I’ve been thinking a lot about feminism and its relatively recent foray into the hegemonic structure otherwise known as popular culture.
In high school, I believed in feminism in theory, though I was unsure of its practical implications. My thought process went little beyond “I am a girl, therefore I am a feminist.” I didn’t find many feminist role models I could identify with either, having left adoration of the Spice Girls trailing behind in my awkward-teen middle school years. The sweeping power of the Internet had yet to take hold, which would eventually expose me to all kinds of women and genders and ways of being.
I can remember my first feminist act of protest at age 17, circa 2003 when George Bush was engaging in ‘the war on terrorism’ after 9/11. Even as teenagers in Canada, my contemporaries saw plenty wrong with the Bush agenda. So, we made t-shirts with the slogan ‘The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own,’ each adorned with a different strip of ‘bush,’ crafted out of fun fur. Twenty of us wore them proudly to high school one day; it was a veritable statement of resistance – to a bullshit war, and more broadly, to the policing of female bodies and sexuality. The administration, aghast, feebly asked us not to wear the shirts to school again, or face suspension. I recognized this moment as my personal “feminist awakening” – small and compact, but significant in illuminating a new path. A couple of years later, when I got to university, I enrolled in Gender Studies classes.
Cut ahead to a decade later and feminism has evolved from an idea on the fringes to a household term. Queen Bey has built an empire; the blockbuster action movie of the summer, Mad Max, centers around women and their ability to kick ass and fight objectification; activist women including Lena Dunham and Caitlyn Jenner grace the cover of Vogue magazine. Feminism is cool now. I should be happy that feminism is in the spotlight, right?
I want to believe simply that portrayals of feminism in the dominant sphere are good, positive and important. I want the old adage that ‘any publicity is good publicity’ to ring true for feminism as well. But amidst the celebration, I have doubts. I wonder if the feminism represented in pop culture renders other parts of this ideology invisible, archaic, less worthy or irrelevant.
Maybe I should concern myself less with ‘how’ and ‘why’ as more youth, celebrities and people in general identify as feminists. Instead, I should appreciate that a growing pluralism understands and accepts the notion that gender equality is a good thing. Plus, feminism even proposes that we should stop judging on a host of fronts, like race, ability, sexual orientation and economic status. But I can’t help but feel that a lot of the history and context of feminist struggles goes unqualified. When it’s depicted as Emma Watson speaking at the UN, or Patricia Arquette demanding equal pay for actresses as well as actors in her Oscar acceptance speech, what does that mean? It begs the question: Should the onus be on pop culture to tell us why feminism is important? Can an institution so shallow and fickle be entrusted with the task of transforming society?
Beyoncé shows us that we can have the career, the partner, the kid, the beauty, the booty, the fame and the success – first thing in the morning because #IWokeUpLikeThis! But ultimately, Beyoncé’s version of feminism exists within a rubric of privilege and power. Lena Dunham considers herself ‘a girl with a keen interest in having it all,’ and while most of me roots for her, part of me wonders whether these messages are helping those on the margins, the individuals whom feminism supposedly seeks to elevate.
But then I consider that Rutgers University offers a course on Beyoncé and race politics, and television shows like Orange is the New Black are passing the Bechdel test easily and frequently, demonstrating that it is possible to merge pop culture, feminism and critical thought to a level of exposure it wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. It might not be happening often enough yet, but there are some facets of pop culture that inspire young people to examine feminism more closely. Beauvoir, Butler and hooks aren’t out of the game entirely; they just might take a little bit of digging to access. That might not always be the case, though. Maybe concepts like feminism, intersectionality and social justice will become a part of high school curricula one day soon, and youth will have more points of access.
Ultimately, whether or not it was Beyoncé who brought you here, I’m glad for it. In a way, we are aiming for the same results; it’s just how we get there that differs. I’m not suggesting that unless you choose to study feminism, you’re not ‘doing it right.’ I’m saying that the world today has plenty of examples to offer, and we ought to keep our critical lenses firmly fastened, especially with pop culture. Empowerment comes from all kinds of places, angles and spaces: The more of it we can grasp, the better.
Published in the Fall 2015 issue of FLURT.