This article was published on the Catalyst website on 12/04/2013.
There’s a rather amusing scene in The Handmaid’s Tale in which the protagonist — a sex-slave living in an überpatriarchal dystopia — gets her hands on some old copies of Vogue and Cosmopolitan magazines. “I thought all this stuff was supposed to have been burned,” she exclaims in wonder.
Cosmo, icon of feminist dissent? Perhaps things were different back in the ‘80s; but then, context is crucial in gauging the state of any movement.
Just as the symbols shift over time, so too do the issues — thus, where the right to vote was the primary focus of feminism’s first incarnation, it is now part of the wallpaper; similarly, equal pay for equal work and reproductive rights are battles that another generation fought. Cosmo and Ralph sit side by side in the news stand. As victories have been progressively institutionalised, it is understandable that some might consider the fight more or less over; that one can qualify as a feminist merely by endorsing the successes of the past.
Still, this view seems problematic. To declare support for the status quo is, by definition, a conservative statement. That’s not to say that we are always obligated to seek improvement, of course, but it seems that feminism — whatever its specific cultural context happens to be — is, by necessity, a progressive ideology. Anybody can endorse the current state of affairs; indeed, we are psychologically inclined to do so. An activist movement, in contrast, seeks to upset the current order and challenge the things that we take for granted. If the establishment is feminist, then feminism is dead.
What, then, are the struggles confronting women in Western nations today? There are many schools of thought within the movement (or movements, given the at times near-fundamental disagreements between its sub-genres), and their diagnoses of the problem can differ as much as their proposed solutions. For liberal feminists, the primary concern is the wage gap and the glass ceiling; for radical feminists, the malaise extends to society as a whole. Feminists of the ‘70s railed against sexual objectification and pornography; the contemporary third wave, on the other hand, embraces and sometimes even participates in the creation of it. For some, the answer lies in boycotts and censorship; for others, the creation of positive alternatives.
For feminist and social critic Helen Razer — in her recent article ‘Destroy the Point’ — the issue is relatively simple: “Feminism,” she writes, “is the struggle against masculinised violence and feminised poverty”, and nothing else. Elsewhere, she laments the futility of feminist social media and its tendency towards “uncritical rage”. She ends, perhaps somewhat facetiously, with the remark that fighting against sexism in advertising should have little place in the contemporary movement. This view, if intended seriously, puts her very much at odds with much of the feminist mainstream. There, the battle against sexist ads is part of a much larger struggle: that of changing an entire culture.
While many of Razer’s arguments are well made, her dismissal of this point seems paradoxical. If anything, she may have her priorities around the wrong way. In opposing violence committed by men against women, she is joined by our country’s government, legislature and the vast majority of the population. This is not to say that violence against women isn’t a vital issue — it obviously is — but that its categorisation as a specifically feminist concern might be treated a little more sceptically. As much as the theory of ‘rape culture’ views sexual violence to be very much a by-product of the (patriarchal) system, this tenuous, far too infrequently critiqued paradigm fails to note that the vast majority of the population considers rape to be an abhorrent crime. The fact that it persists seems less a failing of our culture than evidence of the inability of all societies to eradicate crime.
Sexism in advertising and entertainment media, on the other hand, seems a rather more contentious topic. If one wants to find evidence of the patriarchy, one need look no further than the portrayal of women in popular culture, particularly in regards to body image and gender roles. Here, Cosmopolitan becomes less hero than villain, relentlessly reinforcing gender stereotypes and perpetuating poisonous myths about the necessity to conform to a universalised conception of beauty. These narratives are carried through the vast majority of Western advertisements, films, television shows and music videos, and the damaging effect on the collective psyche is all too apparent. Surely, this is an issue that should concern anybody with an interest in making society a better place. If for no other reason, it is for this that feminism retains its relevance.
While many feminists agree that this is a significant problem, there is disagreement in how to approach it. One method, exemplified by Facebook group ‘Destroy the Joint’, is to get supposedly sexist media, events or people out of circulation by any means possible.
While their success is undeniable, those of us who care about freedom of speech have reason to feel uneasy about their methodology. Cultural change is a slow, difficult process, and merely removing evidence of a cultural problem fails to address the problem itself — if anything, a censorious approach tends to entrench uneducated views. We have enough precedents to suggest that bludgeoning discourse causes far more harm than good in the long run.
What’s the alternative? The best response seems to have been provided by the third wave. Rather than succumb to the natural human tendency toward control, the younger generation of feminists have argued for a productive, more critical approach (particularly in areas regarding the commoditisation of sex). Rather than reach for the censor’s pen, they argue, we ought to create our own positive alternatives: ergo Slutwalk, Girls and feminist porn. It is an encouraging shift.
Of course, this is but one strain of contemporary feminism. While disagreements about many of its facets will persist within its ranks, the movement’s continued success as a whole depends on its ability to convince those outside its ranks that real gender inequality persists; that it can, and should, be fought against.
A skim through the latest issue of Cosmopolitan should do the trick.