Recent years have seen a revival of feminist thought and activism, often described as ‘the fourth wave of feminism’, which is facilitated by the accessibility of social media and mobile technology, enabling multiple forms of interconnectedness, involvement, and instant action. Different generations of women around the world are increasingly engaging in dialogues about their experiences of inequality, discrimination, and oppression. Alongside these rapid developments, there has been a huge effort to push feminist debate into mainstream popular culture. While women have been ‘leaning in’, ‘leaning out’ and ‘hashtag-ing’ their thoughts away on Twitter and Facebook, stakeholders and politicians have been taking carefully measured steps towards putting feminism back into their lexicon, convincing everyone of their genuine concern and powerful address of women’s issues.
These and many other aspects of the contemporary feminist landscape were the topics of a successful panel discussion on Intergenerational Feminisms and Media Cultures, which took place on November 6th 2014 at the Marx Memorial Library in London. The event was part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science and was organised by Jessalynn Keller and Alison Winch from Middlesex University. A wide range of audience members, from public activists and media professionals to secondary school students and academics, attended the panel discussion and contributed with thought provoking questions and comments. The panel speakers were Ikamara Larasi from Rewind & Reframe, Jessica Ringrose from the Institute of Education, the teenagers Rosa Tully and Lucy Parfitt who set up a feminist society at their school, and Lynne Segal from Birkbeck, University of London. Their candid personal and passionate testimonies sparked inspirational discussions not only among the attendees but also on Twitter where users were able to follow the debates under the hashtag ‘#ESRCInterGenFems’.
The panellists agreed that contemporary feminism is being torn up by conflicting representations, values, and demands. The meaning of ‘feminism’ and ‘being feminist’ is constructed in various ways across different mediated conversations. One of the recurring themes of the event was the phenomenon of commodification and ‘rebranding’ of feminism by commercial and political organisations whose representatives are powerful celebrity figures. Ironically, sexualised pop-stars like Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus are the so-called modern-day feminist icons that today’s young girls may aspire to be like. Instead of questioning hypersexualised representations of women, sexualisation gets appropriated in the guise of individual empowerment. With all this continuous pressure on body image and self-empowerment, it is no surprise that so many young girls and women suffer from low self-esteem and eating disorders.
In addition, this phenomenon contributes to the construction of a selectively defined version of feminism that is consumer-driven, individualistic, and exclusionary. For example, Elle’s December 2014 special feminist issue featuring Emma Watson on the cover was dedicated to women’s empowerment and pursuit of equality(#ELLEFeminism). However the magazine narrows down the meaning of the complex concept of empowerment to a set of aspirational tips for lifestyle and personal improvement. This is telling women that they could ‘have it all’ if only they could transform their attitude and behaviour. To put it in Sheryl Sandberg’s terms the key to equality is in ‘leaning-in’ and instigating a revolution from within ourselves. This kind of feminist pedagogy teaches subjects to accept full responsibility for their own wellbeing and self-care whilst overlooking the intricate cultural and economic mechanisms that create inequality in the first place.
Elle even launched a product line in collaboration with the online retailer Whistles and The Fawcett Society, causing massive uproar about the alleged ‘sweatshop’ conditions their ‘feminist’ t-shirts were made in. As if the sheer price of £85 for a long sleeve tee was not enough to aggravate everyone with a clear sense of justice.
So the apparent problem here, raised by many of the audience members at the event, is that feminism should not be left in the hands of a few occupying positions of power. For as long as they have vested interest in perpetuating the capitalist status quo and business commitments related to the making of profit above all else, they cannot offer a credible platform for feminism.
Therefore, the conclusion that was reached during the event was that a grassroots approach towards feminism is needed to effectively address complex issues of inequality operating on structural, political, and representational level. Each instance of inequality is an intersection of issues of gender, race, class, and religion, just to name a few. Intersectional feminism is an approach that understands and appreciates the complexity of identity. It also manifests the idea of a future society with a lot more compassion where cultural differences do not serve to divide people but are rather celebrated as unique traits making every single person an individual.