Don’t rebrand feminism, reclaim it
- Published: 09 October 2010
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10 October 2010
Declared dead, irrelevant, unfashionable, yet simultaneously responsible for a host of social ills, feminism has a bad rep.
In fact, feminism’s image in the mainstream media has been pretty awful over the last decade or so.
To give just a few British examples: ‘Bra-burning feminism has reached burn-out’, cried The Times in 2003, while the left-wing New Statesman bewailed ‘Where have all the feminists gone?’ (2006). This September, The Daily Mail declared: ‘It’s feminism we have to thank for the spread of fast-food chains and an epidemic of childhood obesity’.
These accusations affect how people see feminism. Research by Christina Scharff, Lecturer in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London, seems to bear this out.
Based on interviews with 40 German and British women, Scharff investigated women’s perceptions of feminism. Three quarters didn’t see themselves as feminists, and the language they used to distance themselves from the F word revealed how media stereotypes have become ingrained in the vernacular.
The non-feminist women explained that they thought of feminists as: 1) unfeminine; 2) man-haters; and 3) lesbians. Stereotypes of dungarees, rugby shirts, hairy legs, short hair, a so-called ‘ugly’ appearance and, predictably, bra-burning (a long-held allusion to an event which never actually happened) accompanied their explanations.
And yet when asked to give examples of feminists they knew who fitted this description, no one could.
Scharff argues that by making these negative comments, the women were trying to show that they themselves represented more socially acceptable kinds of femininity: femininity that was heterosexual, not critical of men and associated with conventional beauty standards.
Not only is there a distinct whiff of homophobia here, but also of racial and religious stereotyping. Scharff’s interviewees said that they thought feminism was unnecessary in regions like Europe, Australia and North America, where women are able to achieve equality if they want it, unlike in predominantly Muslim countries, which they stereotyped as oppressive and in need of feminism.
Now, while there may be some truth in this – Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris’s book Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change shows that post-industrial, more secular countries score higher on measures of gender equality like female labour force participation, political leadership and literacy rates – these generalisations flattens out huge variations in women’s experiences worldwide.
On the whole then, feminism has a negative image.
Yet when it suits, feminist rhetoric is readily used by those who normally condemn feminism – such as when George Bush justified invading Afghanistan post-9/11 by asserting that it would free women from the oppression of the Taliban.
Feminism would not have been invoked were it not presumed to have some persuasive power, and this illustrates that post-industrial countries are not uniformly anti-feminist.
Rather, they are post-feminist: they appreciate some of feminism’s benefits and values while simultaneously rejecting its relevance to life in 21st-century affluent nations.
But we shouldn’t be pessimistic. While various studies show that around three-quarters of people aren’t feminists, they also show that one quarter are. One quarter of the population happy to say they believe the fight for women’s liberation isn’t over and willing to participate, in some way, in a movement for gender equality – isn’t that actually pretty impressive?
Some people argue that, because of its negative image, feminism needs rebranding to be attractive. In the UK, several women’s magazines have attempted this, and the ‘(Re)branding Feminism’ conference to be held in 2011 in London, seems also to be taking this tack.
Part of this call for rebranding focuses on feminism’s supposed irrelevance to a new generation. If feminism’s about sour-faced hairy-legged, dungaree-clad women, it (supposedly) must be something younger women aren’t interested in.
But that’s a big ‘if’. A good proportion of young women are feminists – a 2007 survey of 3,200 members of Girlguiding UK found that two-thirds of 16 to 25-year-olds were happy to call themselves feminists.
Plus, most feminists aren’t put off by stereotypes describing them as ‘hairy-legged dykes’ – they’re more likely to condemn the sexism and homophobia behind these stereotypes. And wearing dungarees, for a brief period in the late 1970s and early 80s, actually placed you at the height of fashion.
Trying to attract people to feminism by rebranding it as cool and cuddly doesn’t work. Feminism without any mention of sexism, patriarchy, or any critique of (some) men’s behaviour is hardly feminism at all.
One recent British book, whose blurb declared ‘Feminism has come a long way since the days of bra-burning and man-bashing’ and went on to argue that ‘Being a feminist is what you want it to be’, didn’t go down well.
So feminism has to be more than a tepid call for women’s right to make their own choices. For our so-called ‘choices’ are not freely made, since they are bound up in a whole package of social, cultural and historical expectations and legacies.
A woman may ‘choose’ to do more housework than her male partner because, she reasons, she’s more bothered by mess, he brings home more money, and it’s too much trouble having to nag him.
But does this mean his neglect of housework is unproblematic since she’s ‘chosen’ to do it herself? Isn’t her heavier burden related, somehow, to capitalism’s historic relegation of women to unpaid domestic labour in the private sphere, dependence on a male breadwinner or lower-paid part-time work?
The concept of ‘choice’ has to be critiqued, so that women (and men) can understand and challenge their disadvantaged positions in a social system which is still structured by patriarchy and capitalism.
So negative stereotypes of feminism, their internalization by many of us in our daily lives, and attempts to rebrand feminism to make it more palatable are all missing the mark.
In the debate about younger people and the F word, there is one further issue to address: the generational tensions between younger and older feminists.
A feminist conference in Sydney in April 2010 – the biggest of its kind in 15 years – mused on the so-called generation gap in feminism.
Older feminists have expressed fear that younger women are selling out to a ‘style without substance’ kind of feminism. Are they emphasizing empowerment through fashion and sexual exhibitionism while ignoring the issues that brought the second wave onto the streets (e.g. reproductive rights, violence against women and economic equality)?
In her book Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism, Astrid Henry shows that from the 1990s in the US, younger feminists tried to define a new ‘third-wave’ feminism by contrasting themselves with their second-wave (1960s and 70s) foremothers. Rebecca Walker, founder of the Third Wave Foundation and daughter of second-wave novelist Alice Walker, embodied these generational tensions.
But in the UK, and increasingly elsewhere too, there is very little evidence of generational wars. For our new book Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement, Catherine Redfern and I surveyed nearly 1,300 feminists involved in feminist groups, events and campaigns that formed since 2000.
The survey revealed that 85% think that the important feminist issues are similar to those of the 1970s. The three issues of greatest concern for the 1,300 (three-quarters of whom were under 35) were equality at work and home, violence against women, and issues related to women’s bodies (including abortion, reproductive rights, body image and motherhood).
Fascinatingly, these are classic second-wave feminist concerns.
Feminists today are, on the whole, a positive bunch of people who spend more time counteracting sexism in today’s world than harking back to the ‘good old days’ of 1970s feminism or attacking their feminist foremothers.
What are they doing to make the world a better place? Let’s take a few examples.
- In a bid to challenge gender stereotyping in education and employment and increase the numbers of females studying engineering at university, non-profit organisation Robogals, based at University of Melbourne, teaches primary school girls about LEGO robotics. Robogals runs workshops to get girls excited about science and engineering. In 2009, with 300 dancers, they won the Guinness World Record for the ‘Largest Robot Dance’.
- The UK is currently facing an avalanche of public sector and welfare cuts. The Fawcett Society, the leading campaigning organisation for gender equality, calculates that women will shoulder 72% of the proposed cuts. Fawcett has launched a legal challenge, arguing that the government should have taken account of the gender implications of the proposed cuts. An established organisation with roots in the campaign for women’s suffrage, Fawcett has recently experienced in influx of younger members and new local groups have been formed.
- Formed in 2007, Muslimah Media Watch exposes negative media reporting on Muslim women. They run a blog exposing the stereotyping, harassment and violence against Muslim women and provide a space for Muslim women to critique Islamophobic images.
- Outraged by the sexism in the Twilight vampire films, where the passive ‘heroine’ Bella swoons over a chauvinist ‘hero’ Edward, Jonathan McIntosh created a remixed version of the most problematic scenes. His ‘Buffy vs Edward’ video replaced Bella’s reactions with those of proto-feminist Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His video was an internet hit, with over 2 million views.
So despite its bad rep, feminism is alive and active – and still awfully necessary.
Forget rebranding feminism. Let’s continue to reclaim it instead.
Kristin Aune is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Derby, UK. She is the author – with Catherine Redfern – of Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement. Published by Zed Books.