It seems as though feminism all of a sudden has risen up from the ashes of the academic world and found its way into the mainstream media and popular discussion with the likes of Emma Watson and Lena Dunham. More than ever you see supporters of the movement towards gender equality flaunting their stance via hashtags, slogans on clothing, sharing of posts and articles. Women are sharing photos of themselves on social media in what traditionally would be labelled as “pornographic” or “slutty” to prove that we own our own sexuality, not men. Fashion brands and celebrities the like are one by one jumping on the feminism bandwagon. This is cool and all — any publicity is good publicity, right? It is unquestionably a positive shift considering not long ago most people, both men and women, would shun the word. But in this massive media frenzy leading to an explosion of the movement it is important to question the intent behind it all and the extent to which it is practiced.
I keep reading and hearing the sentence “I am a feminist because I believe in equal rights between men and women”, but among all the feminist fashion merchandise and all the celebrity advocacy, it has started to lose its meaning. Especially because the kind of feminism represented often excludes a major group of women, restricting it from achieving its goals. We often forget that gender is not a binary concept, and that the discussion of feminism has layers that are not talked about in mainstream media. Whether we like to admit it or not, the kind of feminism often presented to us is that of a cisgender, white, middle/upper-class woman. What most people fail to understand is that there is only a tiny fraction of women in this world who can relate to this type of feminism, thus marginalised groups are left out and not heard.
The recent epidemic of celebrities and fast-fashion outlets splattering the word “feminism” or “girl power” on their merchandise make it seem a natural part of culture. A recent example is Topshop’s t-shirt with the word “feminist” printed black on white, which created a lot of backlash as a result of the fashion giant’s reputation for poor ethical standards. The term ‘commodity feminism’ describes this phenomenon perfectly – the way in which language of feminism is used to sell products, and how this link between feminism and consumerism can strip it of its politics. This commodification of feminism has turned it into something majority of women want to relate to, but it also creates an illusion of progress, when in reality not much has improved. In turn the fashion industry is capitalising on yet another social movement by exploiting under-privileged, under-paid (mostly) female factory workers in third-world countries. Oh, the irony.
Don’t get me wrong, the fact that feminism is now such a widely talked about subject is beyond terrific. It raises awareness, and to some degree it might subvert the misogyny found in our culture. But the way the media and the fashion industry has made the movement chic and trendy can be very problematic in the way that it has become a watered down, neo-liberal feminism that fits better with patriarchal standards, hindering any real and structural change. It seems to me as if those with the loudest voices are talking about women’s rights without much of a deeper understanding of the underlying issues and how to take action on them. The sudden embracing of the term doesn’t automatically mean the world is cured from patriarchal, corporate, imperial and sexists views. Commodity-feminism is a safer, more pretty looking take on the term that won’t upset anyone because it doesn’t delve into the deeper issues and causes of inequality.
When reading about feminism online the majority of what is posted on “mainstream” sites simply bring up the issue of “equal treatment for the sexes”. And while gender equality is what feminism strives for, I think we’re in a time where this is merely the most basic definition of the phrase. The praise and popularity of the book “Lean In” written by Sheryl Sandberg proved exactly this point. Mainstream discussion around feminism is failing time and time again to include those not sharing Sandberg’s social status — that of a middle/upper-class, white, educated, heterosexual, employed woman. This narrative has for a long time excluded women of colour and trans women, where their voices have at its best been background noise, if at all expressed. The prioritising of problems has been turned upside-down by modern feminism, focusing on those who already have the most, as if it is the anti-Robin Hood.
A major problem is that we are looking at feminism through a capitalist lens, which blames female unsuccessfulness on attitudes. As exemplified by Sheryl Sandberg, this kind of feminism tells us that it is only a matter of mindset and determination for women to turn our patriarchal world on its head. This kind of feminism begins and ends with the notion that we need gender equality within the existing system. What it fails to take into consideration though, is the fact that inequality is so deeply ingrained in our institutions that the only antidote is messy, radical, systemic change. And there is no way a feminist t-shirt or a woman like Sandberg will be the spark that starts this fire without a deeper understanding of intersectional feminism; the factoring in of race, class and sexuality as crucial components of female destiny, not solely perseverance or ambition. Feminism is essentially about equality between the genders – but that means equality for all women, black as well as white, trans as well as cis, poor as well as rich.
Feminism is about understanding how deeply internalised sexism and patriarchal views are within us. How from our birth this corporate and capitalist world has used and objectified women to make money. Just think about how much you’ve spent on beauty trends or on hair removal products. In 2015 the beauty industry made a whopping $56.2 billion (USD) in the US alone, and $460 billion globally. Feminism is about the fact that yes, you should be doing exactly what you want to do, and if that is wearing make-up or shaving your body-hair then no one should stop you. But it is also about understanding that this image of beauty we often aspire to become is a social construct built on centuries’ long male-defined notions of beauty — a notion of beauty that frankly is not achievable without cosmetic alterations — a notion of beauty that is used to create anxieties in the individual about whether she is measuring up to objectively determined standards. Feminism is about realising that this is a problem, and then finding a way to overthrow and fight this system.
It’s about everyone, no matter gender, race or class, being able to make their own choices and having the same opportunities without oppression, but also understanding that, in today’s world, these factors will affect your opportunities. For women to put the blame on ourselves and simply cooperate and compromise in order to make men move over is a questionable solution. We need to build collective movements, instead of merely recreating or re-modelling the same old patriarchal model that defines the western world. No single person’s feminism is perfect, and there might not be one definite solution to the problem, but trust me when I say that feminism is not a style sold for $39.95.
Written by Nilo Danai.
Feature image via topshop.com