As we head towards 2015, the internet groaning under the weight of a million boring white boys’ end-of-year indie tracks lists, there are plenty of names on everyone’s lips and open Google Chrome tabs. Taylor Swift, maybe; Nigel Farage, unfortunately; Russell Brand, probably. Emma Watson likely keeps cropping up, too. Jeremy Clarkson is only ever a few clicks away. But while the latter is most likely to be found in ‘Villian of the Year’ or on some kind of ‘Facepalms of 2014’ Buzzfeed-style feature complete with gifs, the former seems to be singlehandedly propping up trade in this year’s favourite end-of-year list: the ‘Feminist Moments of 2014’ one found everywhere from The Huffington Post to Cosmopolitan magazine. Of course I couldn’t help but add my own tuppence worth to the 2014 reviews hailing this ‘the year of women’ and ‘a turning point for feminism’ – because boring indie white boys I can just about deal with, but rubbish feminism is a whole other matter.
Emma Watson is a good place to start given that she was recently awarded the title of ‘Feminist Celebrity of The Year‘, an accolade presented by Cosmopolitan and Ms. Foundation, presumably for someone who says something quite basic and somewhat problematic, but is incredibly famous and traditionally beautiful while doing so. The ‘something quite basic’ in this case is apparently also 2014’s greatest feminist victory and refers to Watson’s launch of the ‘He For She’ campaign to “extend an official invitation” to men to get involved in the feminist movement, since gender equality is also their problem.
Gender equality is also their problem – women have been saying it since forever. But it’s their problem because they should value women and women’s humanity, not because ‘sexism harms men too’ or because those women are their mothers/sisters/daughters. The reason for their lack of uptake thus far is less to do with the absence of an official invitation, as Watson suggested, and more to do with the fact that men themselves have shown time and time again that they aren’t really capable of giving up their patriarchal benefits en masse. Because you’d be forgiven for thinking that grassroots women’s activist groups might have picked up on this issue before, or that the death toll of women killed by men might constitute an ‘official invitation’ for them to… I don’t know, stop it? But you’d be wrong, because all we really needed was for Hermione Granger to come along and fix feminism. Phew.
This pursuit of an ‘acceptable’ (read: white, young and beautiful by patriarchal standards) face of feminism was something of a theme in 2014, a year when the media seemed desperate to assess feminism’s worth based on the desirability of the messenger rather than on ideology itself; a slippery slope akin to the one where we buy into criticisms of the ‘butch women in dungarees’ stereotype instead of questioning why the opinions of butch women in dungarees should be any less valuable. This obsession with brand identity is a capitalism-driven bandwagon that Elle magazine and The Fawcett Society jumped on this year with fervour when they launched their campaign to rebrand feminism. Their aim? To make the cause palatable to the masses again, destigmatising the word ‘feminist’ and showing that anyone could be one for the bargain price of £45, or £30-if-you-take-out-a-Whistles-store-card-today. Other discount opportunities include being a rich white man who happens to be leader of a major political party in which case you can get one for free, unless you’re David Cameron who allegedly turned his down – presumably because they didn’t make one that said ‘this is what a prime minister whose government have trampled all over women looks like’.
It shouldn’t need to be pointed out that feminism isn’t palatable to the masses by its very nature, and nor should it be – if it were, it would be entirely unnecessary and quite frankly we could all save a lot of time and energy and focus ourselves on something less stressful. Those who it is palatable to – who it can often mean the difference between life or death for – are the very least privileged of our society. The black women facing double discrimination on a daily basis; the single mother struggling after cuts to child benefit; the non-binary person isolated and bullied because of their non-conformity to gender roles. I could go on and on, or maybe we could just title the list ‘people who probably can’t afford a £45 Whistles t-shirt’ and be done with it.
And herein lies the problem. The feminist acts underpinning 2014’s ‘Year of the Feminist’ title are of a type that’s attractive to mainstream media and well-meaning liberals, but it’s not the feminism we need. It’s no coincidence that the majority of events and campaigns peppered across these lists are overtly about changing the ‘brand’ of feminism, watering it down to make it attractive, changing the message to placate those who ultimately are the oppressors. 2014 may well have been a feminist success story – Focus E15, Carry That Weight and Southall Black Sisters, among many others, all did hugely important work this year – but it isn’t because of Emma Watson addressing a UN brunch or Nick Clegg donning a Whistles t-shirt. Rather, women continue to do the amazing activism they’ve been doing for hundreds of years, largely under the radar and met with cynicism at best and violence at worst. Some of our biggest opponents are likely those who shared Emma Watson’s speech or rushed to order a Fawcett society t-shirt – it’s easy to hold up a sign claiming that you care; it’s less easy to dismantle your own privilege in the process of meaning it.
I don’t draw attention to all of the above simply for the purpose of being a feminist killjoy (although that’s always fun too), but to point out that feminism doesn’t exist because it’s fun and glamorous, it exists because it’s a necessity and upon its achievement it will cease to do so. That’s why the ‘Year of Feminism’ title seems like something of an oxymoron to me, especially in a year that’s seen the rise of the fascist party UKIP, that’s seen rape crisis centre funding and childcare budgets slashed, and where the progressive body-positive and Black feminism of the likes of Nicki Minaj has been largely dismissed in favour of the more ‘conventional’ Meghan Trainor. 2014 was certainly the year of something – the teaming up of feminism with capitalism and sexists alike in an attempt to make it part of the acceptable mainstream; part of the problem. Here’s to a 2015 that’s about activism for and about women, and an intersectional feminism that’s prepared to address its own failings. Only then can we move towards not needing it at all – and when that happens it truly will be ‘The Year of Feminism’.
2 thoughts on “2014 was not ‘The Year of Feminism’”
First of all, thank you for an eloquent and thought provoking post.
I couldn’t help but wonder though that part of the issue you described here is slightly separate from that of just feminism. Whenever a cause is promoted, be it racial equality, fighting economic disparities or promoting gender equality, the greatest effect will be achieved if a famous, well liked person advertises it. Yes, it is infuriating that a personality, famous for something completely irrelevant to the idea, is more important in public discussions than the idea itself. However, by attacking Emma Watson personally for simply acting in a messed up system and for not doing as much as other activists do you approach the very attitude you’re trying to prevent. She herself is not any more responsible for the celebrity culture than you or me are. It’s not her that awarded the awards unfairly. I just see a person trying to make a difference by positive actions and messages. Simple actions, yes, nothing heroic. But is it right to attack someone for not being a “heroic enough” feminist?
Hey, thanks for commenting!
I don’t necessarily disagree with you, especially given how problematic definitions of what constitutes a ‘good activist’ can be for disabled people, people with disabilities, caring responsibilities etc. I suppose instead I would clarify a couple of things that I was trying to get across in the post.
The criticisms I was directing personally at Emma Watson were actually very few – I do think that everyone should be called out for peddling problematic messages within feminism or any kind of political statement, and that’s what I was getting at when I picked out the fact that her rhetoric centralised men and also the dismissal of women before her who had already made similar points. I think broadly that her feminism – at least that illustrated in the UN speech – is white, liberal feminism and I’d like to think mine isn’t.
However, I certainly don’t hold her personally responsible for what type of feminism becomes ‘popular’ etc – the point about branding was a broader one addressed mainly at mainstream media but other parts of wider society too; I don’t think it’s any one person’s fault.
Hope that clears things up if I was unclear in the post?