Feel-Good Feminism

Has feminism's pop-culture cachet doomed the movement?

Kate Bingamen-Burt

Nineteen years ago, two friends and I sat around a San Francisco bedroom, putting the finishing touches on the first issue of our zine. It was a thirty-two-page, black-and-white, hand-illustrated affair centered on feminism, popular culture, and the representation of gender within both. It included articles about television and movies, critiques of sexist ad campaigns, a handful of reviews of the newest books about women and feminism, and more. Bleary-eyed, fueled by Twizzlers, hopped up on idealism, proofreading page after page as Guided By Voices bleated from tinny speakers, the three of us had found a place to channel our anxious post-college energy and the sense that our lives stretched before us, waiting to be filled with purpose.

It was 1995, post–riot grrrl but pre–Spice Girls, and it felt like feminism had only recently reentered the pop-cultural imagination. As magazine hoarders, TV junkies, and cinephiles who hated the word “cinephile,” we were ready for it. At a time when the first whiffs of the Internet had just begun to permeate mass culture, the zine we started aimed to take popular culture seriously as a force that shapes the lives of everyone—particularly young women—and the three of us were excited to make a case that the publication was the right place to center discussions about feminism.

Furthermore, we were interested in the possibility of disarming the word “feminism” itself. My cofounders and I were born in the 1970s but came of ideological age during the backlash '80s, when feminism was seen either as something that had already happened (Those marches! Those groups of women sitting around admiring their vaginas through speculums!) or something that had utterly failed, leaving many women bitter and love-starved (thanks, Fatal Attraction). The zine we started was called Bitch, but we were equally concerned with reclaiming a word in the subtitle: “A feminist response to pop culture.” The zine grew into a magazine. The word “bitch” moved deeper into common parlance, becoming a staple of television and radio, a pangender casual greeting, and a signifier of female “badness.” But the complexity of making “feminist” palatable remained.

And here we are, at the end of 2014. It's been slightly more than a month since Beyoncé commanded the stage at MTV's Video Music Awards, the word “FEMINIST” spelled out in lights behind her as her song “Flawless” sampled the words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.'” The sample concludes with Adichie paraphrasing the dictionary definition of “feminist”: “The person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” Bathed in spotlights, the biggest pop star in the world was wearing that maligned label like a curve-hugging designer dress, literally spelling it out for her fans. For once, the hackneyed phrase about having come a long way actually seemed to fit.

All of a sudden, it seems, feminism is hot, trendy, a Thing. Shortly after the VMAs, the actress Emma Watson, beloved for years as Harry Potter's Hermione, gave a speech on the importance of gender equality to the United Nations—noting, among other things, that “It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals. If we stop defining each other by what we are not, and start defining ourselves by who we are, we can all be freer.” The pop singer Taylor Swift, who several years earlier had disavowed feminism, quickly changed tack with a media announcement that, in fact, she'd been feminist all along. At Paris Fashion Week, Chanel's runway-show finale took the form of a feminist rally, with models draped in the label's signature tweeds raising signs that read, “History Is Her Story” and “Women's Rights Are More Than Alright.” Brands like Verizon are centering feminist themes in their ads for wireless plans. And my Google alert for “women and feminism,” which used to turn up lonely articles with headlines like “Feminism: Outmoded and Unpopular” is now teeming with woman-power boosterism: “Beyoncé's Hip New Club: Feminism,” “Emma Watson Gives Feminism New Life,” “Why Male Feminists Are Hot.”

The culture is exactly where my cofounders and I hoped it would be back when we spent late nights scrambling to finish up that first issue of Bitch. Well, kind of. A little bit. Maybe. It is and it isn't. And that's exactly the problem.

As I write this, for instance, the Supreme Court, in an ongoing legal battle, has just placed a hold on a Texas law that aims to close every abortion clinic in the state by demanding that each one meets the medical standards of ambulatory surgery centers. Meanwhile, a feminist video-game critic has been forced to cancel an appearance at Utah State University because of an anonymous threat that stated, in part, “If you do not cancel [the] talk, a Montreal Massacre–style attack will be carried out against the attendees, as well as students and staff at the nearby women's center. … This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history.” And Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella recently gave a speech to a group of female professionals in which he responded to a question about how to ask for a raise by saying that women shouldn't, in fact, ask for raises, but instead “[have] faith that the system will actually give you the right raises”—you know, the system that has always paid women less than men—and be rewarded with “good karma.”

In other words, despite every signal boost for feminism, every go-girl tweet from Lena Dunham or Miley Cyrus, every feel-good Upworthy video, every nod to “leaning in,” the beliefs behind it are still among the most contested in political and social life. The question at the heart of every wave of women's liberation—are women human beings with the same rights and liberties as men?—is posed nearly every day in spheres from politics and policy to entertainment and academia. It comes to the fore with every state restriction on abortion, with every Supreme Court decision like the one decreeing that Hobby Lobby can deny its workers insurance coverage for IUDs, with every epithet and death threat aimed at women who speak out about rape or harassment.

It's becoming clear that this state of affairs, much as we'd like it to, won't be solved by Beyoncé or Sheryl Sandberg or any amount of savvy capitalist spin. And now I can't help but worry that those of us who hoped that the marriage of pop culture and feminism would yield deliciously progressive fruit might have a lot to answer for.

The aspects of feminism that are currently given voice in pop culture, after all, are the most media-friendly ones, the ones that center on heterosexual relationships and marriage, on economic success that doesn't challenge existing capitalist structures, on the right to be desirable yet have bodily autonomy. Watson's speech to the UN was centered on getting men invested in feminism, in order to better legitimize it; Sandberg's Lean In philosophy is about women conforming to workplaces that increasingly see them not as human beings but as automatons with inconvenient biology. The feminism they espouse is certainly reasonable, but it's not particularly nuanced. It doesn't challenge identities and hegemonies so much as it offers nips and tucks.

And I feel, well, a little responsible.

I realize how self-aggrandizing that sounds, so let me be clear: I don't think that Bitch, with its relatively dinky circulation of fifty thousand, brought the gospel of feminism to the pop-culture heroes and heroines who now spread its light. But Bitch was part of a zeitgeist of media, both creators and chroniclers, that spent the 1990s and 2000s blurring the boundaries between pop culture and politics. With the advent of the Internet and social media, the deregulation of media properties, the entertainment industry increasingly peopled with hyperliterate auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, and a market of overeducated, amply opinionated young people hungry for their product, pop culture became more important than ever before. And a feminist analysis of it was no longer the exclusive realm of academics like bell hooks or Angela McRobbie, but something you could read in a new website or listen to in a podcast or see in a tongue-in-cheek infographic. If the personal was political, as the old slogan goes, the pop, it turned out, was even more so.

And feminism's focus on pop culture as a locus of activism has in many ways worked. Feminism has made inroads into all aspects of culture, not simply in the numbers of female senators and CEOs but in the ways that we talk about entertainment, about ethics, about life. Accusations of domestic violence, once considered extrinsic to the business of sports and its players, are now the subject of lengthy debates and press conferences. Offensive jokes in comedy shows that would have gone unremarked upon a decade ago are now the basis of microcampaigns on social media capable of gaining enough steam to create lasting impact for the joker. Weekly entertainment magazines review new movies with a lens on how—or, for that matter, whether—female characters are represented.

Still, now that we're at a moment when feminism is literally trending (just check the Twitter stats that correspond to Beyoncé's VMA performance), it seems worth considering that it just might not be possible to make a political movement palatable on a mass scale without dumbing it down. The Chanel runway show is perhaps the most egregious example of bandwagon-jumping, but even Watson's well-received speech wasn't exactly groundbreaking in its content. The fact that feminism isn't just for women has been a tenet of the movement since Free to Be ... You and Me, and telling men that they should care about their sisters, mothers, wives, and daughters is oversimplified pandering. Had a non-celebrity stood before the UN to give the same speech, it would have gone unnoticed.

And yet, even for feminist statements that were about as mild and inclusive as they come, Watson received death threats, rape threats, threats to disseminate nude photos of her—all the now-regular online abuse that women who speak up on the Internet are depressingly accustomed to. It seemed like a bit of a waste to me, to be honest: Watson would have been scorched for anything she said in favor of women, so she might as well have advocated for something more radical. (State-funded separatist communities! With their own political charters! And pet unicorn helpers!)

I've thought quite a bit about why much of this trendification of feminism doesn't sit right with me, and it comes down to nuance. Feminism, as a movement, is not a monolith—in fact, the current state of both theory and praxis is better described as “feminisms,” plural. So from the very start it is intrinsically incompatible with mainstream culture, which requires the broadness of characterizations and expedience of sound bites to make an impact. Marrying pop culture and feminism really does demand that much of what makes contemporary feminism so exciting—its diversity of both population and thought, its inclusivity of a range of experiences, its willingness to venture well beyond the academy into areas like prison reform, sex work as labor, and more—is stripped out to prioritize what is loudest and sexiest.

I've done that. The magazine I cofounded has done it too. In steadily courting an ever-bigger audience, in saying, “Look! Feminism can be popular—just give us a chance!” perhaps we've done a disservice to the larger movement. (Some have certainly argued that we've sold it out with the title alone.) I was taken aback recently when a piece of e-mail came across my inbox praising Bitch for its coverage of a particular subject: “It's so refreshing to see this in the pages of a mainstream magazine,” the e-mail enthused. It was meant to be a compliment, but my mind stuck stubbornly on that word. “Mainstream” was the thing we'd always wanted feminism to be, but the organization itself? The product we produced? Nope, never. It was a reality check: If everything I associated with the word “mainstream” was banal, overbroad, surface, why would bringing feminism into contact with it be a great idea?

It's hard to remember whether we actually talked, back then, about what a mainstream embrace of feminism would look like. I can't speak for my cofounders, but to me, it was the idea of a complete change in attitude that was most exciting, the idea that someday, someone might mention, in passing, “I'm a feminist,” and the person they were talking to—whether woman, man, or other—instead of saying something like, “Huh. Why?” or, even worse, “Well, I believe in equal rights and all, but I'd never call myself a feminist,” would simply say, “Cool. Me too.” It was the idea that being a feminist could stop being an outlying identity and instead be one that seemed so obvious and commonsense that it might not even be worth mentioning in the first place.

Such a state of affairs would require a lot. It would require feminism to become less elite, less associated with only the lives and concerns of white, educated, liberal women. It would have to loosen its ties to rarefied academic spaces dense with poststructuralist theory. It would mean less dogma, more flexibility, a big-tent approach that made room for opposing viewpoints to flourish side by side. That's indeed where feminism has been headed for the past few decades. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that perhaps what's really required is a decontextualization that comes from thinking about feminism as less of a collective social movement and more of a personal identity. And that, coincidentally, is exactly what's happening with today's trendy feminism.

The past few years have seen a number of attempts to rebrand feminism, generally undertaken with the reasoning that the movement no longer feels relevant to young people and has too many fusty, humorless associations to flourish in an age of gifs and memes. In 2013, Elle magazine paired three feminist organizations with three London ad agencies to come up with posters that would serve as rebrandings. All were bright and snappy and visually appealing, but that's about it. None moved beyond the parameters of the exercise itself; trying to remember the resulting slogans or ideas requires a Google search. Rebranding a movement isn't like redesigning the packaging on a soda can, because feminism was never meant to be a product.

And yet, I worry that turning feminism into a product is the natural result of celebrities and corporations taking it up as a pet cause—and that, by extension, those of us who cozied up to the mainstream are responsible for the dumbing-down that will likely result. Chanel's embrace of feminism, for instance, feels particularly tone-deaf considering that high fashion still rewards only the thinnest—literally—swath of female humanity for conforming to its impossible ideals; brands like Verizon using the concept to shill for brand loyalty, meanwhile, can't help but look cynical.

Then again, I keep coming back to what a waggish commenter on Bitch's Facebook page recently noted, apropos of some bit of trendy-feminism news: “Feminism isn't like an indie band that you don't want to see get big because you discovered it first.” And it's true. The feminism that I've been most excited about for more than eighteen years is the one that shares its enthusiasm, rather than hoards it for cool points. And even if I look askance at Karl Lagerfeld right now, in the end I'm not sure if it matters where feminism comes from, provided that the people it reaches ultimately do more than passively take it in. I no longer see mainstream acceptance as the goal, but as yet another tool of activism. Do you want to know more about what feminism means? Do you have questions that can't be answered by Beyoncé or Emma Watson, by a TED talk or a blog post? Do you feel responsibility to your idealism and a hunger to see it make change—even after no one is singing about it or touting it as the next big thing?

Cool. Me too.

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