Emma Watson, star of the upcoming Beauty and the Beast live-action movie, has stirred controversy with an image that appears in the current issue of Vanity Fair: it shows her dressed in little more than a white woven capelet.
The ensuing outcry over her partially exposed breasts has nothing to do with her movie’s ties to Disney or her beginnings as the star of a children’s movie franchise. Rather, many believe the photograph stands in stark contrast to the messages of equality and freedom that the actress espouses through her work as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador.
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Her response to the criticism — “Feminism is about giving women choice,” she said to Reuters — is a perfect example of the confusion that seems to be plaguing modern feminism. What exactly is the message of the movement?
“It works for us to be pretty and sexy, it gets us money and male attention, and there’s an idea that it improves our life and makes it feminist somehow,” says Jessa Crispin, author of Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. “But that’s not true because we don’t understand what feminism is anymore. We think of it as a self-improvement project.”
While most women would argue that feminism begins and ends with its textbook definition, which is a belief in the political, economic and social equality of the sexes, modern feminists argue that the “me”-ness of the current iteration of the movement (also known as third-wave feminism) is a big problem.
“If you look at the feminist discourse that’s most prominent on the surface and in mainstream media, it’s very focused on the individual and the superficial,” says Meghan Murphy, a Vancouver-based writer, and founder and editor of Feminist Current. “It’s a self-help version of feminism that believes if I choose it and it makes me feel good, it’s feminist and you can’t say anything about that.”
She says it’s that kind of attitude that makes this the only political movement where people can define it for themselves: “You wouldn’t hear a socialist say, ‘For me, socialism means starting my own business.'”
The instinct to point an accusatory finger at the millennials who are embracing feminism today can be overwhelming — after all, aren’t they the ones posting topless selfies to social media under the guise of female empowerment tagged with #FreetheNipple? — but Barbara Crow, dean and associate vice-president of graduate studies at York University, says the bastardization of the movement is a result of the cultural climate.
“Dominant culture is very good at co-opting a group and giving it a stereotypical image,” she says.
During second-wave feminism, which started in the early 1960s through the 1980s, many women distanced themselves from the movement for fear of being lumped in with the stereotype of a feminist: a woman who is pushy, brash, doesn’t shave her legs and above all else, hates men.
In response, the focus shifted and in turn became somewhat blurred. Because of the negative image attached to the feminist label, the third wave of the movement felt compelled to act almost like its own backlash, Murphy explains. It gave rise to catchphrases like “girl power,” which manifested itself in dubious displays of female empowerment like the Spice Girls prancing about in revealing outfits while singing about men.
Soon, consumer culture latched on, co-opted the notion of empowerment and sold it to all women as carte blanche to act however they wanted under the guise of self-actualization. And celebrity culture shoulders some of that blame, too. Beyoncé, who wears leather bodysuits and thigh-high boots on stage, and sings about staying with (and presumably, forgiving) a cheating man, is held as a feminist ideal. Never mind the fact that she has been accused of failing to attribute female artists who she borrows music from, Crispin points out.
“Third wave or liberal feminism focused really hard on pushing the idea that everyone is a feminist and should take on that label,” Murphy says. “They wanted to make the label accessible. That makes sense from the standpoint that it’s a political movement and you want your membership to grow, but in making it so accessible they succeeded in making the term meaningless.”
It’s important to acknowledge the gains of the movement, however. It has made considerable strides in the areas of reproductive freedoms and economic emancipation. Crow recalls a colleague, who was working as a professor in the early 1960s, was denied a credit card at Eaton’s department store because she didn’t have a signature from her husband — he was still a graduate student at the time.
“For the first time in Western industrial history, we’re in a society where women don’t need to marry for economic security,” Crow says. “It’s a huge shift in what was an imbalance between men and women.”
Although admittedly, these privileges are largely enjoyed by white women in the first world.
“Just because a certain population of women — who are mostly white, educated and upper middle class — can participate in higher levels of society, that doesn’t make it a victory for all women,” Crispin says. “It’s the collective that needs taking care of.”
And that collective looks a lot different than it did 30 years ago. On Jan. 21, as millions of women in pink wool hats took to the streets in cities across the world, the crowds illustrated just how the feminist movement has changed, with multi-generational and multi-ethnic women and girls marching alongside men.
“One of the ways in which things have changed is that there’s a segment of men who have really proven they can be allies of feminists,” says Meg Luxton, professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Toronto. “If you try to promote politics that say men are the problem, and women have to organize as women and create women-only spaces, I don’t think you’d find a lot of supporters these days.”
In fact, the movement as a whole is experiencing what is perhaps its biggest evolution thanks to the more visible and vocal inclusion of minorities, indigenous people and members of the LGBTQ community. In particular, Crow points to transgendered women for helping the movement break down gender barriers.
“I think transgender women are like the radical feminists of the ’60s — they’re provoking us and making us think about gender in another way,” she says. “I’m looking forward to seeing what the trans feminists are going to make available to us.”
We’re also seeing the movement roll out in a much different way than it did in the past. Where social activism was seen in the streets in the 1960s and 1970s, today it takes place in organized collectives, on social media and within the layers of government.
“The work that’s going on now is more localized,” Luxton says. “We’re seeing legislative changes and the implementation of collective bargaining rights for workers in unions. And there’s a real mobilization of indigenous women and women of colour who have put anti-colonial and racist issues on the central agenda.”
Modern feminists argue that more than ever before, feminism today has expanded to include every definition of woman.
“There’s more global context than before,” Crow says. “It is segregated into more special interests as opposed to one uniform women’s movement, and there’s a wider range of issues. The women’s marches raised consciousness of these issues and it was incredible to see how many people are committed to social change. And now we need to take it from protest to change.”