IN A GENERATION WHERE THE WORDS “FEMINISM” and “feminist” are the most polarizing “f-words,” gender issues and the fight for equality continue to be at the forefront of cultural dialogue. Today some women unblinkingly refer to themselves as feminists, while others prefer to not label themselves for a myriad of reasons. Yet when it’s broken down, they are “of course” all for equal pay, equal rights in the workplace, and equal numbers of women in power positions. While “feminism,” or how it is colored for today’s generation, conjures up images of smoking bras and half-shattered glass ceilings, the push for gender equality is still alive outside the word itself, with actress Emma Watson leading the charge for what is being called “Millenial Feminism.” This new wave of feminism is led by a host of energetic, boundary-challenging young women who are anything but “your mother’s feminists” and who are tackling, using practical and tangible solutions, the issues today’s crop of women face as they continue to fight for parity.
Emma Watson who was recently appointed the U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador, became the face of the new feminist movement with her #HeforShe initiative to get boys and men involved in the push for gender equality. She has already received an overwhelming amount of support; everyone from Desmond Tutu to Hillary Clinton to Yoko Ono to Prince Harry have come out for the #HeforShe coalition, and its petition – through its online initiative – has received 404,111 signatures from men and boys around the world. The hashtag itself has been used over 1.2 billion times on Twitter. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 23, 2015 in front of world leaders and press, Watson announced IMPACT 10x10x10 as the next phase in the #HeforShe campaign. She said, “One of the biggest pieces of feedback I’ve had since my speech is that men and women want to help but they aren’t sure how best to do it. Men say they’ve signed the petition. ‘What now?’ What can we practically do to end gender inequality? As feminists, what do we actually do?”
We are currently in the throes of the feminism’s fourth wave. The first wave occurred around the turn of the 19th century and focused on women’s suffrage and disenfranchisement. The second took root in the 1960s, addressing social issues ranging from reproductive rights to workplace equality. The third wave fomented in the 1990s and broadened the boundaries of feminism’s theoretical underpinnings in an effort to abolish existing notions of gender expectations. It reclaimed lipstick and high-heeled feminine sexuality, focused more attention on rights of the LGBT community and “non-white” women, and saw the beginnings of the sex-positive movement. This brings us to today’s fourth wave, which has been ushered in by the boundless possibilities presented by digital media platforms and is promoted by a crop of young millennials who can reach millions of people through online mobilization and hashtag activism.
So what is fourth wave feminism? The answer is two-fold. First it is a human rights movement that advocates for women’s equality. Sound familiar? Perhaps. The fourth wave addresses fundamental older issues in a modern context, namely equal pay, reproductive rights, and equality of all marginalized groups. It also addresses a host of issues that prior to now remain uncharted: street harassment, slut shaming, online misogyny, emphasis on women’s rights in developing countries, campus rape, discrimination and sexual harassment of women in freelance industries, regulations in the fashion industry with regards to underage and/or underweight models, a stronger emphasis on the body positive movement including more inclusion for plus-sized women in the media. The list goes on, but the point is clear. The second aspect of fourth wave feminism has to do with how it is promoted in the millennial era. Digital media and the endless number of outlets for it define the parameters of fourth wave feminism. Now, thanks to Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and hashtags, it’s as if the feminist movement has been injected with steroids. There is a new platform for amplifying the issues and through collective support, enacting social change.
In Western cultures it’s universally accepted that equal rights is a good thing, but enacting actual change, so that equal rights can become a reality, is obviously a different question. Women are still marginalized in many creative industries, such as filmmaking, photography, art and journalism. In the corporate world, women are paid less than men (about 82 cents to the dollar), but when examining the “why,” the “where” and the “who” of gender in the workforce it gets difficult to pinpoint. Are women not vocal enough about asking for a raise? Are bosses innately biased against paying women more? Are women in creative industries just not as competent? These are problems whose solutions require a serious shift in attitude towards gender, and to boot, it is clearly proving difficult to craft fair policies that would enforce a comprehensive equalization in pay for women in the workplace. The answer however, may be to simply keep drilling the issues. In Hillary Clinton’s speech on March 10, 2015 at the Women’s Empowerment Initiative, she declared, “gender Equality is not just morally right, but is the smart thing to do…. We have to keep making the same case over and over again. What we are doing here today is smart for companies and smart for countries.” She subsequently launched the hashtag #WereNotThereYet. Women are still placed within social norms that categorize them as virgins or whores, and are often thought less of if they chose not to get married or have children, as if their lives should be in service to humanity, while a man’s life is his own. Double standards still abound. Women’s bodies are still presented in the media as sex objects, prompting campaigns such as #freethenipple which addresses Instagram’s sexist censorship policies. While it is important to keep the conversation surrounding these issues afloat, it is also important for millennials to have strong examples of feminists in the media and pop culture whom they can rally behind. And despite any differences one might have with Watson’s brand of feminism or the rhetoric she uses to spread it, her basic premise of gender equality should elicit a unified response among the millennial generation.
We are increasingly seeing a palpable departure from feminism’s previous tenents, as women are now embracing femininity as a tool for independence and empowerment. No longer is there a dichotomous tension between sexy and smart, for example. Young women view their sexuality as an indispensable facet of their identities, to be used to elevate their stake at home, at work and in the world. The latter sees us returning to issues like rape and the imperative to expand its legal definition, to reproductive rights vis-a-vis access to affordable healthcare options and to equality in the work force, shifting the conversation to include the need for more women in science and technology. Clearly the tides are changing as this new frontier of feminism unfolds. And many are harnessing it, though there are some that still avoid joining the dialogue. One reason many young women and men shy away from it is due to the scrutiny they potentially face for speaking up. When, during her Oscar acceptance speech, Patricia Arquette confronted pay inequality in the workplace, specifically in the entertainment industry, she was criticized from both sides for a “limited view” of feminism. Similarly, Watson has been called-out on having a skewed perception of real world problems. Actress Maisie Williams is one who has come out against Watson’s feminism. The 18-year-old star of Game of Thrones plays a character who challenges gender norms and pushes the boundaries of what it means to be a girl. She said that Watson endorses “first world” feminism, ignoring more serious global problems at hand. Perhaps, but Watson has contended that these issues would be invariably easier to solve with a united front. “All I know is that I care about this problem and I want to make it better. And having seen what I’ve seen and given the chance, I feel it’s my responsibility to say something.”
Actress Shailene Woodley pissed off the Internet recently when, in an interview with Time, she declared she was not a feminist “because I like men.” The implication, of course, is clear. In declaring oneself a feminist she is also declaring herself a dour, man-hating radical, with a wild armpit bush and leg hair. Katy Perry was quoted in 2012 as saying, “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the power of women.” What exactly the distinction is that she’s attempting to make is unclear. It is hard to discuss gender equality without the word, “feminism,” so what most millennial feminists, including Watson, are trying to do is to reclaim the word’s potency in the context of the modern era. Perhaps their work is paying off – in 2014 when asked about the subject, Perry had taken a new position. “A feminist? Um, yeah, actually,” she responded. “I used to not really understand what that word meant, and now that I do, it just means that I love myself as a female and I also love men.” Taylor Swift was also originally among young celebrities who eschewed the label, but recently said in an interview “Misogyny is ingrained in people from the time they are born. So to me, feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace, because it’s just basically another word for equality.” According to some, such as Sarah Sobieraj, a professor of sociology at Tufts University, those against the feminist movement have labeled the word as an undesirable stereotype, essentially turning the movement against itself, dismissing the very issues it aims to solve. One can’t help but marvel at how a word alone can possess so much power.
We live in an unprecedented era in which people can now join forces through means of digital communication. Issues which at one time seemed so difficult to resolve now for the first time in history are within our reach, as the collective voices of change become a global currency. It was over 100 years ago that women gained the right to vote, yet equal rights for women is still an issue. The future remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, Millennials more than any other generation have the tools for change, and as the tidal wave of chatter becomes a global chant, we may actual see gender discrimination end in our lifetime.
– The Untitled Magazine
Photo: Chanel Spring / Summer 2015