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Has “feminism” beaten “complicity” or are feminists complicit too?

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionaries,“Feminism” is Word of the Year 2017,” as announced by a headline in The Guardian. “Complicit” was a strong runner-up in Merriam-Webster’s Competition though, and came in first place on the Dictionary.com list. Both “feminism” and “complicit” have been around for some time, so it is not as if 2017 gave birth to either word. Feminism came on top both because of a number of significant spikes in searches as well as a general increase in usage. According to Dictionary.com “complicit” won because it “serves as a symbol of the year’s most meaningful events and lookup trends”. The somewhat bizarre, though amusing notion of a competition between words, and the slightly opaque criteria that determined the winner should not detract from the value of reflecting on “feminism” and “complicit” together.

Those who hankered for some good news to end what had been a pretty bad 2017, might read Merriam-Webster’s announcement as a political victory. Pussy hats beat faux-feminism. Ivanka Trump lost to Scarlett Johansson. The gloomy reality of political entanglements was pushed to second place by the tiny glimmer of hope we felt when marching the streets together in Women’s Marches all over the globe. In fact, both “feminism” and “complicit” reference some of the political resistance that confronted the rampant racism, misogyny, and dispossession. Feminism’s gained new significance and resonated with people who might previously not have identified with the movement, in the face of the explicit condoning of violence against women. Scarlett Johansson’s spoof promotion of “Complicit” perfume was not just a funny sketch but a political statement.

However, let’s not forget that it wasn’t just a good year for feminism. Not only because of the exposure of widespread violence against women and the loudness of anti-feminist voices. (Merriam-Webster does not tell us how many trolls and anti-feminist websites appear when people type “feminism” in their search engines). It was also not a good year because Ivanka Trump called herself a feminist, following a long tradition of the co-optation of feminism. It isn’t that long ago, for instance, that Laura Bush helped justifying a war in Afghanistan by claiming to save Third World women.

Women’s March 2017 by Bonzo McGrue. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

But Ivana Trump is not the only one who should be questioned about complicity. Various feminists have also shown themselves to be complicit with the anti-Muslim racism fuelled by Europe’s migration crisis. Some “feminists” reinforced the oppression and exclusion of trans people. 2017 further reinforced what had already become obvious in 2016, namely that some white women are happier to stand by racist and misogynist men rather than fight against them with their sisters of colour.

Beyond those blatant examples, the narrow competition between “complicit” and “feminism” should invite us to think about the two together and critically interrogate our own feminist practices. Too often liberation is premised on the marginalisation of other women. And our silence on issues that don’t seem to concern the privileged among us, such as the dispossession of large populations in the global North and South for increased wealth for the few, and the fortification of the borders of rich nation-states, is harmful to those who are directly affected. In a complex world in which our lives are intertwined on a global scale, there is no pure position where to stand or from which to speak. Instead of feeling resigned, this should encourage us to formulate some ambitious New Year resolutions.

Let’s make “solidarity” and “feminism” the winning words of 2018.

Featured image credit: DC Women’s March by Liz Lemon. Public domain via Flickr.

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