Tropes vs. Women: #6 The Straw Feminist

September 23, 2011

This is the last of a six part series created for Bitch Magazine. Tropes vs. Women explores the reoccurring stories, themes and representations of women in Hollywood films and TV shows.

The Straw Feminist trope is a deliberately created, exaggerated caricature of a feminist that is used to undermine and ridicule feminist movements.  This was probably one of the most difficult and longest videos I’ve made so far, partly because the Straw Feminist is a very complex and twisted representation.  I actually cut out about five minutes of actual analysis to keep the video at a reasonable viewing time.  The Straw Feminist trope has many more facets and MANY more examples but I hope I was able to provide a general overview.

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** This video is available to be translated into other languages by volunteers like you. Please visit the subtitling page on Universal Subtitles and click TRANSLATE to get started.

Transcript

Every now and then, in Hollywoodland a character that’s identified as a feminist will magically make its way through the production process and appear on our television screens, unfortunately this is almost never good.

What the Hollywood machine churns out is a distorted and warped version of feminism which bares little resemblance to actual feminist movements.

In a desperate quest to distance themselves, their plots and their characters from anything that could in anyway be mistakenly mistaken for feminism, Hollywood writers rely on one of the most deceptive and disgusting tropes ever to be forged in the fires of mount doom, that trope is called The Straw Feminist.

In television and movies The Straw Feminist works by deliberately creating an exaggerated caricature of a feminist, which writers then fill with a bunch of oversimplifications, misrepresentations and stereotypes to try to make it easy to discredit or delegitimize feminism. The goal is to make feminists and our movements look completely ridiculous, over the top and unnecessary.

In terms of media representation, one of the most disturbing example of the Straw Feminist can be found in the 3rd season of Veronica Mars.  Sadly, the Veronica Mars writing team turned the last season into a train wreak partially by introducing a group of Straw Feminists as villains in the series.

Characters like these serve to undermine and discredit feminist movements but they also serves to separate female leads which are smart, strong and witty, in this case, Veronica, from any association with feminism. 

The Straw Feminist character is part of a fictional post-feminist world that only exists in Hollywood, the trope is a tool that’s used to promote the fallacy that everyone is already equal.

What’s exceptionally frustrating is that these characters often bring up legitimate feminist concerns about women’s rights and women’s equality but those concerns are quickly undermined by the writers making the characters seem over the top, crazy, and extremist.

For example the Straw Feminist appears in Married with Children as Marcy D’Arcy, the irritating and pompous neighbour.  In this case, the Straw Feminist is coded as the castrating wife who emasculates and dominates her docile, stupid husband.

We see the trope repeated in Rugrats with Phil and Lil’s mother who Wikipedia describes as “Quite the jock and women’s-libber” and we can also recognize her as a straw feminist because of the giant woman’s symbol on her sweater.  Much like Marcy she’s framed as the castrating wife who barks orders to her submissive husband.

In 2001’s Legally Blonde the writers threw in a Straw Feminist for cheap laughs who believes that the word “semester” is an evil conspiracy against women.

Clip – Legally Blonde (2001)
Straw Feminist: “Take the word semester ‘k, it is the perfect example of this school’s discriminatory preference of semen to ovaries, that’s why I’m petitioning to have next term be referred to as the winter ov-es-ter.”

Another problematic example comes from the Powerpuff Girls episode, “Equal Fights” in the third season.  The Girls encounter a female villain named Femme Fatale who we can immediately see is a straw feminist because she has the oh-so-terrifying woman’s symbol on her mask, her clothes and even as her weapon. 

The episode begins with the traditional pan around Townsville showing us that gender inequality is not a problem.

Clip – Powerpuff Girls “Equal Fights”
Male Narrator: “A city where everyone gets their fair turn”

Even boys and girls on the playground get along.

Clip – Powerpuff Girls “Equal Fights”
Boy: “Your turn Jenny… think fast” “Oops”
Girl: “Very funny Joey, you’re gonna get it”

But this harmonious balance is deviously disrupted by Femme Fatale and her conniving, deceptive women’s rights rhetoric.

Curiously though, Femme Fatale brings up some pretty valid points about the lack of female faces on American money, or the lack of female superheroes in pop culture.


Clip – Powerpuff Girls “Equal Fights”
Femme Fatale: “Surely, you’ve noticed, female superheroes aren’t nearly as revered as male superheroes.”
Bubbles: “Sure they are! There’s Supergirl, Batgirl”
Femme Fatale: “They’re so lame, merely extensions of their male counterparts.”

The Girls are influenced by Femme Fatale’s malicious rhetoric to see benign, routine every day things as a conspiracy against women and against them personally.

The writers of the Powerpuff Girls have carefully created a fantasy world without gender oppression, so that they can have the Girls start seeing oppression where none exists.

Clip – Powerpuff Girls “Equal Fights”
Blossom: “We saw what you did Joey Finklemeyer”
Joey: “Whhaaa’d I do?”
Buttercup: “Shut up!”
Blossom: “Don’t play dumb with us!”

Professor Utonium: “I’ve finally caught up on all the housework and all that’s left is your room, if you could take care of that please.”
Professor Utonium: “uh, I’ll just do it later”

Blossom (on phone): “Why don’t you get some big strong man to save your precious city or better yet why don’t you stop making women do your dirty work and do it yourself!”

The problem is, all of these things that the Powerpuff Girls are complaining about are actually happening!  Girls are getting bullied on school yards, and women are overwhelmingly responsible for household duties.  Women are being institutionally oppressed all the time in nearly every facet of our lives.

Once again this trope is used to separate the Powerpuff Girls from any notion that they could in anyway possibly be feminist characters. Because you know you awesome, funny, world saving, independent young women but you know, not feminist…

The Straw Feminist trope is taken to a whole new level in adult animation shows such as South Park or Family Guy. In the episode “I Am Peter, Hear Me Roar” the Family Guy writers took a stab at feminist attorney Gloria Allred.  Allred is known for taking on high-profile cases defending women who have been assaulted or harassed.  In this attack, the Family Guy writers created a character coincidentally named Gloria Ironbox who brainwashes Peter into thinking he is a woman, after he is accused of sexual assault.  The emasculation and feminization of Peter and his sudden transformation into a feminist is played for laughs.

Clip – Family Guy “I Am Peter, Hear Me Roar”
Peter: “I can’t respect men, men are the reason our world is in such lousy shape.  If men were as caring as women we wouldn’t have crime or violence.”

Because you know, nothing is worse in a patriarchal society then being a woman, except maybe being a feminist…

In these fictional narratives institutional oppression and wide scale sexism just doesn’t exist.  It’s a carefully constructed world where feminism is no longer needed.

Even the comic book world delves into this trope, with Y the Last Man. When all the men on earth die except for one, there is a extremist homicidal group called the Daughters of the Amazons. The violent, vigilante group is founded on the disdain and hatred of men and anyone who mourns the death of men, even though there aren’t anymore men.

Let’s get back to Veronica Mars, there is a 9 episode story arc in the 3rd season about a series of rapes that occur on the University Campus.  A group of straw feminists on campus hold demonstrations, volunteer with the Ride Home Safe campus program to escort young women home, and demand that the university institute an official sexual code of conduct.

All of these are logical, rational and important steps to creating safer college campuses.  However, the writer quickly dismisses these characters as irrational, stubborn, pigheaded man-haters, and it serves to fulfill the tired old stereotypes about angry and militant women of colour.

Clip: Veronica Mars “Spit and Eggs”
“Pig” “Rapist”

The writers of Veronica Mars takes the Straw Feminist to an obscene level by actually having them “fake a rape” in order to blame the fraternity.

Women lying about sexual assault is a grossly overused myth.  Women generally don’t put themselves through the social shame of admitting assault for petty personal revenge.

In just a handful of episodes the creators of Veronica Mars undermine the work that thousands of students are doing globally on there campuses to end violence against women.
While we see the Straw Feminist over and over again in television and movies, it’s also unfortunately deployed on a regular basis by American talk shows and news pundits.

Mainstream religious and conservative news media often attack women with deliberate misrepresentations and extreme exaggerations of what feminism is.  This false impression has been infused into the mainstream by popular talk show hosts such as Michael Savage, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly.

You may have heard the slur “Feminazi” popularized by Rush Limbaugh. A term used to discredit and demonize any woman fighting for social equality.

Clip: The Rush Limbaugh Show (2010)
Rush Limbaugh: “The feminists, the feminazis have been working for years to this end, advance women by diminishing men.”

Ya…

The Straw Feminist is set up to perpetuate and advance the myth that feminism is no longer needed, that we have arrived at gender equality and anyone who disagrees is quickly demeaned and portrayed as an extremist.

This trope represents a backlash against feminism and groups supporting women’s rights.  As we make more gains towards equality, the backlash gets stronger.

It’s an old yet effective tactic but clearly it’s  working because I often hear young women saying, “I believe in the equal rights of women but I’m not a feminist.” This sentiment is a direct result of the straw feminist trope.  Because women want to distance themselves from the extreme and false representations they are seeing on tv, movies and talk shows.

We need to proudly claim the title and fight back against these distorted and demeaning representations in the media and in real life, and if y’all really do believe in the equality of women then we need to continue this long legacy of feminism and fight for it.

And Hollywood, get over your fear of strong, smart and talented women and stop contributing to the backlash by writing absurd and ridiculous Straw Feminist characters.

Now I will leave you with Polly Bergen saying something pretty awesome on the otherwise unremarkable show Commander in Chief.

Clip: Commander in Chief “Unfinished Business”
Rebecca Calloway: “Look just because it matters to mom doesn’t mean it matters to me.  I mean, I’m no feminist.”
Kate Allen: “So you don’t believe that women should have rights equal to those of men”
Rebeca Calloway: “w..well of course I do… it’s just-”
Kate Allen: “Might I suggest my dear, that you look up the definition of feminist.”

Music: Nellie McKay “Mother of Pearl”
“Feminists don’t have a sense of humour. Feminists just want to be alone. Boo-hoo-hoo-hoo”

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35 Responses to “Tropes vs. Women: #6 The Straw Feminist”

  1. I hate this trope so much. I am pretty sure it is the reason why I, and I am very embarassed to admit this, hated feminism in high school and early college. It wasn’t until I took a women’s studies class and met other women (and men) who identified themselves as feminist that I began to identify myself as one.

    One thing I can’t stand about this character, is that in shows I have seen, the feminist character is always manly and putting male characters down, going as far as injuring them. (And I HATE the trope Abuse is ok/funny when it’s female on male.) Where are the more traditionally feminine feminist characters who don’t spend half their screen demeaning/beating the men? I also hate when, in order to make a female character seem strong, the writer makes all the male characters completely incompetent. Like in Kim Possible. Kim is a strong brave woman who saves the world on a daily basis, while Ron, instead of being a strong supportive friend who is not as good as Kim at what she does, is just a complete doofus. Any time he does something cool, something humiliating for him has to follow afterwards.

  2. Another great commentary.

    The straw feminist is probably the top item on the list of things that anger me about modern media.

    Although it’s probably sharing that position with commercials that are telling me to “man up” and drink the right light beer (how does that make any sense even given the twisted gender roles that exist inside of beer ads?!).

  3. Another post which takes on the Powerpuff Girls “Equal Fights” episode was just published on The Sociological Cinema: http://www.thesociologicalcinema.com/1/post/2011/09/the-powerpuff-girls-equal-fights.html

  4. Wooooww! This is AMAZING!!!!!
    It’s by far my favourate video, well done for all your work, analysis, etc. It must have taken some time to set this up. Chapeau bas!

    The reflexion that comes to my mind is, that the “feminazi” trope actually reflects the way most men experience feminism: as a threat to their entitlement over women (physically, economically, emotionally, etc).

    Since men (still) hold power over all major institutions and therefore hold the monopoly of naming, representing and shaping reality, it’s no wonder that their experience of feminism predominates and permeates all media (ahem, I mean the machine of patriarchal indoctrination). They have the power to shape people’s minds according to their reality, that is, feminism is a threat to male entitlement.

    This is why your vids are so important. Thanks. You’re an inspiration!

  5. hi! i just did the translation to portuguese, I hope it’s good enough! the only problem is that i couldn’t figure what “straw” would be, especially in portuguese…

    but I loved the vid, and I can’t wait to see what’s next!
    this trope gotta be one of the worst, by the way…

  6. My favorite trope from you so far! And I just watched Nellie McKay’s video – absolutely fabulous. Thank you for articulating so clearly and professionally everything I feel and still have yet to find out. Your blog is always a great launching point for me when I want to critically analyze females in the media.

  7. Great work once again! Another example that really got under my skin was of course “Mars Needs Moms”, which my kids saw while we were visiting my inlaws. It took me until after college to reclaim the word feminist for myself, after experiencing the backlash. Thanks for your succinct and clear-eyed analysis.

  8. as a person of color, I think it’s important to remember that many women who do not identify as feminists are not simply thrown off by the ‘straw feminist,’ but are thrown off by the cissexism, racism, classism, and ableism within the feminist movement. Not all women who don’t identify with feminism aren’t bad- they are isolated in other ways.

    to quote “feminism for real” by jessica yee:
    “We’re not really equal when we’re STILL supposed to uncritically and obediently cheer when white women are praised for winning “women’s rights,” and to painfully forget the Indigenous women and women of colour who were hurt in that same process. We are not equal when in the name of “feminism” so-called “women’s only” spaces are created and get to police and regulate who is and isn’t a woman based ontheir interpretation of your body parts and gender presentation, and not your own. We are not equal when initatives to support gender equality have reverted yet again to “saving” people and making decisions for them, rather than supporting their right to self-determination, whether it’s engaging in sex work or wearing a niqab. So when feminism itself has become it’s own form of oppression, what do we have to say about it?”

    Anita Reply:

    Absolutely! I actually thought about this quite a bit while making this video, I briefly mentioned this in a comment over on the Bitch Media post as well. I can’t wait to read Feminism for Real.

  9. I agree wholeheartedly with the deconstruction of the trope and with most of the examples shown, but I do have to defend Y – The Last Man.
    The series is filled with strong female characters who are feminists in all but name (and maybe in name as well. It’s been years since I’ve read the book). Singling out the Amazons – the only antagonists in that book whose motive I cannot recall as being plausible and well-defined – is only telling half the story.

  10. Very well expressed – this is one of the reasons I stopped watching Veronica Mars halfway through season 3. Not only had the series become Rape Tuesday! Where it’s all rape, all the time! But then they got in this straw feminist crap, and didn’t one of the big bad feminists put ‘abortion pills’ in a pregnant student’s drink, to make her miscarry? I just couldn’t anymore. Not only was this profound misinformation about how RU486 (or any pill of this type) works (when I watched this craphole of an episode, I had a moment of black humour imagining the evil feminist stalking the pregnant girl and sneaking pills into her beverages from behind a bush or something), it’s just another ‘evil feminists kill babies’ cliche.

    Oh, and apparently, rape is funny when it happens to guys. Remember the ‘worst Easter egg hunt ever’ mug? Which was even given as a souvenir to the show-runner, I believe. Sexual assault, just a barrel of laughs.

    Rin Reply:

    Rape is usually horribly done in movies and TV. When it’s male on female, usually it is used to show how horrible the villian is, but sometimes, while they are trying to villianize the bad guy, the rape it self is shot in a way that it looks erotic and comes off a torture porn. It might also be an excuse for why a girl is insecure or needs help. And don’t get me started on fanfiction with all the hurt/comfort fics out there. When it’s male on male, its hilarious, and the man being raped is a “pansy” and we’re supposed to laugh at him because that happened. In fanfiction, it goes to disturbing levels because the raped male often falls in love with his rapist and it turns into a sexually abusive loving relationship that we are supposed to find cute or erotic. When it’s female on male, it’s funny because gee why would a guy not want sex or to be forced into sex by a woman, espeically if she is beautiful. He should enjoy sex with a gun to his head and having his private parts crushed, and possibly being forcibly penetrated. Never mind the fact that he might want to be faithful to his significan other or he might not be interested in the girl. Nope all men must want sex from a woman no matter the circumstances *rollseyes* Also the guy that is raped by a girl is supposed to be weak and a loser. Female on Female rape is always supposed to be “hot”. Who cares if the girl being raped is being hurt, its girl on girl action! It’s so frusterating how rape is viewed. Has there ever been a show/movie where male on male, female on male, or female on female rape was depicted as a horrific event? Sad thing is, while male on female rape is by far the most common, the others do happen.

  11. I find your view of that Powerpuff Girls episode being anti-feminist ironic. That particular ep. was written by Lauren Faust, a known feminist animator who often write about the lack of representations of women in animation, both on-screen and behind-the-scene.

    I always presumed that episode was meant to be written as a pro-feminist piece of animation. Judging by your reaction I guess she failed.

    (I haven’t seen the episode in years, so I’ll have to check it out again)

    Quib Reply:

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen the show also, but I remember it as much more of a takedown of Girl Power! ™, which if I remember my history was still pretty big in the ’90’s when PowerPuffGirls was made/airing, than a mockery of feminism.
    Being made by a woman who identifies as feminist doesn’t automatically make it not problematic or sexist, and I may not have had the best critical viewing skills at the age I was watching it. However, I don’t remember the term feminist being used by either ‘side’, and the episode did end with a talk about Susan B. Anthony’s accomplishments. It also didn’t seem like Femme-fatale’s arguments were invalidated so much as shown to be a non-sequitur to letting her get away with robbery and punching boys.

    I guess Girl Power(tm) is sort of a different kind of straw feminist; claiming women and girls are “empowered” by embracing traditional roles and mutual gender hostility. e.g. “girls rule, boys drool. let’s get manicures!” also Spice Girls. Could be another trope to explore.

  12. Thanks for this, and all the tropes against women videos!

    I thought a bit about Britta in Community when you went over the various straw feminists. But at least in Community she isn’t a villian, and it might even acknowledge that she isn’t a very good representation of feminism. I might just be biased because I do enjoy the show. I also just like to pretend that the third season of Veronica Mars doesn’t exist.

    I think the worst thing about the straw feminist is how she so often appears in situations to set up against strong female leads in order to distance that character with feminism. You point that out so clearly, thank you.

    I think Donna from That 70s Show is one of the best feminist characters who identifies as such. The only problem being it might suggest that feminism is in the past. But that show made me feel better about identifying as a feminist because the issues it pointed out were all so relevant still today (something that is rather depressing when you think about it). Her dad’s girlfriend in later seasons (I forget her name sadly) was also a pretty decent feminist despite seeming “manly” or “aggressive”.

  13. This is my favourite trope too. A feminist is defamed across cultures. Even in India, feminist is actually used like an insult many times.

    I am actually working on a post A feminist is someone…?

    I would love to link your video, with your permission.

    Brilliant job with the video, did I say! Thanks

  14. This is probably the trope that angers me the most, particularly because of the extent to which it is occurring within popular culture today, especially in TV and movies, as you point out. For example, I absolutely love the TV series Big Love, but when they began to take up the “straw feminist” trope I was horrified! Horrified. (And really disappointed.)

    Ironically, I think the overwhelming presence of the “straw feminist” trope is evidence of the extent to which feminists are needed today. So-called “equality” (thanks, neo-liberalism) has not been achieved, for Western society and culture is still based upon deep-rooted ideologies, both new, and old. This trope is just another way to marginalize, oppress, silence, and dismiss women (among other marginalized peoples) and it thus indicates that patriarchy IS still in full force.

  15. I love your clips, they’ve given me so many “aha!” moments about things I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Also, they give good popular culture examples which are useful when trying to pass on the message. Thank you for the latest – the fantastic Tropes series of clips, they are so perceptive.

  16. To me, being from Austria, the term “Feminazi” is especially disturbing, since not only does it demonize feminists, it also, by comparison, plays down the Nazi’s crimes against humanity. Not to mention that progressives and feminists were also killed in concentration camps.

    Thank you for another great video, I’m looking forward to the next one.

  17. Well written! One unmentioned aspect of the trope is that it pushes this false identity of feminists exclusively being women.

    Men can be feminists too

  18. [...] jävla bra när Feminist frequency uppdaterar och dessutom göra det med en video om hur feminister porträtter…. Extremt bra, ni borde kolla in det! Fattar inte hur folk kan häva ur sig saker som att feminism [...]

  19. [...] Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian used the sixth part of her Tropes vs. Women series for Bitch Magazine to point out just how the media has tried to [...]

  20. [...] in the form of the feminist activists Veronica encountered at her college. The characters were straw feminists. As s.e. smith noted, “They’re man haters, they’re willing to frame people for [...]

  21. [...] The “feminazi” and Hollywood’s reluctance to call feminism and feminists by its/their name. [Feminist Frequency] [...]

  22. [...] in a manner that is both informative and entertaining. Check out the latest installment of Tropes vs. Women, a web series devoted to highlighting various offensive stereotypes perpetuated by mainstream [...]

  23. What’s even more infuriating about it is how the Straw Feminist rests on the idea that, if us chicks would just lighten up, we’d be hot and find happiness with a decent guy.

  24. [...] in film and television that reduce women to something less than persons.  Her exploration of the Straw Feminist trope is especially [...]

  25. Have you seen that episode of “The Powerpuff Girls” where they try to join a League of superheroes that don’t admit them because of their gender?
    Also Betty DeVille wasn’t so bad: she was a gregarious and fun mom that just is very impulsive and rough-and-tumble.

  26. Just wanted to say that I really appreciate this post … In the past, I was one of those girls at the end. “I believe in equal rights, but I’m not a feminist!” And unfortunately, that’s because: 1.) my definition of feminist was that I had to actively fight and voice feminist views to be one, and 2.) those people were annoying.

    This “straw feminist” is exactly the reason why I thought feminists were globally considered undesirable and, unfortunately, wrong. I *did* grow up thinking “oh, the world is happy, gender-equal place!” But as I grew, I got more and more twinges of “that doesn’t feel right” and “why is nothing geared towards me, a woman?” And I admit that I only started actively feeling oppressed in college, when I learned that all these wonderful philosophers that I respected and rooted for, suddenly turned around and said “but of course this all doesn’t apply to WOMEN.” It was a frowny-faced reality check …

    Being in the game industry, it gets worse. Much much much much worse. =\ And even my own father, a self-proclaimed feminist (and I would say he is, considering he has only daughters), would NOT stop confusing the terms “feminist” and “sexist” when I tried to talk to him about it.

    I wish I could do more to fight this stereotype, but I fear I might come off AS the straw feminist (proving it right) for even voicing concerns about it.

  27. [...] sechsten und letzten Teil von Feminist Frequency’s “Tropes vs. Women” geht es um “straw feminists” – ein Tropus der sich vielleicht als Klischee-Emanze oder Strohpuppenfeminstin überesetzen [...]

  28. [...] The Straw Feminist is a deliberately created, exaggerated caricature of a feminist that is used to undermine and ridicule feminist movements.  The Straw Feminist trope has many more facets and MANY more examples but I hope I was able to provide a general overview. [...]

  29. I just discovered your site when I was linked your commentary on The Hunger Games. I really enjoyed it, and am thrilled to discover these discussions regarding common tropes. The straw feminist is one that has vexed me considerably, so this was a great video. It is a pity that TV Tropes doesn’t also contain a ‘Real Feminist’ category as an off-shoot of that!

  30. [...] another explanation of a Straw Feminist, from Feminist [...]

  31. [...] Frequency has a pretty great video about what she refers to as ‘Staw feminists‘ . This is a feminist character inserted into a TV show, or a cartoon, or a movie or [...]

  32. I thought Kate Beaton’s play on the “Straw Feminist” trope in her comic “Hark! A Vagrant” was pretty funny: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=341