How do we move beyond clickbait feminism?

Two girl power groups go head-to-head on the commercialisation of gender equality and female empowerment for profit

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Photography by Scarlett Carlos Clarke; Styling by Atsuko Kudo

Feminism is a bigger buzzword than ever in the media right now. But with brands capitalising on the popularity of female empowerment to sell products, artists lauded as ‘feminists’ simply by identifying as female, and women in bands still discussed as ‘female musicians’ (as if the default gender for a respected musician is male),  it seems a pretty conflicted time to identify as a feminist. On the one hand, the spotlight is on gender equality more than ever. But on the other, the focus on feminist issues such as #FreeTheNipple can seem cosmetic, surface-level, or even aesthetic, while women still struggle with oppression in their day-to-day lives.

Understandably, the women who contributed to the rise of fourth-wave feminism are pissed about all of this. For a movement largely masterminded by young women blogging from their bedrooms through social media sites such as Tumblr, to see our beliefs co-opted by huge companies and social media personalities, watered down and sold on as ‘girl power’ is beyond frustrating. But with those frustrations come a lot of questions: isn’t this what we wanted in the first place, for feminism to be recognised on a larger scale? Gender equality should never be an exclusive club, available only to those ‘clever’ or socially equipped enough to understand it.

Two organisations that have championed female empowerment from the beginning are BabyFace and Skinny Girl Diet. Although very different in their practices, (BabyFace operate as an all-female, friendship-elected creative agency, while Skinny Girl Diet are a punk band), both relay genuine feminist messages to their audiences. Bored of clickbait bullshit and false feminism sold through social media likability and sponsored content worn by Instagram influencers; we sat BabyFace founders Nellie Eden and Claire Burman down with Skinny Girl Diet’s Ursula and Delilah Holliday to go head-to-head on the state of feminism and the current climate of female empowerment.

“The feminist agenda is being spread. It has, we guess, lost some of its true meaning. It’s squished into hashtags and packaged up for corporations”– BabyFace 

What do you aim to achieve with regards to gender equality through both of your projects?

BabyFace:  We want to create more spaces for women to operate in. Ask more questions about the absence of a female voice on a panel, the editing out of a female perspective from the film industry. Any kind of misguided, inadequate representation of women that either of us identify, we want to object to and cause a fuss over. We hope we’re creating a new way for creative females to work that can bypass tributaries or routes traditionally dominated by homogeneously male-organised bodies. We hope we can create more physical and digital spaces for women to converse and create in freely.

Skinny Girl Diet: To stand up for all those that feel oppressed, from black rights to intersectional feminism. Using art as a form of activism, our name is a social commentary. When you see a bunch of glamorous ladies, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t loud political punk music. We stand up for real girls. Coming from an estate, we aren’t rich kids preaching about politics that don’t affect us and our chances on a daily basis. Our aim is to create an environment where females feel comfortable to come to a show and be as rowdy as they want to be. Just like boys can mosh or be as loud as they want; girls will be girls. 

So, it’s hard to avoid the word ‘feminism’ right now. Do you think this is a positive or negative thing?

BabyFace: Both. The overuse of a political term like that is both a positive and negative thing. It means that the word both gains momentum and loses meaning. We’re pleased that it’s a ‘trending’ term,. We used to begrudge it, but we’ve reassessed our position and decided that we can’t fight against the proliferation of a word like ‘feminism’ if it means the feminist agenda is being spread. It has, we guess, lost some of its true meaning. It’s squished into hashtags and packaged up for corporations.

Skinny Girl Diet: Hijacking the word to endorse utter nonsense is lessening the actual meaning. If you are a feminist then you should do what you can for the cause, not just wear something vaguely ‘feminist’ in a picture to impress your Instagram followers. It’s all about challenging people’s view on how women are perceived which is a constant struggle. We need as many people to get involved as possible, as there is still so much to fight for. If you're a feminist, prove it in your actions. Whether that be in daily life, your art or activism.

BabyFace: We think the point Skinny Girl Diet have made about this sudden crop of new girl gangs appearing is an issue – it’s touting feminism (in a way) that can be troubling and a little irksome to groups like us. These gangs are fuelled by unattainable aesthetics: expensive clothes, model figures, product placement. Things that don’t further the feminist agenda, but harm it instead. They marginalise without meaning to do so; they purport a sense of inclusivity but their ‘gangs’ negate that. They’re closed and privileged and hollow.

How have you seen people’s opinions change towards gender politics since feminism has been co-opted by the mainstream?

BabyFace: There’s certainly a pressure there that didn’t exist before, and a kind of awareness too, that no matter how rudimentary is still constructive. Take that Protein World ‘get beach-body ready’ campaign that littered the underground system for a minute. The reaction was knee-jerk. The internet was horrified; the campaign was ridiculed almost instantaneously, the images were defaced and a whole host of reactionary memes appeared overnight. I mean, that’s fantastic! We hope any 16-year-old girl watching those events unfurled, took the stance of, ‘Oh yeah, definitely cooler and more clever to be a critic – to deconstruct those images rather than digest them.’ Were not sure that would have happened seven or even five years ago.

There has been plenty of non-constructive discourse around feminism, too. People who have never read up on the term have been piggybacking of the term’s fashionable connotations. What does an Instagram post of a thong jammed up a girl’s ass covered in baby oil got to do with feminism? That’s a confusing and diluted – if not polluted – version of what it is to be a strong female, but those nuanced signifiers might be difficult to read as a young woman. To us, those images perpetuate that myth that if you’re a woman and you want to be empowered you have to get undressed. Those images say, ‘Your power lies in your sexuality.’ We’re both pro-body positivity and body confidence and pro-female nudity, but it’s all about context and education, and they’re difficult things to evaluate when you’re skimming your social media feed.

“These gangs are fuelled by unattainable aesthetics: expensive clothes, model figures, product placement. Things that don’t further the feminist agenda, but harm it instead”– BabyFace

Did you ever think you would be able to profit from your political beliefs?

Skinny Girl Diet: Never, if anything we’ve lost out more from having such a strong political name and ethos. But our politics are who we are and we think it’s unhealthy to restrain your true feelings, they’ll end up eating you up. Print the word ‘feminism’, surrounded by cute pink hearts and daffodils and you’ve got yourself a best-seller. It’s strange, because if we’re fighting for equality then surely it’s just another perpetuated view of what girls should like. The people profiting from feminism are usually people that don’t even care that much about the activism, but more so about reclaiming the girly aesthetic –  and hate anything that doesn’t comply to that because it’s not pretty to the eye. Feminism isn’t a profitable style or look. If you're a feminist, it means you believe in equality for all those that have been affected by unfair societies’ pressures inflicted on women.

BabyFace: When we started two years ago, profit was never a goal of ours. We worked our asses off for free because we wanted to and it was fun. We understand that, from an outside perspective, you could look at us and say, ‘But these girls are making money from feminism.’ But it’s not that black-and-white. We work with brands we love and girls we admire to create content we believe in – images we hope will long outlive our existence online. People are now packing up their ‘girl gangs’ and producing press releases before they’ve even done any work! They’re ready to be sold before they’ve even begun. It’s a blatant commercialisation of a ‘trending topic’ that just doesn’t ring true to us.

How do you feel about the watering-down of phrases and ideas such as ‘girl gangs’ in order to sell products?

Skinny Girl Diet: It’s really boring and irritating. These people have reduced the message to a stereotype of women just needing to look pretty and love clothes. To us, the girl-gang image is supposed to go against the cutesy, delicate female stereotype and is a symbol of anger, violence and power. To put that stereotype back on the girl-gang image just goes against everything it’s about. It loses its meaning. It’s also quite insulting to the women who have worked their arses off creating in these male-dominated fields like art, to call your Instagram dress-up account ‘a group of female creatives’. What have you actually created that isn’t pandering to the stereotype that women should only care about looking good? What are you actually doing for gender equality?

Do you think much has changed since feminism began being recognised in the mainstream?

Skinny Girl Diet: The fact that we can even have discussions like this published on such a public platform just goes to show how much things have changed. There is definitely a wider discussion going on, and the fact that feminism has become more exposed has expanded feminism from being quite exclusive to white middle-class women to being more intersectional and inclusive. It’s also brought about new problems faced by the movement. We live in a different time and so while women face the same pressures, they’re presented in such a different, amplified way (for example on social media). We have to face these problems in quite a different way, being careful to not only be an ‘activist’ on the internet, but make sure we act in the real world too.

Which other organisations give you hope for the future?

BabyFace: We know we aren’t the first, nor will we will be the last female collective. People like Sharmadean Reid showed us that you can open a nail salon, start a cultural movement, nurture talent, own your own business, be a mother and an active member of London’s creative community – all on your own terms. The Work It girls, too, it was always more than just a club night, these girls totally paved the way. 

There’s a whole bunch of female collectives out there that perform very important roles. From Phoebe Lovatt’s WW club to Adwoa Aboah’s  Gurls Talk via Antonia Marsh’s art collective Girls Only  we’re surrounded by important and purposeful collectives. Look at Bristol’s gal-dem collective, for women of colour, the all-female music collective and zine makers Born n Bread, and New York’s Art Hoe network. Whether these groups create a safe place for girls to party, or an inspiring environment to work in… they all serve a purpose with genuine authenticity.

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