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White feminism is blind: A case study into the mess that is Bette Milder

By Muryum Muhmoodullah, August 22 2022

On June 14, 2022, a heart wrenching truth fell upon American society — and by extension, the world — echoing many of the difficult realities faced by women. The overturning of Roe v. Wade which gave American women the right to abortion, was a decision made by the Supreme court to undo the hard work of American feminists, who strove tirelessly to establish women’s reproductive rights in the country. A grievous event, indeed, and one would be entitled to their frustration, anger and outcry on this matter. However, as much outcry this event has caused, the tweets of American actress Bette Midler remind us of how selective some of these outcries can be; the White feminist outcry. 

On July 5, 2022, in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Bette Midler photoshopped an image of members of the supreme court in beards and turbans, with the female justices in all black burqas — suggesting the Supreme Court’s atrocious step backward into time reflects Islam and the mindset of Muslim people. Midler’s tweet links the members of the court to her Western Oriental imagination of Muslim people — an overgeneralized land of ignorant and indistinguishable masses of black burqas and long, grey beards. This is quiet ironic since women in Islam have always had autonomy over their own bodies and do have higher access to abortion in comparison to American women, now that the ruling has been overturned. In other words, banning abortion in accordance with a pro-life movement wouldn’t be an Islamic decision — it is a reflection of American Christian nationalism.

This decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was a strictly American one —  meanwhile, other societies around the world offered and continue to offer women their reproductive rights. Such is the case of Muslim women offered rights in Islam. Muslim women were elevated from being considered property in pre-Islamic societies and transactions in marriage to people who chose their partners, who have full autonomy over themselves, their bodies, their choices, as well as the rights to devorce, rights to inheretence, rights to own and produce wealth, and access to abortion when necessary. It would be factually incorrect to suggest that the overturning of Roe v. Wade is something one could expect as an Islamic ruling when in reality, taking autonomy and rights away from women regarding their own bodies is a history that roots itself in European Christendom. 

Midler actively perpetuates an Islamophobic, Orientalist and fabricated idea of what a Muslim is — that Muslims are a homogeneous group of Arabs who are barbaric and stand against the rights of women. By comparing an American issue to this Oriental imagination of what a Muslim is, Midler contrasts the idea of the western feminism as being inherently forward-thinking, to female empowerment in other societies as inherently regressive and backwards — even though Islamic law was never a determinant for American society nor the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. If that doesn’t scream a lack of self-awareness, then nothing will. 

However, this isn’t the first time that Midler has been called out for posting problematic and controversial tweets. On Oct. 4, 2018, Midler posted a tweet using a racial slur referring to women as “…the ‘N-words’ of the world…” and carried on with a list of difficulties women face, including being subject to rape, beatings, being denied education — among other issues. She concluded her statement referring to women as “…the most disrespected creatures on earth.” 

She then doubled down by quoting a tweet from 1972 by Yoko Ono, which said “…it rang true then, and it rings true today, whether you like it or not. This is not about race, this is about the status of women…”

What women are often subjected to is indeed egregious and something the world should strive to change and cry out against. However, while Midler is pointing out the injustice and struggle faced by women, she simultaneously reinforces racial oppression and injustice. She asserts that it is not about race, but the status of women — yet she uses race to indicate status. 

When used and appropriated by non-Black people, the N-word is a racial slur, historically constructed by white slave owners to subordinate Black people — A word reclaimed by Black people and active pushback against white supremacy and colonial oppression. She pairs the word and the racial group of people with the status of being “the most disrespected creatures on earth” as though it was a natural disposition of Black people — to be disrespected and oppressed by the hands of others. 

The irony is, White people subjugated Black people to this very oppression that she is convinced she experiences as a white woman — yet the tweet completely neglects the historical and racial implication of her words. As if the N-word is a status and can be used ubiquitously on any oppressed group of people. It can not.

Her appropriation of the N-word to describe oppression, furthermore, synonomizes oppression with blackness, suggesting that oppression is inherent to being Black. Nothing short of flaunting her white privilege and the height of ignorance.

Fighting and upholding the rights of people is not only good, but something that should be actively upheld, however, Midler’s tweets point out more than just her personal controversial perspectives. The subconscious ideas that society holds regarding marginalized persons. With the example of Milder, she weaponizes the N-word and the western oreintal imagination of Muslim people – and by doing so, she excludes Muslim women and Black women from the conversation of liberation, but Instead, Midler furthers their existing challenges by perpetuating misinformation that reinforces their already lived marginalities. 

After all, the call and active effort to liberate women is a correct thing to do, however it begs the question, “which women do we care to liberate?”

This article is a part of our Voices section.

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