On "A Little F'd Up" and the White Savior Complex

A response to my book, A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word, recently appeared on this website. According to the article’s author, Brenna McCaffrey, I apparently claim that feminism’s work is done in the Western world, and that, as she puts it:

“Laws have been changed, equal opportunity abounds, and Hilary Clinton shattered the glass ceiling; all we have to do now is worry about all those poor women who haven’t been blessed by being born into a ‘developed’ country.”

 She takes issue with the fact that I apparently only think feminism is “all about fighting sexual harassment, slut-shaming and mean girls” and “in developed countries, most of our work ‘real work’ is done…[and that] we should turn our efforts to the ‘real’ plights of women in the global community.”

Ok, before I launch into this horribly inaccurate characterization of A Little F’d Up, I do want to issue a disclaimer. I think it could be really easy to interpret this post as being born from my own personal hurt feelings and desire to save face. And, yeah, I’ll admit that I’m not immune to those impulses, that I’m human and it felt horrible to be publicly declared as having a “white savior complex” when that is something I’ve worked hard to educate others about and actively try to be cognizant of and avoid in my work. I also want to be VERY clear that this isn’t about McCaffrey “not liking” my book. She, and anybody else, are 100% entitled to dislike it, to disagree with or argue against points that I made. What I don’t think she or anybody else should be allowed to do (in my humble opinion) is to publish a blatant mischaracterization of the actual content of my book, which is what I feel happened in her article. I am very proud of A Little F’d Up and it kills me that after reading that article people may perceive the book as something I know in my heart that it’s not. That more than anything else is the reason why I’m writing this.

So, this will probably seem like a really tedious blog post to some, but out of respect for the blood, sweat and tears that went into A Little F’d Up and, yes, out of respect for myself, I’d like to take the opportunity to defend myself and my book. Because while the right to free speech means McCaffrey can voice her opinions about my work, I also enjoy the right to critique hers. And I am going to do so by extensively using direct quotes from and references to A Little F’d Up because I think the thing that disappointed me the most about McCaffrey’s article (and Feminspire’s decision to publish it) was that she used only a SINGLE direct quote (which, by the way, was both taken out of context and fails to even directly relate to the thesis of the piece about white savior complexes) in the entire 1229 word piece that makes the pretty bold, public claim that I have a white savior complex.

So, here are two foremost corrections I’d like to make to McCaffrey’s article:

McCaffrey claims that:

“if your understanding of feminism is coming from A Little F’d Up, then you might think that modern feminism is all about fighting sexual harassment, slut-shaming, and mean girls. In developed countries, most of our ‘real work’ is done.”


TRUTH: Neither A Little F’d Up nor I support the idea -- let alone actually claim -- that feminism’s work is done in the Western world and that there are no longer “real” issues to solve.

First of all, if I actually believed that feminism’s “real” work is done in the Western world, why the hell would I have devoted 5 years to writing for and editing the Fbomb a blog that publishes the first-person narrative submissions of teens from all over the world (yes, both Western and Eastern countries) about why we all still need feminism. McCaffrey suggested that I focus more on “real” issues like the wage gap and underrepresentation of women in publishing and politics – you know the type of issues that we cover all the time on the FBomb in addition to issues like the affordable care act, Title IX and sexual violence, and reproductive rights.

But McCaffrey only focused on A Little F’d Up, so I will as well.

A Little F’d Up is composed of six chapters. Though McCaffrey ignores five of them, making it seem like the entire publication is about issues of global misogyny and (according to her) makes the claim that “most of our work in the West is done” and “we should turn our efforts to the ‘real’ plights of women in the global community” the topic of international feminism is depicted in just one of those chapters (and it is a chapter that hardly promotes such an idea, but I’ll discuss that further in the next point). Five chapters are explicitly devoted to detailing why we all still need feminism and why feminism’s work is far from done, including accounts of the “real” issues she claims I ignore. They are as follows:

Chapter 1 explores the history of feminism – in both Eastern and Western countries -- and serves to underscore the point that my generation often doesn’t realize how relatively recently rights like suffrage (p.29, p. 38, ), reproductive rights (p.33, 52, 67) and economic rights (p. 59) (the types of “real issues” McCaffrey claims I eschew in this book altogether) were won and how important it is that we continue to fight to protect those rights.

Chapter 2 is about defining the term “feminism” so that my generation might understand it as a movement that is still incredibly relevant. I think this is where McCaffrey derives the claim that I think we’re fighting “subtler” issues of sexism, which is in fact taken out of context: I argue that many teenagers feel that issues like sexual harassment and body image at first seem subtle because they’re so normalized and non-problematized in the larger culture, but ultimately are incredibly pervasive and destructive (p. 80-82). No, they’re not economic or political injustices, but they matter to and are greatly impacting teens (the intended audience of this book) and frankly I’m offended that McCaffrey so flippantly dismisses them.

Chapter 3 discusses why it’s so problematic that white women were at the forefront of feminism for so long and why it’s vital that the feminist movement going forward diversify – why white, Western women should NOT be the sole face of feminism any longer and how we absolutely need to work together with women in the non-Western world as well as with women of color, men, LGBTQ folks, etc. in our own communities. I already acknowledge that my own privilege as a white woman inevitably shapes this book (p. 83-84) and that feminism itself is a movement with a history of racism and classism (p. 45) but in this chapter, I further delve into topics like intersectionality (p. 116) and the harmful impact of the gender binary (p. 132).

Chapter 4 is about how the feminist movement – which I believe is still thriving and necessary (i.e. far from “done”) – now exists online. This section describes how the internet can be leveraged to actually connect Western women with women from all over the globe to create a stronger international movement based on working together (i.e. to spell it out – not Western women saving other women, but about all of us helping each other) (p. 144-145).

Chapter 5 entitled “Global Misogyny: The Cold, Hard Facts” is the one McCaffrey took the most issue with (and weirdly portrayed as the general thrust of this book). It covers the occurrences of honor killings, FGM, sex trafficking and female feticide and infanticide and I will discuss it further in the next point, but I think it’s important to note that it is – as the very subtitle suggests -- a FACT-BASED section, meaning that I do not encourage anybody to go “save” anybody else but actually – and I thought it was really interesting that McCaffrey omitted this point – devote the final part of the chapter to explicitly deconstructing the white savior complex and why it’s horribly problematic (p. 180-186).

Chapter 6: Yes, this book includes a section about issues like sexual harassment, body image and “mean girls” – the “subtle” topics that McCaffrey suggested I should have eschewed in favor of topics like the wage gap and the underrepresentation of women in politics. Here’s the thing, though: A Little F’d Up was explicitly written by a teenager, for teenagers. I devoted a chapter to issues like these because they are the ones that are most written about on the FBomb by teenagers (in addition to “real” topics like the wage gap), because they are the ones I know that I personally struggled with the most while writing the book and with which I saw my peers struggle. It’s not that I think issues like the wage gap or the underrepresentation of women in politics are unimportant or irrelevant (in fact, I very much think they’re huge issues, and as previously mentioned, made a point to mention those topics in the book on pages 29, 33, 38, 52, 59, 67 and elsewhere). It’s that this particular book had a very specific goal: to explain to teenagers why feminism is relevant to them in this specific stage of their lives. The wage gap and entering into politics – though they absolutely should be on our radar and are incredibly important – are not THE most relevant issues to teenagers and thus, though mentioned, were not the issues I focused on the most.

Second, McCaffrey claims that I “present the idea that…most of our work in the West is done. Feminism is needed most in the rest of the world…where women are still considered second class citizens.”

TRUTH: A Little F’d Up, the FBomb and I personally actively work to deconstruct the idea of the “white savior complex.”

As previously mentioned, the section on global misogyny in A Little F’d Up is fact-based. Though McCaffrey suggests I present women of developing countries as “stereotypes,” I made a point to focus on deconstructing the acts of honor killings, FGM, female feticide and infanticide and sex trafficking with the explicit goal of not objectifying the women who are inculcated by them, but through the frame of trying to educate teenagers about the fact that these instances are happening at all. Teenagers are hardly being taught about these occurrences in the classroom or from the media and I strongly believe that everybody should be aware that they are happening.

Educating teens about the facts of these issues does not erase the importance of what is happening in their backyards. It does not position the women who are inculcated in these crimes as objectified victims who need saving. It raises vital awareness and intercepts ignorance.

I then conclude the chapter with a section entitled “Where Activism Meets Imperialism.” I explicitly chose to use the term “imperialism” rather than the term “white savior complex” because I felt that in the context of this chapter the latter would conflate whiteness with Westernness, but the point remains: I spend 6 pages (a sizeable percentage of the chapter) explaining that women involved in these occurrences are NOT stereotyped, faceless victims to be “saved” but that rather that Western women have to be cognizant of how we approach these issues (p. 180-186).

So, yes, that – in detail and supported by text-based facts – is why I strongly feel that Brenna McCaffrey completely mischaracterized my book and, ultimately, my work as a feminist, which isn’t just upsetting on a personal level but on the level of what I hope to accomplish with this book and my work.

But here’s the thing: I also believe that that goal – what I hope to accomplish with my work through A Little F’d Up and the FBomb and what Brenna McCaffrey hoped to accomplish with that article – are ultimately the same thing. In fact, I totally agree with her point that, “if we are to truly remove feminism from its white woman’s savior complex, we must understand that patriarchy—not culture, not religion—is the root cause of sexism and violence against women everywhere.”

So, though I am obviously incredibly disappointed with the way McCaffrey decided to portray my book, instead of letting this post contribute to another huge issue in the modern feminist movement – feminist infighting – I’d rather ultimately use this as an opportunity to re-publish an abridged version of the suggestions for combating the white savior complex that I published in A Little F’d Up (which, again, starts on page 180)– points that I think support McCaffrey’s goal as well.

Something that feminists struggle with a lot is the issue of being imperialistic in our attempts to help. It’s all too easy to view the victims of these occurrences as people who need to be saved. It’s all too easy for us to think we can swoop in, that we can put on our hats of Western superiority, load up some Uzis, and shoot shit up (the American way) until we’ve saved these women. We may have the best intentions in wanting to do good in this world, but it really isn’t our place to save anybody else. In fact, doing so would be verging on imperialism, no matter what our intentions.

It’s most important to acknowledge that things like sex trafficking, honor killings and female feticide and infanticide happen. But we have to acknowledge the issues happening at home too. In our own country, we tell women who claim they were raped that they’re liars, that they are to blame because they wore a short skirt, or that they should have stopped their rapist. We tell girls that they have to emulate an unattainable standard of beauty, then tell them that they’re lazy and worthless if they fail to live up to these standards. We are hurt by all this, and yet we try to hide that we’re hurting—which in turn leaves us to doubt ourselves, blame ourselves, and altogether feel complicit in what’s happening to them.

Oppression and violence against women isn’t a problem constrained only to developing countries. It happens here, in our own backyard. It’s time to acknowledge that this is happening. Living in denial, and blaming girls and women for the things we inflict upon them, isn’t helping anybody. It’s time to be brave. It’s time to be honest. It’s time for recognition, awareness and education.

But, if my evidence-based discussion of how A Little F’d Up does not argue that feminism’s work is done in the Western world and does not employ the white savior complex when discussing issues of global misogyny (but in fact does the opposite) doesn’t convince you, PLEASE, BY ALL MEANS, let me know what I could have done better. I think as feminists we should always lead from a place of learning, of attempting to educate each other, rather than blatantly putting each other down. So if you feel you can educate me, or anybody else, now is your chance: what can we do to further check ourselves against feminist imperialism?

More articles in WMC FBomb by Category: Feminism
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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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