Feminism Theater


By Marissa Alexa McCool

“Feminism is over,” I often heard on UPenn’s campus. “There’s no need for it anymore. Look at how many women are here?”

I didn’t see any of those people when the hate preachers showed up with signs that said: “Women, get back in the kitchen.”

“Men are really the ones discriminated against,” I often heard in atheist groups. “We’ve won the fight against equality, but now they want superiority over men.”I didn’t see any of those people speaking up when the older cisgender straight white men decided that the responsibility for Trump lay at the feet of us trans people for the crime of our rights to use the bathroom getting attacked and having the nerve to exist and stand up for themselves.

“We support equality on all fronts,” I’d often hear administration and staff say on campus. “We protect our students of all ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation, and gender expression.”

I didn’t see any of those people standing up to the hate preachers. Instead, they were making sure that we didn’t interfere with their right to free speech. And by free speech, of course, they mean following young students around, shouting slurs, and harassing them in the public square. But our right to tell them to go fuck themselves? That needed security to have us escorted away. We wouldn’t want to interfere with First Amendment rights, now would we?

In the last few years, between my education at the University of Pennsylvania and becoming a somewhat-successful podcaster and author, I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric on many different sides of the feminism and activism spectrum. As a trans queer neurodivergent woman, one of the main problems that I’ve found is that the words of support are often empty, tokenizing, and void of any meaning in the face of actually living up to them.

It’s hard to believe there is an atheist movement at all, at least in the singular sense. On one hand, some of the best friends I’ve made since coming out are fellow atheist podcasters, fans, and friends who have gone to bat for me every step of the way and been among the kindest, most supportive people I’ve ever met. Yet, in this supposedly unified movement, anyone who cares about feminism, racism, equality, LGBT rights, etc., is called a social justice warrior, a cuck, or shouted down for the crime of something like, say, defining the word “intersectionality.” Wanting to exist in a space devoid of religious influence as a non-white man has brought me into a theater of discussion that is indistinguishable from the same conversations being held in religious circles, except the central visible force isn’t necessarily the omnipotent being in the sky who says that these rules must be so.

At those times, there are an awful lot of people who want to play the centrism role, to say that both sides are just as bad, and that feminists, SJWs, and whichever other pejorative they’ve come up with that’s supposed to be insulting for the nerve of something silly like caring about people; all of them are the real bullies. What, with their safe spaces and censoring of free speech, they’re as bad as Nazis, aren’t they? I mean, one time, they shouted at someone on campus. That’s clearly the same thing as spreading a flyer around Cleveland State University encouraging LGBT youth to commit suicide, right?

I didn’t spend the majority of my academic career as an out trans person. It took several years for me to discover the resources that were available to me. It wasn’t until the suicide epidemic reached the double digits within a few years that the resources of CAPS and the LGBT Center were even sent out in the mass emails. However, when some of us desperately needed the administration on our side, or at least available resources in order to function as students in an increasingly difficult situation, the people to whom we were sent weren’t really aware of what was needed. There was one doctor at student health who could be seen about trans issues and questions. One. At a campus with 42,000 students.

Interspersed with that kind of “in spirit only” student life protection were students who spouted a lot of the buzzwords and beliefs, but always had a “but.” By that I mean, “I support women’s rights, but…” “I support LGBT rights, but…” “I believe in equality, but…” However, they were sure to call themselves feminists, and were sure to let you know that they called themselves feminists. Only when it came time to stand up for someone or do something about it, they were noticeably absent. Feminism Theater, as it were, was as present as feminist ideology and rhetoric.

I came out as transgender by screaming in the face of a hate preacher who had been on campus repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. Many on campus at the time were encouraging the age-old belief that if you ignored bullies, they’d get bored and leave. Standing up to them was giving them the attention they wanted, and therefore enabling them to win, as if there was a scorecard and someone was tallying the wins and losses. But when I saw this hate preacher walking around Locust Walk, shouting slurs at Jewish and Muslim students, calling women sluts for having exposed shoulders, and following people who were ignoring him, what I realized is that the people who tell you that, in a lot of cases, just don’t want the responsibility of what comes along with identifying yourself as being pro-feminist, pro-LGBT, pro-equality. Ideology in name, not in action. What I learned that day, when I said “I’m transgender, fuck you!” was that centrists don’t want to confront bullies because they can’t play both sides of the equation when that happens. Especially if they’re not the target of said bullying. They wouldn’t want to be next on the bullying list, now would they? If they’re seen as being complicit with trans people, they just might be the next target on the protest list, right? Better make sure the hate preacher’s rights to harass students who aren’t demonstrating is protected. Yet, when he came back and some of us went to counter-protest him again, we were escorted away by school security. His first amendment rights were protected. Ours were denied. Don’t worry though, they had therapy dogs and coloring books available.

Many leaders in the supposedly-singular atheist community have been the same way. They’re all for the equal rights of women, ethnic and racial minorities, LGBT people (or at least LGB), but were more than willing to say that there were problems on both sides when it came down to taking a side. When cisgender straight white men threw us under the bus after the election, we were called the bullies for daring to disagree, and told that there were bigger problems than us right now. Then, as each month passed, trans rights were taken away by this government, Nazis and white supremacists were emboldened and motivated, and views like “feminism is a mental illness” were platformed. I would say became popular, but these were by no means new ideas, even within the community itself.

In the last year since coming out publicly, I’ve published four books, started five podcasts, and traveled the country speaking to different groups of people about my experience. I’ve interviewed as many different kinds of people as I possibly could; not just about trans issues and visibility, but about trying to survive in the face of two relatively harmful theaters of experience. We knew where the bigots stood. We knew where the racists stood. We knew where the bullies stood. But those who identified themselves as feminists and allies in rhetoric were more than ready to play the “both sides are just as bad” game when it came time to actually take a stand and defend those ideas. Whether it was because they didn’t like SJWs, because they thought feminism wasn’t really necessary anymore, or because sometimes people in the affected groups weren’t nice enough about it, they weren’t willing to stand up for those ideas when the cards were on the table. Same way as we trans people get accused of alienating allies when we call out harmful behavior. Supposed allies are really quick to hold their allyship over our heads and accuse us of alienating them for something as simple as reminding them of their pronouns or asking them not to use a certain word.

Just like the administration at my school said they defended and protected us, yet the very last thing to happen to me as a student on that campus was being followed into the bathroom and harassed by a security guard. While having a friend with me, after saying my name and identity, and after showing my ID, I was still being demanded to prove my own identity in the bathroom because “Marissa might be a gender neutral name.” This was ten minutes after I sat through the LGBT Center graduation ceremony where the university’s gender identity-inclusive policy was bragged about for being so forward and being so present early in the game comparatively. At a ceremony where I spoke because I wasn’t going to attend any other graduation ceremonies, I was harassed in the bathroom by an employee of the university for the crime of using the bathroom on the way to my car.

Feminism Theater is claiming to hold feminist ideals, but then also telling feminists that they’re just as bad as misogynists when confronted with a conversation between the two.

  • Feminism Theater is believing in inclusivity, but telling groups fighting for their identities and lives that they need to wait their turn when they’re speaking up for themselves.
  • Feminism Theater is having the right ideas, but believing that it’s enough to just have the ideas, rather than supporting them.
  • Feminism Theater is being anti-rape, anti-harassment, anti-discrimination, but immediately blaming the victim when someone comes out about a leader in the movement, someone who shares their experience of those traumatic events with a #metoo tag, or who isn’t willing to ignore the inappropriate advances of a man who has been told “no.”
  • Feminism Theater is hero worship when someone in a movement is accused of acting inappropriately, and harassing the people en masse who came forward to expose the acts or defend those who did.
  • Feminism Theater is performative allyship.

Being an ally isn’t about saying the right things or having the right thoughts. It’s about standing up and confronting those with harmful opinions or actions when push comes to shove. It’s about listening instead of talking over someone sharing their experience or telling you what they need. If recent posts of #MeToo have you thinking that most of these people just probably made up their experience and are doing it to be trendy or to get attention, you’re part of the problem.

This weekend, I attended an atheist/humanist convention in Philadelphia. I brought my books with me and had a merchandise table. I listened to speakers from many different backgrounds share their experience, ideals, and advice. I interacted with these speakers and the other attendees of the conference. Outside of someone deciding that moving my stuff off a table and claiming it as their own was an appropriate thing to do, nothing was upsetting about this conference. Nobody was shouted down. Nobody was called slurs. Nobody was told that their identity was a mental illness. I wasn’t told to go away or to sit down because I wasn’t important enough to be there right now, and neither was Callie Wright. Yet, more than one person there has been accused of harassment or sexual assault. Nobody said anything about that either.

Marissa McCool has several podcasts including the Inciting Incident podcast and has written nine books including The PC Lie: How American Lives Decided I Don’t Matter, False Start: A Novel, Silent Dreams, and the novel Voice in the Dark. All of her material can be accessed from her website.

November 11, 2017


About the Author Karen Garst