It appears that, at long last, feminism has hit the big time. Mainstream publications can't get enough of the word - even Playboy jumped on the bandwagon, bringing on a number of writers to cover vaguely feminist-sounding topics on their recently refurbished online platform. Celebrity women (and even men) are rarely permitted to escape "the woman question," regardless of whether or not they have ever feigned interest in women's liberation.
While this might all sound like an enormously positive step in the right direction for a movement that has always been relegated to alternative platforms or Women's Studies classrooms, the reality is a little more complex. Unfortunately, turning feminism into a trendy buzzword has caused, "Are you a feminist?" to become a troubled question - not because it's a bad one, but because the answers often are.
In an effort to popularise the movement and, some might say, to draw in supporters, the word, in and of itself, as devolved into a meaningless - but approachable - term; one that vaguely means "equality" (for whom and with what?), "empowerment" (on what basis?), and/or "choice" (in what context?).
Whereas, in the past, our fight against male supremacy and towards women's liberation meant something radical -- and therefore frightening -- to those who preferred the status quo, recent decades have brought a distinctly "feel-good" approach. Feminism hasn't escaped a neoliberal, consumerist culture that offers self-help books and positive mantras as a solution to social problems and presents individual "choice" as the epitome of freedom. What was once a class struggle - a fight for women's collective rights and towards an end to the oppressive system of patriarchy - and certainly a political one, became a hashtag, a selfie, a backdrop, a selling-point, a buzzword. Anyone could say, "Yes! I'm a feminist!" and be applauded, without really understanding what that should mean.
It's no coincidence that a term directly associated with women has become depoliticised, coopted, and associated with personal empowerment. Women have always been the target of the self-help industry and "empowerment" is a vague enough term that it could be (and has) been embraced by industries that couldn't care less about fighting systemic oppression, in part because they profit directly from said oppression.
Second wavers once fought companies like Playboy and the sex industry, more broadly, making obviously connections between the objectification and commodification of women's bodies and the global epidemic of violence against women. But the third wave and an era of heightened individualism popularised the idea that if a woman "chose" to "self-objectify" and claimed to feel good about said choice, that was the end of the conversation. Rather than offer a contexualised analysis that asked deeper questions about why a woman might "choose" to sell access to her body while a man might, instead, choose to pay for access to her body, and what that meant at a social and political level, third wave feminism said, "It's her choice and choices equate to empowerment." This modern incarnation of "feminism" said that so long as technical "consent" was involved (regardless of the larger context for this consent and how marginalisation or more systemic forms of coercion factored into this "consensual choice") anything that could be labeled a "choice" was off-limits, in terms of critique.
The end result of this liberal approach that says anything goes so long as there is "consent" is particularly visible online. Feminists who see the existence of the sex industry as wholly enmeshed with colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy are shouted down with slurs, called "moralistic prudes" and "whorephobes" for daring to question men's right to use and abuse women at will, so long as they can pay. Women who argue that we, as a society, can offer more to marginalised women than the fetishised racism that is ubiquitous in prostitution and pornography, are labeled "white feminists," despite the fact that women of colour have been invested in the movement towards their own liberation for as long as anyone. Young women on social media are too afraid even to question whether or not posting sexy selfies really amounts to a political act lest they be told to "sit down and shut up" and kicked out of "cool girl feminism".
There are endless ways women are bullied into accepting the status quo, both privately and publicly, but this is the first time it's been done in the name of "feminism."
While women have long been pressured into accepting porn as "sex" and into participating in degrading and even violent sexual acts by the men around them - whether those men are husbands, friends, boyfriends, strangers, authority figures, or pimps - to see other women, some who call themselves "feminist," engaging in similar forms of bullying, is disconcerting. It is not "prudish" or "phobic" to push back against a pornified version of sex that says pain and subordination is (or should be) a turn on. Nor is it "repressive" to argue that women's choices don't happen in a vacuum and that the "choice" to self-objectify, whether on Instagram or on stage at a burlesque show, is about much more than "feeling good" about oneself.
It's this mainstreaming and popularisation of feminism - something that many women might have hoped would become a reality one day - that has eroded it. If feminism can be anything and anyone can be feminist, does it mean anything at all? Without a real, radical definition and without collective, agreed upon goals, it's no surprise that men like Hugh Hefner have claimed to be "feminist before there was such a thing as feminism". It's no surprise that posing nude in a corporate-run beauty magazine or incorporating pole dancing into a Grammy performance is now presented to young women as empowering or radical. It's no surprise that the ability to be both "political" and a "sex symbol" is seen as a real feminist achievement. Despite what we've been told, we can't have our cake and eat it too. If we want change, we have to fight for it. And that means more than doing whatever makes us "feel good" in the moment.
There are various ways the divide between "feminisms" is articulated: liberal vs radical, third wave vs second wave, sex-positive vs sex-negative, but none of those have ever seemed wholly accurate to me. (In particular, challenging male-centred or coercive sex does not make one, "sex-negative," so…) A feminist is someone who supports and/or is active in the fight to end patriarchy. The feminist movement is a political movement that fights towards women's collective liberation and towards an end to male violence against women. That is to say, if you don't support those goals, what you are doing is not feminism, no matter how many times you claim otherwise.
We cannot have both objectification and liberation, because being a sexualised object does not allow one to be a full human. We cannot both celebrate sexualised violence and have freedom from sexualised violence because sexualising violence, er… sexualises violence. We cannot normalise male entitlement by saying "men need access to sex and therefore we, as a society, must maintain a class of women who are available to satisfy men's desires" and also expect to build a society wherein men don't feel entitled to sexual access to women. We cannot say "women are more than pretty things to look at" but also tell young women that desirability will empower them. We cannot frame "choice" as political while simultaneously depoliticising and decontextualising the choices women make, in a capitalist patriarchy. We cannot confront rape culture while normalising the very ideas that found it: male entitlement, sexualised violence, and gender roles that are rooted in domination and subordination (i.e. masculinity and femininity).
While, the arguments I'm articulating here do, effectively, constitute "radical feminism," in that it is a kind of feminism that "gets at the root," I am defining something even more straightforward than that: Feminism - a real and definable thing that holds meaning!
I fear that our socialisation as women in a world that divides us into gendered categories attached to what's called "femininity" and "masculinity" has led us to a place where we prefer likability over effecting change. We want to be seen as "cool girls" instead of angry, demanding women ("bitches," if you will). We want to be popular and cute while we say vaguely political words. We want, as Gloria Steinem recently put it in her widely-misinterpreted comments on the Bill Maher show, to be with the boys. And there is simply no way we can, as feminists, concern ourselves both with being widely-liked and popular with men, while also focusing on destroying male supremacy.
Of course I want all women to feel good about themselves, to enjoy sex, and to celebrate their bodies, but the goals of the feminist movement are about much more than that. And the stakes are much higher. In a culture that is seeing ever more women and girls trafficked, both globally and domestically, ever more violent, degrading pornography widely-available to anyone and everyone, a corporatisation of culture that turns us into consumers instead of empathetic beings that care about the society we live in, and a growing gap between the rich and poor, all of which disappears marginalised women into the most vulnerable positions and sees them suffer the worst consequences, we simply can't afford such an irresponsible and glossy version of "feminism."
When real lives are at stake, how much you love one particular pop star or how much you like sequinned pasties or whether or not you or your boyfriend or your friends are turned on by sadomasochistic pornography, becomes unimportant.
Join us or don't - that really is your choice. But redefining a political movement that aims to protect real women's lives and humanity in order to make the world more comfortable is not.
Meghan Murphy is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current. She is currently working on a book that calls for a return to a more radical feminism, reminiscent of the second-wave and rooted in sisterhood.
Text Meghan Murphy