What Does It Mean for Feminism if Feminism Becomes Trendy?


2013 was a Big Year for feminism in pop culture. The media’s endless hounding of female celebrities regarding whether they identify as feminist has finally paid off — several prominent figures, including Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Claire Danes, Selena Gomez(ish), Rashida Jones, Ellen Page and even Courtney Stodden have all announced that they do, in fact, think of themselves as feminist. And famous women who’ve aligned themselves with feminism from the start, like Lorde and Lena Dunham, are becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

And feminism’s sudden popularity doesn’t end with celebrities — media purveyors of all that’s trendy, too, are aligning themselves with the movement. This year, Cosmo declared itself “deeply feminist.” Elle UK went perhaps even further, setting up three feminist activist groups with three advertising agencies in order to facilitate a “rebranding.” And Bing — a search engine whose ad team knows what’s up, having previously not-so-subtly placed the service in Gossip Girl — recently came out a weird, pandering womyn power commercial. In the fashion world, critics are taking the sudden influx of woman power-themed lines and the sudden preponderance of flats and formal sneakers — and, more significantly, the industry’s sudden awareness of racism — as a sign that “feminism is back in fashion.” Hooray! It’s back! Whatever that means! So now, like the pop-culture polluted feminists we might become, we have to wonder: is this a good thing?

Model Charlotte Free doesn’t seem to think so. She recently took to Tumblr [all of this, obviously, sic]: “whats up with feminism suddenly being this seasons hottest accessory???” she wondered. “feminism is not an accessory or a phase u can grow out of dont get me wrong, im way stoked that more people are admitting to be, or becoming feminists but i wish it didnt take it being ‘trendy’ to get where we are now.” In response, teenage wunderkind/feminist/probable wizard Lorde offered her opinion, also on Tumblr:

maybe feminism feeling like it’s in style comes as a result of increased awareness… which i think is a good thing regardless of whether or not it feels ‘trendy’ (which you’re right is rl weird). i definitely don’t think feminism is going to ~go out~ or anything, i feel like we’re past that now x

At The Cut, Allison P Davis put it thusly:

But the danger, the fear and, quite honestly, the more likely outcome, is that designing a flat shoe or casting a single model of color in a major campaign won’t translate to a consistently diverse, female-empowered runway. A few collections inspired by Pussy Riot won’t help us to elect a female president. And when fashion treats such important issues as trends, we risk losing the fight when they slip out of vogue.

I mean, feminism is far from the season’s hottest accessory (on the rankings, it probably sits somewhere between Google Glass [never going to be cool] and crop tops [sooooo in]), but the implications of its growing popularity and pop culture visibility are interesting — which is to say, rather confusing. What happens when there’s a certain cache to be gained from proclaiming that you’re feminist?

On the most surface level, it must be noted that increased awareness is a good thing. In a perfect feminist utopia, all babies would receive a copy of Women, Race and Class and The Second Sex upon being born, and everyone’s first utterance would be a bellowed “EQUALITY BETWEEN THE SEXES.” Sadly, though, we don’t exist in a perfect feminist utopia. So if, in reality, we must choose between pop culture representations of feminism 1) issuing from the mouth of Seth MacFarlane, 2) issuing from Lady Gaga, and 3) not being discussed at all, it’s fairly clear that number two is the best option we’ve got.

Why should we care what, exactly, gets someone interested in feminist thinking, as long as they arrive there eventually? Here is a personal anecdote that doubles as my deepest, darkest secret (I AM TRUSTING YOU ALL; IF YOU MAKE FUN OF ME I WILL DIE): I first got interested in feminism after reading The DaVinci Code. Yes, it’s true. In middle school I read The DaVinci Code, which is one of the worst books to ever slither out of human consciousness, and then I looked up feminism on the Internet because all the talk of Mary Magdalene being misrepresented historically made me angry. In my defense, the idea that the divine feminine had been intentionally obfuscated caused me to realize, in a teenaged way, that gender is a social construct and that white men are the authors of history! (Follow-up anecdote: years later, while studying abroad, I got my period while watching The DaVinci Code in a Japanese movie theater and had neither a tampon nor the language skills to ask for one. The DaVinci Code marked me.)

It takes quite a lot of cognitive dissonance for a movement to simultaneously announce, “If you think that men and women should be socially and economically equal, then you are a feminist. Period.” and also to guard its own “pro-woman” label jealously, like an alt 8th grader furtively furious that her best friend just found out about the Arcade Fire. As of now, online feminism seems torn between rabidly inquiring about the feminist politics of pop stars and deeming them inadequate arbiters of the cause. So what do we want: do we want celebrities to come out and say they’re feminist — with the risk of people aping them perhaps insincerely — or do we want them to continue going, “Blerg, uh, humanist??? Sorry, I really don’t hate men, so…”

In my opinion, the problem with feminism being “trendy” isn’t that interest in the movement might be ephemeral. It’s that interest in the movement might be shallow and disingenuous, an easy and intellectually-validating afterthought that one can tack on to something that ultimately does more to reinforce the patriarchal status quo than undermine it. To use Free’s metaphor: the problem with feminism being “this season’s hottest accessory” isn’t that it might be contained to this season — it’s that it might be viewed as an accessory. Feminism-as-accessory allows Elle UK to teach girls to embrace feminism, only to have American Elle release four unique covers with the only woman of color in black and white. It allows for (mostly) unscrutinized hypocrisies to exist in pop culture — thus, Miley Cyrus can use her black back-up dancers as sexualized props and still be seen as pro-woman because she celebrates her own sexuality, and Lady Gaga and Miley and Beyoncé can continue working with noted exploitative creep Terry Richardson (and Gaga to collaborate with accused child rapist R Kelly) without much consequence.

Feminism as a movement is powerful because is threatening to extant systems of power — systems that privilege maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality and wealth. Feminism as a commodity or brand strategy needs to pander to those very systems in order to remain appealing. But it’s not, as some have argued, celebrity feminists’ fault that that happens. It’s the fault of a system that eagerly co-opts famous women’s images for commercial ends and cares not that it often does women a huge disservice while doing so. In other words: the locus of anxiety isn’t the idea that some celebrity will “get feminism wrong” (which is an oddly paternalistic and judgmental fear to have anyway), but rather that capitalism will somehow co-opt feminist rhetoric and declaw it in order to market some vague idea of “empowerment” to women and then profit off of it.

In this worst-case scenario, “trendy” feminism wouldn’t attack magazine headlines like “LOSE 10 POUNDS NOW” and “101 COOL WAYS TO PLEASE YOUR MAN’S PENIS,” nor would it take any genuine, residing issue with the way we discuss, consume and use the female bodies that appear beneath said headlines. This is because “trendy feminism” would need to exist alongside these things in order to survive. At The Nation, JoAnn Wypijweski argues that something similar has already happened to the sexual revolution:

There is no liberation movement that has not been meat for the absorptive power of capitalism. The youth movements, the black movement, the gay movement, the women’s movement, every freedom cry that so-called class warriors have denigrated as dabbling in identity, has revealed the octopus-like nature of the system, its singular genius to grasp onto the new, the bold, the angry, and try to turn it into an ad, a product, a consumable pose…
Maybe we don’t know what freedom looks like; maybe we never will. We have an idea of what it is not: a narcotizing money game dressed in liberation’s clothing erecting new pens of control.

Given that the “ads, products and consumable poses” in circulation today are so overwhelmingly represented by (and presumably marketed to) white, heterosexual, cisgendered, ablebodied women, a truly terrifying part of the idea that feminism could become some sort of shallow trend is the thought that “trendy feminism” would vociferously spread a gospel of faux-empowerment — one that’s centered around a reductive conception of “womanhood” that erases those identities that don’t conform to the extant, restrictive, non-realistic ideal.

With all of that said, though, I don’t think the situation is anywhere near as dire as my worst fears would have it seem. Just because some celebrities are thoughtfully articulating feminist viewpoints, it doesn’t necessarily mean that capitalism is going to wedge its wicked lobster claw into the heart of the movement. When Lorde has a thought-provoking conversation about feminism for Rookie, for instance, it’s fairly impossible to see anything but good in that. And when Beyoncé writes an essay about income inequality literally called Gender Equality Is a Myth!, there’s no way to argue that’s harmful or shallow — or, really, that it’s even trendy. The wage gap can’t really be made sexy or titillating, no matter how you spin it. Furthermore, if a pop star is getting millions of people to listen to Chimamanda Adichie — and helping Adichie’s novel shoot up over 500 spots in Amazon sales rankings in the process — then there’s not much to be gained from fretting about whether or not Beyoncé really “means” it. (Side note: the fact that Beyoncé’s feminist credentials have faced particularly harsh scrutiny from critics who are incapable of recognizing that white lady feminism doesn’t work for everyone just serves to show that non-“trendy” feminism is also far from perfect).

So, in the immortal words of The Hunger Games: remember who the true enemy is. Celebrity feminists are not the enemy; those looking to profit off of a dumbed-down version of feminism that does nothing to challenge the status quo are. There’s no need to hand-wring about the recent spate of “YES, I AM A FEMINIST!” pronouncements issuing forth from certain unlikely sources — it’s a good thing that prominent role models and stars are starting to pay attention to gender inequality because it will encourage regular humans to do so as well. As my coworker Tracie put it, “Everything comes from celebrities. Kale, argon oil, feminism… who cares, as long as it’s good for you.”

Images via Getty.

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