Rachel Hollis and her destructive wake of fake feminism.
It’s not the first time author & speaker Rachel Hollis has had negative press in her (relatively short) career thus far, and probably not the last. But on Thursday, the New York Times published an exposé of her wild rise to fame in 2018 that culminated with the recent backlash from the world’s worst apology on social media. A couple of weeks ago Hollis was called out for her vapid video response on social media where she basically bragged about working hard enough to afford a housekeeper (whom she referred to as the woman who “cleans my toilets”) as if it had nothing to do with her privilege and whiteness. She later said the reason she works so hard is so that she can afford to live a life that’s not “relatable,” which is notable considering she became a multi-millionaire by marketing the heck out of her supposed relatability. The article also briefly touched on previous accusations of plagiarism, or lack of sufficient attribution, depending on who you talk to, and you can read more about that in this Buzzfeed article from January 2019.
Previously, I haven’t had much to say about her, because admittedly I have not read her books. But there’s a reason for that. Back in 2018 when her first book came out, entitled Girl, Wash Your Face, and the reviews started rolling in, my gut reaction was an eyeroll quickly followed by “bitch, don’t tell me what to do.” I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, there was just this air of inauthenticity around her, and it smelled like patriarchy. At the time I didn’t have the terminology to describe why it prompted that reaction. But three more years of deconstruction later, and I think I’m finally figuring out why the stench was familiar.
Before writing this, I wanted to hear more detail on Hollis’ tactics, and a twitter follower recommended Kate Kennedy’s podcast “Be There in Five.” So I took a few hours over the course of a couple days to listen to her deep dive; “Rachel Hollis & The Rose Colored Glass Ceiling.” Not only was my initial instinct to stay far, far away from Girl, Wash Your Face validated on a visceral level , but I also learned her tactics were far more dangerous than I ever imagined possible. Kate brilliantly and succinctly examines why Hollis’ concepts and methods are not only highly problematic, but also unethical and irresponsible. But the connection I was waiting for, and hoping she would make, came about three quarters through part 1. Kate had just played a series of clips from MLM (multilevel marketing) upline sellers regurgitating Hollis’ mantras and verbiage on zoom calls with their teams. They were using Rachel’s signature “tough love” style, lots of yelling and harsh tones in an effort to motivate and activate. When the clips ended, Kate said the following: “-this evangelical style of business coaching, it illuminates insecurities that aren’t there, it makes people think there’s a deficit that they never felt before and then when it’s pointed out they can’t ignore it and then they’re chasing it.” I may or may not have clapped and hollered out loud in agreement. (You can take the girl out of the Pentecostal church, but you can’t take the Pentecostal out of the girl…) Not shockingly, it’s been reported that Rachel has said she herself is the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. And I feel strongly the implications of this fact run far deeper than her non-religious fans would like to believe.
See, despite refusing to read her books or buy into the hype, I’ve still been grossly fascinated with why so many women, particularly white evangelical women, have been hanging on Rachel’s every word. And I finally realized its the way in which Rachel talks to these women. The “evangelical style of business coaching” Kate describes is exactly the same tactic white evangelicals use when trying to convert people to their brand of Christianity. It’s quite literally built into the theology. Identify a person’s flaws (human nature), give them an explanation for those flaws (sin), then offer the solution (Jesus). And this tactic is even more efficient when your focus is women. Because religion aside, we live in a society that’s already hyper critical of women: their appearance, their tone, their education, their life choices, their sexuality. You can see why it’s even easier for white evangelical women to fixate on their own shortcomings. Imagine you’re a young Christian mom struggling with your role, so you naturally look to other Christian mom’s for guidance. Their advice? Wake up before your kids to spend time reading your bible and praying. So you wake up at 5am to stay ‘in the Word’ and Paul is telling you you’re basically a hopeless heap of human garbage (I mean, what is Romans if not “tough love” persevering?). Then you’re scrolling on Instagram while nursing your baby and all these mommy bloggers with their letter boards are showing you how perfectly curated your life could be, if only… Then along comes Rachel Hollis, to tell you to stop feeling sorry for yourself and take control of your life, because no one else can do it but you- and if you aren’t taking control, it’s because you’re just lazy and don’t want it bad enough.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts before (most recently when discussing evangelical author & speaker Beth Moore), white evangelical women are the foot soldiers of patriarchy. They are the ones that ensure women stay in their place. They are the ones that enforce the social rules of purity, modesty, politeness. These social standards were invented by white men to keep white men comfortable, but it is white women who enforce them in each other. We are taught from an early age to dislike ourselves. To be critical of ourselves. This is especially true of white evangelical women, who also have the very personal responsibility of their sinful nature to contend with. What I’m saying is the fictional young Christian mom I described never had a fighting chance by the time someone like Rachel Hollis got to her.
I think all of these things speak to how heavily influenced Rachel is by her upbringing as a pastor’s daughter. For those of us who are doing the work to recover from that unique form of abuse known as religious trauma, the writing is on the wall. The ‘bootstrap mentality’ she teaches was hammered into us our whole life, and it kept us from seeing things like systemic poverty, racist public policy and women’s inequality. For a lot of us, we weren’t able to acknowledge these inequities until we removed ourselves from white evangelical spaces. For as much as Hollis wants us to believe she’s left her childhood trauma behind, it’s clear from her obvious lack of awareness, as evidenced in her recent video debacle and apology(s), that she in fact, has not.
It’s with that lack of awareness, that she’s taken all of the most vulnerable parts of womanhood, and with laser-like precision crafted them into a message that sounds like feminism, but it isn’t feminism at all. Because she’s still completely ignoring her privilege as a wealthy white woman in a society built by whiteness for the benefit of only whiteness. And as I’ve said before, feminism does no one any good unless it’s intersectional. Nothing illustrates this better, than what I thought was the most poignant moment from the recent New York Times article:
“Vivian Kaye, the owner of KinkyCurlyYaki, a company that sells textured hair extensions for Black women, has watched the drama unfold since first being introduced to the Rachel Hollis brand when she was provided a free ticket by HoCo to attend the Rise conference in her hometown, Toronto. “I was there as seasoning,” Ms. Kaye, 43, said. Even before Ms. Hollis invoked Harriet Tubman in her TikTok, Ms. Kaye thought her message was problematic, as is her tendency to co-opt Black vernacular terms like “girl” and “sis.” “I should pull myself up by my bootstraps?” Ms. Kaye said. “Do you not know the system is rigged against me? That’s not feminism. That’s just putting lipstick on the patriarchy.””Girl, Wash Your Timeline by Katherine Rossman, New York Times online, April 29, 2021
Now I finally know what my gut was trying to tell me back in the spring of 2018. I saw yet another white woman preying on other women’s insecurities, under the guise of tough love, with some Bible verses sprinkled in for good measure. And why was this a red flag for me? Because I had spent roughly 15 years of my adult life being bossed around by white evangelical women with platforms. I bought their books, went to the conferences, regurgitated their words for small groups and mommy bible studies. I had Bible verses from Titus 2 and Proverbs 31 written on colored index cards and taped them on my bathroom mirror and above my kitchen sink. I downloaded their prayer journals and had a fancy leather-bound journaling bible (ESV, of course).
But by the time Hollis’ book hit shelves, my life looked dramatically different. I had already burned out of my last church staff position. I was pregnant with my only daughter at the time, and with Trump in the White House I was beginning to understand what the implications of a conservative SCOTUS and GOP legislation would have on her future as a woman in this country. Needless to say, I had long since become disenchanted by the white evangelical women I once emulated. I had become fed up with their Instagram feeds full of toxic positivity and spiritual bypassing. It had become clear to me the message they were feeding women was careless, and in a lot of ways, dangerous. A message much like the one Rachel Hollis screams at her adoring fans in convention centers and banquet halls across the country.
Careless because she spreads her self-help quips like wildfire without regard for prejudice or circumstance. Dangerous because she hands out advice to real, hurting, desperate women without any formal education in psychiatry. It’s one size fits all. Not at all dissimilar from the way white evangelicals view the gospel.
I have no earthly clue what’s inside her head or what her true motivation is. From the outside it’s easy to say fame and money win the day. But what I do know is when you pull the thread on Rachel’s recent show of blatant racism, what you’ll find are the white evangelical trappings of a woman who has yet to acknowledge her privilege. Which means that she has not even begun to deconstruct the Christianity she professes. If she did those two things in earnest, she’d see that she has not been empowering women, but keeping the patriarchy afloat.
[Endnote: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there’s a whole host of other reasons Hollis’ tactics are unethical and toxic, way too many to discuss in this blog post. I’m not an expert on self-help con artists by any means. I tried to keep my focus on the harm caused as it relates to white evangelicalism, because that’s where my experience is, and I wanted to understand why she appealed to that demographic in such a powerful way. If you really want a deep dive that’s more all-compassing, I recommend listening to Kate Kennedy’s podcast “Be There in Five” and her 3 part series titled “Rachel Hollis & The Rose Colored Glass Ceiling” wherever you listen to podcasts.]