International Women’s Day is dedicated to making the world a more balanced place. Part of celebrating is acknowledging that there’s a problem that needs to be corrected. The 2019 theme #BalanceforBetter challenges each one of us to improve the gender balance. It’s important that I share this post today because Saskatchewan is Canada’s hotspot for intimate partner violence. There are a lot of reasons why our province should be named #1, but this is one title I would be happy to lose.
‘I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.”― Anaïs Nin
The quote above acknowledges that men play a critical role in the empowerment of women. The man Anais chose reinforced how she viewed herself and solidified her individual identity. I envision this person to be supportive and encouraging, while helping to challenge the often monumental beast of self-doubt.
Today, I’ve decided to share a short writing prompt on the state of feminism in the media. I wrote it nearly five years ago as part of my Communications Degree in early part of 2014. At the time, pop artists I admired such as Beyonce and Katy Perry were actively avoiding identifying with the word “feminist”.
Fast-forward only a few years later, and both women came out with clear statements that affirmed their feminism. This shift has taken place over a relatively short period of time. Beyonce and Katy admitted they had no idea what the word meant before the media began asking them whether or not they identified with it.
So, what does “feminism” mean anyway?
Coming from small-town Saskatchewan, I relate to having no prior understanding of feminism before my post-secondary education. How can you identify with something that has never been defined for you? In case you’re curious, I’ve included my favourite definition of feminism below.
‘Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. (…). Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism. As a definition it is open-ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.”― bell hooks
Internalized oppression is a daily battle for women
During my undergrad capstone research, I discovered how a woman’s own internal voice is developed to oppress her from her date of birth. My life and identity were the subject of this study. I’ve been passionate about living as a feminist since leaving school.
You may or may not have thought about internalized oppression before. Let me explain: from a woman’s perspective, it whispers about what you’re wearing as you strategically hold your keys when you walk home alone at night. It nods at you while you’re hissing insults at yourself in the mirror. It tells you to keep quiet when you’re too afraid to speak out against harassment. And it’s the disguise your friends wear when the conversation goes back to feeding self-hatred (i.e. diet culture).
Moving society in a positive direction
The mainstream popularization of feminism is doing something to transform the way we, men and women, live out its ideals. Flipping negative messages, behaviours, and beliefs from the current realities to a new, positive movement.
Empowerment of an entire gender is a big effort. Start with something small and practical, such as paying a woman with the same qualifications and skills as her male colleague the same salary or hourly wage. Or have a willingness to pay self-employed women the rates they command. Or support a woman’s choice to be a stay-at-home mother without penalizing her when she wants to rejoin the workforce.
International Women’s Day: The state of feminism
As I said earlier, the following prompt is what I thought was going on with feminism in the media back in 2014. It’s slightly more difficult to read than a typical Do Sask post, but it gives a good snapshot of how far society has come over the past five years.
“The truth is that we have not reached the point where sexism, sexual oppression and exploitation have become history and yet most young women denounce the term feminist when describing their image. Strong, female role-models (especially Beyonce) have avoided answering the question when asked directly. This may be due to the media twisting the definition of feminism to mean the ‘men-hating, radical, bra-burners’ of the second-wave. The main foundations of feminism are either represented inaccurately or not at all by the media, leading many to believe contemplation of the term to be outdated.
Feminism allows women to share their experiences in hopes that they can individually and collectively revolt against the patriarchy. It is about becoming an inclusive body for women to work towards the goal together, not a system to alienate ‘real women’ from ‘real feminists’. The problem is that ‘fourth-wave of feminism’, the new generation of young, liberated, post-feminism, Generation Y women and men, are unsure of how to categorize their stance on the issue. There have been so many sub-categories added under the umbrella of feminism (race, class, sexuality, gender) that its aura has been diluted. Instead of these groups rallying to continue the struggle to end patriarchal oppression, the hierarchical culture of feminism has torn women apart to scrutinize which group makes better feminists.
In a post-feminist media context, popular discourse actually reinforces the powers that have been holding women back for eons (Foucauldian internalized oppression, self-monitoring). The most repressive aspect of feminism is to deny that young people care about the term, which can lead many to believe that the time has come to silence the topic entirely. Extraordinarily, Miley Cyrus may be the most famous young woman to publically declare herself to be the “biggest feminist in the world”, while Katy Perry says she is “not a feminist, but believes in strong women”. In most cases, the media is acting as a repressive force by choosing the victim as their scapegoat while perpetually representing women as damaged, manipulative and promiscuous.
This leaves every day women perplexed as to how to identify with feminism at all. On one hand, young women should be able to wear whatever they choose without fear of harassment. On the other, revealing costumes, hyper-sexualized lyrics, and pastiche-porn performances reinforce the idea that women are sex objects. Strident feminists who criticize Miley Cyrus for her behaviour should realize that she has outwardly supported feminism, albeit in her own way, while other female stars have shied away from it. Cyrus understands that in order to make money for herself and her record label, she needs to capitalize on the systems created within patriarchy. After all, the type of sex Miley is selling is atypical; aggressive, confrontational, masculine characteristics. The trouble is the audience lacks the ability to observe the thin line between parody and acquiescence.
Popular media figures such as Joseph Gordon Levitt, Lena Dunham, and Pink are other examples of celebrities who have taken a public stance in affirming feminism. Their individual representations have been showcased by creating art from their own experiences. Joseph Gordon Levitt challenged damaging labels of masculinity and femininity in Don Jon, a mainstream movie about porn addiction and objectification. Lena Dunham writes about her realistic and relatable experiences as a 20-something in New York with Girls. Pink has constructed her image by speaking out about the patriarchal demands of the record industry and being a strong woman. These artists have gleaned inspiration from the movement as modern individuals.
When celebrities choose to bring feminism to the forefront of their work, they also bring it back into the spotlight of the public sphere. Strides are being made by social media to unite women around the world by having real-time discussions about ongoing cultural issues like slut-shaming, violence and the gender gap. Women are still dealing with issues that were being tackled by second-wave feminists (sexual harassment, rape, reproductive rights, etc.). When celebrities dismiss feminism as something to be ashamed of, it makes the continued mistreatment of women (and all of the other categories of feminism) right. As more prominence is given to feminism in the media, the term will become less about isolating it to academics and more about making it accessible to women and men from all walks of life.”
Happy International Women’s Day!