As is evident in Time’s dismissal of the word in November, “feminist” as a label and a movement is the site of contested views over its relatability and utility. While suggesting that 2014 has been noticeably different in the attention given to feminism might be shortsighted, the constant thrum of Twitter hashtags (#YesAllWomen and #WhyIStayed come to mind), Buzzfeed lists, and debate around who is or is not a feminist suggest feminism as a topic as an incessant presence. Year end lists naming “iconic” or “best” “feminist moments” are readily available and are indicative of what I wouldn’t describe so much as a changing conversation but rather varying threads of an embracement of what Roxane Gay might call “bad feminism” and what I am labeling as “Buzzfeed feminism.”
In her book, Bad Feminist, which I strongly suggest everyone read, Roxane Gay refers to herself as a “bad feminist” as a critique of any notion that there could be a proper way of doing feminism or that there can be a “good” feminist. Gay frames feminism as something approachable, accessible, and relevant, which is necessary as there seems to be ongoing dispute over what feminism actually entails. One particular list from Mic – “The 39 Most Iconic Feminist Moments of 2014” – could be read as either proving this point of concern over the disjointed interpretations of feminism or instead that are a myriad of feminisms that can take up that label, or maybe both.
The above list has a smattering of topics ranging from responses to attacks on reproductive health to Laverne Cox’s excellent year to Ferguson protests to Barbie’s changing figure. The list also includes Beyoncé on two separate occasions, Robin Thicke’s failure of an album, and Frozen. Beyoncé’s brand of feminism is the subject of endless critique and is discussed more extensively elsewhere, but the listing of a mediocre music album doing poorly and an inescapable Disney movie do not appear to me as “feminist moments.” In a feminist cultural studies seminar I took this semester, we spent week after week discussing what makes a film, TV show, music, or performer “feminist.” Is it the explicitly assigned label? Is it inherent in a plot? What is the role of intentionality in feminism, especially where popular media is concerned? How are we interpreting feminism? Jack Halberstam, in Gaga Feminism, references a colleague who is working on “Ke$ha feminism”—do Ke$ha’s take on sexual politics and liberatory aesthetic in terms of sex automatically lead us to feminism? What’s feminist about Ke$ha, and who gets to decide Ke$ha’s feminism?
What the list does perhaps unintentionally, and what Roxane Gay does so effectively, is to point out the complexities of doing feminism and that it isn’t quite so cut and dry, which is where what I’m calling “Buzzfeed feminism” comes into play. The list has a few references to Aziz Ansari, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emma Watson promoting inclusive feminism for everyone. While I have difficulty being frustrated with these celebrities for their promotion of feminism, what their various speeches do is to rebrand feminism as primarily concerned with women’s equality, and surprise!, men can be a part of feminism, too. While it’s hard to complain about publicity that might make feminism a little more accessible to their fans, their feminisms are also reductive. Emma Watson’s expansion of feminism to men was treated as a huge development for feminism, but feminism has long been about fighting sexism on all fronts, along with racism, classism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, among all of the forms of inequality these –isms intersect with. The rebranding of feminism via Buzzfeed clickbait and the packaging of feminism in the form of gifs and memes disregard a history of feminist work and instead we are constantly reinventing the wheel. Feminism’s ubiquity in pop culture conversation is important, but I worry if its roots aren’t traced beyond its existence as a buzzword that, according to Time, has already run its course.