Last Updated on January 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
People have described the author as both “fierce” and “toxic” in her forthright approach to feminist controversies. Those who view her as fierce are the ones who appreciate her contribution to feminist dialogue, but, although it is intended as a term of approbation, being called fierce “carries its own highly specialized baggage.” This is because women from marginalized groups are more likely to be identified as fierce, a stereotype which is uncomfortably close to that of the “Angry Black Woman.”
Beyoncé and Serena Williams have achieved great success in their respective fields, but both are often criticized in the mainstream media and on social media for their perceived fierceness. They have the resources to insulate themselves from such attacks, but other Black women are not so lucky and often become targets of abuse if they speak up against racism and sexism. Kendall has found that, when this happens to her, she only receives effective support from other Black women. White feminists either ignore the controversy or join in the attack on her. Many of these are women who celebrate her fierceness and fearlessness in speaking truth to power; however, they quickly become hostile when they feel that Kendall is not aligned with their agenda and threatens their fragility.
Carceral feminism, which relies on policing and prison to address sexual violence, is the standard response of mainstream feminists to online harassment. Many feminists imagine that criminalizing and applying harsh penalties to such abuse is a sufficient response and releases them from the need to show solidarity. The myth of strength and individualism can prevent women from working together and deny those who are affected by abuse the support they need. Carceral feminism often fails victims in practise, as they are sometimes punished for fighting back. This is particularly true of sex workers and others in marginalized and precarious employment. Women who are praised as fierce and brave, therefore, may end up losing years of their lives to the criminal justice system.
Society celebrates certain examples of the Strong Black Woman, like Anita Hill, who are able to overcome abuse and go on to have successful careers, but for every such woman, there are many whose lives are destroyed by standing up for themselves and their rights. Labels such as “fierce” and “Strong Black Woman” do nothing to help and may actually be used as a way of denying that help is needed: “Ultimately, the fierceness narrative is a millstone around the neck.” Feminism needs to embrace a victim-centered approach, in which women are supported when they face trauma rather than praised for their resilience, then left alone to sink or swim.
This essay brings to the fore a motif that has surfaced periodically throughout the collection, without previously being the subject of extensive commentary: that of the well-intentioned stereotype that proves unhelpful to marginalized people in practice. The stereotype Kendall chooses is that of the “Strong Black Woman,” who is often characterized as being “fierce,” a description that has been applied to the author herself, usually by her admirers and supporters.
The author takes on what is now her customary role of the relatively privileged member of an oppressed group, explaining the dynamics of that group to those outside it. She begins with the examples of two even more privileged members of the group, Beyoncé and Serena Williams, two of the wealthiest and most successful Black women in the world. Even for them, being seen as fierce and strong can be burdensome. How much worse it must be for those who do not have their advantages. In making this point,...
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the author invites the reader to reflect that the handful of Strong Black Women portrayed in the media are the victors, people like Anita Hill who have survived their abuse and gone on to have successful careers. For each one of these strong characters, there are many others who have not been so fortunate but who have been unable to access the help they needed because the stereotype suggests that they do not need it.
In making this argument, Kendall relies on the concept of “carceral feminism,” a term coined by Elizabeth Bernstein in her 2007 article “The Sexual Politics of the New Abolitionism.” Kendall, like Bernstein, sees this approach as regressive and unhelpful, since it relies on the state, which has seldom embraced the feminist agenda in other contexts, rather than on grassroots action by feminists and marginalized communities. Carceral feminism may even end up punishing the women it ought to be protecting, by criminalizing their attempts to fight back against abuse.