Michelle Goldberg: Feminism has reached a 'moment of despair'

The title of the latest Michelle Goldberg piece at the NY Times is “The Future Isn’t Female Anymore” which sounds like an admission of failure and looming loss. But there’s a more interesting title for the same piece over at Memorandum: “While Roe is being overturned, feminists fight amongst themselves.” That title captures the sense that it’s not only that feminism has been defeated by external forces but that it has fallen into the same sort of endless internal squabbling over wokeism that Ryan Grim recently reported at the Intercept was causing many left-wing organizations to break down. Goldberg starts by returning to a theme a lot of feminist women in the media have been fixated on recently, the outcome of Amber Heard’s defamation trial.


One manifestation of this relatively youthful anti-feminism was the frenzy of hatred for the actress Amber Heard during the successful defamation lawsuit brought against her by her ex-husband, Johnny Depp. For years, we’ve been hearing about the doctrinaire wokeness of the young; now here were countless members of Gen Z mockingly re-enacting testimony about domestic violence on TikTok.

Even if, like the jury, you think Heard was lying — I don’t — that alone doesn’t explain the scale and intensity of her excoriation. It went far beyond the hatred heaped on convicted rapists like Harvey Weinstein. There’s a gleeful, witch-burning intensity to the way she’s been demonized, suggestive of some subterranean current of feeling suddenly loosed.

I don’t think there’s much mystery here. The public and the jury in this case did not find Amber Heard credible. In fact, they found her behavior a bit odd and uncomfortable to watch. And that led to a lot of open mockery. But the mockery wasn’t aimed at all women or feminism or victims of assault, it was aimed at someone many people came to believe was a manipulative liar.

That behavior must seem harsh when viewed from the position of someone like Goldberg who apparently believed every word of Heard’s testimony. What she seems unable to grasp is that she’s part of a small minority who see it that way. In a sense, the Depp-Heard trial was a repeat of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. People who’d only heard the awful media reporting prior to the case found the outcome shocking and dismaying. People who actually watched the trial were far less likely to be surprised because Rittenhouse really did have a good case for self defense all along.


Eventually, Goldberg does come around to dealing with the problem happening inside modern feminism. And if you’re familiar with how wokeness operates within organizations, it will sound familiar.

Faludi, who is working on a new book about the headwinds feminism is facing, suggested that the movement itself has grown sectarian and insular. She described a “disputatious feminist factionalism, with so many feminists aiming their ire at other feminists over everything from neoliberal co-option to identitarian pecking orders.” These critiques aren’t necessarily wrong, she said, and “introspection behooves a movement,” but not at the price of “leaving its gains unachieved and undefended.”

She goes on to quote Loretta Ross, one of the women quoted by Ryan Grim in his report about the collapse of progressive groups from within.

“The call-out culture spends much more time critiquing people on the same side than they do critiquing people who are actually opponents,” said Ross. She added, “It’s far easier to critique people who are accessible to you than to critique people who, not only can you not reach them, but you have reason to believe that they will fight back.”

The culture Ross describes — which she points out plagues much of the left, not just feminism — is demoralizing for individuals, but it’s also paralyzing for institutions. This week, The Intercept’s Ryan Grim published a long investigation into progressive groups that have essentially ceased to function because they are caught up in internal turmoil, often blending labor disputes with fights over identity.


The days of the Women’s March being a thing are behind us. She writes that we’ve arrived at a “moment of despair, the brutal comedown after a season when social transformation appeared possible.” She concludes in that same vein. It’s just a hopeless time:

The left, feminism very much included, needs people to be optimistic and confident about change. It needs to be able to paint a picture of a better world and enlist people in the adventure of trying to create it.

But this is a fearful, hopeless and even nihilistic time.

Ultimately I think Goldberg just misses the mark. She hasn’t identified what is happening here even though it’s all right there in front of her. The left’s energy hasn’t succumbed to a backlash, it has been sapped and redirected into an entirely different project. The young, woke people aren’t fighting over equity and progressive purity because they’re unable to achieve other things, the are fighting over these things because those are the goals they are optimistic and confident about. Wokeness has invaded progressive politics and it is completely re-making everything in its own image. And Goldberg has been unable to see the problem all along.

As recently as last February, Goldberg was defending the woke project as a kind of figment of the fringe right’s imagination. Last September she wrote another piece about the “cancel culture panic.” Here she is defending the enthusiasm of young, woke leftists.

Many people I know over 40 — maybe 35 — resent new social mores that demand outsized sensitivity to causing harm. It has been jarring to go from an intellectual culture that prizes transgression to one that polices it. The shame of turning into the sort of old person repelled by the sensibilities of the young is a cause of real psychic pain.

As Maggie Nelson writes in her new book “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint,” it “can be tempting for those of us over, say, 40, to judge the current moment against the idealized circumstances of our own coming of age, and find it less fun, less free.”…

For the individual, this may be a source of anguish. That doesn’t make it a political emergency.


Finally in November she admitted that maybe there was a problem with some of the “nonsense” being promoted under the rubric of social justice. All of this time progressives like Goldberg have been warning about the threats on the right (she wrote a book about Christian dominionists a few years back) but in the end feminism is going to be decimated by the threat from the far left, the one she was still ignoring just last year.

All of the energy she wishes had been marshalled to preserve Roe is instead focused on anti-racism, equity and call-out culture. This may be a source of anguish for many on the left including Goldberg herself but that certainly doesn’t make it a political emergency for those of us who’ve been warning this was coming for years.

Update: As always, some of the commenters get it. The woke have other priorities:

The women’s movement has been superseded by the trans/gender-agnostic-rights movement. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews for schools and work lately and I am consistently asked the question about inclusion, but it now very rarely mentions women – it’s all about trans people and sexual orientation.

Equality clearly needs to happen everywhere. But I am making the point that being lumped together with all of the other social movements happening, hasn’t don’t feminism any favors. We’re being skipped over.

Another one:

It’s the call-out culture and political purity. It turns off most reasonable people, even democrats.

I’m 63 and exhausted. I could not care any less about tiptoeing around your preferred pronouns and vilification of those who do agree with your definition of woman. Yes, there is a difference between a person biologically born female and a person who became a woman. If you can’t understand and accept that primary fact, you are floundering off in the weeds. And, demanding that we all join you in your make-believe world.

Enough with the “pregnant people”. That is exceedingly insulting to all women who have endured pregnancy and childbirth. Enough with the zealotry and policing of speech. Just because I’m not your ideal of pure, does NOT mean I do not share most of your goals and respect you as a person.

Want to be treated as an intelligent adult with something worthwhile to say? Wonderful, I’ll listen. I might even agree.

But don’t dismiss me as impure. That’s what a child would do.


And another:

Part of it has to be the tendency of progressives the last year or two being against even using the word “woman”. Alphabet interest groups are more important, and it seems many progressives sneer at the idea of advocating for females or women.

I’m sure Goldberg would shudder at the thought but all those TERF feminists she despises have a point about what wokeism necessarily does to prioritizing women and their experiences.

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