Essay

How feminism lost its street cred

'I'M NOT A feminist" is the first line of many a contemporary discussion of gender. The disclaimer isn't even followed by a "but" any more. Even purportedly progressive, youth-oriented publications distance themselves from the f-word. Instead, dragged across the pages of magazines like VICE are women's bodies, exposed, degraded, almost grotesque. VICE claims to be a satirical publication, but this is difficult to gauge from its tone. When it tells us that "all women want to be dominated", it's hard to see the irony.

Eminem, who raps lustily about the rape and murder of women, is cool. Earnest folk singer chicks with guitars and politics are definitely "wack". And on the dance floors of the world, young women strut stripper-style in an explicit performance of heterosexuality that has been dubbed "raunch culture". Those who object to the new misogyny are labelled prudish, restraining. As Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs (Simon and Schuster, 2005) writes: "Raunch culture, then, isn't an entertainment option; it's a litmus test of female uptightness."

Eva Cox, a feminist academic at the University of Technology, Sydney, says raunch culture "is not something to be deeply distressed about, it is not the end of feminism, it is about young women asserting themselves". But young women are under intense pressure to perform, and studies show that they do struggle with their sexual freedom, even as they act assertively. In Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality(Harvard University Press, 2002), Deborah Tolman finds that teenage girls do worry about being branded sluts, and many struggle under the pressure to be sex objects for boys and to express no desires of their own.

Somehow, our perspectives have been inverted. Empowerment is a series of sexually provocative dance moves. Feminism is anti-liberation, politically correct, sexually uptight and boring. Young women are buying into the patriarchal backlash in droves.

 

IN MY TEENS, we were told we could do anything. Many young feminists made zines, started bands, and created a DIY culture tagged as "riot grrl".

By the mid-90s, however, "girls can do anything" had mutated into "women have to do everything". Our mothers were exhausted from double shifts as career women and housewives. Riot grrl's brat sister swapped the genderfuck for a nice frock and grew up to be "girl power". The Spice Girls, marketed as 'tween role models, have demonstrated their empowerment by ending up either tragic bulimia cases or celebrity wives-andmothers.

It's the same old story, of course: youth rebellion is packaged and remarketed in consumer form. It happened to rock'n'roll; it happened to punk. But misogyny is more than a marketing ploy. The worrying aspect of raunch culture and other manifestations of patriarchal reaction is the complicity – even enthusiasm – of young women in discarding a social movement intended to benefit us.

What went wrong? Has feminism failed? For a generation raised with the expectation of equality, it is disconcerting to discover that only the shortest of inroads have been made. Women are grossly under-represented in positions of power and disturbingly overrepresented in global poverty. Our sexual and reproductive rights are still monitored and legislated mainly by men, and the more radical attempts by second-wave feminism to dismantle patriarchal social structures have done little to reduce the impact of these structures on everyday life. What changes were made have rapidly been stripped away by the neoconservative agenda: the last ten years have seen little but backwards movement in terms of women's participation and visibility in Australian politics.

Having been taught autonomy, it is disappointing to realise that sex is still considered your main source of social power.

The "new" misogyny, then, could be seen as an expression of hopelessness or rage: young women, by performing the aesthetic of gender oppression, are reappropriating power – much as black and queer cultures have done. This would be a comforting line to take, but if this cultural phenomenon is a tactic, it should at least be attempting to effect social change. It is not. If it is a postmodern strategy, a new "new wave" of feminist empowerment, it should display the characteristics of being a strategy – it should have a politic, or at least a critique that interrogates practice.

 

POP CULTURE'S SELF-ANALYSIS is limited to "What's Hot?" lists. Academia doesn't help – the intent study of pop-culture phenomena offers little in the way of evaluating its worth, and cultural studies has mainstreamed gender analysis, making it everyone's subject-matter and no one's project.

British feminist and writer Angela McRobbie points out in her book In the Culture Society (Routledge, 1999) that popular magazines' obsessive how-to guides around sex essentially agree that sexuality is constructed and learned, which is an important step. This is tenuous at best – it does nothing to address the regression to "set" gender roles.

 

ACADEMIC FEMINISTS HAVE, by and large, prematurely abandoned a structural analysis of real social issues such as rape, domestic violence, inequality – and without having effected lasting structural change. So how did feminism lose its street cred? There are three main threads at work here: sexuality, political correctness and a generational shift.

Sex first. What happened to feminist ideals of sexual liberation? We got the anti-porn debates of the 1980s, when Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon in In Harm's Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings(Harvard University Press, 1997) told us pornography was the same as rape and accidentally got themselves censored in the process. What started as an attempt to stop the subordination of women and the commodification of the female body ended up marking a generation of feminists as censors – as anti-sex. It's not hard to see why young women want their bodies back.

But they are still not our bodies. Raunch culture is a display for men – an acceptance of sexuality as women's only source of power. It makes no attempt to talk about oppression, while VICE tells us subordination is what women really want. Perhaps old-school feminism has ceased to be relevant to a lot of people who feel held back by a movement that relied too heavily on "victim mentality" and strict gender identity. By celebrating the misogyny of popular culture, women are reacting against the failures of second-wave feminists, but we are throwing the sisterhood out with the bathwater.

As for political correctness, feminism has been tarred with its brush as well. Since the early 1990s, there has been a backlash against the "politically correct" – a backlash in which the politically just plain wrong are somehow able to claim that they are being victimised by bleeding heart liberals who favour scary policies like equality of opportunity. The victims and the perpetrators have been switched – it's like watching CNN coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But it would be defeatist to blame the rise of the political right for the acceptability of "anti-PC" culture generally. Sure, it plays a part – the right is too scrawny a force here to operate without some support from its team in government – but it's not the whole story.

In fact, the left must also take responsibility for some of its lack of cool. By not fighting against the ideology of PC, feminists took part in a general shift of the left from real force to ethics committee. At some point, we appointed ourselves moral guardians – thus opting out of the actual struggle.

And then there's the generational shift. As the children of Baby Boomers, we've watched the high ideals of the 1960s being replaced by middle-class aspirations, liberation traded for a few nest egg shares. As Catharine Lumby pointed out in Bad Girls (Allen & Unwin, 1997), many women of the Baby Boomer generation do not acknowledge their status as part of the establishment. In addition, conservative feminists like Naomi Wolf have come to be seen as representative because of their accessibility, but haven't actually addressed their position of privilege. To top it off, many of the women writing about young women are now approaching middle age.

This raises one further issue – that of choice. As the feminist project has been dissipated, as it has tried to become everything to every woman (and man), it has spread itself too thinly. The ethics of "choice" are also inextricably linked to a consumer culture. "Girls can do anything" is now a mantra of acquisition, not skill. In this context, empowerment is a measure of what you can get, and sex is your main currency.

It's not all bad news, though. DIY feminism and the effects of riot grrl still resonate for many women, and a lot has changed. Young men are slowly being educated to take responsibility for sexual ethics. But what we really need is a thorough and relevant analysis of gender dynamics that incorporates a spectrum of sexualities. We need a feminism that helps us to navigate the dance floor and other important institutions – one that allows us to reject misogyny without looking like a total dweeboid loser with an acoustic guitar. 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review