‘Mean Girl Feminism’ Argues That Being Sassy or Sarcastic Isn’t the Feminist Act White Women Think It Is

A new book by Dr. Kim Hong Nguyen dives into how white feminists are still, unsurprisingly, doing feminism wrong.

‘Mean Girl Feminism’ Argues That Being Sassy or Sarcastic Isn’t the Feminist Act White Women Think It Is

We’re all familiar with the trope of the damsel in distress, but let me raise you one and introduce you to the “damsel in resistance.” Both patriarchy’s biggest problem and its biggest solution, the damsel in resistance is a mean white girl who breaks the mold of white femininity by being mean and uses that meanness to speak out against sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy itself. Both in real life and in pop culture, more than a few white feminists who’ve snarked their way up to the top come to mind: Succession’s Shiv Roy was quick to call her brothers, dad, and husband out on their sexist bullshit when it benefited her, and ultra-scammer Elizabeth Holmes didn’t exactly girlboss her way into Big Pharma without deliberately silencing whistleblowers (or letting her employees keep all of their blood, for that matter).

There’s only one problem: this meanness and the so-called feminist successes it brings (whether at work or in their social circles), come at a price. And more often than not, it’s for women of color and other marginalized people to pay. In her new book Mean Girl Feminism: How White Feminists Gaslight, Gatekeep, and Girlboss, associate professor of Communication Arts at the University of Waterloo Dr. Kim Hong Nguyen brings forth four distinct figures—the bitch (Great News’ Diana St. Tropez and the phenomenon on the Resting Bitch Face), the mean girl (Mean Girls’ Regina George and Cady Heron), the power couple (Hillary and Bill Clinton, and Gossip Girls’ Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass), and the global mother (Laura Bush)—to show us how white feminists co-opt women of color’s performances of resistance (think: being bitchy or sassy) in order to maintain the cis-heteropatrial status quo. And, because they harm the very people of color they mimic, they end up being just as toxic as the white men they’re trying to gain equality with, becoming what Nguyen calls “better masters,” instead of advancing feminist agendas in any meaningful way.

In a tight 100 pages, Nguyen elucidates how denying that white women’s aggression is a form of violence and how “position[ing] that aggression as feminist” paves the way for mean girl feminism to extend the violence of white supremacy, capitalism, and much more.

Throughout the book, Nguyen walks us through an impressive cast of mean white feminists to demonstrate how some of North America’s most culturally beloved (and culturally hated) white women invoke mean-girl feminism to get what they want. Whether it’s using their relationships with white men to capitalize on their power or weaponizing the suffering of women and girls of color to justify war, these white feminists do more harm than good in their efforts to achieve their own personal gain. All while being praised for carrying the feminist torch forward.

During our conversation, Nguyen said that writing this book was fueled by both anger and grief. But in confronting these negative feelings, in addition to the “ugly aspects of feminism,” Nguyen presents us with what I read as a work of urgent hope—one that, if read in good faith by the feminists who need its message the most, could bring us closer to a truly liberatory intersectional feminist practice. This conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

JEZEBEL: I feel like I have to ask if you’ve seen the new Mean Girls movie.

Dr. Kim Hong Nguyen: I have not honestly. But it does seem to be having a moment. I think that we’re in a moment right now where Mean Girls resonates with a lot of people. And I think it’s because there’s a cultural interest in being ironic in the face of the power that white women and feminism have in society. I think that the original was a success because it captured a lot of what I call “white nonsense” about femininity, which is how white women do feminism. The way they do it is to increase their own visibility and popularity, and they do so often to their own detriment.

I was really interested in one of your main arguments in the book around white feminism fetishizing gender. Could you talk a little bit about what you mean by that and what the outcomes of this fetishization are?

So white feminism has supposedly gone through these waves. I came into academia as a third-wave feminist. [Third-wave feminism critiques] white feminism on the basis of race, class, sexuality, ability, etc. And so when I read the scholarship of white women, I’m starting with this very question: Are they writing in response to, or in account of, third-wave critiques? Is this white woman writer or scholar contending with race in addition to gender? More often than not, I’m finding that they’re not. They’re overly focused on gender, so much so that to them, everything hinges on gender without regard to other systems of power.

I think it’s useful to contrast this to the range of Black feminisms: you have womanism, ratchet feminism, hip hop feminism, crunk feminism, you have #MeToo feminism, right? All of these Black feminisms aim to offer a way in—a way for us to understand how not just gender but multiple forms of oppression impact our daily lives. And that’s why most Black feminisms are intersectional. They expand how we think about feminism in a way that is more inclusive, that allows us to better address our conditions of inequality and oppression, which definitely includes heterosexism and being anti-patriarchal. In contrast, when I read a lot of white feminist literature, it’s aimed at constantly arguing and showing how this feminism or that feminism is not feminist enough. This is the argument that I’m trying to make in the book: Ultimately, what’s happening is that these terms don’t name how white women are part of the problem in maintaining the structure of inequality because of their whiteness [and] because of their alignment with white men.

Definitely. It’s a distraction, it turns our attention away from what’s important.

That’s why I really love the title. [Mean girl feminism] does the gatekeeping, the gaslighting, and the girlbossing all at the same time. Because it allows white women to be like, “So this is really what feminism is” and girlboss their way through it.

When did you realize that “mean girl feminism” was something worth theorizing about, and wasn’t just a handful of observations that you were making in popular culture and in your own life?

I have a lot of examples of white women [using] brown or Black vernacular as a way of trying to either sound more bitchy or sassy. And that can be a way of trying to be combative directly to me, or it could just be trying to exemplify that what [women of color are] doing collectively is a kind of resistance to a larger system of power. And so that’s the background, if you will, of micro-experiences that I’ve had. 

They’re not major experiences in my life but they’re common, and they happened frequently enough to where I wanted to write about how white women are borrowing this performativity as a way of trying to show that they are more articulate than everybody else. And this is definitely a Western thing. It’s definitely a white thing. There’s a lot of literature about how Western communication celebrates and rewards a kind of communication style that is super articulate, argumentative, and eloquent. And so for me, I really wanted to think about what this appropriation does and why it has an effect of silencing the kinds of anger that is coming from brown and Black women, queer people, disabled people, and so on.

Your book also reminded me of another book called White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How to Do Better, which really focuses on how white women weaponize their niceness in order to be racist.

It’s funny that you mentioned that book because Jesse Daniels published a book called Nice White Ladies, which seems to have a similar vibe. My work is taking a bit of a narrower approach in that I’m already assuming to a certain extent that my audience is interested or self-identifies as feminists, as opposed to just as white women. 

You’re probably familiar with the term tone policing, or the idea that people dismiss an argument because it’s angry or emotional in tone but really, the dismissal amounts to disliking the content of the argument. And I think that when I was trying to come up with the term mean girl feminism, I was trying to talk about tone performing, [or] this idea of focusing on the tone of the argument, the performance of the argument as if that’s the argument itself. So being bitchy, being sassy, ironic, and sarcastic is becoming the way to be a feminist, rather than actually putting feminism into practice in a way that improves the lives of all.

I was really interested in your claim that postfeminism is not the opposite of feminism but its afterlife or extension.

My point is that this conversation that we see around postfeminism is less about feminism, and more so about white women’s performativity and policing the boundaries around femininity. [It allows] white women scholars to continue to pretend, ultimately, that their struggle is above racism and above or beyond white supremacy, [and] that they don’t have to deal with that system of power because they need to keep harping at gender and patriarchy.

With Israel’s genocide in Gaza, I worry about the potential for global motherhood to creep into Western feminists’ responses to what’s happening. In the conclusion of your book, you offer these alternatives to mean girl feminism that is rooted in collective action and addressing structural oppression. How can we use those tools to show up for Palestinian liberation?

There’s no short or easy answer to this question. I think that we should be wary and on guard about the possibility of how white feminism often searches for a gender disparity to rationalize war. I think that what is going on in Gaza is no different. In the book, I talk a lot about Afghanistan and Iraq and how many feminists supported wars using gender disparity—like access to education or job opportunities—[as a justification] to go to war. And what’s often not talked about in news reports about that gender disparity is that these military interventions often cause more harm than good. And that the construction of a gender disparity is really a construction. Most of the population, women or not, are suffering from harsh embargoes, violence, and global capitalism. 

You asked a really compelling question in your conclusion: “Are white women ready and willing to face social deaths for making the personal political?” Do you think they are?

I think white women need to be ready to say what may make them unpopular, which isn’t the same thing as being bitchy. I also think that white women need to be ready to see feminism as something that’s connected to something else in a way that shifts their thinking about who they are as feminists and as people. Saying the unpopular, that’s what I mean by social death, or the idea that they’re not going to have friends when they leave the space, and to be ready for that because that’s what racialized and marginalized people deal with on a daily basis. And I don’t think that white women are often ready to do that.

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