The Danger of Branding 'Female Empowerment'

So go ahead and hashtag your devotion, but learn the cause. Above all, think collectively -- meaning outside your own personal needs. Think about the needs of your sisters around the word and for generations to come.
11/02/2014 10:28 am ET Updated Jan 02, 2015

You might think now that the Twitter generation is abuzz with feminist discourse, expressing support with hashtags like #YesAllWomen, #SorryNotSorry and #FeminstsAreUgly, that this is a coup for the movement. But there's an implicit danger in marketing feminism, even if amidst its salacious, accessible appeal to the masses it has become an ideology no longer attributed to man-haters who eschew razors.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating an inaccessible feminism. But there are many risks to marketing feminism, and I'm afraid that using hashtags to tweet ideas of female empowerment, ideas that pass through the unconscious without leaving a clear and distinct imprint, can be to blame for its most recent backlash. I'm talking specifically about the Women Against Feminism Tumblr and Facebook groups, where women proudly announce by way of a pithy placard that they are unaffected by sexism; that they don't need feminism; that feminism doesn't interest them. Ironically, if this were truly the case, it would mean victory for the movement, because a true feminist triumph would be that feminism is rendered useless; gender equality would exist and there would be no cause for rebellion. This, however, is not the state of affairs in which we live.

Words (neither on placards nor on the ether of the Internet) alone cannot support a movement. In fact, the confusion over the #FeministsAreUgly hashtag proves this point: Many women who identify as feminists took to Twitter, posting stunning, dolled-up selfies as an act of defiance, thinking they were supporting the trending phrase du jour. That's fine -- I'm certainly not one to argue that feminists can't wear lipstick; can't post provocative selfies -- only, these women missed the point of the hashtag, which was not that feminists don't wear makeup, but rather the nuanced idea that we don't have to use our looks to prove ourselves to anyone. (The hashtag is purposely misleading, as it was coined by two self-identifying feminists of color, Lily Boulourian and Christine Yang in an attempt to question the word ugly as a qualifier for women. Boulourian and Yang argue the word ugly is unfairly defined by white-centric patriarchal beauty standards.)

Media, social and otherwise, provides opportunities for people to connect and organize, but there has to be a cause that people can get behind. For a movement to progress, its cause must be revered. To this end, we must be careful about feminist chatter in the mouths of American gods and goddesses, from Beyoncé to Pussy Riot; Lena Dunham to Zooey Deschanel; Adrian Grenier to Ryan Gosling. Revolution can take many forms, even with the gilded cache of celebrity attached, but do know there's still grassroots work to be done. And another thing: We must do this work on a collective level. We have to remember that we cannot fight oppression on a one-on-one basis. Unfortunately, not everyone gets this. A Fox News pundit and Politichicks editor in chief Ann-Marie Murrell, who co-wrote a new book called What Women Really Want, appeared on live TV telling people that we need a new brand of feminism, because the "brand" we have now is destroying families and femininity, and that any inequalities that still remain can be fought on an individual basis.

So, why does feminism need a movement and not a brand identity? In the American context alone, feminists disagree on policy and ethics. Feminists continue to struggle to understand the perspectives of our comrades, standpoints that can contradict our own. But that's OK, because at their core, feminists can all agree on freedom, equality, solidarity, education, choice, respect and civil rights for men and women alike. We must hold on to this when pop culture attempts to market feminism -- to boil it down to a witty catchphrase, a backdrop for a stage performance, a brand. If you don't think you need feminism, that's jolly for you. But consider all those who came before you and fought for the civil liberties you enjoy today. Things like voting rights, reproductive freedoms, the opportunity to educate yourself, the choice to marry the person you love.

Over the past few months, cultural icons as highbrow as Gloria Steinem and lowbrow as Miley Cyrus spoke publicly about feminist ideology. Policy makers from U.S. Senators Wendy Davis and Kirsten Gillibrand to Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai garnered headlines by framing feminism as a civil right. Sheryl Sandberg and President Obama publicly denounced lower wages and less opportunity for women in the workplace. These are strides for feminism in 2014.

Certainly, high profile people sending us messages about feminism through our TVs, Twitter feed, in music and art, on bodies and in print can move us forward if we remember the worldwide and historical urgency to fight the fight. We can take this chance now, when feminism is so visible in pop culture that people in the spotlight are being asked to define their relationship with this most complex set of ideologies. We can take this chance, not squander it, and fight the fight so that women are no longer treated as the second sex, as targets for domestic rage, neither as property nor badges of honor, as sluts or saints, as livestock to be traded on the black market for sex or labor.

But if you still think you don't need feminism, think about the woman across time who burned at the stake, her paper crown ablaze as smoke suffocated her, as her "witchy" skin blistered. Think about busloads of Nigerian girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram because they sought an education. Think about the pregnant Pakistani woman stoned to death in public by her father, brothers and cousins in an honor killing. Think about how rape in Sierra Leone is so endemic, with over 100 reported cases each month, in public hearings, officials blame the victims for the crimes committed against them. Think about a 50 percent increase in crimes against women in India within the span of a year. Think about how women, so much more so than men, are sexualized to sell material goods that have nothing to do with sex, but because for centuries, their bodies have been hosts of male desire.

Think about the last time you looked down at your body and felt shame -- felt ugly -- felt less than because you can't see yourself through your own eyes. No, instead, you see yourself from the gaze of some man who can choose or choose not to validate you -- or some external critic who feels compelled to comment how yes, the personal is still political.

So what do we do? We actively remember. We talk to one another. We listen, and we do so dynamically and with more than keystrokes. We do so to fight the fight armed with knowledge. We progress the movement by making space for each other, despite our minor disagreements, and setting an agenda for what needs to be done. For years, I've been having dialogues with advocates of feminism who agree with me that there is danger in marketing the movement. I asked them to boldly and concretely express what has been done, and what needs our attention. Their advice is hardly exhaustive, but it's a start. So go ahead and hashtag your devotion, but learn the cause. Above all, think collectively -- meaning outside your own personal needs. Think about the needs of your sisters around the word and for generations to come. Then, if you are so inclined, act. Remember, ladies and gentlemen, the revolution will not be televised, nor will it be on Twitter.

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