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Between views on contraception access going corporate and Hollywood’s ballooning infatuation with strong, quirky, and unapologetically convention-breaching female ingénues, time is ripe to consider the current role of feminism in mainstream American society.  Like many social movements, today’s post-third-wave feminism is simultaneously evolving and devolving; expanding and truncating.  Though overall, the movement continues to achieve great successes, with women leaning in and breaking out and exceeding huge goals, feminism is also bogged down by external stigma and internal fragmentation. 

While the latter phenomenon is a standard byproduct of almost any sustained social movement, the former is a fairly unique problem, and one that is largely propagated by Hollywood and the scandal-mongering media: short of major gaffes or salacious revelations, few topics create a more efficient frenzy than a young female celebrity’s position on, or affiliation with, feminism.  From luring online readers with newsfeed fodder to spinning out-of-context soundbites on TV, media outlets seem fixated on periodically tracking down starlets, crudely grilling them about their stance on feminism, and twisting the response in some pejorative way.

The media’s one-two-punch trick works like a fork in a chess game: there is no way to come out of the confrontation unscathed.  In “are you a feminist?” interview terms, there are two options: answer in the affirmative and risk commercial credibility (because, you know, the scary “F” word might hinder mainstream approval); reject the label or refuse to play ball and risk alienation and backlash from the powerful liberal periphery.  Creating this double-edged sword for young celebrities (many of whom likely grace the inspiration boards of countless little girls), the media does far more damage than simply selling clickbait and stories at the interviewee’s expense.  By implicitly illustrating (via pejorative spin) that an affirmative response is, to put it mildly, not in the responder’s best pecuniary interest, the media sends a message to anyone who might be tuning in: feminism is a stigmatizing, polarizing, misunderstood term, and many women—even spunky, progressive women—are afraid to affiliate with it.  Indeed, by offering an affirmative response (even if it’s calculated, tempered, or vague), the interviewee subjects herself to scrutiny from both critics and sympathizers of feminism. 

The path of least resistance — as several feminist writers have pointed out in their assessments of the feminist backlash against young starlets who are cornered into taking a clumsily articulated position on feminism —seems to entail denying outright feminist affiliation or support, but then saying things that sound smart and progressive and supportive of things that are basically synonymous with feminism. 

On the one hand, this approach seems like a PR-reviewed compromise.  On the other hand, the fact that a woman has to circumnavigate the “F” word and come up with a calculated, politically correct, commercially sound, socially acceptable response instead of being able to honestly answer a relatively straightforward question is patently ludicrous.  Then the real circus begins—the media chops up the ingénue’s response, takes it out of context, makes her sound vacant or itinerant or old-fashioned or confused, and watches the web traffic grow.  Meanwhile, those who consider themselves feminists catch wind of the young celebrity’s snafu (because typically, it’s viewed as a snafu) and then more scathing commentary is unleashed.  Shaming, lecturing, and criticism may ensue, or perhaps just some quiet disappointment.  Regardless of the aftermath, it’s rarely positive. 

Those who watch these scenes play out in the media notice the pattern fairly quickly: young celebrities who respond to questions about feminism are in for a rough time from both supporters and critics of feminism.  For those who admire said young female celebrities, this pattern might create a negative association with feminism.  With opinion formation occurring in microseconds based on choppy web content and loosely established social connections, young women may choose to forego doing the research on what feminism is actually about, and rely on those tangentially observed negative associations to form their opinions, and eventually, their cardinal beliefs. 

But consider the following questions in a vacuum.  Is supporting feminism—a movement rooted in achieving respect and equality among all humans—really that radical?  What makes this movement such an outlier on the spectrum of social causes?  Why is there so much disconnect between feminism as a movement and individuals whose personal beliefs are closely aligned with it?  Perhaps the issue here is that feminism is chronically misunderstood, especially today—even by its own proponents.  How can we wrap our heads around this enigmatic concept—this feminist mystique?

In order to form a well-informed opinion on feminism, it’s important to view the movement—with its 3.5 incarnations, changing priorities and centuries of history—from a holistic perspective.  In a way, because of how far feminism has come over the last 150 years, the movement finds itself splintered into so many different factions that it becomes difficult to truly define and understand its status quo. Though many people view feminism as the pursuit of equality among the sexes and the recognition of their differences (a commonly accepted rough definition), others view it as a movement concerned solely with the advancement of women (a common misconception).  Some see feminism as little more than a male-criticizing, bra-burning parade, while others associate feminism with women angrily demanding special treatment (we can only hope that these two dated stereotypes are on their way out).  Too often, people’s views of feminism are based on tired notions which reflect a single snapshot observation—something a woman said that was taken out of context; a moment of rebellion from a bygone era where some singular act was used to symbolize something far bigger than its literal implication.  With so many incomplete, outdated, or simply inaccurate interpretations of this movement, it is easy to forget feminism’s impressive history and misunderstand its roots.

What started as a quest for basic equality in the 19th century (the first wave, concerned with achieving voting, education, labor and property rights) evolved into a larger movement of women’s liberation (the second wave, which sought to recognize sexual, familial and reproductive rights) during the Civil Rights Era.  The second wave touched on subjects previously thought of as taboo and unbroachable (domestic violence, marital and reproductive rights) challenging traditional norms of family structure—and women’s roles therein.  On legislative and social fronts, the rights, freedoms and opportunities for women won by the first two waves of feminism found enough support, and eventually, acceptance, to the point that many of them are crystallized as norms today.  Changing mainstream values from flagrant sexism to a far more respectful and equality-seeking society over the course of just a few decades, the first two waves of feminism achieved an incredible amount of good for women. 

With the benefit of hindsight, the third wave of the 1980s made efforts to reach beyond the scope of the opinions of white, middle-class women on which much of the second and first wave relied in prior decades.  Addressing issues of race, sexual orientation, sexuality, and the preconceived notions of femininity while employing creative means of self-expression, the third wave sought to convey that no singular definition for feminism or the typical female should exist: all women are individuals who are entitled to their own choices and beliefs, no matter what those might be.  The third wave challenged the notions established by its predecessors by pointing out the shortcomings of having one definitive viewpoint or agenda for an entire social movement.  Ideas that were viewed by the second wave as bad for women, such as male objectification, provocative attire, or vying for a traditional family role, were reassessed from a more objective perspective. 

It is partly out of this expanded, individualistic view of feminism that today’s confusion about the movement arises.  The third wave introduced so many variations on a theme that the formation of conflicting views was inevitable.  What made sense to Riot Grrls did not work for those who had more traditionalist preferences.  What inspired the women who started the Slut Walk might have upset the second-wavers.  The same forces behind the third wave that motivated women to go out into the world and find their own niche created so many niches that feminism now carries thousands of different meanings, depending on the “waver’s” individual views.  Though this is not, by any means, a bad thing, the individualism of modern feminism does make it a bit difficult to pinpoint a central agenda and value system for the movement.  It also theoretically gives anyone carte blanche to comment, criticize, and shame people for not being pro-feminist/feminist enough if the words or actions of the evaluee are at odds with the viewpoints of the evaluator.  This is the composite result of having an open definition for feminism, an open floor for judgment, and a growing trend for shaming and chastising people on the internet. 

Adding to the confusion surrounding the “feminism” term is that what resonates with the collective opinion of mainstream society is often the loudest, newsworthy, or peripheral position out of a whole spectrum of positions.  Thus, the bra-burning, protesting, ranting stereotype for “feminist” of yesteryear continues to make the rounds through society’s conception of feminism, while the less radical, passionate and progressive advocate for equality becomes a secondary concept—even an afterthought.  Then, when someone tries to debunk the dated and pejorative notions to explain what feminism is really about, people tend to offer an array of conflicting opinions. 

Since defining the concept is so difficult, identifying with feminism may pose similar issues.  As a result, some women prefer to support the goals of feminism with which they are familiar without affiliating with the movement outright.  Others, aware of the potential for misinterpretation that “feminism” carries, push for redefining its penumbra of ideas of positivity and empowerment under a different name (the Spice Girls promoted “Girl Power;” Queen Bey proposed “bootylicious;” others suggest “equality for all”).  In that sense, there is actually a lot of support for feminism today—it’s just that people have different ways of expressing it.

Though in the future, the movement will continue to face multiple challenges, incite heated debate, and, in some of its more extreme interpretations, propagate certain misconceptions and misunderstandings, it will also continue to forge onward, inspiring and empowering women along the way. While feminism would probably do better without the hashtag sloganeering and classifying and word ban campaigning and celebrity shaming, these unsavory features of the movement’s Greek chorus periphery also serve as great lessons.  Feminism seeks to give people choices—to think and say and do as they please.  This will inevitably result in biting rants for some and inspirational oratorios for others.  In the aggregate, just the fact that there are any options at all—and that they are being freely exercised—is a good thing.

While the stigma and labels and negative associations with feminism are unlikely to disappear anytime soon, it doesn’t mean that women have to listen.  Though the media might continue carrying out its ulterior motives by prodding female celebrities with its predictably malevolent questions, women can change the course of the conversation.  Instead of hawkishly waiting for some young celebrity to fall prey to a media “feminism” fork like a prep school Oprichnik relishing in the screw-ups of a naïve ninth-grader, women can offer some supportive, seasoned feedback and assure the celebrity—and whoever else is listening—that it’s okay to not have a fully formed opinion on something as complex as feminism, that feminism means different things to different people, and that it takes time to decide whether or not to identify with the movement.  Instead of feeding into the negativity of the harpy corners of the internet by glibly proclaiming that some young celebrity is dreadfully uninformed, tragically retro, and/or must be reprimanded for her infractions against an entire social movement, we can positively encourage those who may not be all that familiar with feminism to learn more about its history and values to form their very own definitions and opinions.

-Stylish Council[Image Credit: Rupsha B.]

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