Sneakily, slyly, and subtly feminist: Why do writers want sisterhood to slink around?

When Did Feminism Get So “Sneaky”?

When Did Feminism Get So “Sneaky”?

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
July 21 2015 10:00 AM

When Did Feminism Get So “Sneaky”?

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Amy Schumer: funny, but not always subtle. Above, Schumer sneaks into the 74th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony on May 31, 2015, in New York City.

Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Peabody Awards

Feminism has been sneaking around. Don’t believe me? A recent New York profile of TV host Katie Nolan hailed the “woman bringing a sneaky feminism to Fox sports.” A few days later, the New York Times went long on Amy Schumer’s boisterous feminism, which it characterized as her “sneaky power.” Like Broad City (another purveyor of “sneak-attack feminism”), Schumer’s work is something of a trysting spot for furtive sisterhood; last year in Slate Willa Paskin declared Inside Amy Schumer the “most sneakily feminist show on TV.”

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.

Psst! Do you know what else is “sneakily feminist?” Showtime’s The Affair. Meanwhile the Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal flick Hysteria is “slyly feminist,” as is Pixar’s fable Inside Out (which, according to a separate review on Slate, accomplishes a “subtle but surprisingly feminist” swerve). Plus, the show Trophy Wife has bloomed, like some nocturnal desert flower, into “secretly one of the most feminist shows on TV.” Sundance chose the “top ten secretly feminist films” of all time (with Thelma and Louise at the mist-shrouded apex). Spy is “secretly a feminist attack on the patriarchy.” Not even academic books prove immune from such subtlety, secrecy, surprise: In a chapter on Ursula Le Guin’s invented folklore, scholar Jarold Ramsey notes that the “slyly feminist … appropriation of the mystique of ‘Old Man Coyote’ can be illustrated by the beginning of a Kesh myth about a war between bears and humans.”

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Let’s read that myth! Once upon a time, a lady Coyote tried to dissuade the King of the Bears from attacking humankind. “We should all live in peace and love each other,” the Coyote pleaded, and “all the while she was talking,” Le Guin writes, “Coyote was stealing Bear’s balls, cutting them off with an obsidian knife she had stolen from the Doctors Lodge, a knife so sharp he never felt it cutting.”

To recap, here’s a “slyly feminist” legend in which the female hero saws off King Bear’s testicles with a superblade forged from volcanic glass. That is some cloak-and-dagger feminism right there. You have to dig deep to find it, but trust me, it exists.

Some references to sneakiness are well-defended, like Paskin’s description of how Schumer’s “ditzy, sexy, slutty, self-hating shtick” hides her intellect “in artifice and lip gloss.”  But sifting through other examples of so-called stealth feminism, one gets the distinct impression that sly and secret and sneaky and subtle might mean something different to culture writers than they do to the rest of the world.  No. 1 secretly feminist movie Thelma and Louise features two women ditching their guys, shooting an attempted rapist, and blowing up a lecherous trucker’s rig. A “slyly feminist sketch” from Inside Amy Schumer Season 3? It’s a broad farce about a team of football players who cannot understand why their coach would institute a “no raping” policy. By the end, the athletes have rallied behind a new team slogan, a brazen bowdlerization of the mantra from Friday Night Lights: “Clear Minds, Full Hearts, Don’t Rape.” Is it funny? Yes! Is it so blatant a critique of sexual violence that even the dimmest male chauvinist could understand it? Also yes!

I understand the rationale behind the “sneaky” tic. Even now, the word feminism can sound blunt and militant—a cudgel pounding away at the patriarchal temple and your poor temples, when all you want to do is watch some comedy. Writers possessing a keen pragmatism about feminism’s toxic overtones—or, of course, a shaky sense of what the word means—may wish to praise a show or film or book for political forwardness while reassuring consumers they’re not in for a lecture.

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More cynically, though, the bonfire of the straw feminists tends to cast a pretty flattering light on those who accrue prestige by imposing artificial limits on the movement and then breaking them. Calling something “sneakily feminist”—the phrase is almost always complimentary—announces that you, unlike equally right-thinking but less reasonable individuals, are chill. You understand what it takes to be likable, appealing. Not least, when you “discover” a show’s “hidden” feminism, you seem smart and creative. That’s useful for a writer in search of a sparkly frock in which to wrap her dismal observation that some new thing in the culture miraculously doesn’t hate women, yay.

Anyway, there’s a nefarious, Mobius strip quality to “sneaky feminism” as a piece of rhetoric. If the point of using it is to satisfy readers that the product in question is ideologically sound, but also chill (Lean in! Not too far!), then this ostensible attempt to make feminism palatable is rather anti-feminist, if sneakily so. That’s because one of feminism’s foundational goals has always been to release women from their disproportionate obligation to show tact, delicacy, and sweetness—to say their piece without being aggressive or annoying about it. Yet we’re asking feminism itself to shimmy through a window and creep down a corridor dancing between laser beams before whispering its claims in the cultural ear.

The word sneak, from the Middle English sniken—to creep or crawl—actually shares DNA with the German root for snake. To me, it calls back the Garden of Eden, and the serpent whose sinuous motion, at least in Milton, finds echoes in the enchanting, dangerous waves of Eve’s hair. The idea of feminine disassembly, in other words, has been helping misogynists make their case against women for hundreds of years. Why not prove those scolds wrong by praising a new crop of proudly and overtly feminist stories for what they are—proud and overt?

I was well into my 20s before I realized that Brussels sprouts were delicious. If my parents were able to persuade me to eat them as a child by disguising them in kid-friendly sauces, great. But the moment I recognized the excellence of Brussels sprouts represented a twofold cause for celebration. Not only was I set up for a lifetime of consuming a nutritious vegetable, but I suddenly had the discernment to enjoy said vegetable. I would both do good and want to do good, like St. Paul dreamed of (but couldn’t pull off) in Romans. Just so with feminism. Mainstream culture has finally figured out that feminism is delicious, and we should rejoice rather than squint doubtfully into the glorious, gender-equal sunrise. Feminists have no further need of Trojan horses. We just need a Netflix subscription and a party hat.