We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement was as heavy with content and discussion as the title depicts. It covers the history of modern feminism, from the second feminist wave of the 60’s/70’s and the good and bad that came from it, through to our current fourth wave, and the good and bad the movement currently faces, quite specifically of the commercial marketplace’s up-take of all things ‘feminist’.
I am always interested in reading about current and historical feminist trials and tribulations, as I feel that the underlying message and goals of feminism are wonderful and should be the status quo of the world we live in, however I can also hear the loud voices that oppose anything that looks or smells a bit feminist. Cos those voices are LOUD, and are still in great numbers. So I read and research and try to understand what went wrong, or what part of the picture I haven’t been exposed to yet, to get a better sense of the thing that I’d like to fight for.
What I understand so far about why feminism hasn’t made the leaps and bounds it perhaps should have by now, is the historical in-fighting, lack of diversity represented, and then the bad rap the label ‘feminism’ has attracted since the beginning; women get more rights and freedoms and the world turns to shit, you know, that sort of thing. Oh and that feminists all angry and ugly, and therefore not worth listening to. The writer of this book, co-founder and creative director of Bitch Media, Andi Zeisler, summed up the complexity and difficulty surrounding the feminism wave of today beautifully with the following:
“Take a movement that continually battles to justify its very existence, made up of millions of individuals with attendant millions of personalities, politics and priorities. Throw in the multitude of of causes and projects intrinsic to that movement, as well as the structural issues that too often make addressing them an exercise in wheel-spinning: lack of interest, lack of funding, and lack of time, to name just three. And to those a history in which “feminism” has been broadly defined and disproportionately led by middle-class, educated able-bodied white women. And finally, drizzle in the contemporary mainstream – and social-media climate that prizes conflict over nuance and shock over substance.”
Andi discusses feminism as a political brand that has been co-opted by pop culture and commercialised to the point you can buy yourself some ‘Feminist’ printed granny panties, should you feel the urge. Which I had actually seen myself and just chalked it up as part of the 90’s throwback that’s enjoying its time in the limelight again, thanks to the kids of today. But it’s not just granny panties, I’ve seen it printed on t-shirts and patches and pins and caps too. And while I’m all for wearing your love-and-equality-based political motivations loud-and-proud, but when selling a t-shirt with the word ‘Feminist’ on it, I would have expected that some action is linked to the product by the person selling it. But I’m increasingly seeing streetwear start-ups by young things selling these items, with no social difference being made, just dollars in pockets. Just because you’re female and run a business, that doesn’t make you automatically a feminist. Actions make a feminist, not gender or ‘attitude’. Legitimising ‘feminist’ products with some sort of linked give-back or issue awareness is a great start; some sort of substance behind the commerce.
On the flip-side to the idea of ‘legitimising’ feminist product by a connected ‘do-good’ action, Andi pointed out how many companies do both, yet are still a bit false in their intentions. For example, we have Dove and their ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’; you know, the one with all the diversely racial and sized women in their plain white underwear looking happy and comfortable AF. Well, at the same time Dove has been running this campaign (which has it’s own issues with placing ingrained beauty standards blame back on the consumer), its parent company is producing and distributing products that counter the campaign’s message, like skin-lightening cream which is sold across the Middle East and South Asia. The fuck?!
Andi also discusses the over-use and over-sell of the word ’empower’. Which, once she pointed it out in the book, I could think of examples straight away of where I’d seen the word used in some female-related product or event or service, and it had bothered me a little. Like, I’d paused to take that nano-second to wonder, was the thing they were trying to sell actually ‘empowering’, or was it more of a feminist/female buzzword used to make this thing seem more relevant and worthwhile to a female audience? On this idea alone, I would recommend taking a moment to wonder the same thing when you next have the word EMPOWER put in front of your face. More often than not, someone is likely just trying to sell you something, and it might not actually be all that empowering.
A quote from Andi on this subject that summed up marketplace feminism’s intent nicely:
“The central conflict… is that while feminist movements seek to change systems, marketplace feminism prioritises individuals. The wingwoman of neo-liberalism, marketplace feminism ‘s focus is on casting systemic issues as personal ones and cheerily dispensing commercial fixes for them…. It encourages us to believe that if we hit walls at school, at work, in relationships, in leadership, it’s not anything to do with gender, but with problems that can be resolved with better self-esteem, more confidence, maybe some life coaching.”
And don’t even get me started about life coaches… that’s a whole other post-worth of dialogue!
I’d highly recommend We Were Feminists Once to feminists, the feminism-curious, and anyone who runs or would like to run a feminism-skewed business. Andi goes into many of the nuances of the feminism discussion in pop culture, and the differences showing up in today’s fourth wave of feminism, when compared to the last two waves.