Twenty-first century feminism– embraced by social media, blogs, and widespread news sites– has been infused into the public discourse. It has been praised for bringing the notion and language of feminism into the public sphere, for making feminism as a movement, and as a concept, accessible to the common person. And is this good? Absolutely. And what has since become an endorsement by celebrities and left-leaning academics has indeed helped get the movement of feminism out into the wider world. But as a consequence, this general public “mainstream feminism” has distilled complex issues down to bite-sized bullet points. Because of the nature of needing to appeal to a large group of individuals, the nuances, subtext, debates, and the controversy that is inbuilt into scholarly feminism is all lost within this simple, mainstream version.
We are left with a feminism that has been prepackaged and stamped with the social justice logo, distributed to everyone without the slightest thought given to diversity of view or opinion; we have moved from a well-intentioned directive to an impregnable dogma. This is white feminism, sure, but it is also a feminism that attempts to usurp other types of feminism, instead of coexisting with them: A feminism that refuses to budge, even as the world around it cries out that we are changing, moving. There is an irony in that, even if the principal of what social media is trying to promote and keep alive is indeed admirable; the groupthink that this mainstream feminism caters to is parasitic, it is pervasive, and it threatens our societal intelligence.
Let’s take the fashion industry, for example. The 2014 Style article “Here Us Roar: Finding Feminism in Fashion” by Maya Singer addresses these questions from both sides, saying that fashion, in and of itself, is not bad but that it is the attitude towards it and what people choose to take away from the industry that presents the problem. Singer says that people should not be ashamed to wear what they like, that fashion can and should be a tool for self-expression.
And this is a good thing, for that means women have the power of identity on their side. But the potential misreading of that empowerment is also discussed. "Thinness" and criticizing the most trivial aspects of people’s bodies -- these are agendas by the patriarchy for the patriarchy, and I think Singer does have a point when she says that to embrace these criticisms and endorse them as a sign of empowerment is doing more harm than good:
“Vixen. Nymphet. Backup dancer in a hip-hop video. You've got the right to wear whatever you like, ladies, but come on. Let's create some new identities… [girls] and women are invited to become a particular kind of self and are endowed with agency on condition that it is used to construct oneself as a subject closely resembling the heterosexual male fantasy."
And therein lies the paradox, the want to be self-expressive, yet the all-too-real fear that the patriarchal fashion industry is going to latch onto that want…and thus have women sell out the sisterhood. Singer even comments on that point too, highlighting how women working in the fashion industry itself is very important. "We don't have many big swinging dicks in fashion, but we've got a lot of big swinging handbags." But she also states that if that is true, then why is the industry still so sexist? It's not enough to have women in the industry, it seems. "There should be more women on the executive floors of the big fashion conglomerates, and a more diverse array of women at the entry level, which would mean raising pay.”
The Guardian ran an article in late 2014 called “We Need a Bold, Scandalous Feminism”, written by Jacqueline Rose, and even just the title of this takes 21st century feminism by the throat and pins it up against the wall, and indeed the article itself follows through with fire. She says that the language of feminism itself needs to change. She calls for a new kind of feminism, a new language that can be used to both assert the good that feminism itself is doing but one that shouldn't be afraid to dig a bit deeper and acknowledge that there's still work to be done, that feminism itself is not perfect.
Feminism is not a be-all-end-all solution. It is complicated with many facets and many subsets within the banner. But it is also not inherently doomed to failure, either. We’ve argued that feminism, that is mainstream feminism, has veered from the goal of feminism, that it has gotten stuck in its own philosophy. Singer tackles this notion to a degree in her own article, saying that feminism should not be geared towards making women feel better but instead recognize and appreciate the work that women do. "It's about restructuring our society such that youth, beauty, and sexual availability aren't a woman's most vital currency.”
And I would add to that that this should not be women’s sole weapon to use against the patriarchy either. That is something that mainstream feminism often fails to recognize. To quote Rose:
“Today, a fourth wave of feminism… bears witness to the fact that the task of feminism is not done. And yet it is often argued that modern women are free, that sexuality is something that women, in the west at least, control and dispose of at will.… Certainly, it must be one of the goals of feminism for women to be freer in their sexual life. But we must be careful not to exchange an injustice for an illusion.”
Rose rightly notes that this absence of complex discussion, or indeed of outright disagreement within the various factions of feminism, is a detriment to the movement, not a step forward; she argues that feminism instead should be about alerting people to the world's problems and social unbalances, but that it shouldn't stop there. It should propose solutions and follow through with them. And to be blunt, I'm not seeing a lot of the latter in 21st century feminism. People talk a good game, rant on Facebook; Tumblr is a stew of verbal buzz about all these injustices in the world and how awful all of this is. But it's steeped in this sense of self-congratulatory smugness, it has an air of moral superiority, that anyone who doesn't think these things should be hunted down and shot.
Which brings me back to the idea of groupthink, of refusing to recognize a movement’s own faults, of resisting changes that go against that movement but are, in fact, representative of the movement’s very ideals just in a different light. And that is a scary notion, that there might be something flawed with your beliefs, that you are perhaps not as incorruptible as you may have thought, or that perhaps there are other sides to what you’re talking about. Because God forbid that everyone agree with you, that everyone conform, that everyone be made to see your point of view only… Well, this starts to sound a bit like a cult, doesn’t it? And that is something that feminism should not be about. I am not going to be conscripted into standing up for extremes. Screw that. Screw any notion of that being what feminism is about. This is not a trickle-down movement; this is an umbrella term under which multiple movements should coexist equally.
And to those who do not consider themselves feminists because "it's not inclusive" or "it lacks intersection" or "why do we need to attribute labels to things" or— and this one really pisses me off— "I'm not a feminist; I'm a humanist"; to those who think these things and point these things out, you are not without ground to stand on. Not to the degree you think you are, of course, but these are valid points. To bring in briefly a quote from Clementine Ford from an article she published on Daily Life, “While technically this is true, it isn't true in exactly the way some seem to want to believe, nor should the family violence experienced by men be co-opted as a means of derailing conversations about violence against women." While this is discussing issues of domestic violence, the parallel is that to derail focus to bolster another side of an issue is not a good way to promote that issue, and this is the chink in modern feminism’s armor.
Rose highlights many flaws within the feminist movement as well; she acknowledges them and accepts them. But then, oh look! She doesn’t stop there. She instead offers up a solution to them:
“The feminism I am calling for would have the courage of its contradictions. It would assert the rights of women, boldly and brashly, but without turning its own conviction into a false identity or ethic. It would make its demands with a clarity that brooks no argument, but without being seduced by its own rhetoric. The last thing it would do is claim sexuality as prize possession or commodity. This is a feminism aware that it moves, that it has to move, through the sexual undercurrents of our lives where all certainties come to grief. Otherwise, it too will find itself lashing out against the unpredictability of the world, party to its cruelties and false promises. Such a feminism would accept what it is to falter and suffer inwardly, while still laying out— without hesitation— its charge sheet of injustice.”
This is a great idea because, as with many flawed systems or movements or whatever feminism is being called this week, it is important to recognize the flaws of this phenomenon instead of denying that feminism has flaws at all. But after we recognize this, we should learn and grow from the mistakes that we have noticed and try to improve the movement from within instead of shying away from it altogether. There remains a middle ground between postfeminism abandonment and 21st century mainstream feminism dogmatic worship of pure principals. This middle ground is something that feminism would do well to engage in. It is a necessity if we are to take feminism seriously again, make it worthwhile and meaningful again, and perhaps give feminism itself something to fight for again. This is something that should be talked about and indeed debated, with its flaws laid bare for all to see; as easy as it is to say “women deserve equality,” a smarter thing to consider might be how to accomplish that. Talking about the how and why of feminism and not just spouting out Twitter hashtags left and right is crucial in order to move forward with this new age of feminism and social media.