This Wave is Kind of Hard to Surf On.
People argue that our generation is lazy. We are apathetic and unmotivated, where’s the activism, where are the protests? We have grown up with feminism -- feminism as a done deal -- and it’s difficult to ignite anger and movement over issues we think are already won. Words like ‘post-feminism’ and ‘ironic sexism’ make us think that gender discrimination is a thing of the past. The second-wavers already won those battles for us, right? We live in a culture that is experiencing very real backlash against feminist ideas, and many young women are afraid of adopting the feminist label. Some honestly believe that we don’t need it.
However, women today are not apathetic. Women have never been apathetic and we don’t plan on becoming apathetic any time soon. Welcome to third-wave feminism. In many cases we have equality on paper but not in practice. We are grateful for the work of second-wavers - much of their progress involved lobbying and policy change, and now we have a pile of rights - but discrimination still occurs in the workplace, on the streets and in the home. We want to change social norms just as much as (if not more so than) policy. Our battles can seem abstract and hard to define. We’re not fighting just to change law, but to change outdated worldviews and social behaviours.
Consciousness raising is as important as ever, and online activism is a key component of the third wave. The internet has given us a platform for open expression. People can make twitter accounts or blogs and share stories about micro-aggressions and gendered harassment – and those stories are heard, and understood, and with them we can build a better picture of women’s daily lives and of the need for feminism. These conversations are happening across great distances and many young people in particular are more informed.
It’s hard to talk about third wave feminism without talking about tumblr. Tumblr is a ‘micro-blogging’ website and it is a big deal. Users blog and re-blog, sharing tagged content that others can easily find and share. You can find tumblrs about food or fashion or the Sherlock fandom or – increasingly – about social justice issues, including feminism. Many young people are being introduced to feminism through short, inspiring posts, re-blogged between song lyrics and artistic selfies. And this is a beautiful thing. But the language used and topics highlighted by these posts is important, and reveals much of the nature of third-wave discourse. And let’s be honest – some of it is fucked up.
What we see on tumblr and in most 3rd wave discourse is a move away from ‘feminism as a social/political movement’ to ‘feminism as an individual process’. Feminism is being sold to young women as almost a self-help movement. Much of the content online and in print promotes self acceptance and self love. These are reactionary measures to the ongoing objectification of women in media; to literally unachievable physical and behavioural standards that we’re still expected to try and meet. And these reactions are valid and important. Tumblr feminism helped me stop hating my body. That’s a simple and easily overlooked sentence, so I prefer to put it like this: it gave me the ability to spend my time and energy on other things. I used to think about every meal I ate. There was a time in high school when I stopped eating, and that isn’t unusual. Hearing voices that say ‘this is not okay, your body is acceptable, now stop spending your time shaving and write a zine’ – that can be life changing. That aspect of feminism is so important. But it’s only the first step.
3rd wavers have had to fight to separate themselves from the negative stereotypes associated with feminism. Real feminists and their ideas are rarely shown in mainstream media, instead what we see are straw feminists: women who are shown to be irrationally angry, bestial and man hating. When we call ourselves feminists these are the images that many people will first call to mind and use to discredit us. Third wavers accept just as much as we want to be accepted – no one should balk at the idea of feminism, and our insistence on proving that we’re ‘not like that’ can be problematic. One of the clearest examples is our insistence on being ‘femme friendly’. We yell that no – feminists aren’t all hairy, mannish thugs. We can wear makeup and jewellery and short skirts while smashing the patriarchy. We are no longer willing to examine makeup or high heels as oppressive norms, but rather focus on how wearing these things is a “choice”. And I truly believe it is – to a point. I am typing this article in poorly applied nail polish and a dress, but I expect to be fully respected by other feminists and members of the community regardless of my choice of dress. However, it is unrealistic to claim that my choice of clothing is a free choice – that it occurs outside of a social context. We still live in a society that places intense pressure on women to conform to a certain standard of appearance, and in many ways I am meeting that standard. We seem to be fighting for our right to look conventionally attractive while still being a feminist, and this is a waste of time and energy. Of course you can wear whatever you want, but 3rd wavers insistence that ‘we’re not like that’ only further normalises women’s insane grooming. Some feminists (including us Bruisers) do have leg and armpit hair, because we’re human beings. This isn’t something we need to apologise for, and neither is pulling on a dress or applying eyeliner. But we do need to question why we do those things, and to allow ourselves to be critical of culture. Conforming to oppressive beauty standards is a choice, but it is not empowering. Demanding respect and equality no matter how you dress – that is.
It is this idea of sexualisation as empowerment that has caused a rift between many 2nd and 3rd wavers. Slutwalk – a series of global protests against rape culture in which many women reclaimed the word ‘slut’ – has been massively divisive. Organisers argue that being a slut is a ‘choice’ (there’s that word again), and is neither good nor bad. Many protestors dressed in revealing clothing to illustrate their message – that women should be safe and respected no matter what they wear, or how ‘slutty’ they are. On the surface, this is a good message.
But 2nd wavers (and a number of 3rd wavers) continue to disagree with Slutwalk, particularly its organisation and insistence on global reclamation of this abusive and ugly word. Organisers and participants of Slutwalk have been overwhelmingly white – and there’s a clear reason for this. The word ‘slut’ is easier to reclaim from a position of privilege. Slut has been used to punish, shame and silence women of colour and trans* throughout a long, fucked up history, in a way that cis white women have never experienced. For many people the word slut will never be acceptable, let alone empowering. The Slutwalk is often used as an example of third wave feminist action, and while many organisers of the march identify as feminists, dissenters have pointed out the movement’s weak connection to feminism. Slutwalk couldn’t be more about ‘personal choice’. Following criticism, American organisers seceded that reclamation was a personal choice for those who were able – others could call themselves allies. Reclaiming slut is seen as a personally empowering action and no consideration is given to the ramifications for those who are alienated by the word’s use. This is not a strong framework for the next wave of the feminist movement. This is not a strong framework for any kind of movement.
Here we see a focus on individual empowerment and success rather than on the deconstruction of the oppressive system. We are so busy assuring ourselves of our individuality, insisting on our right to ‘choose’ to buy into oppressive social norms, that we aren’t working to crush those norms. Sexual freedom is an important part of women’s liberation. The ability to have multiple sexual partners – or none. The choice to dress provocatively - or in a Pokémon onesie (possibly provocative also, idk). Sex positive feminism supports these choices and I am down with that, but I’m not down with ignoring the problems with mainstream pornography in favour of freedom of expression or ‘individual choice’. I’m not down with media and tumblr feminism’s insistence that we can find empowerment by wearing back-breaking heels and winged eyeliner. Many of us in the 3rd wave are favoring personal choice over result-oriented activism, but I am not promoting a feminism that imposes more rules and restrictions on men and women’s behaviour. I’m simply asking us to be brave.
I’m proud of the young feminists I work with and read about and get messages from on tumblr. Feminism is becoming more mainstream, more talked about, and I am proud of all us of for helping to make that happen. But I want to stop half-assing. Let’s stop trying to disassociate ourselves with ‘those extreme’ 2nd wavers. We have learned a lot from them, but we’ve forgotten a lot too. We’ve forgotten how to pull the finger at popular culture and beauty standards. We’re too afraid to recognise that the personal is political, to refuse to spend time on our bodies and clothes and focus on the things that matter. We are human beings and we have more to offer and more to demand.▼
This was first published in the zine Cute Bruiser -- they are quite awesome -- check them out!