laughed in disbelief because I cannot comprehend how many self identified feminist women are willing to defend a white, cis man in detriment of radical, liberating, empowering feminist analysis. Guerrilla obviously means nothing when pop culture is digested in patriarchy approved palatable sound bites. In one swoop Whedon erased the collective history of the feminist movement, tried to appropriate it for his own marketing purposes by renaming it, made a spectacle of himself by claiming we are “over” racism, negating the very existence of intersectional analysis and even gave us a dose of Orientalism through his cunning use of the word “Taliban”. And here, in a page named Guerrilla Feminism, dozens of women are willing to not merely give him a pass but vindicate him because what? He gave them Buffy? The political co-optation of pop culture consumerism in exchange of an emancipatory analysis of what Whedon represents, who he is in terms of a symbolic presence for us as women and, for those of us of color, as the embodiment of the colonizer. But… he gave us Buffy.

There is a direct correlation between the lack of coverage of bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry’s conversation and the amplification (and staunch defense) of Joss Whedon. Both exist within the same historical wrongs of white feminism. Both are part of the same neoliberal ethos that has taken over mainstream feminism. Two Black women intellectuals challenging a racist, capitalist patriarchy are not to be looked upon as role models. The key to understand this is their Blackness. This neoliberal feminism seeks empowerment by encouraging women to be more like white men. For this media, Whedon is a feminist icon; bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry barely register in the radar.

In the conversation bell hooks spoke about her dislike of media (mainly films) that do not have imagination. She spoke of her desire to see a media that offers us a newly empowering vision of who we are. She was specifically talking of her dislike of certain slavery centered films that focus on suffering. In turn, I started to think of how neoliberal feminism has actually eschewed all imagination and dreams to negotiate a better social standing within the existing power structures. We no longer have dreams or imagination. We are told we should better negotiate within what already exists rather than attempt to wish for something different. This is the kind of feminism that would rather appease than challenge. These are the kinds of politics that would rather praise a white, cis man than listen to radically new ideas from Women of Color. This is patriarchy approved feminism. There is nothing empowering or liberating in the long term; there is no rethinking of existing power structures and resource distribution. This is a feminism of bootstrapping, where the best we can do is individually aspire to be in a boardroom. Women are encouraged to not just participate but uphold the very same system that is the source of our problem. Praise Whedon; ignore bell hooks.

The reason I resent this feminism is because it fails us on multiple fronts. To begin with, it offers no strategies for survival. In order to survive we need to better negotiate spaces within what currently exists. This feminism offers none of that. It only offers middle class aspirational career advancement that is outside the reach of millions. On the other hand, it builds no long term strategy. In this neoliberal feminism there is only the individual in the present time. There is only now and no second thought as to how the aspiration to be a CEO directly conflicts with resource distribution not just in the present but also for future generations. The feminist legacy of this neoliberal ideology is actually more depletion, more deprivation for the have nots. On the racist front, this feminism erases the multiplicity of experiences of both People of Color living in Western countries and those who live in the Global South. In both cases, regardless of geographic location, this feminism seeks advancement within a system that has created the institutional and political framework where People of Color can never be truly free. This feminism is a continuation of colonial strategies that have cost billions of lives. A feminism for the few. A dreamless, barren future for the rest.

I have no intention of negotiating my dreams so that they are patriarchy approved. The last thing I want is for my politics to be in line with those who are directly part of my problems. I negotiate my survival like everyone else but I also realize one of the reasons I live in the margins and will continue to do so is because I still dare to dream. I also realize that the kind of dreams I have will not be realized within my lifetime. That doesn’t mean I will stop aspiring to them. Radical imagination requires a leap of faith. I know that when I am no longer here, someone else will pick up and keep on dreaming. With each new dreamer will come a new imagination and with it, a step towards the kind of change I yearn. This kind of radical imagination I hope for cannot be co-opted by neoliberal feminism because it never is patriarchy approved. It is, above all, about dismantling what currently is. And no matter how much I need to negotiate for survival on a day to day basis, my imagination is the one thing that I will not.




ETA: Also, read this excellent post by Sara Salem about the conversation between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry.

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