Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The future is female: feminism as (wearable) cultural capital

Feminism is entering has entered the mainstream. As more and more celebrities and cultural icons are identifying as feminist, the movement (or at least the f-word) is evolving from a once-abhorred dirty word, to a cultural cool-points badge. Quite simply, being a feminist is now, officially, cool. And wearable.

At the end of 2015, a feminist pop culture controversy broke out on the Internet over a t-shirt. The t-shirt features the slogan “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE” in block print. The slogan is catchy, and the t-shirt is similar to many modern-day t-shirts featuring popular phrases and expressions. However, the shirt has a historic past and a contentious present.

In 1975, Liza Cowan photographed lesbian folk singer Alix Dobkin wearing the slogan on a t-shirt. The shirt was designed for Labrys Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City, and the photo was a part of a slideshow entitled “What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear.”

Flash forward to 2015, when Rachel Berks, owner of the queer design studio Otherwild, saw the photo and was inspired to recreate the t-shirt as homage to the original design. The Otherwild website describes the slogan as “an empowering statement for all, as female-identified bodies and rights remain under attack."

The t-shirt became wildly popular, with a celebrity following including Lena Dunham and St. Vincent. Model Cara Delevingne bought one of the shirts and then allegedly ripped off the design and began selling copies of the shirt to benefit the organization Girl Up. Berks responded over Instagram, and the media buzzed over the feud. However, in all of the coverage of the dispute, from Otherwild’s statement, to the New York Times, to Cosmopolitan, Dobkin and the slogan’s controversial, gender-essentialist, and transphobic history was neglected.

Alix Dobkin is a staunch second wave feminist, and a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. Dobkin has a history of being strongly opposed to trans-inclusion in the LGBTQ movement and has participated in trans-exclusion at the notorious Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. In 2015, Dobkin co-authored an article for the website Gender Identity Watch, titled "The Erasure of Lesbians." In the article Dobkin states, "apparently anyone can collude with the medical/pharmaceutical industry, declare himself a woman, and find acceptance as such almost everywhere. Except for a few Lesbian/feminist holdouts, transsexuals have leaped forward on the civil rights agenda and become the latest cause of the LGBTQ community, often to the detriment of Lesbians.” Given her beliefs, she makes a strange icon for contemporary feminists today.

In fact her beliefs are directly contradictory to a statement on Otherwild's website:
Inflexibile and compulsory sexual and gender binaries are used to oppress and deny people their humanity and agency. Otherwild believes in an inclusive, expanded and fluid notion of gender expression, identities and feminisms. We support liberation, embrace our trans sisters, and call for the end of patriarchal ideology, domination, oppression and violence.
Perhaps Berks was unaware of Dobkin’s contradictory political beliefs when she chose to recreate her t-shirt. Or, perhaps, she thought the shirt just looked cool, and its history did not matter. Surely, Delevingne was unaware of the shirt’s history and its wearer’s beliefs.

In the advent of pop feminism, when everyone from Taylor Swift to Carly Fiorina is a feminist, feminism must be more than a bandwagon, or a way to claim cultural capital. As Jessica Valenti questioned in her 2014 article, “if everyone is a feminist, is anyone?” Valenti suggests that “maybe doing the work of feminism is more important than identifying as a feminist. After all, [sic] word isn’t just an identity – it’s a movement. It’s something that you do.”

It can be powerful to have celebrity allies in movement building, but pop culture’s embrace of feminism needs to be broader than a trendy shirt and girl power ideology – it needs to be introspective, intersectional and evolving.


Courtney Hatchett said...

I’m interested to see if there will be more of a clash between pop feminism and trans-inclusion, or if we’re on the way to trans “cool points badges.” There seems to be a divide between generations, as implied in the internet responses to Elinor Berkett’s “What Makes a Woman” article in the New York Times this past summer. The article discusses Caitlyn Jenner, who many might call the mainstream media’s face of transgender issues. Berkett staunchly opposes identifying as a woman with Jenner. However, almost every “new media” news outlet had countless responses calling out Berkett as transphobic, or, my favorite, “Memo to crotchety feminists: Caitlyn Jenner is a woman, and we must embrace her—it’s what’s feminist and what’s right.”

But then, if Caitlyn Jenner does become the face of pop-trans-inclusion, what does that mean to the trans community and what responsibilities do feminists have to that narrative?


Liz said...

If women are more willing to accept the label today than they had in the past, I think its because more women want to address the age old issues that continue to plague us in 2015. I agree that feminism must be more than just claiming cultural capital, but perhaps the fact that feminism is trending in popular culture is evidence of a movement today that can have a positive effect on women’s causes.

I am holding out hope that popular culture will continue to embrace feminism so that it is not just another trend, and that the feminist discourse evolve in a manner that reflects the diversity found amongst all women.

Liz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda said...

Although some use the feminist label as cultural capital, feminism is a currency only accepted within certain circles. Many still use "feminist" as an insult, which, unfortunately, I am regularly reminded of on my Facebook feed.

I question whether the phenomenon described in your post is new, or whether it's a continuation of feminism, as a movement, shifting its identity and struggling to define itself. It seems feminism -- and feminists -- has always struggled to find a universal identity. But taking a step back, this seems like an important step in remaining a critical movement and, perhaps, one of the reasons feminism has been so mindful that women share different experiences and concerns -- even if the movement has failed to accommodate these different experiences at all times.

As feminists, we should always challenge one another. Your post is part of an important discourse shaping the direction of the movement -- and hopefully -- making the movement a more inclusive one.

Sonja said...

Courtney, I think that there has been a recent uptick of support for the trans community in popular culture. Certainly, there has been wide-spread support and fandom for Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black, and Amazon's Transparent is centering the (upper-middle class white) trans experience. Elinor Berkett’s “What Makes a Woman” does seem to echo Dobkin's 2nd wave criticisms of trans women. A more valid reason not to place Jenner at the center of feminist trans-pop-inclusion, is that her experience is singular and uniquely tied to her privilege as a very wealth, conservative, white woman, with a supportive family. Her experience is not representative of the majority of trans women's experiences and to idolize her is to overlook that. Feminist rights and trans rights are innately linked and rooted in a response the patriarchy, and as such all feminists should embrace intersectional feminism and center the trans experience as a feminist experience.

To respond to Liz and Amanda, I don't think pop culture's embrace is inherently negative, rather it needs to be done with some level of understanding. I do think that I mostly hang out in a pretty radical corner of the internet (and real world), where I don't really see the more traditional negative responses to feminism that are no doubt still pervasive.

Kate said...

I agree with what Liz said above, and I just want to point out that while it's disappointing to see a movement that all of us value so highly become "trendy," it's not without a positive angle. As much as we hate it, celebrities and pop culture have an incredibly significant influence on what is discussed in wider media, and what younger generations care about.

While I am not always thrilled by the way I see pop culture using feminism and it's rhetoric, I'm glad that the word is so accessible to young girls in 2015. When I was in middle school, feminism was a far off idea that I barely understood; it's not crazy to imagine a 6th grade girl in 2015 scrolling through twitter to see Taylor Swift's "feminist" tweets. Perhaps these hooks will increase the interest of younger girls in uncovering more feminist ideology for themselves.

RM said...

Thank you for a great post, I very much enjoyed reading it. You raise very important issues. I agree that as you mentioned in your subsequent comment, pop culture’s embrace of feminism “needs to be done with some level of understanding.” But, I believe, overall, it has had a very positive effect.

I agree with Kate who highlighted a positive angle of the “advent of pop feminism” which this blog critiques. As Kate points out, “celebrities and pop culture have an incredibly significant influence on what is discussed in wider media, and what younger generations care about.”In a time when “feminism” is still a bad word in many circles, and the tired declaimer of, “I’m not a feminist, but...”, continues, I would say this recent “advent” has been invaluable to the movement.

Having grown up in a time when feminism wasn’t “cool” and wasn’t a label I would have felt comfortable wearing openly on the playground, I was thrilled when I saw an increase in the number of celebrities and athletes who openly assert themselves as feminists in the public eye. The fact is, many young women look up to these pop icons. And, while it certainly isn’t enough, changing the cultural attitude surrounding the label, “feminism,” is an important step in engaging and empowering the next generation of feminists. Personally, I would rather work to educate and empower a new bandwagon, than preach to the choir.