is there such a thing as "bad feminism"?

Roxane Gay and Andi Zeisler ask that question, and more, at a riveting talk at L.A.'s new Bureau of Feminism at the Hammer.

by Jane Helpern
20 September 2016, 2:00pm

Pioneering Los Angeles art institution Hammer Museum has kicked off its brand spanking new Bureau of Feminism — a "multifaceted initiative whose overarching objective is to bring a feminist perspective to a range of activities at the museum" through diverse exhibitions, performances, and public events. The free series debuted last week to a theater packed with feminists of all ages and stages — from junior high to advanced style, from dabbling to diehard — indicative of the program's reach, breadth, and, perhaps most impressively, its ability to inspire folks to brave rush hour traffic on a Tuesday evening. Intersectional feminist, activist, and Orange Is The New Black star Matt McGorry was, unsurprisingly, front and center in the audience.

The inaugural talk featured none other than prolific writer Roxane Gay (notably the first black woman to author a Marvel comic book, and all-around baddest feminist ever) and Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler (whose new book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Cover Girl explores the Beyoncé-fication of a political movement). The feminist luminaries conversed (and, at times, clashed) with the museum's chief curator Connie Butler (former MOCA curator, and organizer of its seminal exhibition "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution"). When Butler suggested each panelist begin with a working definition of feminism, Gay won laughs when she snarked, "I just think the audience is savvy enough not to require a working definition at this point." And Zeisler noted, "As feminism has gotten popular and is something that celebrities are asked about, there's often this question of, 'How do you define feminism?' As though it's not a word that already has a very good definition."

The panel's title was significant. If feminism is the radical notion that all people should be treated equal regardless of gender, can there really be "bad" feminists and "good" feminists? Is the new wave of sexy, body-positive girl power a bad thing for feminism (think: Emily Ratajkowski, Kim Kardashian)? Gay, Zeisler, and Butler explored the complexity of the contemporary feminist movement, including but not limited to the role of sexism in the current election cycle, the corporate co-opting of female empowerment, the (attempted) reclamation of the polarizing term "bitch," Donald Trump as "worse than trash, because trash was once useful," and the problem of reaching an increasingly fact-resistant population.

"If you go beyond media circles, feminism is not as cool as it is in this room. This is not a sampling," explains the Indiana-based Professor Gay, countering the widespread misconception that feminism has achieved blockbuster status. "In many ways, feminism is like porn. Keep it to yourself. Let's not talk about it, let's not be proud of it."

Connie Butler spoke to feminism's taboo tendency in an email to us. She wrote, "Feminism is often a whispered word, still within museum institutions, and there are very few who put it front and center. I know plenty of feminist curators who would love to be able to make this a more overt part of their program but can't because of other competing institutional agendas."

You can watch "Bad Feminism" in its entirety over on the Hammer's website, and head to the museum for happenings like "Sorority", a queer performance salon by Gina Young, and a communal meal with the Women's Center for Creative Work.


Text Jane Helpern
Image courtesy Hammer Museum

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Roxane Gay
Hammer Museum
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bureau of feminism