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Feminism and Race April 29, 2007

Posted by Melissa in 9 to 5, betrayal, competing feminism, female relationships, feminism, gender, race, Set it off.

With the exception of a few films, the movies we’ve seen exacting the “female revenge narrative” have all been dominated by white women. Though the lack of women of color in this genera of films may speak to a larger societal context, I want to look at the influence of the feminist movement on minority communities as expressed through film. Last semester, I worked on a research project delving into the world of the Chicana Movement, which came about at the tail end of the mass Chicano Movement. I was shocked by what many of the women and scholars of the movement had to say with regards to the larger feminist movement that was beginning to rise in the late 1960’s. I was stunned by the overwhelming reaction against the feminist movement. Largely seen as a white woman’s battle, Chicanas in the mid 20th century viewed themselves in direct opposition to the larger women’s rights campaign. Unlike their white counterparts, the Chicanas were faced with larger societal inequalities because of their race. Though I have not studied the gender dynamics in the Black community, I can not imagine it being very different than those within the Chicano community. Women of color faced, and to some extent still do, a double oppression and as such can not be so fast to damn society because of their sex. The question that comes to mind with observation, is whether being a woman or being Chicana is most important.

In most of the films we’ve watched so far, we’ve seen white women fight against the man (literally meaning the male sex). Again, there has been little about black or
Latina women fighting against society (the Color Purple, Set it Off, and Girlfight). In looking back at popular films I have seen with female leads, it is difficult to find the black or
Latina counterpart to “Thelma and Louise” or “9 to 5.” I wonder if it is because women of color have traditionally excluded themselves from the larger feminist movement that we don’t see their faces in larger films with female action leads.

In many films we see today or in the past, white women just play women- their race is never an impediment to their actions. In films were you do find women of color, the film will more likely deal with them being women of color- they cant just be women, they have to be black/Latina women struggling to get by. Films where we have seen casts of color, are usually disregarded, not popularly accepted by the public or largely released by movie studios. Salma Hayek has said many times that as a Latina in
Hollywood she is expected to accept the role of the maid or prostitute, and the only way to get any other would be to create it on her own. Unfortunately, even this will not warrant her credit she deserves in
Hollywood.  As a society, we like to see people struggle, especially women of color who are often shown as mentally weak and generally out of control. I feel this is because women of color largely rejected the dominant feminist movement, and with the exception of the less popular films, are now struggling to be accepted as women rather than women of color in popular media.


1. sindhub - May 3, 2007

First I’d like to challenge some things you said. About gender dynamics within the Black community vs. the Chicano community, this is only one part of a big issue, but I remember reading a book about working class families for a class last semester that talked about how there was actually more gender equality (in terms of things like sharing the housework) within African-American families than in white families, and the most unequal households tended to be immigrant households, both Latino and Asian. The author said that this might be due to unique circumstances of African-Americans, historically, and the ‘old world’ cultures of the countries that the immigrants may come from. However, this book was also kind of dated, so things might be different now. I just think this is something interesting to consider, but yeah, for various reasons, the feminist movement is largely a white middle class one.

Also, about the notion that white women are just women in girl power movies, not white women. I understand what you’re saying, and I agree that that’s how the audience primarily sees them, but I think it’s just symptomatic of how we think about race in our society that white people can just be themselves or identify themselves as something separate from or unmarked by their race, when in fact the reason they are able to do so is because they are white, making them marked somehow anyway. I hope that made sense…

As for the exclusion of women of color from the feminist movement. It really is a double mind. I remember when I was learning about the civil rights movement in high school, and being severely disappointed to find out that Stokely Carmichael said that “the only position of women in the SNCC [his organization] is prone.” I don’t doubt that there were some pretty exclusionary attitudes toward women of color in the feminist movement at the time then, and I personally think they are still there now. One of the main reasons for this, I think, has to do with what we were talking about in class, about group identity and collective bargaining vs. individualism and the ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ mentality. The American feminist movement depends very much on the latter, I think, because it is about getting women the same rights as men and asserting themselves individually. However, identifying with a certain racial/ethnic identity means that you NEED to identify with a group. And this group identity and the individualistic part of the feminist movement may not be compatible with each other, making many women of color unable to relate to the mainstream feminist movement (as well as a lot of third world feminists who can’t relate to American/Western feminists).

2. Melissa - May 4, 2007

I see the point you are trying to make about the gender dynamics within immigrant families (Hispanic families) v. black families, but I think you prove my point (and disprove yours) by pointing out the example of Stokely Carmichael. The organizations behind the movements for racial quality, both the black and chicano, were highly sexist. Women were often the main organizers but never important enough to be given official leadership roles. There are cases in both movements in which men openly fought against women joining the leadership structure because they felt that was not the place for women.
As far as your other points on how race has affected the feminist movement, I don’t disagree with anything you are saying- I was simply making the point that the feminist movement is a largely white middle class phenomena, and NOT the holistic movement many would like to believe it is…

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