I know you had no idea, but: feminism's back!

Wednesday 11 April 2012

On the subject of feminism being 'back', you know how I feel. If you don't, it can be summed up in three simple points.

1) It never went away!
2) According to the media, the 'new feminism' has been undergoing a resurgence since round about 2005. Clearly it's not 'new' any more.
3) The 'new' feminist activism actually focuses on more than lad's mags, assuring men that they can be feminists too, and Playboy. Not that you would think it, because most other issues aren't titillating or 'controversial' enough for the papers.

Monday afternoon. Enter a Guardian piece entitled 'Feminists hail explosion in new grassroots groups'. Let's get a few things straight. I don't think this is a bad thing. I like the fact that it talks about teenagers organising a feminist group at their school (I'm not sure I had any real awareness of gender issues whatsoever when I was their age, sadly, so good for them). I think the fact that the number of grassroots feminist organisations in the UK has doubled in the past two years is awesome. I obviously have no issue with men expressing solidarity and challenging problematic patriarchy-related issues.

But I do think that yet again, it needs to be said that it would do the Guardian et al good to step outside their comfort zone and discuss the 'new feminism' without going over the same issues, without getting quotes from the same people, and without failing to represent the movement accurately. Sian has also blogged about this today. She says:

"...the ‘new feminism’ is repeatedly portrayed as being only and always focused on matters pertaining to sexual objectification in itself, away from its impact. They also tend to refuse to acknowledge that there are other feminist orgs beyond UK Feminista, Object and the Anti Porn Men’s Project. I’d love to read a ‘feminism’s back’ article that interviewed other organisations that are active on a range of vital feminist issues. Sexual objectification and the sex industry is a huge issue that impacts on many, many issues that need to be tackled. It doesn’t exist in isolation and it shouldn’t be reported without investigation of its impact. By portraying the movement as only focused in this area, the media is doing feminism, and the orgs being represented, a big disservice."

Actually, when it portrays the movement as solely focused on 'objectification', it not only does feminism a huge disservice, it also annoys a lot of people. People who campaign on other issues or mainly focus on other things, and feel that their voices and their causes don't matter. People who, just for once, would like to see a celebratory article that talks about other issues on the feminist spectrum. How do I mean? Well, other people have been writing in response to the article. Adunni Adams, on the Black Feminists blog, says:

"The announcement that something (or anything) is happening at the grassroots level of the feminist movement – not to mention the fact that the movement has caught the attention of the mainstream media – could, and should, have reflected the true strength of the movement in its depth, dynamism and diversity at all levels."

And another post that raises some important issues has a similar point to make:

"I do support action which highlights the objectification of women and girls, but there is such diversity within this movement, and it is being ignored. I am glad that these actions are taking place and I don’t wish to criticise participants. I wish to criticise media bias. 
"When our movement is portrayed like this, it actually excludes women and girls who need feminism most. It seems irrelevant. It seems silly. It seems like a hobby."

As I've pointed out before, some of the first negative comments that arise in response to articles like the one in the Guardian on Monday are always those that accuse 'the new feminism' (Media-Acceptable Variety) of being nothing more than a series of get-togethers for middle-class white 'girls' who have nothing better to do with their time than worry about trivial first world problems. And that criticism doesn't just come from trolls 'below the line'. It comes from within the movement, from people who feel excluded and pushed aside by the messages they're seeing in the news and the faces they're supposed to identify with as spokespeople.

I wondered recently whether or not 21st century feminism needs easily-identifiable 'leaders', and expressed concern that media-appointed 'leaders', who very often have no desire to be viewed as such, are often predictably-chosen, cause division, and end up being cast as celebrity activists whether they like it or not. They become the go-to for a soundbite, the go-to for a headshot. The 'important' ones. And funnily enough, they don't often represent a huge amount of diversity. Believe it or not, this ruffles feathers. We've seen it happen over here with that documentary series on feminism from a couple of years ago. We've seen it across the Atlantic with the way discussions about spokespeople and 'leaders' and media-appointed 'influential feminists' (that would be white, straight, affluent ones) play out. I think the media has also got somewhat fixated on the inclusion of men. Yes, we get it. The 'new feminism' isn't about man-hating! These days you can want equality and have a boyfriend at the same time! In trying to make gender equality more palatable, is this focus diluting certain key aspects of feminism?

I'm really pleased that Lexy Topping, who wrote the Guardian piece, has responded in the comments on the Black Feminists blog and detailed how it wasn't her intention to portray the movement in this way. As I said at the beginning of this post, I have no problem with what her article is getting at and I don't think that the other responses I have linked above are meant as an attack on her either. Let's hope the discussion started by all this leads to some more diversity in the future. There is activism beyond Object. But then you knew that, didn't you?

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