A Deeper Look: Jessica Valenti on the Faux ‘Feminist Elite’ of TEDWomen and Muddled Mainstream Feminism

by Andrea Stopa

Last week we published a post about TED’s ban on abortion as a topic at TED events, including TEDWomen, where Jessica Valenti’s article from The Nation was referenced and discussed. Since her article was full of goodies to really think about, we’re taking a deeper look at the piece in this post. 

TED Talks were first introduced to me by a college professor, and they have since provided some of my most well-spent viewing time on the internet. Spanning a wide variety of topics–including the power of vulnerability, how to remember everything, the ethics of food, and even how to correctly tie your shoes–there are a lot of ideas TED identifies as “worth spreading.” 

TEDWomen is a TED organized event featuring TED’s chosen “prominent female thought leaders.” While there are many TEDx events that are independently organized around the globe, TEDWomen is a product of TED directly, and follows their strict protocol. At $1,000 a ticket, being a part of this exclusive intellectual female community comes at a high price, which leaves many stuck to knocking on the gates, and creates a hierarchy of the value of a mind via monetary wealth. 

Jessica Valenti’s piece for The Nation entitled The Empowerment Elite Claims Feminism  details her experience and critique of TEDWomen as an uncomfortably mediated environment filled with mostly rich white women. Valenti brings up questions about the implications of the imposed boundaries on a space that boldly identifies itself as a platform for “ideas worth spreading.” While tickets to the event are pricey, these talks are bound to circulate the internet, and with a name like TED, the credibility will afford them a larger and more attentive audience. The invisible parameters set around topic choice and speakers at these events create very influential boundaries around which issues are allowed to be heard from the powerful platform. In this way, TED becomes a gatekeeper of information, and their filter with TEDWomen specifically has the power to identify what the next big feminist action may or may not be, while also harnessing the power to define feminism (at least in a mainstream way). This power is compounded when considering that these talks hold the ear of many wealthy, powerful, and highly charitable women, who are not necessarily feminists but attend events like TEDWomen to learn about feminist action and how to be more pro-women.

Says Valenti:

“In the end, what I found so worrisome about TEDWomen was that I was seeing firsthand what happens when “feminism” isn’t defined by feminists. Instead of the messy, nuanced reality, we got a carefully curated package of what powerful people think f eminism should be—or, at least, which feminism would be most appealing.”

The article goes into detail about our mainstream relationship with feminism, and all of the ways a White, Western feminism is still winning out and excluding feminisms of color and corresponding feminist movements that have been doing powerful and important work for decades. These “fringe feminisms” have been blatantly overshadowed by the “faces of feminism” throughout history, with poster-women like Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem. Valenti argues that TEDWomen falls into these same trappings, packaging feminism in a way that ignores the fight; delivering messages to affluent, mostly white women about how to make a difference, while largely ignoring the sociopolitical aspects of oppression and definitely not addressing the privileges of the women in the audience, and the nuances of feminist action.

As Valenti states: “TEDWomen and feminism are not synonymous, and we’re in trouble if we start 
to think they are. The corporate interpretation of feminism has more to do with cheerleading all women’s accomplishments than ending patriarchy and pushing for equal rights. Sometimes it will even cheerlead for women when their accomplishments roll back other women’s rights.”

“Many feminisms exist, but it’s a singular feminism that’s on display at most mainstream women’s conferences. That one-note feminism epitomizes the tricky space the movement now occupies: one of historic popularity. And as feminist rhetoric has gained acceptance, what it means to be a feminist has become muddled.”

Valenti uses TEDWomen as a jumping point to discuss the way feminism and the label of feminist have been used in pop-culture lately, hitting upon Lean In, MAKERS, Beyonce’s “gender gap myth” piece and Miley Cyrus claiming she’s a great big feminist, a few years after Sarah Palin claimed the same. It is exciting to see feminism coming into the public eye as something other than home-wrecking, bra-burning, man-hating stereotypes, but Valenti is questioning the price feminism might pay when packaged in a way that sells the empowerment and not the fight, that champions women that support anti-women policy for simply being powerful women, and that denies that feminism and being a feminist has at least some parameters that you cannot argue your way out of with the “it’s my choice” card.

“But trying to mold feminism into an identity that anyone can claim, no matter what they believe about women’s rights, is a mistake. Whereas feminism used to be an active belief system that challenged patriarchy, it is now (at least in the public imagination) ‘anything a woman chooses to do’—even if those actions directly contradict feminist values.”

TEDWomen is a celebration of powerful women – a celebration absolutely worth having, but what is so juicy about feminism is the challenge and critique of anything from social systems to songs on the radio, even when they are good, to be better and more useful to the fight for social and political gender equality. 

There is much more to the piece that I have not touched upon, so please take some time to read the full article here. It is a thought-provoking look at where feminism seems to be, where it may or may not be headed, who gets to claim the (problematic) top of feminism, and who is consistently left out of the picture and the conversations, in Valenti’s opinion.

I’m sure this will conjure up some opinions and comments  of your own about feminism, so please comment below with your thoughts!


Thanks to The Nation

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