has the commercialisation of feminism hurt or helped the movement?

In 2016 pop feminism is a feel good movement promising self-empowerment and equality. But as public visibility grows, does it actually mean anything?

by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
27 June 2016, 2:40am

Image via Twitter

In 2014, Beyoncé appeared silhouetted against the word FEMINIST during a performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. There were no subtleties about it — the letters were emblazoned, metres high, for an audience of millions worldwide. Less than a month later, actress Emma Watson delivered a UN address about gender equality. Later that year, perhaps under the tutelage of her pal Lena DunhamTaylor Swift and her ever-expanding girl gang also pledged their allegiance to the movement.

These were watershed moments for the popularisation of feminism, no longer perceived as solely the domain of bra-burning radicals. Even celebrity men have jumped on board, from Mark Ruffalo to Orange is the New Black actor Matt McGorry.

But has the Beyoncification of feminism really helped the movement — or did all this hype ultimately dilute the message? And what message is that, in 2016? When it's become such a buzzword that Malcolm Turnbull can call himself a feminist while continuing to sanction violence against female refugees, does it actually mean anything, or is it being lazily used as a badge of honour?

In her book We Were Feminists Once, Bitch Media founder Andi Zeisler unpacks the idea of "marketplace feminism." That is, a version of the movement that focuses less on dismantling systems, and more on the prepackaged feel good message of self-empowerment.

But has the Beyoncification of feminism really helped the movement — or did all this hype ultimately dilute the message?

"Consumer or celebrity feminism is a label that can be put on and taken off when it's convenient, where 'feminism' can mean anything from 'loving your female friends' to 'wanting women to have choices'," Andi says.

"Media and pop culture can be excellent conduits for reaching people that social movements might not reach on their own, but it's important not to let consumption stand in for action, and there are ways in which marketplace feminism encourages that…it doesn't challenge systems of power. It makes 'power' an attribute that you can buy."

The commercialisation of feminism is ironic; an ideology founded on principles of dismantling ingrained systems is now being used for financial gain by corporate bigwigs. It's hardly new — the Spice Girls made their millions from the entry-level message of Girl Power back in the 90s — it's simply a more lucrative business than ever.

It's everywhere, from "This is What a Feminist Looks Like" t-shirts, to shampoo adverts. In many ways, pop feminism in 2016 often borders on narcissistic, fixating much more on personal image and identity politics than any past wave of feminism ever did.

"That's how capitalism works — it takes genuine grassroots political action and co-opts it into saleable products, mostly to sell back to the people who made the product valuable to start with," says Karen Pickering, who runs Cherchez La FemmeGirls on Film Festival and SlutWalk Melbourne. "Any message reaching a wider audience necessarily becomes less nuanced and more broadly accessible."

Feminism is a more lucrative business than ever.

Capitalism is a bedrock of the world as we know it, and it's inevitable that corporations will latch onto whatever is perceived as the Next Big Thing. The warm and fuzzy feminism of Tay Tay's girl gang won't dismantle the patriarchy, but credit where it's due, it does, bit by bit, wash away the negative connotations around the F word. Especially for Swift's younger fan demographic, it can be a gateway drug to the good stuff.

Feminist organiser Jessamy Gleeson thinks the increased visibility isn't a bad thing, as it raises awareness — but it needs to be matched by action. "Whenever this wave is over, I want us to be left with more than a Beyoncé album and a t-shirt," she says.

"I want us to have legislation on pay gaps and domestic violence. I want guaranteed funding for women's shelters. I want us to ensure that trans discrimination is a thing of the past. So sure, buy the t-shirt if you want — but consider donating exactly the same amount of money, energy or time to a cause that directly benefits other women."

Whenever this wave is over, I want us to be left with more than a Beyoncé album and a t-shirt.

Some would, and usually do, say that merely talking about feminist issues is classic "slacktivism", but Karen reckons all these conversations — no matter how small — contribute to cultural change.

"There are so many feminist conversations taking place — some will be entry level and seem facile to the more advanced campaigners. Others will be very complex and exclude people who aren't across academic theory. We need to have all kinds of feminist discussions," she says.

Examples of how this democratisation of feminism can action real change are all around us: The worldwide outrage around the recent Brock Turner case is a good example of how tangible discourse and activism is moving out of the feminist echo chamber and into the mainstream. There's a growing demand for intersectionality, with more public visibility and opportunity for transwomen (Laura Jane Grace, Laverne Cox, Jordan Raskopoulos) and women of colour. There is also a vocal social media sphere that's ready to pounce when people or organisations fuck up, and while the culprits aren't always appropriately taken to task (hello, Eddie McGuire), it's a sure sign of a gradual cultural shift. As Andi says, "A lot of change can only happen when there's a critical mass of voices saying the same thing at top volume."

So has the mainstreaming of feminism helped or hurt the movement? It's not so cut and dry — the meteoric rise of any ideology will see it change, in ways both positive and negative.

But for the first time, we're seeing feminism on a world stage. Girls are discovering feminism at younger ages and they're demanding, and effecting, real action. From celebrities to regular teens, the world is changing in the hands of these capable young women — and for many of them, the feminist revelation may never have come without that Beyoncé moment.

Since this piece has been published, we've received feedback that it didn't satisfactorily examine the important
factor of Beyonce's race when talking about her feminism. Beyonce's blackness is intrinsic to the power of her feminism, and some readers pointed out that by asking if her ascent has diluted the movement's meaning, we are erasing the space that she has made for black women. Pop culture does not exist in a vacuum and we want to venture to be mindful of that going forward and make sure to always embrace all forms of intersectional feminism. 


Text Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
Image via Twitter