Sunday 23 October 2016

Does feminism mean anything any more, or is it just bandwagon-jumping?

The hashtag #feministfutures is taking Twitter by storm. But does feminism mean anything any more, or is it just bandwagon-jumping?

Suzanne Harrington

Published 11/06/2015 | 02:30

Suzanne Harrington details how she has battled to become a more stable, loving and secure mother
Suzanne Harrington details how she has battled to become a more stable, loving and secure mother
Trauma: Caitlin Moran

As #Feminist Futures sweeps across Twitter, sparked by the National Women's Council of Ireland in advocacy of a more equal society - because we're on an unprecedented roll here, so why stop at LGBT equality? - there has been much tweeting about issues few of us would regard as anything other than basic fairness.

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Equal pay, equal body autonomy, equal power distribution at the top end of business, academia, politics, the arts, in fact everywhere, thank you very much.

The #FeministFutures hashtag has resulted in a diverse range of comments and trends, with reproductive rights being the most immediate.

As Amnesty International's latest campaign reminds us how Irish "women and girls are treated like criminals, stigmatised and forced to travel abroad", true gender equality is still some way off.

Never mind banging our heads on the glass ceiling at work, what about the State padlock around our bodies?

But it's not just about body autonomy. Wishes for a feminist future include a desire for pink and blue to just be colours, not gender signifiers; when a professional isn't decribed by gender (female historian, woman writer, lady doctor); women doing the same hours for the same pay; when 'boys will be boys' is no longer used to excuse bad behaviour.

Clearly, feminism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

So let's talk about what it is to be feminist these days. Rather than getting bogged down in its definition, author Caitlin Moran suggests that you ask yourself two simple questions: (a) do you have a vagina and (b) do you want to be in charge of it?

If you answered yes to both, then you're a feminist. But here's the problem. There's feminism, and there's fake feminism. And for the hashtag generation, the real thing can get very muddled with the ersatz. So how do we tell the difference?

This is not about inciting any nonsensical I'm-more-feminist-than-you rivalry among the vast variety of people out there in possession of vaginas.

It is not about seeing who is most deeply entrenched in the sisterhood, who wears the least lipstick and the biggest boots, or who is the angriest or the most outraged. No, this is about the evolution of feminism from those obsolete Seventies cliches into what it has become today.

The thing is, feminism seems to have been a bit hijacked. Or as Annie Lennox said in an interview last year, "twerking is not feminism." She was referring to popstars like Beyonce, whose own definition of feminism involves declaring herself the boss while performing in very little clothes.

Which is fine - we all love Beyonce - but let's not call public booty-shaking feminism, (or even feminism-lite, which is worse). Please let's not.

Beyonce is a performer, and a fabulously entertaining one, but she is not a feminist performer; a feminist performer would be, say, Eve Ensler, who gave the world the Vagina Monologues. Until Ensler, we only talked about our vaginas to our doctors.

Despite those rare individuals like Ensler, we seem to have got our empowerment knickers in a twist of misdefinition.

Since when is empowerment synonymous with narcissism, buying stuff, and showing off? Is this the kind of dead-eyed Gossip Girl culture we want young women and men to inherit?

Is raunch culture - Beyonce, Miley, Britney - about owning your sexuality, or being owned by it?

Feminism is not just about women. It's about everybody. It's about respect, compassion, inclusion, empathy, courage, generosity of spirit. Nor is it about putting the boot in, just because your boots might have a high heel or a shiny buckle - this is fauxminism, and comes in many forms.

In a New York Times essay by former professor of women's studies Elinor Burkett, the gender transition of Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner was roundly rebuked: Burkett made it clear Jenner was not welcome in the ladies' club.

"People who haven't lived their whole lives as women... shouldn't get to define us," she wrote. Oh come on. Isn't the true heart of feminism a bit broader than that?

Fauxminism also confuses - on purpose - the difference between female solidarity and bog-standard misandry.

A mobile app, Lulu, embodies this in its premise - it allows women to rate men secretly and without their knowledge or consent via their Facebook profiles (if you want a more technical explanation of how this works, I can only apologise).

A sort of digital bitching session that rates men on their looks, finances and social skills with hashtags like #AlwaysPays to #ForgotHisWallet and #NapoleanComplex. When men do stuff like this, there is outrage.

The app, launched by a female London School of Economics graduate, was marketed as 'feminist'. But really, it's about monetising bitchery.

Revenge, in any form, is never feminist - nor is bullying, manipulating, or humiliating.

And yes, we know all about revenge porn and the dreadful things that angry men can do, and how sexualised women are by men so much of the time - but does it make us feminist to get nasty? No. It just makes us nasty. Or as feminist commentator Zeynep Zileli wrote for Al-Jazeera, "We have lost our empathy behind the armour of our computer screens."

Nor can we blame men for our own sexualisation, or our woman-on-woman sexism, of which there is a great deal.

Every time we buy a gossip mag, we are participating in the most virulent misogyny of all - the kind that is by women for women. Are men ever interested in red circles around someone else's cellulite? Of course they're not - they're too busy looking at the breasts. So who is paying for, looking at, and judging those red circles? Women, women, women.

Equally pernicious within the great breadth of fauxminism is the sexist remark masquerading as a woman-to-woman compliment. Is it ever appropriate, outside of the ladies' loo in nightclubs, to make sexualised comments about other women's bodies?

As columnist Barbara Ellen put it, 'Go Girl' culture is increasingly becoming the last reserve of the fake-feminist scoundrel."

Then again, maybe this is nit-picky. After all, lack of reproductive rights aside - and it is a very big aside - we live in a society where we are not routinely beaten, genitally mutilated, confined, or enslaved. Much of our social standing is due to the continued hard slog of feminists and the supporters of feminism.

But where does feminism stop and whining begin? We still do more housework than men, say various studies. Boo hoo. Are we being forced to do this? No we are not. Nobody is making anyone do housework, other than the voices inside our own heads. Embrace the mess, or go halves on a cleaner.

Feminism, real or fake, is not about martyrdom.

Nor is it about victimising women, or hurling around terms like "rape culture". We do not live in a rape culture. Sorry, but we just don't. What we do live in a rich developed country with some of the best equality legislation in the world - not counting our medieval abortion laws - so much of our distress is, on a global scale, a bit trivial.

You know, stuff like manspreading and banning bossy. It's hardly female genital mutilation, right?

Let's keep feminism simple, and focused. It's about repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution. It's about respecting each other - all of us.

Most of all, it's embodied by the eight-year-old girl who wrote to Disney to ask them to stop gender branding. It's about how she got them to change the label on the Darth Vadar costume from "for boys" to "for kids."

Now that's what I call feminism. When we are all treated equally.

Irish Independent

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