We Need to Change How We Talk About Feminism

Trump won for many reasons, but also because his opponent was a woman—which means pop culture Feminism needs a serious reality check.


via CNBC

This morning, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. For most of us, it was shocking. After all, we’ve seen the “I’m With Her” memes on our Facebook walls and looked at polls reassuring us that Hillary would win. We’ve spent months clicking on anti-Trump articles from media sources we trust, either blasting him for inappropriate misogyny and racism or ridiculing him for inappropriate hair. We didn’t really think there was a realistic possibility the qualified female candidate would lose to the unqualified male one—but that’s exactly what happened. The results of the election proved that the future isn’t female—at least, not just yet. There are a hell lot of people out there who don’t see that future, and there are a lot more of them than we thought. If we want that female future, we have to work much harder for it—and most importantly, we have to work differently.

Break Pop Culture’s Feminist Bubble

The work starts with recognizing the flaws of the mainstream feminist bubble—the one created when Feminism rapidly exploded within millennial pop culture. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling autobiography reassured women that we can have it all; Emma Watson gave inspirational speeches about female equality at the UN; TV shows like Girls nonchalantly featured women with different body shapes, sexual appetites and ‘fringe’ ambitions; brands like Nike and Chanel quickly hopped on the feminist bandwagon, telling us we’re good enough the way we are and already rule the world (as long as we buy their products, of course). Together, those examples and more made Feminism quickly palatable and visible to a wider audience. Although, at its core, that result is better than a lack of feminist visibility at all, it also caused a sort of cultural amnesia: many people – ourselves included – somewhat gave in to the temptation to confuse visibility with mass impact and necessary representation. It felt nice giving ourselves pats on the back that at least some sort of feminist message was getting out there through our own social media feeds and social circles—but it didn’t get out there to the people who really need to hear it. It only takes looking a little bit closer into those examples to understand why Feminism in pop culture is unrelateable and exclusionary.

Sheryl Sandberg’s book is inspirational with its go-getter attitude—but Sandberg is a white, educated and upper middle class woman. The same goes for Emma Watson: though she’s saying the right things, she’s also a white woman with a top education and finances exceeding those of most women. Girls lets women fart on screen, alright—but those women are all white, financially supported and unburdened with the kinds of responsibilities and choices most women have to deal with. Sandberg, Watson, Dunham and the myriad of other popular figures of new Feminism do serve as inspirational figures for many women, no doubt. However, their socioeconomic realities that let them be ‘inspirational’ in the first place beg the question: which women can relate to them? Is it the single mother working two minimum-wage jobs—the one that far outnumbers the women out there like Sandberg and Watson? Probably not. Is it your grandmother, raised with outdated 20th century values yet still holding as much voting power as you do? Also unlikely. The women relating to and therefore listening to Sandberg and Dunham are the ones with the socioeconomic ammunition that allows them to do so—women with educations, left-wing leanings and at least middle class status. About 41% of women in America are middle class and only 19% of women in the country hold university educations— leaving a whole bunch of other women with voting power out of the conversation and out of the movement. Perhaps most importantly, however, it’s still women who are listening: the men we need uniting with us if we want to make a difference aren’t.

Fear-Mongering and Misogyny Go Hand in Hand

Although Trump won through a combination of fear-mongering, populism and aggressive nationalism, it isn’t that far of a stretch to say he also won because his opponent was a woman. Trump appeals to people who feel economically hard done by and fed up with neoliberal promises past governments made—people who feel threatened by immigrants, and don’t want ‘others’ (be they Muslims or refugees) coming in and taking what they feel is rightfully theirs. Basically, Trump’s selling points are based on archaic, patriarchal rhetoric and fear of difference—which is precisely the witches’ brew that powers systemic misogyny in our society. So while we were flicking through memes of Hillary rolling her eyes at Trump’s #mansplaining and hoping for the best, others were rallying for Trump throughout America, powered by right-wing media sources using almost laughably sexist language to describe his opponent. While we equated momentum around Feminism as Feminism ‘making it’, others perceived Feminism as a ‘threat’ in the shape of Hillary Clinton: according to the Public Religion Research Institute, a whopping 52% of white American men hold a ‘very unfavorable’ view of Clinton.

And this isn’t the time to blame America for this, either. As we’ve seen through Brexit and the worrying trend of right-wing governments gaining power in Europe, fear-mongering and aggressive nationalism is gaining ground everywhere. So if we want the kind of change the industry around pop culture feminism is telling us we already have, we need to take a reality check. The mass change isn’t there yet. We need to work harder and smarter to get that change, right now.

We’re not saying we have all the answers – not even close – but we do have some suggestions.


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1. Remember the True Meaning of Visibility

As a media, it’s our responsibility to make sure we find stories about all kinds of women—especially the ones that aren’t visible in mainstream culture. What that means is making a diligent effort to talk to and about women of various races, genders, ages, socioeconomic positions, political opinions, industries, etc. The more we talk about women from all walks of life, the more we normalise their visibility in our cultures and get diverse people to empathise with their experiences.

2. Get Men and Women In One Room Talking About Stuff

These days, you can throw a rock and hit a Feminist conference, organisation or publication. Those forums for discussion are necessary and powerful catalysts for change—but all too often, it’s mostly women filling the rooms, sharing their views on Feminism with other likeminded women. We end up talking in circles about stuff we’ve talked about with each other millions of times before—but we aren’t getting many men on the same page. As Jill Filipovic aptly pointed out in The New York Times, more than half of men feel Trump respects and values women a lot, while over two thirds of women feel he barely does at all. Point being: men and women have different perceptions of feminist issues. It’s only through dialogue we have together, in one space, that a true mutual understanding will be met—giving us the potential for the change that we want.

3. No Feminist Squabbles, Please

There are many types of Feminists, just as there are many strains of Feminism. That’s fantastic: we’re all for as many diverse voices as possible inviting as many people as possible into progressive conversations. However, that diversity has an ugly tendency to turn into competition or Feminist policing—which really gets us nowhere. So, rather than squabbling over which strain of Feminism is best and judging each other over the type of Feminism we’re exercising, we need to keep our egos in check. It’s about remembering that we share the same base values and keeping that in mind over everything else—including arguments that do more harm than good.

4. Get ‘em while they’re young

There’s a whole generation of teenage boys and girls out there who are soaking up information like sponges and falling into adoration with musicians, actors, writers, artists and other role models. It’s our job to make empowering role models accessible to them—the kinds that represent the change that needs to happen in the world. By accessible, we mean showing those role models through our publications, loudly supporting the ones within our communities and giving young kids and teens as many platforms for expression as we can. Doing that will shape the next generation of policy makers and thinkers into doers who can put their values into practice better than we can.

5. Destroy Gender Binaries

Your penis or vagina doesn’t define you—and thankfully, many of us are talking about that louder than we’ve been in a while. In our eyes, breaking down the expectations, stereotypes and barriers defined by our reproductive organs is one of the main things we can do to spark mass empathy. It’s not about the genders we identify as: it’s about how we think on a human level, and how we can relate to other human beings. The more we unite to do away with unnecessary gender binaries, the more we open up room for understanding, transformation and change on a wider social scale.

Alright, rant is over.