This is Not a Feminist Song

This week the women of Saturday Night Live, joined by musical guest Ariana Grande, tried to write a song about feminism, decided it was too hard, gave up, but then wrote one anyway. I’ll admit, I laughed out loud the first time I watched it. Then I watched it again and got sad, irritated, angry, and frustrated, roughly in that order.

In case you can’t watch the video right this minute, here are the lyrics (any transcription errors are mine):

This is Not a Feminist Song

The world needs an anthem for all of women kind
A song to fight, a song to right the wrongs of all of time
So we put pen to paper, and wrote all through the night
A gorgeous ode to feminism well within our sights
But this is pretty nuanced stuff, and putting it all in one song was tough

And that is why
This is not a feminist song
We tried real hard bit it took too long
This is not a feminist song
Cause we were scared we would do it wrong
We know women need an anthem a song to call their own
So we didn’t write that anthem, we went home

Every women has a struggle and every struggle is real
But just try and write a song that captures every woman’s deal
So instead of writing lyrics, here’s us running in the sand
And here’s a bunch of lens flares, and an old woman’s hands
Not to call a woman old, or to judge a woman’s hands
We know a woman shouldn’t be reduced to just her hands
We fell right into that trap, it’s so hard to ever get this right

And that is why
This is not a feminist song
So technically it can’t be wrong
This is not a feminist song
I feel like we’ve been singing so long
Our ancestors they fought for us, so they deserve our song
But this not that song, so move along

Now here’s some powerful footage for a song we did not write
Malala, Maya Angela, Madeleine Albright,
RGB she taught me that women can be strong
And if women had the right to choose they’d bail on this whole song

And that is why
This is not a feminist song
We’re just women singing this song
But doesn’t that make it a feminist song?
I guess this was feminist all along!

This IS a feminist song
We can hashtag #FeministSong
Where are the men in this feminist song?
And that’s a legit point, now move along

And now it’s time for you at home to weigh in on this song
Tell us if we handled it all wrong
A tough and tricky landmine of a song

So the song starts off well enough – women deserve an anthem, while acknowledging that women are diverse and that feminism is nuanced. The authors repeatedly worry they will “do it wrong” – not an unreasonable concern given the wide range of feminists and feminisms, and the sometimes heated conversations that ensue. But then rather than exploring those various meanings and goals and strategies of feminism, they give up and go home. While meant to be funny, the more I watched this, the sadder I got.

Is feminism really so complicated that it can’t be explained? After all, feminism is pretty simply the belief that women and men ought to have equal rights and opportunities. But the authors suggest that there are just so many individual struggles, that we can’t represent them all. By the end, when they’ve decided this really is a feminist song, they still haven’t named a single feminist issue: couldn’t they squeeze in a few quick mentions of pay gaps, child care, poverty, healthcare, immigration, human trafficking, war, or the under-representation of women in politics? Even one?

The closest they come is explaining people should not be reduced to their body parts (in this case “hands”). Um, OK, but they avoid mentioning those parts women are most often reduced to and the connection here to sexual harassment and gender based violence. They show voting rights as a done-deal, with footage of a 1910s era suffrage parade under the line, “Our ancestors they fought for us, so they deserve our song,” without mentioning the the massive, orchestrated efforts to disfranchise people of color in the U.S. today. And they make an oblique reference to reproductive choice with the line, “And if women had the right to choose they’d bail on this whole song.” Not exactly laying out a feminist agenda here.

Instead, by reducing feminism to individual struggles – “Every women has a struggle … But just try and write a song that captures every woman’s deal” – the authors never acknowledge the systems of oppression that prevent women from achieving equality. This is especially true for women of color, trans women, women living in poverty, gender queer and non-binary identified individuals, and women with disabilities, most of whom remained unrepresented and invisible in the video. (OK, now I’m irritated moving to angry.)  Dismissing this territory with the line “every struggle is real” sounds waaay too much like “all lives matter” to me.

I get particularly concerned when I see the way in which young people today, including many of my students, so frequently view the world through the lens of individualism, as if structural oppression no longer exists – and if they encounter racism, or sexism, they see it as a personal failure, that they just need to work harder, deal with it themselves. This neoliberal, pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality denies the existence of power structures and leaves little room for social movement building aimed at dismantling them.

The turning point of the song, of course, is when they realize that they are “just women singing this song,” and ask, “doesn’t that make it a feminist song?” They conclude that it does. But something that is simply by or about women, doesn’t automatically make it feminist. Phyllis Schlafly could be singing an anthem about her anti-women’s rights crusade and we certainly wouldn’t consider it feminist, would we?

Furthermore, there can be a difference between a feminist and feminism/s. So even if the authors believe in gender equality and self-identify as feminists, is their song “feminist” if it refuses to engage in the work of social change? Feminism is a movement – really many movements – aimed at changing the relationships of power. Feminism was never simply about identifying women to idolize, like Malala Yousafzai or Maya Angelou (great and incredibly important though they may be! And yes we need leaders, and yes we need to keep writing women’s history!). Nor was it ever simply about empowering individual women to feel strong (though this is awesome and very necessary).

Feminism, as a web of interconnected social movements, is about changing the underlying systems of oppression that use gender hierarchies to rationalize and reinforce their own existence. Intersectional feminism requires us to not only acknowledge the multiple, simultaneous identities that we each inhabit (of gender, sexuality, race, ability, religion, region, etc.), but also the ways in which those identities are also produced and reproduced as interlocking systems of power. The feminists I know are involved in #BlackLivesMatter, reproductive justice, LGBTQIA+ rights, anti-gentrification, environmental work, and education justice, among many other things.

And they include many men (men of color, cis-men, trans men, and yes, men who have never heard these terms before). The actor in the video who asks, “Where are the men in this feminist song?” literally gets pushed off the screen. Though the next line acknowledges that this was a legitimate point, they still conclude, “move along.” This powerfully reinforces a common misconception and accusation of feminism, which is that it’s all about man-hating, man-blaming, and that only cis-women are truly feminists. We’ve been working on human rights for long enough to know that progress is rarely made without allies, and that men are an integral part of the project of feminism. Indeed, we know that feminism is equally about changing the world for men (as a mother of boys, I worry about our culture of toxic masculinity all the time). That also means challenging the gender binary.

Sigh. Frustration setting in thinking about the missed opportunities of this song. And of course, I’m completely aware of the irony that as I write this critical analysis I’m doing exactly what made the authors fear that they couldn’t compose their song in the first place: that they would “get it wrong” and probably be attacked by a bunch of Ph.D. wielding gender scholars. Got it. Guilty. But since they invited the audience “to weigh in on this song / Tell us if we handled it all wrong,” I’m taking them at face value. I agree that they’ve written “A tough and tricky landmine of a song,” but not because they actually wrote about feminism. They were right the first time they sang, “This is not a feminist song.”

One thought on “This is Not a Feminist Song

  1. This song is one of those things that’s maybe fine when it’s taken at face value at first glance, but it’s face value is so far from it’s real value. I had to check out the hashtag after reading this and so much of the internet seems to be in support of this song as a feminist anthem. Several sites have posted articles about it with support and a brief summary. It’s upsetting to realize how much they could have done and chose not to. Goofy though the show may be, SNL does have a semblance of power when it comes to communicating social issues. It’s a shame they don’t wield it well.


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