For anyone who follows left-wing media in the UK (and doubtless abroad) any time after 2000, a common criticism of modern Feminism becomes increasingly evident; I call it the Katie Price Principle, but it could be called the Pole Dancing principle or the Living Doll principle or a thousand other names. In essence, it’s the argument that the sexualisation of our culture has been gleefully bought into by Feminists, that Feminists are gradually reassuming traditional and newly-developed stereotypically feminine roles; women are becoming more narcissistic, more wrapped up in self-promotion at the expense of female-promotion, and as a result the Feminist discourse suffers.I call it the Katie Price principle after the woman whose two year-old daughter Princess was snapped wearing false eyelashes, spawning a media-spanning argument about female role models and early sexualisation. Katie Price was no stranger to tabloid attention before that; she is a woman who has been described as “the Belle du Jour of glamour modelling,” the archetypal sexualised but empowered woman, peddling her appearance and her fame (apropos of nothing, it seems) and revelling in the power she has – fundamentally, to make money. This, television moralists and traditional feminists (uniquely aligned) argued, marked the downfall of Feminism or its folly. Feminism, they argued, was becoming or had become a movement so desperate to rename victimhood as empowerment that it unknowingly condemned hidden victims, a movement which seemed to have stepped back one intellectual level from a generation of women who knew their rights and were sure as hell going to fight for them.
Every facet of female and Feminist expression is now analysed for this lack of intellectualism. A food blog written by a university student discovering cooking for the first time is “a return to traditional feminine values.” A tentative attempt to examine why a woman might choose sex work or pole dancing without condemnation is the willing re-sexualisation of women. Young women who wear make-up and paint their nails and say they feel empowered by that are unwitting slaves unaware of how the patriarchy has oppressed them, using the word “empowered” shallowly, misunderstanding what their mothers fought for.
More than that, the critics argue, this kind of easy empowerment is subtly aiding those who seek to make victimisation of women seem appealing or sexy. Publicising the Belle Du Jours of this world means that the trafficked women, the trafficked children even, are sidelined and unspoken for, and the sex industry (particularly its more softcore elements) is able to successfully rebrand itself. And what about mothers, especially poor ones? Modern feminism is all about being a liberated childless (or non child-centric) fashionable blogger with quirky yet mainstream style – it’s all about being a Jezebel editor, in other words. One post, responding to Fuck No Jezebel’s tumblr of all places, summed this up perfectly for me:
“mommyjacking”? Can I call it “rich NYC party girl-jacking” when flippant little 22 year olds try to turn THE ENTIRETY of feminism into a heterosexploitation high heels I choose my choice party?
So there you have it. My generation’s feminism is shallow, exploitative, a fake veneer over hyperfeminisation. Except, well, no, it’s not.
Let’s go back to our first example, the food blog, or as my mother put it, “cupcake feminism”: independent, snarky women baking on their weekends and posting it on the Internet. They are indicative of a wider group of women; criticised for reassuming outdated roles of hyperfemininity, stooping over the ’50s oven and cutesying it up Deschanel style, with any sense of irony removed because these women do not overtly criticise stereotypes of women. But that’s not what’s going on here; they’re hungry, and they’re eating. They, we, can recognise intellectually the existence of those stereotypes, understand their harmful components (the lack of choice, the system of oppression they were at one time intrinsically indicative of), and we can enact them without bringing 1950s preconceptions of femininity with us. These food blogs or this make-up tip articles do not mark a lack of understanding of stereotype – they mark a complete disregard for the relevance of stereotype to competency. Second-wavers who would decry this trend, do you really underestimate our intellectual capacity so far that you believe we don’t understand the implications of the apron and the griddle? Because to me it seems that in order to condemn a woman as a stoolpigeon for the patriarchy you would have to either believe that she was unaware of the stereotypes she might be wading in to, or – worse – you would have to honestly believe that feminine traits are inherently negative, or that a woman cannot exhibit behaviours part of her conditioning and still be aware of them.
So too, are we ridiculed as intellectually spurious for the emphasis our Feminism places on choice. Who are we to treat the pole dancer or even the sex worker as anything other than a victim to be rescued or martyred? How can we possibly view traditional femininity or sexualisation as things to be chosen, and possibly to be proud of? Well, firstly, not all of us do. But secondly, it is not ever a question of claiming sexualisation to be inherently positive or negative; neither is it a question of claiming anything to be inherently positive or negative. Modern feminism isn’t affirming sexualisation as positive – it’s rejecting self-certainty as negative. How arrogant we would have to be to presume to know every woman’s experience of sexualisation, how deaf we would have to be to stop listening to the women who have chosen lives we don’t necessarily understand. Just because it is harder to argue for a Feminism without absolute truths does not make those non-absolute truths any less true. We would be sacrificing our intellectual integrity as a generation wholesale if we presumed to proclaim universal truths about a Feminism that has proven itself multiferous, multicoloured and intensely personal. I will repeat it again, because it bears repeating; a lack of absolutism is not a lack of integrity. And nor does it mean that Feminism is failing; quite the opposite.
I look up at my TV screen at the moment and I see two female news reporters discussing international politics. My female friends are among a generation who are more committed to further education and education at all than their male compatriots, who put on make-up and still insist that women have the choice not to, who are painfully aware of feminine stereotypes and aching not to unwittingly enact them. These are young women who have known their whole lives that they have access to independence and their own careers, women whose feminism is about bringing more people into the fold, rather than staring outward with hostile eyes, backs to each other, refusing to let other women drink their fill and refusing to try and understand them.
What we are doing to young women by telling them how to be perfect canned Feminists is exactly the same as what political orthodoxies have been doing for thousands of years. Please, you who would seek first and final feminist principles, do not claim intellectual superiority while you sit in the 1970s advocating perfect feminists, feminists who are untainted by the patriarchy, feminists who condemn all women who are not empowered. You are condemning as much as those you claim to hate, those you claim to fight against. And in the process, you are undervaluing a feminist consciousness that is not often reported but exists, virulent and indestructible.
For young feminists now, Feminism is about understanding, a constant effort to improve things for everyone, rather than a charged effort with no impurity tolerated. My friends understand in detail issues of Female Genital Mutilation, sex-selective abortion, human trafficking, prostitution. Their willingness not to condemn the pole dancer should not be taken as a carte blanche to the construct of pole dancing; their tactical support of legal prostitution should not be taken as support for the construct of prostitution per se. Simultaneously, young feminists are capable of understanding why patriarchy informs these constructs, and understand the negative effects of those constructs, without condemning the women who take part in them. No feminist is perfect, every feminist is worth listening to, and the struggle should not be ideologically closed.
I’m putting myself out on a limb here, but I’m going to say it; our feminism is less concerned with the feminist and more concerned with the woman, and to me that has to be better. We are no longer the children of second-wave feminism, but the possessors of our own feminism; some of us are the children of the children of second-wave feminists. Some of us are men, a lot of us are racial minorities, we are LGBT, we refuse to be essentialist – about women, about feminists, about women of colour, even about our own understanding of feminism. We want to listen to what you have to say rather than what we have to say. That does not make us intellectually feeble, it makes us irrepressable. Try to find a leader of our feminism, a unified ideology, and you will fail. That makes us stronger, not weaker. If there are those among us with the power to address the subtler sexism still evident in our society (and I believe there are), they will be sourced from cupcake blogs, from book groups, from schools, from the young. In ten or fifteen years, we will be trying to shepherd a new generation of feminism.
We don’t know everything yet. Don’t take this as a disavowal of the achievements of second-wave feminism, but take it as an opportunity. Feminists still need their mothers, and those mothers still have incredible power – but while they condescend to their sons and daughters and condemn their willingness to tolerate “impure” feminism, they sabotage a movement aimed at a global improvement of women’s rights. To sum up: we bake, because we like to eat. And we are worthy successors.