Good news! Feminists aren’t bra-burning, man-hating serial aborters anymore…we’re now the cool kids in town! Recently, feminism has been showered with positive press in the media. Celebrities from Hillary Clinton to Jennifer Lawrence to Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are falling over their skirts to call themselves feminists, the entertainment industry is mass-producing “strong female characters,” the same publications that once dismissed feminism as unnecessary are now singing its praises, and feminism has just become a hit amongst those most respected judges of coolness: us teenagers. You’d be forgiven for thinking this a good thing. Isn’t it good that our movement is being popularised? Don’t precocious teen rebels and A-listers convey a better image of us to the public than matriarchal dictators? Well – no, not really.
One issue with feminism becoming trendy is that all trends have prototypes. It seems as though the media has to create that one set of characteristics, often personified by a celebrity, that work the trend perfectly. Then they tell us what to do and buy to resemble this perfect character so that we consume more. This happens with all trends – the punk trend, the “street,” trend, you name it – and is starting to happen with feminism. Suddenly, there’s a right way to believe in gender equality, and a category within this belief, shopping list, party planner and famous role model for people who do. As well as there being this explosion of “strong,” female characters in pop culture lately, who are almost always one-dimensional and nothing like real people, let alone real women, it’s become imperative for every female celebrity who presents herself as powerful, edgy and/or intelligent to call herself feminist. The problem with celebrities using feminism as part of their portfolios is that they’re commodities with characteristics tailored specifically for consumption, not people, when in the public eye. They’re also, in the words of Letters to Cleo, Polaroids of perfection. Having right ways to “do,” feminism, “strong female characters,” and feminist icons not only alienates would-be feminists by making them think that to be one you have to buy certain things, look a certain way and feel like Superwoman all the time, but goes against the concept of “the radical notion that women are people.” If women are people, we’re flawed. Feminism embraces the complexity, diversity and unity – therefore, the humanity – of the female race, and categorising feminists into boxes and telling people how to be one doesn’t.
Still, a misinterpretation of what our movement stands for is a human error. But I think there’s more to the fashionability of feminism than misinterpretation. The media can’t change from calling us “feminazis,” (very clever…) to kissing our asses and giving us famous ambassadors so fast. Especially not while society is still so patriarchal, since the media is a puppet of the ruling class, and the ideas of a society are those of its ruling class. I think the ostensible widespread support and approval of feminism in it is an effort to discredit the movement. It’s become apparent that gender equality does appeal to the public, and dismissing it, grossly and visibly misinterpreting it denying countless statistics indicative of patriarchy isn’t going to work. So instead, pop culture and the press will establish feminism as a trend, popularise and trivialise it, spread misconceptions of it and consequently make it a fashion accessory rather than a force for social change.
You probably think I’m deluded now, but this is exactly what the mass media did to anarchism. Because people seemed to like and identify with anarchism and the labour struggles it was involved in during the 20th century, the media couldn’t oppose it, so it turned it into a trend, propagated stereotypes about it and created an anarchist persona (a “rebellious,” teenager dressed in black with a fetish for profane language, a little like how people like Beyonce are seen as feminist personae). This resulted in the ideology becoming more like a subset of alternative culture than a political philosophy, and its followers largely being leather-clad self-described “rebels,” who neither knew nor cared what participatory economics was and thought Bakunin was a brand of beer, but liked to smash windows, write graffiti and blow sh!t up. Which gave anarchism a terrible reputation and paved over the positive activity of anarchists throughout the first half of the century. Fashionability can destroy movements.
It’s easy to see feminism’s popularity as positive, but for it to be so, we have to keep it true to itself. By fixing any misconceptions and showing that feminism has nothing to do with manufacturing “strong female characters,” or forcing anyone to be a certain way. We have to keep our goals of women’s total liberation, our treatment of the personal as political, as the core of the movement. This may seem obvious, but I see too many people trivialising feminism, and if we let the struggle for gender equality become a fashion accessory or a subculture, our visions will never become reality.