Content warning: sexual harassment.
The Guilty Feminist podcast makes me feel fearless. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also fuck up.
With more than sixty million downloads, The Guilty Feminist might be one of the world’s best-known feminist podcasts. Hosted by Deborah Frances White, the podcast aims to “explore our noble goals as 21st century feminists and the hypocrisies and insecurities that undermine them”. It has helped mainstream and normalise conversations about feminism and has empowered thousands of women.
I’ve been a dedicated listener since January 2019, when I had a fabulous media marathon of their entire archive. Listening to episode after episode like that meant that I didn’t only giggle at the brilliant feminist comedy, but I also saw the flaws in the feminism. Since the show started in 2015, it’s come a long way when it comes to inclusivity, but even in 2020, it’s still making mistakes when it comes to being intersectional.
It definitely helps that Deborah knows that her podcast isn’t perfect and will often acknowledge her fuck-ups and try to do better. She has edited podcasts to take out ableist language after she’s been called out on it, gently reminds her guests that they shouldn’t stigmatise sex work and has worked really hard to give a platform to disabled women, Black women, women whose voices might not otherwise be heard on such a massive scale.
Yet she’s also interviewed Jess Philips – an outspoken Labour MP who has said some worrying racist and transphobic things. She’s getting better at it, but she still doesn’t always recognise how her privilege as a white, middle-class cis* woman affects how she experiences sexism. Her articulate and passionate speech about trans rights in an early 2020 episode doesn’t make up for the fact that she often forgets to use trans-inclusive language that acknowledges that, while I’m not a woman, I still experience misogyny as an afab** genderqueer person.
It’s not perfect, but the conversations The Guilty Feminist has are really important.
The moments when Deborah stops and corrects herself mid-episode might be my favourite. They show real growth. Earlier this year she interrupted her guest to clarify not – as you’d expect a middle-class, white woman to do – that her podcast is not condoning drug taking, but to remind listeners that people of all education levels and socioeconomic backgrounds can be drug dealers. I laughed out loud.
The Guilty Feminist makes me feel fearless. Fearless to the point where I’ll laugh out loud and whoop and cheer in the street when I’m listening to it. It makes me feel powerful on dark nights when I’m walking home alone and would usually would be trying very, very hard not to be visible while holding my keys in my hand, just in case. (Even though I live in a safe neighbourhood, that low-key fear that women, afab people, and femme presenting folks experience never goes away.)
It’s hard to accept that the thing you love is fabulous and also flawed. It’s hard to know that someone you respect and admire as much as Deborah Francis White is imperfect. The Guilty Feminist has taught me so much – including that even your heroes don’t know everything, and that it’s possible to love something and also critique it. In fact, it’s crucial to be able to see the flaws in the content and the people you love.
Putting them on a pedestal doesn’t help, especially when you might be the person to help them grow.
Even though it tries not to, I think the podcast will always be a little bit the kind of commercialised, white feminism that is packaged neatly and sold back to us by capitalism. Not that The Guilty Feminist doesn’t do amazing things, but its empowering, lean in feminism that it champions frequently forgets the people who can’t do those things. It empowers so many women, but it doesn’t always acknowledge that it’s still leaving people out.
It’s ok if your feminism is both fabulous and flawed. All of us are both fabulous and flawed – that is part of what Deborah wanted to express with her podcast’s name: we don’t have to be perfect to be feminists, we just have to be willing to learn. The Guilty Feminist is learning and becoming more inclusive with every episode, even though it still fucks up. There’s something incredibly brave in trying to be better, and even more in apologising when you’ve made a mistake.
The podcast empowers me, but it also makes me examine the ways I fuck up when it comes to being inclusive. Sometimes I think that might be even more important.
*A cisgender (cis) person is someone whose gender identity aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth.
**An afab person is someone who was assigned female at birth.