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  • An activist in the feminist movement FEMEN protests against the political activities of President Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government in Kiev.

    An activist in the feminist movement FEMEN protests against the political activities of President Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government in Kiev. | Photo: Reuters

Published 24 November 2017
Stephanie Hamel, an expert in Intersectional Feminism and American Studies, examines what the future holds for feminism in light of the cultural shift triggered by widespread allegations of sexual harassment.

The issue of violence against women in the form of sexual abuse and harassment is experiencing unprecedented exposure in the western world, with scandals shaking the beating heart of mainstream global pop culture: Hollywood and its movie industry.

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With deeply influential film producer Harvey Weinstein outed as a dangerous sexual predator and criminal by countless women – some of them superstars – the media has emerged as a space in which an overwhelming number of women feel it’s about time they tell their own stories of abuse after years of trauma.

This phenomenon is by no means restricted to Hollywood and the United States. In multiple countries, famous and non-famous women alike have started sharing their stories of abuse on social media, the hashtag “#metoo” being the most significant instance.

Suddenly, the realisation we don’t live in an equal, post-feminist society has been reached. More than that, it is at last being understood – although not by everyone and not without resistance – that violence against women is not perpetuated by creepy psychopaths hiding in grottos and coming out every full moon, but by everyday ‘regular’ men, even the men we look up to. That is a nasty, uncomfortable feeling.

The current climate, when it comes to feminist issues, is burning hot. It isn’t far-fetched to consider the time we’re living in as a proper turning point regarding social change in most developed western societies. The normalization of systemic violence against women is being denounced; the perpetrators of these violent acts are being exposed and publicly shamed, and – sometimes – even held accountable for their actions.

There’s still an incredible number of people complaining that this a ‘witch hunt’ against men (although, historically, witch hunts happened only to women, it’s worth noting). These people refuse to believe the victims or even the existence of rape culture.

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Overall, however, violence resulting from power imbalances is being acknowledged, and work is now being done to eradicate the victim-blaming tendencies society has unquestioningly rolled with for so long. The cultural principles on which male-dominated worlds have thrived are being questioned, and even face being debunked if we keep pressing in that direction.

Although issues of sexual harassment and abuse against women have long been the core preoccupation of feminism, it’s worth noting that it’s through pop culture that this problem is now gaining global attention.

The fact society as a whole is more willing to give credit to allegations of sexual assault when they come from a famous actress rather than an anonymous woman is another (very important) issue, but at least it illustrates the impact that pop culture can have on social change.

The current turning point comes within a specific context as far as feminism is concerned. Even though the social movement never died, only now is it being brought back into the mainstream.

It is precisely through pop culture that feminism began its resurgence several years ago: think about actress Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations, or Beyonce’s incorporation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “We Should all be Feminists” (now a best-selling essay) in her hit single, Flawless.

While women – not to mention men – may have recoiled in the past from identifying as feminists, this has now became a common label. Suddenly, people understand that feminism isn’t about shrill-voiced witches castrating men for breakfast, but about ending gender-based discrimination and violence in order to achieve gender equality.

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What previously bothered a lot of people about feminism was its very name, because it didn’t include men. Male-dominated societies have never bothered to include women in anything, but somehow the simple fact that the term ‘feminism’ didn’t put the spotlight on men was considered outrageously against the notion of gender equality.

Today’s newly dusted-off version of feminism holds out a friendly hand to men, actively including them in the debate. It isn’t about pitting women and men against each other – feminism has never been about that – but about fighting together for a better world.

Nor is it an incriminating type of feminism calling for revolution in the strictest sense of the term: it’s comfortable and it’s all about empowerment. Thus, it was inevitable that this stripped-down version of feminism would become a brand.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing for feminist ideas to be spread by pop culture and marketing: we are constantly consuming music, films and most of all advertising, whether we want to or not.

It might be beneficial for society – younger audiences in particular – to see a deodorant commercial questioning toxic masculinity, or a soap commercial promoting body diversity and self-love. Rather that than fast-food ads presenting skinny, bikini-clad supermodels biting into gigantic burgers and wiping white sauce off the corner of their mouths while eyeing the camera.

Viewed in this light, it’s a good thing, but it would be naïve to believe that the final target of such advertising is bringing about social change rather than raising revenue.

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The case of transgender model Munroe Bergdorf is screamingly cynical in this sense. The 30-year-old Black, queer, trans woman was hired by L’Oreal as the face of True Match, a campaign that marries make-up to social justice and values of diversity. Days later, she was unceremoniously sacked for publicly denouncing white privilege in the wake of the protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Likewise, it’s impossible not to see the irony ih advertising campaigns such as H&M’s 2016 Autumn Collection. There, women were celebrated in all their diversity and against stereotypical beauty standards, but the fact H&M clothes are manufactured by underpaid women in precarious conditions in developing countries is well documented.

Brand feminism – or ‘feminism lite’ – also tackles the issue as if it were a monolithic movement, ignoring the complexity of its many manifestations and making it only about individual empowerment.

More devastatingly, by focusing only on the surface, this apolitical feminism fails to be intersectional. It fails to take into account other systemic oppressions plaguing modern society – such as racism, classism and homophobia – and how they intertwine with sexism, informing it differently.

The fight for social justice isn’t something you can polish to make it more comfortable: we’re talking about unlearning, deconstructing, even tearing down existing structures. You cannot initiate actual social change within smooth continuity; it’s contradictory.

It’s important to maintain feminism in the public discourse and to make it accessible to as many people as possible: it’s in the interest of the majority of the planet’s inhabitants.

But in this tense climate, a cultural turning point, it’s vital to remember we can’t conform to the edited and simplified version if things are to actually change.

Feminism is irrevocably political and there’s no reason this political aspect shouldn’t make its entrance into the mainstream.

Stephanie Hamel is an expert in Intersectional Feminism and American Studies.

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