Time to use the label to generate real change.

by: Valerie Silva

I am not going to lie. When I first saw Beyoncé gyrating to the lyrics of “Blow”—“When you’re thirsty and need love / I give it up till I’m empty baby / Must be good to you”—with the FEMINIST banner towering over her, I cringed. How is this feminism? And, why are we celebrating it? Nearly two years later, and with the release of “Formation” (her hypersexual brand of feminism more nuanced, but still there), I still ask myself similar questions. But, then I stop myself because if there is one thing that isn’t “feminist” it’s decrying powerful women, like Queen B—especially when they’ve uniquely disseminated feminism to the masses.

 

The concept of feminism entertained by millennials is a stark departure from that of other generations.

Gone are the days when feminism meant banding together for universal equality. Today, the movement has been distilled to mean the pursuit of personal freedom. It sounds similar at its core, but its execution is barely recognizable. Grassroots activism, college campus rallies, and DIY feminist zines have been replaced by the Internet and its endless opportunities for individual expression.  The shift from the community to the individual, however, hasn’t necessarily resulted in harmful divisiveness. Because all personal freedoms are celebrated, everyone is included. And, so, feminism is more inclusive than ever. Or, so, it seems.

 

The women’s movement has expanded to include men (think of Emma Watson’s hugely successful HeForShe campaign) and to support women who oppose the fight for reproductive rights (Republican candidate Carly Fiorina), or diminish the challenges faced by black female entertainers (Cue: the Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj Twitter feud). I’m all for increased inclusivity (something that previous waves of feminism dangerously lacked), but is there such a thing as being too inclusive? Where does it end? If women like Fiorina can sit at our table, what happens when a “feminist” who is against universal voting rights does? Is she entitled to her opinions and admired for pursuing them? That seems like a much easier answer. So, why are millennial feminists so hell-bent on welcoming everyone with open arms?

 

Despite articles like this one that problematize the trendiness and surface application of feminism, feminism—or #feminism—is not as openly embraced as social media may lead us to believe. A recent study, the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, cites that 94% of American women support feminism’s fundamental tenet: women and men should be politically, socially, and economically equal. However, only 17% of women would call themselves strong feminists. Why the discrepancy? And, even more interestingly, why is this number so low? Why are there more Beyoncé lovers than self-proclaimed feminists? And, why hasn’t Beyoncé convinced them? In her forthcoming book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, Andi Zeiler writes, “For the most part, feminist celebrities are engaging with feminism not as an ethic that is complex and evolving, but as this static brand identity.” But, some celebrities are making real initiatives. Meryl Streep created a fund for women screenwriters over the age of 40. Lena Dunham is the creator of Girls and Lenny, platforms created to directly address the issues that plague the 21st century woman. Meanwhile, Patricia Arquette used her Oscar speech to advocate for wage equality in Hollywood.

 

Sounds good, right? And, yet, I’ve never witnessed more animosity between women. With this climate of extreme inclusivity comes more subtle and nuanced disagreements between feminists. Under the shared, always viable label of feminist, but without its unifying theoretical foundations, women have no reason to overcome their idiosyncratic definitions—no matter how pernicious to the fight for gender equality. Feminist reactions to the Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton debate in the American presidential campaign have shown that barriers that inclusivity does not necessarily translate to universal support. The fact that the US has finally descended from its high horse and entertained the idea of a female running mate—whether or not you choose to back her—should expand feminist discussions rather than contaminate them. Instead, millennial feminists are bogged down by the message that their vote sends to other women. Most troubling is the backlash, amongst millennial women, against Clinton supporters who have been critiqued for “voting with their vagina.” Do we not have enough confidence in our fellow women to trust that they their decisions are informed, well thought out, and move beyond their anatomical parts?

 

If intersectionality solved the one-dimensionality of “white” feminism, and extreme inclusivity solves the harmful divisions caused by identity politics, what do we need to solve the fact that feminism has become a catchall term used by the media for search engine optimization, readership spikes, and to generate tabloid feuds amongst powerful women? I’m not sure what the next step could look like (hence all the questions), but something tells me that feminism—or whatever else you may call it—will come full circle. Without increased accountability and a deeper, more self-aware engagement with the issues at hand, millennial women will continue to pit themselves against each other. Beyoncé has inspired legions of women to call themselves feminists, but it’s time that they use the label to generate change, not Instagram or Facebook likes.

 

 

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