The branding of feminism

I’ve been reading up on the whole Hugo Schwyzer drama. I don’t know if everyone has heard of him or this drama, so here are a few articles as background reading:

* Hugo Schwyzer and the Consumption of Redemption Narratives
* H is for hubris, Hugo; S is for sordid, Schwyzer
* Man Quits Internet: Goodbye, Hugo Schwyzer

I’m not going to repeat all the details of his public downfall here because they are explained in these articles. I think this conclusion to the first article I linked summarises the hollow nature of Schwyzer’s supposed ‘feminist’ persona:

“As it is, he is quite clearly a man bent on attention, and the willingness to accept his narrative of his redemption (and his framing of these events as ‘backsliding’ caused by feminist anger) demonstrates further how important it is to be cautious and suspect of supposed ‘reformed’ peoples. Schwyzer is clearly figuring out ways to still cash in on the ‘reformed’ narrative by portraying himself as a struggling martyr driven to relapse by those meanie feminists.”

Schwyzer has written for numerous high-profile feminist websites. He has been promoted on these websites as a celebrity figure within the feminist movement. Criticism about his presence within feminist spaces and feminist discourse has been quickly shut down. In response to any criticism about his past treatment of women and his current treatment of feminists who have dared to question him came a chorus of precisely this ‘redemption’ narrative; or, in his own word, his “brand”.

I don’t think he should have a place within feminist spaces or websites, but he didn’t achieve his celebrity on his own and the responsibility lies with us too. Many of us have consumed his articles. I once retweeted one of his tweets and felt silly for momentarily buying his bullshit before reading up on him. There are many things about him and, as Flavia Dzodan writes, about “the culture that enabled him”, that I find both frightening and uncomfortable.

I don’t despise or begrudge the presence of men in feminist spaces and discourse. In fact, I think their presence is necessary. I do however despise and begrudge their presence in place of women’s own voices; I despise it when their voices are privileged over women’s; I despise it when their voices are celebrated like special things we should be thankful for. Any time a man opens his mouth in favour of feminism, we gobble it up uncritically. Most women aren’t congratulated and turned into celebrities for their support of the basic idea of equality, so let’s stop treating men like ‘special cases’ when they do too. It’s demeaning and infantilising to both women and men to suggest that a guy deserves a gold star for supporting feminism.

The culture that enabled Schwyzer to become a celebrity is the culture that treats men’s voices as more authoritative and valid than women’s. And for fuck’s sake, we should not allow this to be the default within feminist discourses and feminist spaces. But there is something more going on here, which is where I move from feeling uncomfortable to feeling frightened. Schwyzer is an example of what happens when feminism is appropriated on behalf of ‘branding’; on behalf of selling us an idea rather than believing in an idea. He’s not the first and he certainly won’t be the last to do this.

Using his own terminology, Schwyzer clearly thinks of his public identity as a brand. I know we’re all used to hearing the words ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ these days, but think hard about what this implies. My belief in feminism and equality comes from deep down, at a gut level. It comes from who I am, and what I think about life, and how I perceive my existence within this world. This belief is there when nobody is looking and I don’t need to cultivate it for a waiting audience, because it’s quite simply, me. It is not a brand. It is not something I market and manufacture for public consumption; it’s something I practice and believe in. The difference between approaching feminism as part of the integrity of who you are and approaching it as something to polish and shine for an audience who will ‘buy’ your persona should be obvious.

What frightens me about Schwyzer is the culture around him that views feminism as a brand that can be exploited to sell something; and this time, what was sold to us was a story of redemption in the overall narrative of celebrity. Never mind about the women in his past whose own stories were exploited in the name of this celebrity; and never mind about the women who he tried to silence when they disagreed with him. At least we got our latest celebrity to fawn over and consume!

It’s depressing to believe in something and have it thrown in your face like a superficial replica. But I think the deepest anger really belongs to feminists like Dzodan, and so I’ll leave you with her words (really, you need to go read her post in full):

“There is no justice in him leaving the internet (LOL as if, mark my words, he will be back and probably with a book deal). It would have been justice if those who make money under the banner of feminism had not given him a space to begin with. Justice is when we collectively acknowledge that someone’s ideas are not fit to represent our politics and we do not reward them with celebrity and promotion. It would have been justice if, instead of giving him a space, those publications would have hired Women of Color to amplify the voices he worked so hard to silence.”