I can’t remember when the concept of feminism first occurred to me, but I’m almost certain that before I even knew what it was, I was one. I remember chirping the word out with familiarity when I was a teenager, and binge reading the most popular works of Naomi Wolf and Germaine Greer in my first year of college, barely able to leave the house without clawing my way angrily through the world because of everything women had gone through, from Hypatia of Alexandria to Bjork.
Imagine my surprise, in my twenties, to realize that most women didn’t use the word feminist to describe themselves. Despite the negative (and often ridiculous) connotations associated with any and all feminism, from not shaving one’s legs to hating men, I had always identified with the word because I recognized the importance of my ability to assert myself, and the necessity of having control over my own personal choices. But, in the age of the consumer, what defines feminism? Is it choice alone?
In recent years, the word feminism has popped up everywhere. From Beyonce singing in front of it on stage to interviews with singers like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, it has seemed like there is some sort of resurgence with regards to feminism. Of course, even as it commonly appears in the mainstream, one wonders what the motivating factor is. After all, when the brand of Chanel staged a mock feminist protest for their Spring 2015 runway show, what was the meaning behind it? Was it to lend credence to the resurgence of a necessary movement, or to popularize it as a brand for profit?
In We Were Feminists Once, writer Andi Zeisler explores the commodification of feminism in recent years and how this has impacted its relevance and cultural currency for a new generation. While Zeisler questions the marketing of feminism and how it is being used in the media, she explains that more is required of the movement and those who name check it:
“…the purpose of a brand is, like neoliberal feminism, deeply at odds with the necessary evolution of movements to address issues that are about more than what trickles down from the highest echelons. The diversity of voices, issues, approaches, and processes required to make feminism work as an inclusive social movement is precisely the kind of knotty, unruly insurrection that just can’t be smoothed into a neat brand.”
I’ve had my own experiences with Zeisler’s statement that feminism as a brand can indeed be knotty. Once, a few years ago when I was working as a waitress, I had a conversation with a friend who was much older than me. While I thought of fashion as something that amused me rather than wholly defined me, my friend seemed surprised that I considered myself a feminist; she thought that women who wore dresses and heels did not typically identify with the textbook definition of the word. The surprise wasn’t so much that someone might look at me and think I wasn’t a feminist, but that my friend missed the behavioural cues I thought would unmistakably define me as one. Nowadays, perhaps it’s the other way around.
Much like the recently despised Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner, there are more than enough choices available in the world that whole movements need not be co-opted in order to serve a marketable purpose. As Zeisler states, there is little progressive utility to be found in something that can be digested with ease. If there are no rough patches and no hard road with regards to ‘feminist’ identity, there is no friction and it means that nothing is being altered or confronted.
There is certainly some benefit in the word being readdressed in the mainstream, but if it’s for commodity and not for consciousness raising, the reinvention is of little value. We’ve got a long way to go, baby.