Thursday, September 24, 2009

Third Wave Feminists Under Scrutiny

After attending a luncheon today, where “Third Wave Feminists go to Law School” was the topic of conversation, I started to feel a little like a science experiment. (For a brief look at the differences between the waves, click here) Us “third wave feminists” are being watched, and some second wavers are none to shy about expressing their concerns over our sure failure. This is an old debate, see this article from 2002.

In my naiveté, I wanted to believe that everything was “alright”. A lot of us bank on the idea of fairness, of a just world, where things are as they should be. I was under the impression that women were happy, and if not happy, at least hopeful, about passing the torch onto new generations of feminists. Apparently apprehensive is a more accurate descriptor than hopeful, which leads me to this question: What is so scary about third wave feminism?

One critique: The 3rd wave’s emphasis on the individual is akin to a marketing tool, weakening the goals of feminism by dispelling common goals and making the movement susceptible to consumerism. Heather Tirado Gilligan writes in her critique of the third wave:

The passé problem is particularly evident in the third wave's output, as it seeks to truss up feminism as desirable and sell it to women in their thirties and younger by defanging the political edge of the movement, essentially making feminism marketable. Mainstream feminists organizations are also guilty of trussing up feminism for a new age. The Feminist Majority's "This is What a Feminist Looks Like" ad campaign is a key example of this rebranding: feminists are a pretty, multicultural bunch of men and women who just happen to love equal rights.

Palatable, true, but this everyperson definition of feminism is so broad as to be meaningless—what action is expected of women as a result of calling themselves a feminist?

Another concern: The individualist attitude of the third wave may not be as apt as the activist approach of the second waive at tackling the problems facing women. Here is another quote from a Women’s eNews article, quoting novelist Mary French:

Comparing the collectivist drive that defined the feminist movement during the second wave to the more individualist attitude prevailing among women today, several panelists said they were concerned about the future of the movement.

"If there should be an economic downturn or right-wing forces try to twist things to say women should go home again, I hope that women would have the consciousness to resist"

Perhaps instead of questioning the future of feminism in the hands of third wavers, or doubting the authenticity of the movement, we should be inquiring as to what unique solutions this current wave can bring.

One of the main critiques of the first two feminist waves was that their ideas were based on the experiences of the privileged, and really only applied to heteronormative individuals. Maybe the 3rd wave's individualistic approach based on agency, anecdote, and successes is the best way to finally break these barriers. Perhaps the third wave's desire to acknowledge individual stories along with the realities of widespread victimization, is a more inclusive and flexible approach than the activist system of the past.

1 comment:

Erin S. said...

I associate the criticism of third-wavers with a wider generational disapproval--older generations are almost always convinced that those darn kids don't know what they're talking about and are going to ruin everything. I also agree with your implication that "concern" about third-wave feminism is in part or at times expressed to cover a defensive reaction against third-wavers' challenges to feminist privilege. Furthermore, we're still facing many of the same problems faced by second-wavers--so maybe those strategies weren't so effective after all. For one thing, feminism--as noted by one of our colleagues in an earlier blog post--still carries a professional and social stigma that makes individual women shy away from the label. I think it is therefore understandable that our generation's movement seeks to "sell" its benefits. On the other hand, there is a real danger of diluting the revolutionary nature of feminism by not questioning the bases of the stigma. As you point out, the "This is What a Feminist Looks Like" campaign seems to foster the implication that its proponents' physical attractiveness validates feminism in mainstream discourse. Must we still be beautiful in order to be heard?

This all reminds me of an Ani DiFranco line--"god help you if you are an ugly girl...'course too pretty's also your doom, because everyone harbors a secret of hatred for the prettiest girl in the room." Damned if we do, damned if we don't. But why can't we, at least within the "women's movement", accept and embrace the 32 flavors and then some of womanhood and of feminism? While the ideological debates between the "waves" raise some important issues, it can be hard to distinguish between legitimate debate and mere petty infighting...