Never before has feminism been as mainstream as it is today. Celebrities like Beyoncé, Cardi B and Taylor Swift have popularised the term, as have major brands, Dior, Acne, H&M, to name a few. Feminism has also become a lucrative way to sell a product or service through “femvertising” as the strategic incorporation of feminist principles into advertising campaigns is queasily called. International bodies such as the UN and the EU now include feminist principles in their projects and political leaders – Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron… – are feminist advocates. Hollywood has picked up on the trend too with productions like The Handmaid’s Tale, Wonder Woman and Mother and feminist book sales on Amazon are rocketing. Even the Pope is discussing feminism (if not wholeheartedly championing it)!
In the talk below, which I was honoured and delighted to present at the 125th anniversary of Scandinavia’s oldest feminist union Naisunioni in Finland on 29 September, I ask: What are the perils and the promises of feminism splurging into the mainstream? In a culture where feminist practice increasingly goes hand-in-hand with celebrity hype, product sales, organised religion, patriarchal imperialist expansion (PIE) and political campaigning, can feminism retain the radical and revolutionary spirit that has underpinned it historically? As feminists face an unprecedented kind of three-headed monster made up in equal parts of sexism, racism and capitalism, the talk argues that such a spirit is more necessary than ever. Let’s make feminism the leading ideology of the future not because it became mainstream, but because the mainstream became feminist.
I will update with the transcript in the coming days, please bear with me.
UPDATE: Transcript below.
In 2012, I wrote a blog post titled “Female Skin, Male Masks” where I wondered why feminism, which is one of the largest socially transformative movements that humanity has ever known, was barely visible in the mainstream. In frustration, I wondered how it could be that feminism hardly ever showed up in popular culture; music videos, movies, news, novels, despite that feminist resistance had been such a fundamental part of the human story. I argued that the absence of feminism in the mainstream was predictable because should feminism enter the mainstream, it would shake everything up. “Women,” I wrote, “would become the ultimate judges of womanhood and that would change everything we know about the world today.”
That was then. Five years later, and feminism has indeed become visible in the mainstream culture. You don’t need me to tell you about how massively feminism has made it, you’ve already heard it from Beyoncé, Cardi B, Taylor Swift, you name it, many other superstars who have helped popularise the term.
You’ve seen the word “feminist” splattered on T-shirts, with everyone from Dior, Acne, H&M to market-sellers in Guangzhou having a feminist slogan in their collection. You’ve heard male politicians refer to themselves as feminists in the same way they may refer to themselves as humans, as though it were always a natural word in the political dictionary, Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron and, excuse me while I shudder and say this, even David Cameron has called himself a feminist.
You’ve read the statistics: almost half of millennials (43% of 18 to 34 year olds) in the UK consider themselves feminist according to a 2016 survey by Plan International. In the US, 6 in 10 women and one-third of men call themselves a feminist. Support for gender equality in Africa has also risen in the past decade, from 68% in 2002 to 73% in 2013 according to a survey by Afrobarometer. In South Africa, 68% identify as feminists, 74% in China and 51% of Brazilians too. Here in Finland, as evidenced by the union, has always had a strong footing.
You’ve noticed also that feminism is suddenly a lucrative way to sell your product or service, it started with Dove’s “Real Body” campaign and since then feminism, or “femvertising”, as the strategic incorporation of feminist principles into advertising campaigns is queasily called, has marketed sanitary ads, washing detergents, cosmetics, you name it.
Even the tyre manufacturer, Pirelli, known for its sexually objectifying yearly collectors’ calendars became feminist in 2016 with its shoot of socially – rather than sexually – accomplished women. You’ve noticed that international bodies such as the UN and the EU now include feminist principles in their projects. There is not only cultural clout in feminism, there is money to be made. The Handmaid’s Tale, Wonder Woman and Mother are some of the highest grossing movies this past year and they’re all dealing with feminist ideology.
You’ve heard about universities around the world offering more and more courses in Gender Studies. In the US alone the academic discipline has increased by more than 300% since 1990. Earlier this month, the University of Copenhagen announced a course called “Beyoncé, Gender and Race” which filled up so quickly that it had to be moved to a bigger lecture theatre. A search on Amazon pulls up thousands of books dealing with feminism.
To give you one final example of how incredibly impactful feminism has become, consider that even religious institutions are becoming feminist. God, who after all is to once have said that Adam was formed first, then Eve, and that a woman should therefore learn in quietness and full submission to a man over whom she may never exercise authority. Or as in the Quran where God allegedly believes that “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other”. Even in the otherwise progressively viewed Buddhist scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, it is said “A nun, even if she has been ordained for 100 years, must bow in reverence to the feet of a monk, even if he has just been ordained that day.” Contrast this God with what the pope himself who recently said that “certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, but we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.” I mean, this is the pope speaking about feminism. For the catholic church, this is revolutionary. And I’m just looking across the room at the Bishop of the Finnish church here, a woman whom I hope and assume is a feminist.
I’ve done my share of critically analysing the ways that feminism shows up in contemporary consumerist and capitalist culture. I have both criticised and praised Beyonce, I have written about the depoliticisation of empowerment discourse in a world where the term ’empowerment’ has become so meaningless that the simple act of choosing which toothpaste to use in the morning is a sign of empowerment. The satirical magazine “The Onion” said it best in an article titled “Women now empowered by everything a woman does”. I have written social criticism about the dangerous hypocrisy of brands which on the one hand are photoshopping women’s bodies to match a male supremacist ideal, while using the other hand to hold a feminist placard about body positivity, and most recently on MsAfropolitan I wrote about patriarchy and imperialism together conspiring globally against feminist principles.
But, having been asked to reflect on the future of feminism, as I am delighted to have been asked to do today, I must say that I believe that the most momentous and phenomenal social transformation of the early 21st-century is the incorporation of feminist ideology into the mainstream. What a powerful and almost surreal beginning to the new century.
Which is not to say that feminism is not also ridiculed in the dominant mainstream or “malestream” as the African feminist scholar Tiyambe Zeleza calls it. There are many who trivialise the trailblazing advances feminists have made in modern times, people who like to portray feminism as superfluous, hastening to affirm that at least in the western world, equality of the sexes has been achieved and that women are simply whining about gender gaps and political power.
Perhaps a 2014 interview with Salma Hayek in People Magazine speaks well to this transforming zeitgeist. In the interview, the actress said that although she believed in equality she was not a feminist, because if men were going through the same things she would be fighting for their equality too. But a year later the feminist explosion into the mainstream seems to have had an impact even on Salma Hayek, who then told the Guardian that she was indeed a feminist because she is proud to be a woman, and passionate about making the world a better place for women.
Well, “Feminism is for everyone”, this is the title of a book by one of my greatest influences, bell hooks. In the book, she says, “Feminist politics aims to end domination to free us to be who are — to live lives where we love justice, where we can live in peace. Feminism is for everybody.” But I doubt that bell hooks considered that people like Sarah Palin or David Cameron or even Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, for that matter, would 20 years after her book was published be espousing feminist politics let alone calling themselves feminists.
And what does it mean that politicians who however charming and democratic, are also warring, imperialist and capitalist leaders? What does it mean for feminism to include them in the movement of women’s liberation? What does it mean that lifestyle choices, consumerism, self-help, organised religion and self-promotion are now bedfellows with feminism?
These were the kinds of questions that I found myself wondering about when the union asked me to present a Keynote taking on the future of feminism, a topic which of course I jumped at the chance to explore.
But in thinking about the future of feminism, I found myself wondering: what are the characteristics of feminism today? And thereafter, I wondered, what might those characteristics imply about the future of feminism? What are the perils and the promises that feminists face as feminism has splurged into the mainstream like a river that once was held back by a dam? In a culture where feminist practice increasingly goes hand-in-hand with celebrity hype, product sales, religion, patriarchal imperialist expansion, and where some of the most exploitative brands such as Coca-Cola and Ariel are championing women’s rights, can feminism retain the radical and revolutionary spirit that has kept it alive since the time when Harriet Tubman led enslaved people to freedom through her Underground Railroad, and when Rosa Luxemburg sacrificed her life for socialist democratic values, and when Qui Jin built up an army which she led to an uprising in Shanghai, and when Funmilayo Anikulapo Kuti staged a protest that abdicated a patriarchal and sexist king of Abeokuta, the same ancient city where my roots are from and I would now like to add when Professor Harman [sic] stood here and founded this feminist union.
Because I think that feminism is going to need that spirit. It is going to need it more than ever as it faces an unprecedented kind of three-headed monster made up in equal parts of sexism, racism and capitalism. The promises brought by feminism entering the mainstream, such as the codification and institutionalisation of feminist principles, are joined with the worst imaginable scenario of all, that instead of being the nemesis of the patriarchal, sexist and imperialist monster, the feminist movement became its accomplice. That mustn’t be the destiny of a movement so many generations of women around the world fought for. We must not allow the marriage of such forces to take place. That is the big task for the feminist future. Yes, let’s institutionalise feminism, let’s have feminist books in primary schools, let’s have feminist ads, let’s have feminist politicians even if they are make, let’s celebrate feminist stars, let’s have feminist pornography, and feminist business, but… for goodness sake, let’s make feminism the leading ideology of the future not because it became mainstream but because it made the mainstream feminist.
In her much debated book released earlier this year, “Why I am not a feminist”, Jessa Crispin writes that “Somewhere along the way toward female liberation, it was decided that the most effective method was for feminism to become universal. But instead of shaping a world and a philosophy that would become attractive to the masses, a world based on fairness and community and exchange, it was feminism itself that would have to be rebranded and remarketed for contemporary men and women. They forgot that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible. People don’t like change, and so feminism must be as close to the status quo in order to recruit large numbers. In other words, it has to become entirely pointless.”
Hers is a scathing critique of contemporary feminism, and one with which I disagree even though I think that her book is interesting if guilty of many of the same things it criticises. I disagree especially when looking at feminism universally, as she claims to do. Because it is true that the rhetoric that feminism has adopted in the West has altered so radically that it would probably be unrecognisable to many of our feminist ancestors who put themselves in the front lines of change. But it is also true, as I have seen travelling around the world to participate in feminist conferences events, and seminars, as this one, that especially feminists outside the west are hardly doing pointless work. I’ve met feminists who are running for political office in countries where both white imperialists and local patriarchs have caused havoc, I’ve met feminists who are spraying the walls of their streets with anti patriarchal graffiti, I’ve met feminists who are teaching school children about love and unity instead of hatred and separation. I’ve met feminists who have been arrested for doing what I am so lucky to to be able to do freely and uncensored, which is to blog, write and speak about feminist revolution. I’ve met feminists who have set up campaigns against a sexist, classist and racist education. I’ve met feminists who have created shelters for other women where they can hide from abusive and violent husbands and brothers and fathers.
I’ve met young feminists creating apps that can report rape and sexual abuse, and I have met feminists putting together manifestos that will challenge not only sexual but also class and racial oppression in the corporate world. I’ve met feminists who have encouraged us to simply hold hands in silence. And I have very rarely, if ever, found myself in a feminist space, again such as this one, in which the image that the mainstream seems to promote about feminism: an image of women having achieved so many rights that they can now be problem-free, apolitical and unconcerned and just carry on polishing their egalitarian household kitchen tables with Ariel. And nor have I ever heard a feminist proclaim that thanks to Dove, she no longer sees a need to conduct conversations about objectification and body issues. I’ve certainly never met a feminist who is not concerned with the status quo.
I have met feminists who aren’t certain about how to be feminists. Who feel conflicted with the many & difficult choices they are confronted with once drawn to feminism. I have met feminists who feel desperately dissatisfied with the choices available to them – to on the one hand pursue revolutionary change, and on the other hand to remain part of a safe identity network. And what I always try to encourage in these women and men is an understanding that to be a feminist is not easy. To truly be a feminist is not easy, it is a journey of reexamination, revaluation, probing, acting, challenging, daring, fighting, demanding…
Feminism may have found a new home in the mainstream but the key to opening the door to the freedom that feminism promised women, and men, is shaped in the same form as the feminist key has always been shaped, as a fist. And it is a fist which will break down all of the ceilings that women have not been allowed into.
There is no shortage of role models with strong, persistent fists. Feminism has a long history of exiting and entering the abode of the times and interrupting false comforts. Feminist history starts in Africa, in Kemet, Ancient Egypt, where warrior women like Hatsheput and Sobekneferu took control of the kings’ domains. And in the course of that long history it has intersected with the abiding political and social conditions of its times, but when truly followed it has never failed in its mission. That is why feminists have such a rich heritage to draw from. From Kemet, Ancient Egpt, feminism travelled to the Tang Dynasty of China to the Celtic Queens of Brittania to the Amazons of Benin to the The witches of Calem to the Suffragettes to the Pan-African Freedom Fighters to the global women’s liberation movement to the Slutwalk, to the Million Women March, to the Ni Una Menos to the black women who today are leading the most powerful and revolutionary social movement, Black Lives Matter.
Which brings me to a key thing. If there is one key point that I would like you to take from my talk let it be this this: Black Lives Matter. If your definition of feminism is not a movement to whom the liberation of all oppressed people from exploitative and dominant forces is key, then you are sleeping. So long as nonwhites, indigenous people, the poor and the disenfranchised are robbed of dignity and human rights, so long will women be robbed of those rights. So long as our environment, our seas and forests, animals and trees, are treated with disregard, so long will women be treated with disregard. And it is important that I make this point here in Finland, a country which I am extremely proud to come from for being one that always led the way in gender equality, a country where women were elected to parliament already in 1907, a first, and a country where women today represent almost half of parliament, and a country which has a parliamentary group on feminism, as well as a country which has always preserved our beautiful mystical nature. But Finland is also a country of which I am deeply ashamed of in how racism has been allowed to infest its darkness in the hearts and minds of even our children. It will always be a wound in my psyche that one of the countries in which I have encountered the most hatred is also one of the countries that I love the most. But I tell you what, like many of the scars we all must encounter in one way or another in life, these have become my warrior marks. It is these wounds that have enabled me to develop what indeed is the nemesis of patriarchy and imperialism, namely a mind that can not be manipulated.
That is feminism of the future – to encourage minds that can not be manipulated by prejudice, by fear, submission, insecurity and hatred. Because if feminism is to operate as much as an ethical philosophical guide toward liberation as well as a political and social movement, which is what it needs to do, then we must understand that all resistance begins in the mind. When the mind is free, it becomes impossible to imprison the body. As Bob Marley said, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”
He was speaking about anti-colonial revolution, but it is the fitting slogan also for the feminist revolution so allow me to come toward a conclusion by elaborating on this point of the intersections of feminism with other resistance movements, and weaving it together with the mainstreaming of feminism that I started my talk with.
Feminists have always been willing to experiment with whatever tools that were available to them as they strode toward female liberation. But now that feminism has crossed over the borders of the fringes, into the bustling Agora of the mainstream, it is changing more rapidly than ever before. A certain ideological clarity that it enjoyed for hundreds of years is increasingly diverging into streams and tributaries of the broad river that feminism is. But just like a river’s streams all eventually converge and flow together toward their end destination – the ocean – so too must the radical streams as well as the “main” streams of feminism integrate and move toward their destination – freedom.
Feminism is never going to look like it did at any other time in the past, and that is good news because it means it is never again going to look as white as it did, as middle class as it did or as homophobic and transphobic as it did.
But if there is one thing that future feminism can learn from the past, it is that feminism needs to become global-minded again. Because make no mistake, the reason that 1960s and 1970s were such successful times for the feminist movement was because it was an international movement. In fact the phrase women’s “liberation” originates from the struggle of third world liberation struggles in countries such as Chile, Cuba, Japan, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Brazil to name a few. Second wave feminist achievements, even those here in Scandinavian countries owe much more to African, Latin-American, African-American, Asian-American and American Indian feminist and black power revolutions than history accounts for.
To reinvoke the political and global spirit of that era, with all the added lessons of hindsight, is the great challenge not only for the future of feminism but most importantly for the future of women. Because in truth, the future of feminism is irrelevant. It is the future of girls and women that should concern us. If women are going to not only be socially, economically and politically empowered but to also actually have the psychological and spiritual, or inner, tools with which they can enjoy those increasing rights, and with which they can thrive and transcend female oppression which is the only retaliation against patriarchy, it is that women can live joyous and meaningful lives. If that is going to happen, then we cannot afford to get cosy with the status quo.
I began by saying that I had written a blog post in 2012, in which I argued that should feminism enter the mainstream, it would shake everything up. Well, feminism has entered the mainstream. So now let’s shake everything up!