Wednesday 20 March 2019

Katie Byrne: Is modern feminism eating itself?

The women's movement has enjoyed stunning success - but are keyboard warriors on social media turning it into a self-cannibalising catfight?

Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Have we reached the fourth-wave of feminism? That's the question being asked by academics and armchair activists alike, as new schisms unfold and new figureheads emerge within the modern women's movement.

While the existence of an entirely new wave of feminism is up for debate, there is no doubt that modern feminism has transmogrified into a perplexity of factions, under which an umbrella of minorities are represented.

Perhaps Feminism 2.0 is a better term. Social media has popularised and democratised the movement, and what was an alternative interest as recently as 10 years ago has moved into the mainstream of the millennials' daily newsfeed.

Beyoncé now performs against a backdrop of the word 'Feminist', lit up in giant letters, during her concerts. Barack Obama - always righter than right on - recently wrote an essay on feminism for Glamour magazine.

Yet 'hashtag feminism', as it is known, is a double-edged sword: the viral nature of social media is great for rousing people power, but not so great for discourse.

While social media has been used to great effect to promote campaigns like Repeal the Eighth and, more recently, Waking the Feminists, there is a shadow side to the type of feminist discourse that takes place on social media platforms.

Taking a stand: Emer O'Toole (right), author of Girls Will Be Girls
Taking a stand: Emer O'Toole (right), author of Girls Will Be Girls

A medium like Twitter, for instance, is both competitive in that posts are validated with likes, and confining, in that tweets can't go beyond 140 characters. Make your point; just make sure it's on point - even better if it's witty and pithy.

Many would argue that social media's voracious appetite for instant impact and wider reach isn't compatible with an issue as complex as feminism. It certainly creates a culture in which in-fighting, point-scoring and hysteria thrive - and things can get ugly.

Radical feminists spar with liberal feminists. White feminists spar with WOC (Women of Colour) feminists. Some women have started to define themselves as 'equalists'. Others are tagged as 'meninists' when they support the men's rights movement.

Elsewhere, Annie Lennox, talking about Beyoncé's brand of feminism, gave us the descriptor "Feminism Lite", while Roe McDermott, writing for The Pool, introduced us to the "faux-feminist" - a man who claims feminist beliefs to "manipulate [his] way into power, pants and hearts".

Add eco-feminism, neo-feminism and this curious new form of nudist feminism to the mix, and things become even more confusing.

"The expression of feminist politics is becoming more prevalent in different forms of media - both commercial and alternative - but at the same time, the question of what feminism is has never been more fractured," says Professor Diane Negra, head of film studies at University College Dublin and Commissioner on the Commission for Gender Inequality and Power in the UK.

Running alongside these many new subsets and factions is Feminism™. Women's brands like Pantene and Always have piggybacked the movement and launched campaigns that challenge gender norms.

The short films that these brands have created to promote their initiatives ('Sorry, Not Sorry' and 'Like A Girl' respectively) are compelling, but it's hard to get away from the fact that they are ultimately designed to push product. Where there is a bottom line, it's not what you can do for feminism but what feminism can do for you.

Andi Zeisler, author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, calls this "marketplace feminism" - a brand of feminism with a "cool, fun, accessible identity".

"The diversity of voices, issues, approaches, and processes required to make feminism work as an inclusive social movement is precisely the kind of knotty, unruly insurrection that just can't be smoothed into a neat brand," she adds.

It's not only the big brands that are exploiting feminism for personal gain. Diane points to the personal branding movement. "There is this neoliberal idea that we should all be brands and our role in the world is to cultivate our self-brand," she explains. "And it's increasingly possible to make one's brand or career based on a feminist identity.

"Ten or 15 years ago, a whole range of celebrities, almost as a ritual gesture, would disavow feminism. Now we have these celebrity figures who emphatically claim feminism as a big part of their identity.

"The kind of feminism they espouse is plutocratic, or mercantile. Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In with good intentions but there are limits on how much a Facebook billionaire can tell us about feminism."

The other thing about brands is that they constantly need to reinvent. This could explain the endless dissection of gender differences, and the many newly coined words that punctuate modern feminist discourse.

Incidents of 'mansplaining', 'manspreading' and 'manslamming' may not be of major concern to every feminist, but it's worth noting that this new wave of feminism also brought progressive terms like 'slut-shaming' and 'victim-blaming' into common parlance - and paved the way for a wider discussion on consent.

Ellen O'Malley Dunlop, former CEO of Dublin's Rape Crisis Centre and Adjunct Professor of Law in UL, points out that there is still no statutory definition for consent in Irish law.

"There were a lot of really positive things in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015, but people are still blaming the victim: how they were dressed, what state they were in… We need attitudinal change in this regard."

A recent Eurobarometer study bears this out. Twenty-one per cent of Irish people think that sex without consent is justified in certain situations. Nine per cent said that sexual intercourse without consent is justified if the person is wearing revealing or sexy clothing. Eleven per cent said that being under the influence of alcohol or drugs justifies sex without consent.

Another recent study by Women's Aid found that 87pc of women who died violently in Ireland over the last 20 years were killed by a man they knew.

Meanwhile, the gender pay gap in Ireland stands at 20pc. The gap widens for MBA holders, according to recruitment firm Morgan McKinley. Their research found that women with an Executive MBA earn an average of €32,500 less than their male counterparts annually.

Orla O'Connor, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland, says the gender pay gap is largely due to women taking on the burden of care in society. "When families have children, it makes no statistical impact on men's career patterns. Women are the ones taking time out."

She adds that women are more likely to take time off work to look after a sick child or an incapacitated parent, while grandmothers generally take on the lion's share of babysitting duties.

This is the grey area of the gender pay gap. The distribution of care work is a complex, and sometimes uncomfortable, conversation, but it's one that needs to happen - at home rather than just online.

"As the discussion on feminism has grown, which is a really positive thing, often we focus on the symptoms rather than the structural inequalities," adds Orla. "Having a wider discussion on feminism gives us an opportunity to focus on the whys."

Yet online feminism doesn't encourage discussion: it sparks debate. Some feminist channels have become echo chambers where those who dare to express a contrary opinion are ostracised. Others single out and shame The White Male, perhaps without realising that witch hunts often precede cycles of systemic oppression.

Anna Carey, author and co-founder of pioneering blog, the Anti-Room, respectfully disagrees. "Twitter obviously isn't an ideal medium for discussing complex subjects, and yes, there can be pointless fighting and pile-ons, but I think online feminism is sometimes unfairly maligned," she says.

"Twitter has allowed lots of marginalised women to find communities of like-minded people, and hashtags such as #EverydaySexism have served a real purpose, basically acting as old-school consciousness raising. So while there are definite downsides to activism on social media, I generally think the good far outweighs the bad."

"I think in any movement you're going to have the extreme," adds Ellen. "It's the same in the political world - there's the pull to the right and the pull to the left and the middle ground is getting scarcer and scarcer."

The mother of four sons adds that her own beliefs don't always resonate with modern feminist ideology. "I like my son opening the door for me - I'm not going to say, 'Don't open the door. I can do it myself! I like those kinds of things."

Other women don't. Modern feminist idealogy is becoming increasingly individualised, or "micro-segmented" as Diane puts is. Micro-issues like men opening doors, leaving toilet seats up and spreading their legs apart on public transport, are given as much airtime as the macro issues.

For every feminist who is concerned about structural gender equality, there is another who is distressed about the exact definition of the word feminist. For every feminist who has something to say about the pay gap, there is another with something to say about 'thigh gap', and why it's a feminist issue.

It begs the question: Are we overlooking the big, potentially transformative, conversations when we examine Taylor Swift's feminist credentials or ask if 'twerking' is a form of female empowerment? Do we lose sight of a unified agenda when the movement devolves into them-and-us in-fighting?

In the essay Miami, Nora Ephron wrote about how in-fighting over the meaning of feminism cannibalised the second wave of the movement in the 1970s. Is modern feminism going the same way?

Dr Emer O'Toole, assistant professor of Irish Performance Studies at Concordia University and author of Girls Will Be Girls, doesn't think so.

"I am surprised by those who consider these controversies to be symptomatic of feminism imploding or becoming toxic. For me, it's clearly the opposite.

"These debates are the sign of a movement that refuses to accept orthodoxies, that constantly interrogates its own prejudices, and that cares deeply about creating a community which listens to individual women's stories yet studies structural oppressions."

Diane is equally optimistic about the future of feminism, but she's also mindful of the need for a guiding ethos. "Instead of a feminism that can shapeshift to be anything you want it to be, I hope that we can agree on a collective value."

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