Even if you haven’t heard of Sheryl Sandberg or bell hooks or the amorphous concept of “leaning in,” you likely have fallen victim to a particular brand of feminism; a siren call of empowerment that very few are able to ignore.
Mainstream feminism, an ideology that frames equality of the sexes within comfortable gender norms and ignores difficult topics like race, provides a steady rhythm of easy-listening soundbites that lull the masses into complicit consciousness. This complacency is fashionable and exceptional in its ability to promote itself; this brand of feminism has always attracted big business and uses a shallow critique of the very system from which it is born. It’s the soundtrack that sells us “men’s lotion” and anything pink.
In a recent post by bell hooks, Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In, she dives into a measured call and response to Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book, Lean In. As only bell hooks can do, she lays bare the real agenda of Sandberg’s rising feminist star power.
Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.
hooks goes on to describe obvious flaws of appropriating a feminist theory that does not intend to change anything. In fact, this is the reason you are to “hate the player, not the game.” Sandberg’s method and practice of “faux feminism” is not real feminism. By setting up this predictable dichotomy, a divide that ironically perpetuates exclusive solidarity politics, hooks maintains a rigid status quo. hooks concludes, “Sandberg uses feminist rhetoric as a front to cover her commitment to western cultural imperialism, to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
I wish it were this simple. It’s easy to think that Sandberg is plotting world domination inside an audacious mansion, or, more likely, from her corner office at Facebook. With the launch of LeanIn.org, it certainly appears that some thought was put into taking this faux feminism global. By “changing the conversation from what we can’t do to what we can do,” Sandberg and her army of ambitious empowered women have the potential to inspire ordinary women to question how they themselves are perpetuating stereotypes and supporting those who have erected barriers to their success.
To borrow a phrase from Lisa Wade’s excellent exposé into a similar battle of words, the recent Cyrus vs. O’Connor vs. Palmer much ado about nothing debate, “they’re both right but only half right.”
If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already. But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it. To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.
Both Sandberg and hooks espouse solidarity, community, and a vision for a more equitable world. It’s unfortunate that they have to come out fighting from opposite ends of the feminist spectrum.
original publish date: November 2, 2013 (Bluestockings Magazine)