By Zoé Samudzi
Since the beginning of 2017, and most notably since the Women’s March, we’ve seen the pussy hat skyrocket to visibility as a totem of the mainstream feminist movement. Inspired by a resistance to President Trump’s endorsement of sexual assault via his recorded “grab them by the pussy” comment, the hat––as well as little cartoonized uteruses and “this pussy grabs back!” slogans––became a reclamation of the power of our reproductive systems and bodies in general.
But these body politics are oriented around an exclusionary understanding of womanhood. First, there is the obvious way in which uteruses, vaginas, and the capacity to bear children are used to define our womanhood. While no one would exclude cisgender women who have had their uteruses or ovaries removed or are simply unable to bear children from womanhood, transgender women [who do not have vaginas] are routinely excluded from “real womanhood” and subjected to transmisogyny from both our cis-centric feminisms and cisgender society at large.
Non-binary people who do not rest comfortably within the gender binary are excluded from this understanding as well. This is in large part due to the history of Second Wave Feminism. Many elements in Second Wave Feminism made penises the enemy, such as Andrea Dworkin’s famed line from her 1987 book Intercourse where she asserted “violation is a synonym for intercourse,” positing that heterosexual sex was akin to rape.
Because of this conflation of gender-based violences with the penises many men possess, transgender men who have vaginas are far more accepted in many radical feminist spaces (e.g. the now defunct Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and its transmisogynistic “womyn-born-womyn” admission policy) than transgender women, despite the violent misgendering in the logic permitting that entry.
Beyond the nasty biological essentialism is the aesthetic of the hat itself, and not just their sheer ridiculousness. They’re pink. Historically, renderings of pink vaginas have always symbolized the perpetually virginal purity and cleanliness of white women, whereas brown vaginas have always belonged to us darker and impure and undesirable women of color (vagina lightening products exist for the same kind of reasons that skin lightening products do).
Feminist body politics are neither useful nor particularly interesting if they do not also recognize racial hierarchies and racialized desirability politics. Non-white women are roundly constructed as less desirable than white women, and colorist hierarchies teach even us women of color that darker skinned women are less attractive, worthy, and lovable than our lighter skinned counterparts.
Enter Amber Rose, whose feminism is grounded in her body politics and experiences as a stripper. Her SlutWalk Festival is a celebration and affirmation of women’s safety and sexual freedom: a celebration of women’s agency to wear whatever we want, consent to sex whenever we want, and be free from violence and stigma for the choices that we make.
Predictably, she has been criticized by men for being a mother and still posing nude and/or in revealing clothes and swimsuits. Also predictably, she has been criticized by many feminists for the fact her feminism revolves around her body and sexual behavior, as though a gender politic emerging from participation in sex work or occupying a sexually objectified form is unfounded.
Recently, in promoting her third annual Slut Walk, she posted a picture of herself in a bikini top and robe but with her pubic hair exposed.
Imma post this one more time for the haters 😍🌳🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/9U2nE8z4Yh
— Amber Rose (@DaRealAmberRose) June 11, 2017
I, for one, was pleasantly surprised to see that she had pubic hair because of how women are generally made to feel ashamed for it and compelled to remove it. But once again, she was put on the chopping block by feminists who didn’t understand why she continued to get naked in the name of “feminism.”
Given mainstream feminism’s genital fixation since the beginning of 2017, this hypocrisy is confusing. Women should reclaim their bodies and feminists should be in support of women’s bodily autonomy, yet Amber Rose is a “bad feminist” for having a feminism centered on reclaiming her body and sexuality?
These misogynistic respectability politics also take on a racial element when it’s clear and observable that many of her most vocal critics are white, and are not making critiques of the substance of her feminism, but rather her nude selfies. While the likes of Emma Watson can take a slightly racy photograph “for fashion” and not get her feminist credentials revoked, and Lena Dunham can toy with nudity as a comedic prop and be the feminist voice of our generation, Amber Rose is painted as almost incapable of having the ability or intelligence to use her own body to put forward a feminist politic.
Amber Rose’s feminism is imperfect and critiquable, as all of our feminisms are and should be. There are, for example, useful criticisms from black women about the loaded racial histories and connotations of the word “slut” and how it’s harder for us to reclaim the word given the controlling image of the Jezebel. Further, her 2015 book How to Be a Bad Bitch was filled with some terrible advice that could have been ripped straight from Cosmopolitan Magazine. Such gems include normalizations of men cheating (“Men cheat, period”); reinforcement of the virgin/whore binary in explaining why some women don’t like giving blow jobs; pseudo-positivities about why it’s important to always smile because “even when you’re not happy on the inside, continue to exude positivity”; and the importance of having a gay best friend because of the apparent accuracies of the homophobic stereotypes.
But the sexual respectability inherent to attempting to dictate the boundaries of what kind of sexual expression is or is not “feminist” or “feminist enough” is misogynistic because it seeks to shape women’s political expression based on social-structural standards of “decency.” A “put more clothes on” rebuttal to a woman using her sexuality to encourage other women to embrace their own feels like being a middle school girl resentful of the pretty girls because they filled out earlier than and are more interesting than you. And then the resentful middle schooler in you turns into a resentful adult woman who is upset that women who “don’t follow patriarchy’s rules” by failing to be appropriately respectable are rewarded by the patriarchy and getting chosen over you.
Without commenting on the actual content to her politics –– because yes, she speaks –– these criticisms of Amber Rose revolve around the idea that nudity could not possibly be empowering to anyone, and “real” feminism is not about sex. They fail to further our collective liberation, and resemble a bitter attempt to curry the patriarchy’s favor. Amber Rose isn’t forcing you to look at any of the photos that she posts on her social media platforms. Nor is she forcing every woman to strip down to a path to liberation, she is creating space and conversation around why women should feel comfortable doing so if they so choose.
So why does she really bother you?
Zoé Samudzi is a queer African feminist, writer, and Sociology PhD student at the University of California-San Francisco.