OPINION: When feminism becomes trendy
It hit me when I saw models sashaying down a runway, placards in hand, bearing slogans like 'History is Herstory' and 'Freedom'. The uneasy image of a 'feminist' revolution staged for popular consumption. The show was for one of the biggest fashion houses. The models were household names. Feminism, tweed pantsuits and bright prints were declared the Spring 2014 trends. And in that second I thought: 'He was right. Feminism is not for everyone, but it can be'.
A while ago, I wrote a piece titled ' We are all bad feminists and that's ok', drawing on Roxane Gay's idea about us all having inherent contradictions that appear to not sit well with our feminism, but are a fundamental part of being human and flawed. It was extremely hopeful about the possibilities of feminism and popular culture. Sekoetlane Phamodi replied to it with a thoughtful article that highlighted some of the blind-spots of the article and viewed the trend of pop culture feminism as 'a singularly important but equally dangerous thing for the feminist movement'.
The trouble with the trendiness of feminism is that when the label 'feminist' is removed from the hard personal and public work associated with fighting a highly complex system of inequality and injustice, it can exist in name only. In retrospect, and as pop culture feminism evolves into something evermore en-vogue, I find myself agreeing more and more with Phamodi. The beauty and challenge of constantly thinking things through is that sometimes you will change your mind and at others you will enhance your argument. As we grow, read and think more, we constantly reconsider and remould our ideas.
Seeing feminism unfold as it enters mainstream discussions and debates, television screens, fashion magazines and runways, it is evident that many things are labelled feminist when they have the aesthetics of feminism, or some semblance of relating to women's rights or personal choice, but do not require the important element that Phamodi singled out: the work of feminism, or any consistency in approach.
As he wrote: 'For those of us who claim (or are thinking about claiming) the feminist identity, we need to be clear about what it is that we're committing our lives to, how it is that we can advance the political project and what not to do to protect the movement from being derailed from its sure and steady course to freedom.'
Everywhere you turn, some perfume, fashion house, or public figure is declared feminist. A recent column in Elle magazine declared Miss Dior 'the embodiment of new feminism and liberty' because of the inception of the perfume brand - inspired by Mademoiselle Catherine Dior who was a highly awarded member of the French Resistance - and the narrative of its TV commercial, where a hesitant would-be bride abandons her wedding to follow 'a new path'.
However, just because something has aspects of feminism, in either its inspiration, advertising, gestures or general aesthetics, does not mean that it embodies feminism. The trendiness of feminism has opened up the way for the feminist movement to be co-opted and exist 'in name only', without critique. In a world where everything and everyone is labelled feminist, nothing and no one is required to do the work of feminism.
It has been incredible to see a range of strong, dynamic and popular women claim and embrace the label, in a way that allows young women to see different images of feminists outside of the negative connotations and singular imagery invoked by the name. It allows women to imagine new possibilities and a different idea of feminism to the one laced with misogyny. However, it is important for the critical perspective demanded by feminism to breathe through our personal and public work.
When I wear crop tops and high heels and perfect my eyebrows being 'on fleek', it is a personal choice, but is not removed from politics or the system that frames our lives as 'the personal is political'. What might subvert traditional imagery of feminists can simultaneously play into mainstream, patriarchal ideas of the feminine - it is a tricky dance.
It is important that there are multiple images of what feminists look like. But also that we subscribe to the hard, introspective work it requires, and check ourselves when we need to, maintaining a critical consciousness how we play into a system that bell hooks calls the 'white supremacist capitalist patriarchy' - questioning how we endorse it and tacitly allow for its continuity, even through things that appear to be simply 'personal choice'.
The way that all the elements hooks identified play off and relate to each other requires feminism to be intersectional: aware of how life is different for different kinds of women, whether black, poor, trans or from other subaltern groups - who require a movement that recognises them and their particular challenges, and fights for their freedom, equality, voice and justice.
We are 'composed of contradictions', and can never be perfect or removed from the imprint of the world we live in. But this cannot be an excuse for the failure to do the hard work of feminism, as Phamodi argued. A commitment to feminism is a commitment to critically thinking through your complicity in maintaining the system of patriarchy, in its intersections with things like race and class. We are accountable to ourselves and to others.
Trends are not enduring. They fade fast, when the next new en-vogue thing appears. Feminism, in name primarily, has become extremely trendy. Particularly, the 'image' or 'aesthetics' of feminism that is about how things look or appear on the surface. The trouble with feminism becoming a trend is that it is compartmentalised and certain attractive parts of it are employed, while the critical work falls by the wayside. Fashion can be feminist. Feminism, as bell hooks argued, is indeed for everyone: from pop stars to teachers, housewives to vendors, and cashiers to office workers. But it needs to be critical and intersectional, and be about more than just the label or aesthetics.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler