How modern day feminism became fractured

·4-min read
What does modern feminism look like today?  (Lydia Thomas)
What does modern feminism look like today? (Lydia Thomas)

Today, you’re just as likely to associate feminism with razor brands as you are with protests.

Our celebrities are all feminists, their pop songs are feminist anthems and the clothing brands we buy are claiming not to exploit child labourers, but to empower women throughout their supply chain despite their murky track records. But what happens when something as important as the fight for equality becomes so ubiquitous that it’s almost devoid of all meaning?

Fourth-wave feminism has defined my 20s, from discovering it on Tumblr in the early 2010s and watching it grow into a visual expression of femininity, to then seeing my politics commodified and sold back to me in the form of feminine hygiene products. I’ve lived through the girlboss era, starting my own business despite my disdain for women-only private member’s clubs and networking events. I’ve watched as niche internet discussions transcended thoughtful teenagers online only to make their way into the mouths of right-leaning daytime television hosts. The most benign of acts, such as having a bath, have been rebranded as radical feminist statements. Meanwhile, abortion rights are being stripped back in certain US states. Being a feminist requires absolutely no action on the part of the individual themself beyond declaring yourself one. But even then, we can’t seem to mutually agree on what feminism actually is.

Open TikTok and you’ll be met with increasingly niche subsections of feminist identity. Take dissociative feminists, busy detaching their consciousness from their emotional and physical experience, because life is just too meaningless. Or the re-emergence of bimboism, which sees a group of people reclaiming the much-maligned Y2K trend, bleaching their hair and adorning themselves in all things pink and bedazzled. But like their meme-queen Elle Woods, these high-femmes are far from vapid. In 2022, bimbos are converging their purposeful Legally Blonde aesthetic with leftist, sex-worker positive and even communist politics. Their politically charged content serves as a potent clapback to an increasingly right-wing world that continues to objectify women based on their looks.

Elle Woods in Legally Blonde (MGM)
Elle Woods in Legally Blonde (MGM)

Regardless of their wildly different cultural choices, all of these women have one thing in common: they’re all feminists. This array of approaches may seem at best jarring and at worst display a total disconnect in feminist politics. However, in prior waves of the movement, different strands of political ideology have existed under the same umbrella. It’s just that in the past, our obsession with liberal, digestible feminism has obscured these subsections from the spotlight.

But if you look back, the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s took its inspiration from the civil rights movement. Even the riot grrrl movement of the late Nineties gave space to immigration rights, street harassment and more, paving the way for the intersectionality we hold central to the feminist movement today. In 2022 we’re less interested in the specific arguments that make up our politics, but more how they are presented. While the inequality that made feminism so necessary is still prevalent, the movement itself has morphed into a cultural phenomenon, one that can be influenced by which films you watch, what books you read and the music you listen to. Yes, Gen Z feminists still read bell hooks, Angela Davis and other important feminist authors. But they also understand that feminism can be found anywhere, even in the most seemingly politically void pop culture imaginable, with TikTok accounts such as @kardashian_kolloquium deconstructing the Kardashian family’s tabloid fodder through the lens of academic theory and feminist analysis.

Younger generations have lived with feminism — or at least the advertising-finessed version of it we’ve been force-fed — for the entirety of their adult lives; they don’t need to have intersectionality or inequality explained. They innately understand that trans women are women, and that trans and gender nonconforming people play a vital role in any current feminist movement regardless of cultural relevancy. With the groundwork so clearly established, there is now not only opportunity for IRL community organising across feminist niches but also room to play with the rules.

Feminism may not look like one thing, argue for one cause or have a specific type of woman as its figurehead; we may not ever be able to agree on what a good feminist looks like. But as long as we agree on the big stuff, and fight for it in whichever way seems most effective for our communities, I believe feminism itself still has a fighting chance. Womanhood itself has never been a singular experience. Our politics shouldn’t be either.

‘Poor Little Sick Girls’, by Ione Gamble, is available to preorder now