Glossy Coat

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The feminist movement may have its problems, but they can’t be solved by a fashion magazine makeover

About a month ago, Elle UK revealed its plan to ‘rebrand’ feminism. Advertising agencies Wieden+Kennedy, Mother and Brave were paired with feminist web magazines The Vagenda, Feminist Times and ‘teenage campaigner’ Jinan Younis, respectively, to come up with three ‘rebranding’ campaigns, which were then featured in Elle’s November issue. A note on its website announcing the project began: ‘The conversation about feminism, what it means and more importantly, what it means to you, is one that runs continually at the Elle HQ.’

The editors at Elle would have us believe they were so worried about perceptions of feminism that they felt compelled to come to its rescue by changing its ‘image’, which had become ‘burdened with complications and negativity.’

“Feminism is an important issue for Elle readers,” Editor-in-Chief Lorraine Candy was quoted as saying. “But we’ve learnt, through engagement with our readers via our website and social media, that young women are confused as to what it means and whether it is relevant to them… Now the major political parties are desperate for the female vote, I wondered if presenting a new face of feminism may encourage women to think about their rights and what they need in society today. I believe debate is the key and we are in a unique position to reach the very audience feminism should be helping.”

The collaboration between Brave and Younis, who was bullied at school for trying to start a feminist society, resulted in a flowchart designed to encourage people to identify themselves as feminist. Part of the copy at the bottom reads: ‘Feminism is the radical belief that women are people.’ The Mother-Feminist Times collaboration commands women to ask their male counterparts what they get paid if they are doing the same job, while the W+K-Vagenda campaign prompts them to challenge societal stereotypes by completing the sentence ‘I am a woman and…’

Though the ads may not be breakthroughs in terms of their insights and execution, they do manage to address important issues. Yet there has been a largely negative reaction to the exercise in feminist circles, which deem the exercise frivolous and superficial. The main point of contention is whether a movement can be rebranded at all. And if it can, is a magazine that trades in ideas of unrealistic beauty and consumerism in a position to conduct such a rebranding, considering that the movement in question largely rejects what such a magazine stands for?

Most Western feminist historians assert that all movements that work to obtain women’s rights should be considered feminist movements, even when they do not use the term themselves. The term ‘feminism’ or ‘feminist’ first appeared in France and the Netherlands in 1872. By 1895, it had made its way into Britain and the Oxford English Dictionary. At the time, it was used as a synonym for the women’s rights movement that had sprung up in France and was slowly gaining momentum in the rest of the world.

By the 18th century, philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, Marquis de Condorcet and Mary Wollstonecraft were championing the rights of women and had made it the subject of a relevant political discourse. But it was only in the late 19th and early 20th century, when women began organising themselves into a movement, that the subject moved beyond debate. This movement was defined by demands for social and political equality and came to be known as the feminist movement. Now known as the ‘first wave’ of feminism, it focused on overturning legal inequalities, mainly of suffrage.

During the second wave between the 1960s and 80s the debate broadened to include cultural inequalities, gender norms and the role of women in society. In the late 70s feminists began taking on issues of sexuality, pornography and prostitution, which polarised opinion and divided the movement. These debates, known as the ‘feminist sex wars’, caused the movement to fragment and are cited as a reason for the decline of the second wave.

The third wave of feminism does not seem to exist when compared to the large mass movements of its past. It is more a catch-all term for a period featuring diverse strains of feminist activity, seen as both a continuation of the second wave and a response to its perceived failures. For the past two decades, feminism has struggled to stay relevant, both to the world and the women it seeks the allegiance of.

Like any movement, feminism has, over time, evolved past its initial definition, beyond a simple call for equality, influenced by a plethora of factors, from changing times to localisation, resulting in a rather fragmented cause with no clear direction. New challenges have emerged, but the movement is experiencing a flagging of momentum as it lacks resonance with a younger, apolitical generation that is tired of the term ‘feminism’ and all that is associated with it.

Last year Kareena Kapoor gasped in horror when a journalist asked her if she was a feminist. “No! I am not. I am a humanitarian instead,” she quipped. Feminism is now commonly understood to be uncool, endorsed only by the Rosie O’Donnells of the world or old English literature professors who seem so misplaced in today’s world. Feminists are often depicted in popular culture as aggressive, unreasonable man-haters, stereotypes that are then cycled through social media, resulting in a general atmosphere of ‘feminist-shaming’. This results in young women rejecting feminism as not only uncool, but also irrelevant.

Unlike their predecessors, these women were born with basic rights, a sense of security and purchasing power in a relatively tolerant world. They do not understand the need to do away with beauty stereotypes, to fight for economic equality or the history and politics of the movement—simply because they were born in the 80s and the 90s and grew up on the fringes of the so-called third wave in a world made to believe that sexual liberation is the only true form of liberation available to them, with role models like Miley Cyrus and Rihanna (or Katrina Kaif).

Despite their daily struggles with patriarchy in their personal and public lives, these young women continue to feel free because they don’t feel physically bound. The idea of true intellectual freedom does not even occur to most of them because they are unaware of their own limitations. Classic cases of the Marxist-feminist theory of ‘false consciousness’, unaware of the ways their behaviour is influenced by the system in which they function.

In 1991, Naomi Wolf argued that as women gain social power and prominence, they are under pressure to adhere to arbitrary physical standards of beauty. In her book The Beauty Myth, she introduces the subject with this analysis: ‘The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us... During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing [medical] specialty... More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our un-liberated grandmothers.’

The problem with Elle’s rebranding exercise lies primarily in the fact that the ‘feminism’ being sold by the magazine is far removed from the violence and struggle of much of the movement’s history. In its attempt to give feminism a makeover and find it a new audience, the magazine is conveniently ignoring serious feminists and their work for the movement. It is appealing instead to an audience that is at odds with the ideals of the movement—that of challenging gender and beauty norms. The very norms that magazines like Elle celebrate and their audiences revere.

The attempt is to take a movement that was mainly about rights and sell it as a brand with a tagline. A movement is almost always a battle and it is always messy and so much of what feminism set out to fight for is still only half achieved. Establishments like Elle would claim it as their own simply because women form a majority of their consumer base. Can you imagine a generation of women calling themselves ‘feminists’ based on an advertisement they saw in a fashion magazine?

Having said that, these efforts needn’t be all bad if they draw the conversation about what feminism reallyis into mainstream discourse. Attitudes towards the cause can slowly change if discussions about rape culture, reproductive rights and gender gaps are opened up on unexpected platforms. There would then be no need for a rebranding to turn the movement into something pretty and easy to sell.

If feminism does need something, it definitely isn’t rebranding. It needs educated, aware young women with the confidence to defend their choices, willing to move beyond the obsession with the pretty-and-trendy and out of the glossy pages of a fashion magazine.

In her essay Conditions for Work, poet and feminist Adrienne Rich wrote: ‘If we conceive feminism as more than a frivolous label, if we conceive of it as an ethics and a methodology, a more complex way of thinking about, and thus more responsibly acting upon, the conditions of human life, we need a self-knowledge which can only develop through a steady, passionate attention to all female experience.’

Feminism is not something you can put on a badge or a T-shirt. It does not come with a rigid set of guidelines. It is self-knowledge, something that you identify with and live with for the rest of your life. It is an ideology that determines the way you live; not a consumable good. Without its context, it is just a word.