Why "You Do You" Is A Feminist Mantra

The New York Times' stance on millennials typically migrates between patronizingly defending us to its older readers and gleefully breaking news of our "latest" "trends" 12-16 months late (see: Bushwick, vape pens, beards). So, in a brave counter-narrative for NYT Magazine's "First Words" column, an essay published this week promised to establish "How 'You Do You' Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture." You know, us, with our selfie sticks and our pathological overshare and our incessant shirking of responsibilities while feeling entitled to rewards for following our hearts.

The essayist behind the piece (who, spoiler alert: is a man) proceeds to assess how the sentiment behind the phrase "you do you" is just another example of millennial narcissism. It is, according to him, another phrase borrowed from early '90s hip-hop culture, like "haters gonna hate" or "it is what it is," to excuse our preening self-indulgence. Here's the thing: I call immensely cynical bullshit.

"You do you" may have origins in black vernacular, but what the author's position ignores (with an out-of-touchness that has come to characterize these columns) is that the phrase has undoubtedly been embraced as a tenet of radically inclusive, intersectional feminism. I don't even think a cultural appropriation argument holds water here, because of the specific call to intersectionality.

"You do you" may have origins in black vernacular, but what the author's position ignores is that the phrase has undoubtedly been embraced as a tenet of radically inclusive, intersectional feminism.

"You do you," in a feminist framework, means not being dismissive of anyone's experiences or choices — it delivers us from all the trappings of being a "bad feminist." Are you a feminist who's also a stay-at-home mom? You're a great feminist! Are you a feminist who likes to get tied up by her boyfriend and called a slut? You're a great feminist, too! You know why? Because YOU CAN DO YOU and still advocate for the social, political, and economic equality of people of all genders!

It also does the work of making space for marginalized identities. In the queer community, for example, "you do you" has become affirmative doctrine for honoring how folks choose to self-identify and express themselves. It's not "millennial narcissism"; it's actually a really shining example of progressive millennial inclusivity. (I believe old people refer to this as "tolerance," but I kind of hate the idea that we simply "tolerate" differences, when what we actually do is create inclusive spaces where we can validate them.)

I do buy the essayist's claim that "it is what it is" has become a kind of Get Out Of Jail Free card for eschewing responsibility (plus, it will forever remind me of JWOWW, who is nails on a chalkboard personified to me), but that makes me especially cranky that he's conflating it with the concept of "you do you." He argues that the phrase "it is what it is" "preserves and burnishes the established order." But "you do you" very much doesn't do that. It, in fact, specifically encourages us to dismiss normative ideals and prioritize an individual's need to self-express. Or, if I may be so emboldened in my pesky millennial political idealism: it calls us to protect that individual's rights to self-expression.

Wearily, the writer argues that these phrases empower the individual instead of serving the establishment, "regardless of how shallow that individual is." This pointed side-eye is cast towards Taylor Swift, whom I'll let someone else defend, but more importantly: yes! "You do you" does empower the individual over the establishment, because the establishment perpetuates arbitrary privileges, and the individual is often an intersectionally disenfranchised person! We need to be empowering those people, and, as people of privilege, a great way to do that is to make space for them, listen to them when they share their stories, and use our power to amplify their voices. "You do you" sets this process in motion.

Does "you do you" also make space for basic white girls of the earth who are already hogging all of its acceptance resources? Yes. Is this an example of narcissism? Sure it is. But that doesn't make it a bad mantra for the rest of us. In fact, it's the phrase's ubiquity and commonality that might encourage folks to explore the thought: "Huh. You doing you doesn't seem to be infringing on the way I do me. So maybe we can just keep doing us in ways that are respectful and authentic."

Respect? Authenticity? Empathy? Psh:

Images: Stocksy; Giphy (3)