Packaging Feminism in Millennial Autobiographies

They’re what the Huffington Post calls the “confessional darlings of millennial feminist writing.” Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Lindy West – love them or hate them – they’ve made waves in their autobiographies and their explicit nod to feminist issues. No one doubts that they have a celebrity following and fit a certain brand of feminism, but whether or not they’re selling the right kind of feminism – and the larger issue of selling it as a brand at all – are questions that aren’t easily answered.

In this age of autobiography, the ‘reveal’ is not an exoneration, or the spilling of secrets, but a humorous exposure that cuts deeper than it appears to. Speaking candidly about her nasty or embarrassing sexual escapades (in the case of Schumer especially) grants these millennial writers the space to poke at gender issues. Softened by a comedic self-loathing, the reveals expose not just the awkward encounters of these authors’ lives, but the awkward encounters that in turn make them question what it mean to be a woman and a feminist.

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunahm


For Dunham and feminist writers that dove tail a similar notion of confession, public exposure – emotional and physical – employs courage: female courage. No one wishes to relay their most embarrassing sexual moments if they’re truly a source of embarrassment. To tell their stories unguarded is courageous. It’s also sells wonderfully. As Rafia Zakaria puts it in his Huffington Post article, “sex has always sold well – but feminist sex sells even better.” Selling feminist sex, selling Dunham, selling Schumer – selling this style of confession in general – is selling feminism as a brand. It exploits the crude details of sex lives and defines it as honesty, and it takes self-expression and tints it with self-loathing.

Andi Zeisler, cofounder of Bitch Media, actually has a great discussion of her reccent book on branded feminism (We Were Feminists Once) on the podcast “Stuff Your Mom Never Told You”. It’s a great listen to check out if you’re interested in better understanding how feminism became a markeplace ideology and the impacts it’s had on the moovment. 

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer


The issue Zakaria takes with this kind of sell, much like Zeisler, is that it’s disconnected from real activism. It’s more in tune with millennial self-absorption and capital gain than awareness of an issue. Furthermore, since “the lives of women have been largely unrecorded by history, the personal has always been tied intrinsically to feminism,” it’s difficult to critique these works free from a backlash of anti-feminist accusations.

But in all fairness, it is worth asking if these women are portraying feminism accurately, and whether or not it resonates with the average woman or just the upper class woman, women who are familiar with the life of someone like Dunham (going to a prestigious university, drinking at bars in NYC, visiting home when she pleases etc.)  Beyond asking what these writers should be endorsing as a woman of privileged status, there’s the question of why we as a culture should impose parameters of how to preach feminism. Furthermore, there’s the even larger question of should these authors be feminist figures at all. Is it the duty of a woman with status to endorse the cause?

This is a question that goes beyond the boundaries of literature and feminism, to one that is often posed in music. Specifically, M.I.A.’s music has been a source of controversy, especially during the Syrian refugee crisis. Her song, “Borders” was one of contentious debate for what many felt was a  ‘superficial’ look at the issues. As someone who portrays herself as an ambassador of the third world, her responsibility for talking honestly about the refugees is questioned and more often than not, critiqued.

Whatever your stance on feminism, millennial writers, or even the politics of M.I.A.’s music, looking at how these creatives talk about an issue raises important questions about how they in turn represent an issue and should or should not advocate for it. It’s unsettling to think that ideology is wedged between a glossy cover and an index, and upsetting to think it may falsely poke at an issue without engaging change, but it also speaks volumes about how we are to read. If anything, it’s an incentive to continue to read critically, and be wary of the difference between selling and informing, celebrity obligation and creative expression. 


Featured image courtesy of Esquire.