We all seem to be getting feminism fatigue – but here’s why you shouldn't dismiss the aesthetics of fourth wave activists
It seems like we’re all suffering from feminism fatigue. From the abundance of hazy photo series depicting body-posi models claiming to redefine femininity, to the fact that no female artist can escape the feminist label, gender equality has never been more all over our newsfeeds. With the newest wave and its aesthetic affiliations defined by teenage girls from the comfort of their bedrooms, what initially seemed a progressive, forward thinking approach to femininity is now considered by many as passé.
This newer wave of feminist artists and activists initially explored ways to dispel stereotypes surrounding girlishness and asked questions as to how the gender binary is still enforced by use of age-old colour codes. Adopting a saccharine aesthetic more commonly co-opted by Claire's Accessories enthusiasts and pre-adolescent teen girls, fourth wave feminism quickly became defined by lolita-style frills, My Little Pony emblems and lots of glitter.
Championed by artists such as Arvida Byström, Petra Collins, Molly Soda and Grace Miceli, the politics surrounding what would be coined thereafter as ‘tumblr feminism’ revolved around normalising the teen girl experience. Armed with their webcams and tumblr text posts, teen girls used nostalgia as a vessel to facilitate open discussion surrounding previously taboo subjects such as menstruation; their gender politics informed largely by the wisdom of their peers as opposed to a dense reading of traditional feminist academia.
This latest wave of feminism has not been built on a desire to reject society-enforced notions of femininity, or what it traditionally means to be female. Where second or third wave adopted perceived masculinity as a way to challenge gender roles and dismantle patriarchal society, fourth wave seeks to subvert the framework of gender entirely. Taking notions of femininity to extremes by championing the reductionist colour palette of pink enforced on women from birth, the latest generation of feminist activists attempt to subvert societal expectations. By pushing the archetypal woman to an almost cartoonish end, artists involved in the movement seek to expose the fallacies of this gendered stereotyping in the first place.
And what more appropriate way to play out these aesthetic choices than through the camera lens? Liberated by the rise of easily accessible camera equipment and publishing platforms, photographers such as Maisie Cousins, Hobbes Ginsberg and Ashley Armitage use their cameras as a means to provide better representation for real bodies and subvert societal expectations of what it means to be beautiful.
Arguably one of the first feminist waves to be built largely upon a visual philosophy, many have been quick to dismiss the work of artists under fourth wave as vapid and apolitical due to their aesthetic ties with the fashion and beauty industry. However, photography in the digital age is arguably free from class restrictions, often carving out space for marginalised communities to represent themselves and others like them when the media refuses to.
“Fourth wave activists may not be shouting on the streets or screaming down a microphone, the sense of community and comfort derived from these soft approaches should not be palmed off as unimportant in its own right”
While Riot Grrrl can largely be attributed to an angry aesthetic; an unapologetic abrasiveness that taught girls that it’s OK to scream on stage, feminism in 2016 is largely about softness. Self-care, body positivity and a sense of community make up the core ideology of many feminists’ politics. Underpinning these ideas with mental health awareness, striding away from narrow beauty ideals conveyed in wider society and championing shine theory, this gentle approach to gender equality has opened fourth wave up to a lot of criticism.
While it’s not unfair to question a lack of inclusivity and a focus on ‘white feminist’ issues such as body hair and period pain, many critiques dismantling the politics of fourth wave fall back on lazy stereotyping that equates femininity to weakness. While many fourth wave activists may not be shouting on the streets or screaming down a microphone, the sense of community and comfort derived from these soft approaches should not be palmed off as unimportant in its own right.
Speaking to Dazed for our Spring issue, Rowan Blanchard succinctly sums up the political motivations of tumblr feminism, “make-up, pink, selfies, iPhones – all these things that we use to undermine teenage girls and make them feel embarrassed. Girls are saying, ‘Well, if that’s what you’re going to use against me, then I’m going to use them for me.”
What these women could probably not account for was the mainstream co-option of their aesthetic choices in order to sell products. Tumblr feminism quickly became marketable, its forerunners repackaged as new age “it girls” for the insta-generation. Somehow, somewhere along the line, many of the politics initially prevalent in the movement got lost amongst clickbait headlines and sweatshop-made ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ tshirt.
“Armed with their webcams and tumblr text posts, teen girls used nostalgia as a vessel to facilitate open discussion surrounding previously taboo subjects, informed largely by the wisdom of their peers as opposed to a dense reading of traditional feminist academia”
This co-option of selfie sticks, pound shop stickers and nostalgia transformed tumblr feminism into exactly what it was running away from: stereotyping. To an outsider with a critical eye, it would be easy to assume fourth wave was less about politics and more about products to make us feel better about ourselves.
However, despite its pitfalls, dismissing this brand of ‘girlish’ feminism completely is as naive as the stereotypes previously surrounding feminism in the first place. While previous aesthetic affiliations with the politics of gender equality ultimately enforced wholly untrue stereotypes of the ‘butch, hairy’ feminist, reducing a movement down to its visual counterpart is as pointless now as it was then. While companies continue to cash in on the visuals of fourth wave, artists are equally still fighting the good fight, dismantling gendered oppression and striving for the normalisation of the non-typical female body each step of the way.