What is ‘Popular Feminism’ and how can we escape it?

You’ll often hear people complain about the banality of ‘mainstream’ or ‘contemporary’ feminism, packaged in ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirts and manic gaslight, gate-keep, girl-bossery.

What they’re actually referring to is popular feminism, a landscape which gradually developed after the ‘post-feminist’ dialogues that bombarded the 90s and early 2000s.

While post and popular feminism led to an explosion of visibility, they did very little to address structural violence or discrimination, particularly regarding the intersections of gender, class and race. Nevertheless, there have emerged contemporary digital media productions by trans, Black and non-binary people who produce resistance discourses that successfully problematise the climate of ‘white’ post and popular feminism.

What is post-feminism?

Post-feminism describes an ideology or landscape, rather than a subject position, occupied by women. It emerged after a backlash against second-wave feminism where activists were often stereotyped as ‘hysterical’, ‘unattractive’ and ‘radical’.

While in the 1950s and 60s the media depicted women through images which contradicted the progress of first-wave feminism, the historical shift of the 1970s and 1980s created what Faludi refers to as a ‘Backlash’ to feminist messages and ideologies. The media of the 1990s began to portray the movement and its proponents as unappealing, passé and unnecessary. This gradually hostile reaction intended to trivialise and delegitimate the popularity and politics of feminism. After ‘equal’ rights were gained through protest, a post-feminist culture declared the ‘death of feminism’ and acknowledged its successes, while simultaneously repudiating its importance in contemporary life. Second-wave feminism was traded in for ‘fashionable’ images portraying strong and empowered women.

Life Magazine 1970

The cultural shift between more conventional views of feminism to the idea of ‘girl power’ created a disconnect between this sense of empowerment in media representations and the persisting obstacle to gender equality in material reality. Post-feminism can therefore be critically conceptualised as a “contradictory sensibility” which pertained to the typology of femininity- a bodily property used to access autonomy.

Empowerment paired with the paradoxically intense scrutiny of women characterised this cultural shift; the certainty of earlier eras was displaced by an emphasis on autonomy, agency and choice.

Contemporary culture is filled with moments of post-feminism. Since 2019, the renowned 16 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg has been branded a ‘social media sensation’ by many online news platforms and blogs who comment on her four million followers and the viral memes made about her ‘death stare’ (Dyer, 2019). Although Thunberg strays from normative representations of girl power, the emphasis on her status as a successful heroine perpetuates the idea of feminine empowerment. Similarities can be drawn between social media’s celebration of Greta Thunberg and popular feminine cartoons in the early 2000s, such as Kim Possible and The Powerpuff Girls, which offered access to different sorts of ‘girl power’.

Packaged as representations of white, attractive women, they are still tied to the contradicting sensibility of post-feminism. Arguably, these figures follow the legacy of The Riot Grrrls, a feminist punk movement which directly challenged patriarchal structures yet was mostly comprised by white, middle class women. However, in contrast to this underground subculture, the explosion of new representations is closer to a ‘choice’ feminism which stresses the importance of fashion, commodity and femininity.

Beyonce at the Golden Globes 2020

As media cultures are globalised, these representations of femininity travel. While post-feminism has often been centred as a dominantly white concept, ‘transnational post-feminism’ is also hyper-feminised in the Global South. Simidele Dosekun’s 2015 study shows how young, wealthy Nigerian women “fashion post-feminist selves” through highly normative and sometimes painful styles of dress, expensive hair extensions and disciplined beauty routines which bestow feelings of power and freedom.

These feminine practices align with the consumerist logic of Western post-feminism because women in the Global South are also invited to identify with iconic celebrities like Beyonce (Lazar, 2006, 515). In all cultures, the target audience of post-feminist media are inherently attractive, able-bodied and normatively heterosexual feminine subjects.

Representations of women show that they are now unfettered by the patriarchy and are able to empower themselves through many different ‘choices’ of femininity, including the promotion of (hetero)sexually liberating positions. Post-feminism does not attempt to destabilise heterosexual norms of gender and often even incites women to gain ‘freedom’ from their own objectification and gender performativity.

Makeovers in the Media

The capitalist rhetoric of choice heavily emphasises the maintenance of the feminine body through self-disciplining consumerism and the beauty and fashion industry. This gives rise to the centrality of the physical and psychic ‘makeover’ where women are meant to become confident by immersing themselves in feminine ideals. Therefore, post-feminism is inherently reliant on commodity culture and market recognition which parades fantasies of happiness and agency, rather than politics, to capture the attention of young, feminine subjects.

Advertisers have harnessed the profoundly contradictory logic of post-feminism as an ideological currency. It replicates the stereotypes it is supposed to resist by collapsing consumer logic with ‘safe’ feminist politics.

Fashion bloggers and beauty YouTubers collaborate with famous brands in order to link classically ‘feminist’ messages to material products and ‘makeovers’. This sends the message that feminine subjects can be ‘powerful’ and successful, but only in feminine genres where this notion of the ‘makeover’ is endorsed through the online requirement to ‘transform’ oneself.

Many top earning ‘beauty gurus’, the majority of whom are white, preach palatable messages of ‘self-love’ and acceptance to seem relatable, yet promote their own makeup ranges and endorse fashion brands.

Emma Chamberlain, a vlogger with over 8 million YouTube subscribers, was popularised due to her ‘normal’,teenage image and her frequent rhetoric of ‘being yourself’. However, she collaborated with the luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton which showcases unaffordable clothing and stick-thin bodies.

Chamberlain represents girl power online in order for the brand to attach itself to a fresher, more relatable femininity without changing anything about their actual company because she fits the thin, able-bodied and conventionally attractive standards of the models they already hire. Post-feminist discourse seems to centre authentic, seemingly real women in online representations while it also prioritises the capitalist logic of consumption as a means to empowerment.

In a post-feminist environment, corporations associate the currency of feminism with a product and channel it out for customer consumption and market recognition. This transforms the concept of feminism in pop culture into a Marxian commodity fetish- the true value of the product is obscured, and the product is imbued with a fabricated, ‘feminist’ power that highly dilutes the material politics of feminism. Individual consumers are encouraged to see products as the ‘stand in’ for feminism.

In the 2010s, Dove partnered with Twitter using the slogan of “social change” in order to launch it’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign. It included images of diverse women of different races, ages and body shapes and used hashtags such as “#speakbeautiful” and “#nolikesneeded”.

This self-esteem project encouraged women to tweet things they liked about themselves in order to participate in ‘empowerment’. By associating issues of body confidence with their beauty range and aiming to inspire women’s “positive relationship with the way they look”, the Dove brand became an example of how to connect safe, indisputable, quasi-feminist messages to the disciplinary practice of femininity.

Ultimately, the digital campaign encourages the average woman to participate in practices of self-love yet contradicts this message by promoting beauty products such as lotions and youth serums which are intended to ease one’s insecurities. The campaign profits off of palatable, feminist ideals without challenging any of the global or economic conditions that determine how women view themselves.

Post-feminist marketing appeals to an important kind of citizenship which recognises traditional stereotypes and collapses them by appearing liberating on the surface, but ultimately persuading women to continue to invest in their body.

Although both diverse representation and linking power with feminine subjects is beneficial, the language of self-control and realisation in this campaign doesn’t empower consumers to challenge political structures, but rather to invest in conventional beauty practices. Post-feminism is therefore ambiguous and inconsistent in its “sensibility” because it celebrates consumption habits which embody traditional feminine stereotypes yet uses language which seems to reject them.

Deeper feminist issues are not marketing tools because they lead to connotations of anger, alienation and Sarah Ahmed’s notion of the ‘killjoy’. In contrast to second-wave feminism, post-feminism focuses on individualising messages. Its “sensibility” redirects feminist critiques from social or material foundations to the expansion of commodity relations which structure consumer culture and obstruct real socio-political activism.

Bitch Magazine Pleasure Back Issue

Even feminist platforms like Bitch Magazine and GirlBoss.com often endorse political issues under a neo-liberalist lens which makes politics almost superficial. Neoliberalism, as an economic order, relies on reproduction and human capital which reduces feminism to market-metrics. Therefore, neoliberalist feminism closely interacts with post-feminism in its disregard for the political lexicon of traditional feminism.

Sarah Banet-Weiser writes that, by treating individuals as capital-enhancing agents, it disavows gender due to the infiltration of commodity culture in both the public and private spheres. The message of empowerment in post and neoliberal feminism centres on a liberal individualism which does not constructively encourage any actual change to the collective entrenchment of hegemonic structures. While different identities are recognised, they are subsumed into market categories without any serious challenges to traditional gender arrangements.

In the contemporary context of pop-culture, the environment of popular feminism has also emerged from post and neoliberal feminism in its validation of capitalism. While both post and neoliberal feminism rely on the individual consumer and do not challenge patriarchy, popular feminism embraces the need for feminism and profits off subordinate groups who desire to have representations of themselves.

Advertisements and campaigns, such as Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’, strategically use representations of ‘otherness’ to encourage consumption. Popular feminism circulates and commodifies the concept of ‘feminism’ through social media in the same uplifting nature as post-feminism. It relies on the fetishism of visibility which utilises hashtag activism and blogs – as if seeing the presence of feminism can have material effects.

While the explosion of these visual narratives may not uproot hegemonic structures, the visibility of hashtag activism such as the #MeToo movement can become a powerful social act. The digital space opens up the opportunity for making women’s voices more globally visible, developing feminist solidarity and even affecting real social change.

The #MeToo press coverage is arguably the same neoliberal de-politicisation of post-feminism which focuses on predominantly white, wealthy, celebrity female subjects. However, research by Mendes, Ringrose and Keller has suggested that its viral visibility helps hashtag participants to understand sexual violence as a broader, structural problem rather than a personal issue and has also encouraged them to identify as feminists.

Likewise, Mendes’ 2018 study shows that participating in hashtags such as #BeenRapedNeverReported has invoked support by other tweeters. Perhaps, popular feminism has therefore facilitated more militant, transnational feminist movements like the 2017 Women’s March. They directly threaten neoliberalism by demanding social and cultural transformation that targets the binary frameworks of gender. Therefore, post-feminism has fostered the conditions for online movements like #MeToo to become publicly embraced.

The problem with this explosion of visibility and banalisation of politics is not merely that it becomes the beginning and end of feminism, but that some subjects become more visible than others because hegemonic power structures are usually replicated in the digital sphere.

Alyssa Malano and Tarana Burke for Time Magazine (2017)

The #MeToo movement was created in 2006 by African American activist Tarana Burke to establish solidarity with women of colour who were survivors of sexual violence. However, it didn’t become a movement until white celebrity Alyssa Milano tweeted the hashtag and it began trending on Twitter in 2017.

While popular feminism established the groundworks for organising resistance to patriarchy via digital communication, the #MeToo movement exemplifies how white women with economic, social and cultural capital are placed at the forefront of popular feminist movements.

Representations of Diversity

Celebrations of diversity online through campaigns like Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ glamourize a carefully curated, multi-cultural representation of otherness. The popular feminist economy of visibility does have intrinsic benefits because diverse representations can give pleasure and confidence to non-binary people and BIPOC women. However, such banal visibility is also an empty signifier which is “post-feminist, post-queer and even post-race in its sensibility”, according to Banet-Weiser.

“Boohoo sales soar after taking ‘fashion for all’ approach via The Guardian

Otherness and diversity are strategically exploited and re-packaged to encourage consumption by different cultural groups. The underrepresented Other is sometimes used by advertisers to enhance the blank canvas of whiteness even while hegemonic boundaries of representation maintain intact and are visually “unified by whiteness”, as Bell Hooks wrote.

Popular feminism almost enacts problematic concepts of post-identity by using digital media as a lucrative, conformist and conflict-averse selling device that can commodify race and gender to make users feel ‘tolerant’ by simply participating.

The logic of these campaigns is capitalist and neoliberal at its core because it effectively flattens out the politics of the representations instead of challenging hegemonic relations to non-white identities. The presence of people of colour and non-binary subjects in popular feminist media operates under a liberal feminism which suggests that inclusion is enough to fix inequalities.

Instead, the politics of feminism must address discourses and frameworks which maintain hierarchical ideologies of white, Western, heterosexual dominance. Inclusion often merely validates ‘the Other’ as an economic subject in a political, cultural and economic field of whiteness.

Cissexism and the Politics of Visibility

Popular feminism operates on an economy of visibility which seems to represent marginalised groups through a radical announcement of identity rather than an acknowledgement of structural violence and discrimination.

This politics of visibility often glorifies conventionally attractive transgender people, such as YouTubers Gigi Gorgeous and Nikita Dragun, who have medically transitioned and fit into the gender binary.

Both internet celebrity figures are elevated on social media with over 1 million subscribers, in contrast to pre-transition creators who either do not desire or cannot afford medical transition. Popular feminism does not draw as much attention to the various realities of transgender people or seek to dismantle systemic oppression, instead opting to glamourise ‘ideal’ transitions.

Social media news source BuzzFeed published an article by a Transgender writer who argues that, although non-binary identities and androgynous aesthetics have gained mainstream appeal, this visibility has turned into a “form of surveillance” which privileges those able to ‘pass’ as cisgender; visibility does nothing to prevent cissexism (discrimination against transgender people) and the violence which transgender people face.

The politics of visibility propelled by popular feminism doesn’t allow adequate transgender recognition which can help create laws and protections that address atrocities such as murder and rape. Popular feminism palatably commodifies gender and sexuality because the explosion of transgender recognition is tied to potential consumers who are willing to buy products marketed to the LGBTQ+ community, such as rainbow patterned clothing.

An intensification of inequalities is produced through these popular feminist discourses because the fantasy of a more participatory culture is created through digital environments where users constantly seem to produce ‘feminist’ and ‘activist’ content.

This content appears to be intersectional but often produces hegemonic norms, values and imaginaries. Neo-liberal happiness, whiteness and individual power is still positioned as the mainstream, superior discourse and the rapid circulation of the media system doesn’t allow us to fully contemplate or engage with issues like racism or transphobia. The banalisation of social issues de-politicises them and therefore the culture of popular feminism online detaches the mainstream audience through the illusion of visibility.

Digital Resistances

However, while the internet often hinges on post-feminist ideas of the ‘makeover’ and can become a locus that enhances the relearning of hegemonic structures, it can also be a space for creativity. The production of new subjectivities online creates a proliferation of resistance discourses as ‘the Other’ can strategically use their ‘Otherness’ to create solidarity.

Online communities such as YouTube have enabled transgender people to develop a political, oppositional gaze by documenting their transition process. They utilise the platform as a ‘confessional genre’ to self-represent without playing into the voyeuristic, fetishizing curiosity of the mainstream media’s ethnographic, colonising gaze.

Kat Blaque via YouTube

Transgender activist and YouTube personality Kat Blaque, although already post-transition, has gained recognition for creating spaces of learning and belonging through video essays and opinion pieces which question gender binaries and popular misconceptions about transness.

This visual culture allows transgender people to transgress gender on their own terms without necessarily centering the cultural imaginary of the naturalised gender binary. Raun’s 2010 study suggests that the intimacy of vlogging also allows non-binary people to form new subjectivities and narratives of self-construction that move their gender identity from the private to the public sphere as part of the process of becoming themselves.

Raun points out that the mainstream politics of visibility is resisted through this digital process of materialisation when the subject re-learns how to see themselves and embody their gender on camera. This recognition and acknowledgement of self-construction contains the post-feminist elements of ‘makeover’ and self-surveillance, however it ultimately diversifies representations of transgender experiences. In contrast to popular media, YouTube allows transgender people to avoid the pathologizing master narratives that validate medical transitions over any other expression of identity.

Likewise, popular feminism and media is primarily focused on Western norms of white femininity. This exclusion has meant that women of colour can also find other ways to sustain themselves as a community in order to resist oppression.

Blogs run by Black women provide a social space to negotiate femininity and develop the oppositional gaze that Bell Hooks referred to. The blogosphere allows women of colour to use their voices to dissent against the political landscape and manifest ‘womanist’ politics which don’t overlook the intersections of race, class and gender in the way post-feminism does.

gal-dem.com

The online and print publication gal-dem explores themes of personal, communal and institutional intersectionality by ‘talking back’ to the structures which exclude or exploit women of colour. It features personal essays and political commentaries that target mainstream media discourses from women and non-binary people of colour.

The contributors and creators can gaze back at popular culture as agents able to tackle issues that are misrepresented in mainstream media. Having gained thousands of followers, the visibility of popular feminism has arguably helped gal-dem receive mainstream attention and thus predisposed online consumers to non-heteronormative and intersectional discourses on the internet.

The popularization of feminism in the digital mediascape has propelled critiques of hegemonic ideologies which could enable a shift from post and popular feminism to populist, activist feminism rife with effective campaigns for social justice.

Conclusion

Post-feminism, the rejection of feminist politics, is largely reinforced by the logics of neo-liberal feminism which commodifies femininity and ‘empowerment’. While popular feminism is also a landscape heavy with capitalist logics, it celebrates feminism in order to commodify equality and diversity through the politics of visibility, especially through hashtag activism.

Both post and popular feminism do not challenge hegemonic structures as they encourage women globally to perform femininity under the guise that this is their own ‘choice’, an empty signifier of agency and power.

However, while popular feminism may not be truly intersectional or question gender binaries, the visibility they provide to online communities can create solidarity between women, people of colour and non-binary subjects. By making the marginalized Other more visible online, individuals are given the opportunity to look deeper into the real politics of gender and its intersections with class and race.

The challenge in contemporary popular culture is how to sustain this resistance and visibility while simultaneously rejecting the capitalist framework of post-feminism.

Further Reading & References

Banet-Weiser, S. (2018) Postfeminism and Popular Feminism. Feminist Media Histories, 4(2), pp. 152-156.

Banet-Weiser, S., Gill, R. & Rottenberg, C. Postfeminism, popular feminism and neoliberal feminism? Sarah Banet-Weiser, Rosalind Gill and Catherine Rottenberg in conversation. Feminist Theory, 21(1), pp. 3-24.

De Benedictis S., Ordgad, S. & Rottenberg, C. (2019). #MeToo, popular feminism and the news : A content analysis of UK newspaper coverage. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 22 (5-6), pp. 718-738.

Dosekun, S. (2015). For Western girls only? Postfeminism as transnational culture. Feminist Media Studies, 15(6), pp. 960-975.

Dyer, C. (2019). ‘Has there ever been more of a death stare?’: Twitter explodes with memes after Greta Thunberg is seen glaring at Donald Trump as he walked past her at UN summit. Retrieved from: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7498067/Social-media-explodes-memes-Greta-Thunbergs-glare-Donald-Trump-enters-summit.html

Faludi, S. (1992). Man Shortages and Barren Wombs: The Myths of the Backlash,” and “Foetal and Fatal Visions: the Backlash in the Movies. In Backlash: the undeclared war against women (pp. 21-59). London, England: Chatto & Windus.

Gill, R. (2007). Post-Feminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (2), pp. 147–166.

Hooks, B. (1992). Eating the other: desire and resistance. In Black Looks: Race and Representation (pp. 21-39). Boston, MA: South End Press.

Hooks, B. (2010). The oppositional gaze : Black female spectators. In J. Belton (Eds.), Movies and Mass Culture (pp. 247-54). Rutgers University Press.

Lazar, M. (2006). ‘Discover the Power of Femininity!’: Analyzing Global Power Femininity in Local Advertising. Feminist Media Studies, 6 (4), pp. 505–517.

Maven Road. (2019). Fridays For Future: The Social Media Impact of Greta Thunberg. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/@mavenmkt/fridays-for-future-the-social-media-impact-of-greta-thunberg-c8523d3313f8

Mendes, K., Ringrose, J. & Keller, J. (2018). #MeToo and the promise and pitfalls of challenging rape culture through digital feminist activism. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 25(2), pp. 236-246.

Raun, T. (2010). Screen-births: Exploring the Transformative Potential in Trans Video Blogs on YouTube. Graduate Journal of Social Science, 7(2), pp. 113-130.

Steele, C. (2016). Signifyin’, Bitching, and Blogging: Black Women and Resistance Discourse. In S. Noble & B. Tynes (Eds.), The intersectional Internet: race, sex, class, and culture online. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Verman, A. (2019). Trans Visibility Won’t Save Us. Retrieved from:https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/alexverman/trans-visibility-wont-save-us

Verma, S. (2019). Greta Thunberg: The new social media sensation. Retrieved from:https://www.exchange4media.com/digital-news/greta-thunberg-the-new-social-media-sensation-100002.html

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