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This essay theorizes a problem for feminism posed by a particular form of trauma discourse. Feminists have played an important role in developing cultural and clinical conceptions of trauma, but one result of the destigmatization of trauma has been that trauma discourse is sometimes used as a form of cultural capital to reinforce existing hierarchies. In a novel application of Pierre Bourdieu's theory of distinction, we show how, when instrumentalized as cultural capital, trauma discourse can be used to reinforce patriarchy and other systems of oppression. We trace a critical feminist history of the struggle to understand and treat trauma. Using examples from contemporary US popular culture, we illustrate the appropriation of trauma discourse to entrench existing structures of gender, class, and racial oppression. First, the misuse of trauma discourse as cultural capital can encourage the instrumental use of trauma claims for cultural power, ultimately reinforcing patriarchy. Second, it might erode the legitimacy of trauma, a conceptual tool pioneered by feminists and still essential to their political claims. This discussion has important implications for not only mental health practitioners and trauma survivors but also feminist theorists, trauma studies scholars, and those interested in deconstructing structural injustice and relations of inequality.

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Copyright © The Author(s), 2024. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Hypatia, a Nonprofit Corporation

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