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Feminists Need to Stop Sounding False Alarms About Sexism

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Last week, in his first-ever public Q&A, Mark Zuckerberg was asked why he wears plain gray t-shirts apparently every waking moment of his life. “I’d feel I’m not doing my job if I spent any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life,” the Facebook CEO replied.

Sounds innocuous enough, right? Not to some feminist critics.

“Is it just me or does the mindset of the Silicon Valley Power-Schlub imply that caring about clothing or how you look invalidates your ability to work?” wrote New York magazine’s Allison Davis in an essay titled, “Zuckerberg Explains His Gray T-Shirts, Sounds Pretty Sexist.” “Of course, male CEOs are far too focused on changing the world or building the next Big App to care about something as 'silly' or 'frivolous' as dressing professionally—they’ll just leave that to Marissa Mayer.” Mic's Ellie Krupnick, meanwhile, claimed Zuckerberg’s comment “reinforces a sexist double standard.” His use of the word “frivolous” suggested “that women's focus on ‘unserious’ things such as fashion preclude them from focusing on more important things.”

Seriously?  Zuckerberg did not explicitly—or, I'd argue, implicitly—contrast himself with women, but merely stated that he finds fashion concerns to be "silly" and "frivolous." If anything, he was referring to his fellow male tech CEOs, like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and his Prada suits; after all, only 6 percent of Silicon Valley CEOs are female. But in criticizing Zuckerberg, Davis and Krupnick relied on a stereotype that he himself did not—that only women care about clothes—and perhaps even reinforced that stereotype in sounding the feminist alarm.

The Zuckerberg critique comes on the heels of a much louder feminist attack on Lena Dunham. It began with The National Review's Kevin Williamson arguing that passages in Lena Dunham's memoir, when a 7-year-old Dunham checks out her little sister’s vagina and masturbates near her in the same bed, amount to child abuse. That Williamson would target Dunham is not surprising—attacking feminists in particular and women in general is his main beat. But the critique gained ground when many feminists agreed with him. On private listservs and public social media, they eviscerated Dunham and attacked anyone, including other feminists, who dared defend Dunham’s actions as normal—or, at least, not criminal—childhood behavior. This culminated with one feminist writing a public letter to Planned Parenthood asking them to drop Dunham as a spokesperson due to her “pattern of coercion that happened over the course of years, and the near-pornographic and remorseless way Dunham describes these incidents as an adult.” There is a hashtag, of course: #DropDunham.

The deeper irony here is that Dunham has been one of the leading celebrity figures in the mainstreaming of feminism today. None other than Taylor Swift credits Dunham with Swift’s own feminist awakening. Dunham's hardly perfect—her handling of race comes to mind—but does she really deserve to be on feminists' hit list?   

Now, feminism is not a monolith, nor should it be. Just as feminism showed us there are many kinds of women—and men—in society, there must also be many kinds of feminism. This multiplicity is essential to its progress, for the contours of feminism are defined by the battles between various factions battle (although that’s not the most feminist of metaphors, is it?). Feminists have to not just hold society accountable but hold each other accountable to keep mainstream feminism from losing its edge.  But there's also the risk of feminist overreach.

For a whole host of reasons, some for which Beyoncé is responsible and some not, America is having a stuttering but nonetheless real conversation about sexism and gender bias and women’s rights—touching on issues from pay equity to rape culture to reproductive freedom. We need that conversation now more than ever, and feminists are driving it. But if feminism becomes like the boy who cried wolf—if girls, and women, cry sexism too readily and often—America will stop listening. The minute feminism becomes hypercritical and humorless, it becomes too easy for the mainstream to dismiss our more valid complaints. And let’s be honest, it’s kind of refreshing for feminism to be at the cool kids’ table of society at the moment, fraught and confining though it might sometimes be. Does anyone really want to return to the period of sidelined, shrill feminism?

These incidents remind me of the brouhaha over Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Like Dunham’s work, Sandberg’s book was certainly imperfect—women of color, queer women and working-class women felt largely ignored by Lean In’s narrative and vision—but it was also filled with many powerful stories and lessons for women. The latter were almost drowned out by feminist critiques about the former. Meanwhile, the hundreds of leadership books written by white men every single year also ignore the experiences and realities of women of color, and went largely ignored by the feminist media brigade. But feminists aren’t regularly attacking those books with remotely the same zeal.

I don’t know if Mark Zuckerberg considers himself a feminist, but I do know he made the powerful and outspoken Sandberg second in command at his company and has family-friendly policies like $4,000 in “baby cash” for employees who are new parents and four-month maternity or paternity leave. And Facebook also offers $20,000 to every employee to support their reproductive goals, to be used on anything from adoption fees to in-vitro fertilization to egg freezing. In this context, dinging Zuckerberg for his t-shirt remarks seems, well, frivolous. Yes, no one should be immune from scrutiny. At the same time, we should pick our battles. Women make up less than 10 percent of venture capitalists, less than 3 percent of tech startup staffs, and less than 14 percent of executive positions in Fortune 500 companies. Isn’t that a better target of feminist outrage than a guy’s gray t-shirt collection?  

Similarly, there are millions of undeniable victims of sexual assault in America, and thousands of perpetrators who are never held accountable. Does the seven-year-old Lena Dunham really rank high on the scale of prosecutorial priorities? Her sister Grace has denied that she is a victim—issuing a series of tweets including, “As a queer person: I’m committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful.” The desire of some feminists to “speak truth to power” ran headlong into Grace Dunham’s desire to speak her own damn truth.

In her essay about the Dunham debate, Time’s Jessica Bennett wrote about the paradox of feminists championing the success of women yet often being the first to scrutinize women when they succeed. “Feminism is about giving women equal opportunity, equal voice, equal power,” Bennett wrote. “And yet, over and over again, when female voices attain that power, we—other women—parse and analyze their every move, public and personal, with an absurdly critical eye.” She quoted Ti-Grace Atkinson, who once said, “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.” I hope it also doesn’t kill sisterhood—or feminism, for that matter. There are still too many genuine outrages that we need feminism to voice.