Amid her relatable quips about the state of Cleveland’s streets and being a woman today, Michelle Wolf’s campus appearance last Friday focused on the importance of privilege in modern society. Planted in fun hypotheticals about the historical women’s rights movement, her words helped open conversations about privilege in feminism.
Wolf opened with a joke about being harassed on the streets of Cleveland, immediately setting the tone for the rest of her set as a commentary on the experiences of the modern woman. Much of her set was composed of her trademark “vulgar” humor, as she calls it, ranging from discussions about swapping genitals with the other sex to talking about the close details of periods. However, her dirty humor was not necessarily shallow but constantly alluded to the issues of privilege and race inherent in modern feminism.
Wolf points out that feminism is, at its core, intersectional. It cannot be discussed without also discussing other tensions, from race to class to sexuality. One memorable joke from her set involves the fight for women to hold jobs in the mid-1950s, when this fight was truly only fought by and for white women. Wolf calls attention to how black women in America often had to work as household help in the very houses where white women spent their days.
The issue that Wolf implies can be found in how white women try to define modern feminism in the terms of their own struggles. This does not invalidate the struggles that all women face, but acknowledges that white women hold privilege that no other demographic of women possess.
Although it would be easy for Wolf’s criticism to feel hollow and played out for laughs, what sets her apart from this is her recognition of her own privilege as a white woman. Her privilege is the platform that she stands on to deliver a message to all other women who have similar platforms that they must advocate for all women. As a feminist, Wolf acknowledges that this is an aspect of feminism that is non-negotiable; we fight for all women or the struggle loses its grounding.
Feminism must be intersectional and to suggest otherwise is to split the community of women apart and weaken the movement. Often, we avoid the topic of privilege because it acknowledges an inherent power imbalance that those who benefit the most from this do not want to acknowledge.
However, discussing privilege is not an attack on those who have it but a call to action to use that privilege for the common good. Wolf is able to integrate these concepts into a tightly bound comedic package which makes the message easier to internalize.
Ultimately, in order to have constructive discussions about feminism and intersectionality, we must open the conversation to talk about the differences between demographics of women in order to maintain a united feminist movement. It is unproductive to assert that everyone is equal when this is fundamentally untrue and can only impede progress. Although Wolf’s message was not incredibly deep, it did not have to be.
Her statements only need to open conversations on the topic, whereas we must continue the dialogue to develop a better understanding of the differences between groups of women.
Caroline Zhu is a first-year computer science and economics major with a deep and abiding love for Shakespeare. She is currently asleep and cannot take any messages.