Wednesday 11 April 2012

Feminism's back and you're gonna get in trouble

Feminism’s back, exclaims the Guardian (, in what by my count is the 6534th article of this nature since my own missive in November 2008 (

Feminism’s back and this time we don’t fit into those ‘stereotypical moulds’. We’re fun and feisty urbanites and country dwellers and some of us are even…men! Yay!

Ok. As you can probably tell from my tongue in cheek intro I’m going to critique this piece and media bias, but first of all I want to point out all the wonderful things about the article. The great thing is that this article highlights how many young women are engaging in feminist activism and running their own campaigns – girls who are still at school, the same age I was when I first read The Whole Woman and only had one friend my age who identified as a feminist. It is fantastic that these young women are getting angry, and active. It’s also thrilling that from being one of few feminist networks in the UK back in 2007, we are now one of many. And I have so much love and respect for Kat, Anna and Matt (all quoted in the article) and the brilliant work they do in empowering women and men to get active in feminism and tackle sexism.  I consider them friends; I’ve known Kat for a while, Matt contributed to my book and Anna is speaking at my book launch.  

However, just because this article celebrates such great achievements, doesn’t mean it is beyond criticism. It is an example of media bias and stereotyping of feminism. Please note that this article is not a criticism of anyone quoted in the article, but a critique of the way the ‘feminism’s back!’ narrative tends to go.

The fact that this is the 6534th article about feminism making a comeback is my first issue.

There was a point when the feminism making a comeback articles were met by us feminists with glee. After decades of the media declaring us dead whilst we stood shouting in the corner ‘we’re over here!!’, we were suddenly recognised, noticed! We were inspiring articles excitedly revealing that feminism had never died. But four years on, and the same articles are still being churned out. Feminism’s back, a lot of them are young, they don’t burn their bras (grr!), they wear lipstick (yawn!), and they love men (double yawn).

The reason this repetitive rhetoric about feminism’s Lazarus moment irritates me is because by endlessly concentrating on us being ‘back’, there’s very little concentration on what we’re doing, and what we’ve always been doing. Namely, fighting the patriarchy to end the oppression of women and liberate us all. And a lot of that activism is focused in ending violence against women and girls (in all its forms – I have a very broad definition that includes the sex industry, representation and cultural femicide) and how the patriarchy allows and excuses violence. So often I find that the celebration of ‘feminism’s back!’ goes hand in hand with articles that seek to de-politicise the movement by assuring us that we’re not like ‘stereotypical feminists’.

Almost every ‘feminism’s back!’ article spends time reassuring readers that the new, 21st century feminism isn’t like the stereotype of old, 20th century feminism. In short, these articles endlessly re-hash the old media stereotypes that feminists are ‘fat hairy lesbians’ in order to encourage readers to understand that nowadays feminists aren’t always ‘fat hairy lesbians’. But what this narrative spectacularly fails to do is demand to know why there’s this belief that it’s wrong to be fat, or hairy, or a lesbian. Because one of the HUGE points of feminism is to question repressive beauty ideals invented by the patriarchy that waste women’s time, energy, money and self-esteem; as well as question hetero-normativity and compulsory heterosexuality. Feminism means standing against patriarchal beauty ideals that say women are only acceptable if they’re thin, shaven and straight.

It simply isn’t acceptable for the media to be using offensive and homophobic tropes to try to ‘sell’ feminism. Yes, it’s important to break down stereotypes, but if that isn’t coupled with an understanding that these stereotypes are a typical way that patriarchy seeks to shut women up, then we’re not moving forward. Especially if it means the same media is simultaneously silencing the women who don’t fit feminism’s so-called ‘new mould’.

Like many ‘feminism’s back!’ articles, this piece in the Guardian focuses on the fight against sexual objectification and the sex industry. This is a fight I have been long involved in myself, and it has become one of the key feminist issues. Organisations like UK Feminista, Object and the Anti Porn Men Project are well versed on the links between sexual objectification and violence against women and girls – how one can cause the other and how we cannot fight one without fighting the other. As feminist groups, these organisations are active in fighting VAWG and in discovering the links between how various means of oppression are linked, and they work in solidarity with other feminist orgs who might have a primary focus on violence. As a co-ordinator of Bristol Feminist Network, I’m a member of UK Feminista and Object and I am awed by the incredible work they do. However I find that all too often ‘feminism’s back!’ articles are reluctant to make these vital links between objectification and violence – de-politicising a political issue. 

Further, 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.

Another problem is that by tending to always focus attention on three organisations, the media tends to make the rest of us invisible. The media loves leaders, it loves a spokesperson. But the beauty of the feminist movement is that we don’t have leaders. We’re all standing together fighting patriarchy. I don’t believe that the women and men promoted to leadership by the media see themselves in that role. Again, it’s patriarchy demanding that we play by their rules and have a hierarchical structure where someone’s in charge.

My final comment pertains to men. Now, I have to point out that I am not a separatist although I understand and support the need for women-only space. I believe that men should be feminists because I believe everyone should be a feminist. I think anyone who looks at how patriarchy and male privilege is used to oppress women (and looks at how intersectionality and privilege works to oppress others) and doesn’t go ‘woah – we need to sort this mess out’ needs to ask themselves some serious questions. I co-run a feminist network that is mixed (although most sessions are women only because only women turn up). When we feel it is necessary, then we will specify that an event will be women only (open to all self-identifying women). This mainly happens if we are having an open space to talk about male violence against women and girls. I don’t believe, as someone said in an activist group meeting once, that we should be grateful that men want to be feminists. I don’t feel I should be grateful because I feel we should demand that everyone stands up for liberation and equality.

The (majority of) men I know who identify as feminists are incredibly supportive and respectful. They don’t fall into the old traps of talking over women, telling women how to be feminists or denying women’s experience.

However, I can’t help but feel a little aggrieved when ‘feminism’s back’ articles spend so much time talking about how men are involved now, at the expense of talking about what women are doing. I also find it incredibly frustrating that these articles fail to recognise the necessity of women-only space and the necessity of radical feminist views and actions. I feel all too often that these articles expect feminists to put aside our political and valid reasons for critiquing patriarchy and, particularly, male violence, in order to make sure men feel included. And I feel doubly frustrated because the (majority of) feminist men I know do not make this demand. They don’t complain about women-only space, they respect women’s experiences, they are willing to tackle their privilege and are part of the fight against patriarchy.

The other incredibly angry-making thing about this media bias is that when we spend so much time talking about making feminism acceptable for men, a focus is lost on how feminism needs to be relevant and real to women, all women.

Last year annifrangipani of BFN and I spoke at an academic conference about feminist activism. During our Q&A, a woman in the audience asked us where the men were at this conference (there weren’t any there). But she didn’t ask where the BME women in the audience were, or the women from non-university educated backgrounds (there weren’t any there). Sometimes we are so concerned with making sure we get men in the room, we forget to get women in the room.

Feminism is a movement for everyone. As I said, I believe everyone should be a feminist. I love the sense of solidarity and sisterhood that I get from being a feminist, the feeling that I am standing shoulder to shoulder with women and men across the globe, fighting for liberation. What I don’t love is the media creating an acceptable version of feminism that de-politicises and silences big chunks of the movement so that they can reassure everyone that it’s ‘cool’ to be a feminist now, whether you’re a woman or a man.

It IS cool to be a feminist. Because we’re leading a revolution that will change the world. Not because we’re ‘country dwellers or urbanites’. Because we have the power to liberate everyone from patriarchy. And we’re going to piss people off along the way.

I wouldn’t have written my post if I hadn’t been inspired by this first.

Here’s The Angels singing the song that inspired this post title:

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