How Lauren Duca and Other Liberals Weaponize Feminist Language To Uphold Oppressions
In the over-simplification of feminist language, Lauren Duca and other so-called feminists have stripped feminist theory of its anti-capitalist stance.
By Nashwa Lina Khan
In January 2020, The Independent published a piece by Lauren Duca entitled “In Backing Liz Warren And Amy Klobuchar, The New York Times Rejected Toxic Masculinity- As We All Should”. The article’s subhead read “It’s not about women or men – it’s about a feminine way of approaching politics that politicians of all stripes have shown, including Andrew Yang.” Duca first appeared on many of our radars after Teen Vogue published her viral piece, Donald Trump is Gaslighting America. The op-ed was eerily similar to a previously published piece by Melissa Jeltsen featured in the Huffington Post which did not receive the same virality. Other articles acknowledge Duca’s arguably laissez-faire approach to growing her version of feminist activism and analysis, also witnessed in her book and feminist journalism course that was rather white and not very feminist. This is not a piece on Duca alone though, however, it is about what she does and what she is emblematic of in these times. The #stillwithher resistance liberal co-opting feminist language in tandem with essentialism to replicate harm and spin false narratives is something we must challenge as an extension of capitalist systems that harm us all.
Discussing feminism is becoming increasingly difficult as it becomes more mainstream and distorted, manipulated, and rendered. This election cycle we witness this in a multitude of ways as feminism and its offshoots are frequently evoked as a rationale for dismissing Sanders and his supporters through arguments produced with little rigour and no teeth. For instance, when Duca argues that candidates have rejected toxic masculinity, her understandings of toxic masculinity are far from watertight, in fact, they seem to flounder in a rather shallow pool of second-wave feminist understanding.
The flawed and insidiously one-dimensional evocation of “feminism”, “the divine feminine”, “toxic masculinity”, “patriarchy” and other words in this attempt to form a coherent gender-based analysis of the current state of politics fails due to its disingenuous intent and muddied naming. For instance, after Duca names a number of economic factors, she still persists that the control of money and capital itself is “toxic masculinity” and believes a woman would be less capable of producing conditions of austerity. To believe, even on its most surface level, the idea that a publication like the New York Times — one that has recently platformed race science, cheered on war, puff pieces on Nazis and so much more harm — is a rejection of toxic masculinity, is to eschew any serious uptake of what toxic masculinity actually is.
Beyond solidifying a very binary understanding of femininity and masculinity that is flattened, Duca’s statements erase the ways in which women can and have been used to do irreparable damage in the world. She writes, “[t]he problem with masculinity is when it occurs as its shadow part. Toxic masculinity looks like this ongoing death rattle of the white supremacist patriarchy clinging to power. And, of course, we see the most grotesque manifestation of this sickness in the form of that demonic sweet potato who keeps us on the verge of World War Three because he cannot handle his own insecurity — which would be embarrassing if our lives weren’t at stake. I think a woman is our best bet at beating that. I think using feminine pronouns for the most powerful person in the world could help correct our overriding tendency toward the toxic masculine.”
I agree with Duca, our lives are at stake. However, she does not seem to care or engage with the concerns many of us live with. Duca writes that she has a gut feeling that a woman with a history of Democratic establishment voting is the “best bet” against a World War Three. Her feelings are rooted in an ever hollowing feminist identity politics where the most important aspect of this election is seeing someone who looks like an older version of her as President. Duca justifies her hunch that Warren or Klobuchar would be best for people saying, “I think using feminine pronouns for the most powerful person in the world could help correct our overriding tendency toward the toxic masculine.” This is not only a flattened analysis of gender and a meaningless evocation of pronouns, but it is also dishonest. History reminds us along with the present how women are complicit in war. Duca knows that the candidate who has the best policies for the most marginalized is Sanders and not Warren, especially after appointing a foreign policy advisory team filled with a diverse collective of warmongers. Much like presidential candidates, these writers offer language without authentic engagement or commitment to the ideas and movements.
This rise in a dogmatic good dog/bad dog approach applied to men and women in the most rudimentary sense is not rejecting toxic masculinity. If anything, such a dishonest engagement erodes the work feminism and disrupting toxic masculinity aims to do. Toxic masculinity is normalized behaviour in a society that is patriarchal, but what is lost in analyses like Duca’s and others this election cycle is that toxic masculinity is not gendered in the ways they theorize. It harms both men and women. A mere refusal of endorsing men is not a rejection of toxic masculinity, it also does not enable radical progress or an authentic application of feminist practice.
Duca is not alone in the butchering of language and feminist theory. Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress and a well-known member of the democratic establishment, evoked what is typically deemed as progressive language responding to a tweet from Brihanna Joy Gray who is the National Press Secretary for Bernie Sanders. Tanden tweeted “Stop gaslighting. Denying people’s experiences isn’t progressive. No one is saying Sen Sanders is doing this but I’ve had death threats from supporters of Sen Sanders. And instead of saying that’s bad or people should cool it, you engage in classic whataboutism. Disturbing.” In response Joy also requested that the gaslighting of the “most diverse, working class coalition of this race” also not be done and pointed to Sanders being the only candidate to encourage his supporters to be civil.
Tanden, whose Twitter bio features the word “feminist”, is like many pundits and writers who are emerging to militate the progressive language activists, scholars, organizers, and more use to make sense of living in the patriarchal societies we identify as living within. What they consistently lack is a true honouring and commitment to the language they use and a rooting of the words within a larger understanding of interlocking systems of oppression. Their fixation on only addressing gender in a very binary way illustrates the disingenuous commitments they hold to any type of real progressive feminist politics.
Historically white femininity and womanhood have been wielded to justify violence. Knowing this and the nuances and complexities of gender we must not fall for these one-dimensional uptakes sterilized of other modes of oppression that impact us all differently—instead, we must challenge predominant hierarchies about race and gender-based analysis. To honour a gender-based analysis we must ensure when applied it is not simply reduced to a limited “pro-women” happenstance in a very broad abstract sense. Gender essentialism is not and will never be feminism and rejections of toxic masculinity that are by extension viewed as feminists are meant to be a political challenge. The piece by Duca, the exchanges “feminist” Tanden has with Gray and others regularly do illustrate a multitude of things in this political moment. This moment exposes how the intellectual movement obscures meaning when modified intentionally or weaponized by people who continue to benefit from the status quos reinforced by oppressive structures.
We are witnessing a stratification of power, class, and interests in the mutation of feminist language and theory by the labelling of anything we do not like as masculine. Furthermore, had Duca actually sat with texts and been serious about her commitment to the theories she espouses in any respectful way, she would recognize the trouble of working within such an essentialist framework while capitalism puppeteers us all. We must recognize the ethical component of this work as work that recognizes the broader struggles for social justice. We cannot solve the issues that plague us in isolation but instead must do so collectively.
People like Duca have a “bottom-line” with which they firmly believe is the reason for oppression and injustice in the world. For Duca it is gender, beyond the overly simplified understanding of it through such a bottom-line she can absolve herself as an implicated person. A mutation of her idea is that there would be no war if women ran the world. The microwaved understanding that feminism and equity are derived from half of the exploiters being women is reprehensible. What Duca is doing here (along with others) is evoking the theory and language around intersectionality and feminism and oversimplifying the worlds so many of us navigate.
In the article Duca attempts to grapple with the economic issues existing in America, she hastily attributes to “our crisis of toxic masculinity” which are in fact issues that are rooted in capitalism and its various branches. Stripping down feminism into meaninglessness for the petite bourgeoisie will never save us. Duca and what she now refers to as “comrades” are a mutation of feminism, a feminist cabal part of a project of meandering through what they believe to be a gender-based analysis that lacks much purpose or authenticity. In intentional misnaming, there is a paradox in positioning oneself as perpetually inculpable and innocent when labelling every moment a sexist or toxic masculinity moment. One in which patriarchy is and can actually be replicated. There is a danger beyond Duca we must be wary of. How they wield the language without a genuine commitment to various identities but instead an exercise in narcissism.
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Describing capitalism, not toxic masculinity would do the work of gender justice as well. Gender does not live or exist in a silo, to be a feminist is not only to have a commitment to gender equity but dedication towards racial justice, class justice, dis/ability justice, and anti-imperialist politics. We must attend to all of these pieces of a capitalist system.
Wishing for imperialism but in a feminine way is one manifestation and danger of what happens when we do not understand the dynamic nature of identity and power. I believe there is a discomfort that some women, especially white women have with concepts like imperialism, colonialism, racism, and capitalism and by naming it toxic masculinity they are able to absolve themselves of guilt and continue to occupy a liminal space. Further, they are able to never be implicated in such moments of oppression or the beneficiaries of oppressive structures. Part of the work however is and will always be sitting with the trouble and discomfort.
Nashwa Lina Khan is an interdisciplinary community based facilitator, instructor and researcher. She is currently working on a few projects including a small chapbook of poems she never thought she would share. Her activist scholar work is presently focused on transformative education. Her graduate work uses maternal decolonial methodologies to make sense of how family law impacts sex workers, HIV positive women, refugee women, and unwed mothers in Morocco accessing healthcare services in relation to citizenship and nation. You can find some of her work here. Sometimes you can find her tweeting too little or too much @nashwakay.
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