The likes of Florence Given and Jameela Jamil have become the new faces of contemporary mainstream feminism, moving the movement away from its radical past and into its flop era. Is there any point in trying to save it?
“Feminism is in its flop era”, “this is all feminism’s fault!” and “feminism is a scam” are all sayings we’ve heard a lot on the internet recently, from both sides of the political spectrum. But while they are usually said in jest (especially by those on the left), there appears to be an uncomfortable hint of truth in every one of these jokes.
The backlash is nothing new: many on the right have held these beliefs for years. In the 1970s, Catholic conservative activist Phyllis Schlary (who was recently portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the FX historical drama Mrs America) popularised anti-feminism among women while campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US. She spearheaded the “feminism is a scam” rhetoric, arguing that marriage and motherhood provided women with advantages and that feminism took those advantages away from them. This sentiment continues to be shared by many on the right, even to this day, with people like conservative influencer Abigail Shapiro (sister of alt-right commentator Ben Shapiro) promoting it on her YouTube channel.
Of course, resistance to feminism is to be expected. Journalist Susan Faludi writes about this in her book Backlash, where she explains that “backlashes often appear when women’s equality becomes increasingly possible”. But what happens when the backlash comes from inside the house?
The left’s cultural dissatisfaction with feminism has been well documented this year. Hayley Nahman, writer of the popular newsletter Maybe Baby, spoke about it on her podcast in an episode titled “When Feminism Became Uncool”, Lecturer and Video Essayist Alice Capelle examines it in her latest video, The Death of Feminism and The Future of Activism, and leftist magazine The Drift explored the current state of feminism, in their sixth issue, with four out of eight of their essays using the word “cringe” to describe modern-day feminism.
The examples Nahman, Capelle and The Drift use to highlight the embarrassing state of feminist politics are as follows: pink pussy hats, “the future is female” shirts, girlboss SheEOs, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s collection of feminist books, and, most recently, Florence Given’s pastel-coloured platitudes. Each of these examples comes under the umbrella of “mainstream feminism”, a branch of feminism many of us desperately wish did not exist, yet continues to persist day in and day out.
Alison Phipps, writer of Me, Not You: The Trouble with Mainstream Feminism, defines mainstream feminism as white, individualistic and extremely palatable. Most interestingly, she asserts that “the bourgeois whiteness” of mainstream feminism shapes what feminist theorist Clare Hemmings calls its “political grammar”. What Hemmings and Phipps mean by this is that the commonly accepted history of feminism – the version that is neatly packaged up and sold to us through the media and academia – is that of mainstream feminism. It’s why the #MeToo movement was first attributed to white actress Alyssa Milano in 2017 rather than Black civil rights activist Tarana Burke, who started the programme of work in 2006. It’s also why first-wave feminist history is primarily told as white middle-class Suffragettes fighting for the right to vote, and why slave rebellions organised by black women in European colonies are almost never included in that retelling of feminist history.
Mainstream feminism is seen as representing feminist politics as a whole, and this is absolutely purposeful. Feminism’s mainstream narrative is strategically constructed by the establishment (traditional broadcasting and publishing outlets), and a clear example of this is the calculated platforming of one of the most famous feminists in the world, Gloria Steinem. When Steinem emerged into the world of women’s politics in the 70s, she was the kind of woman the media wanted in the spotlight. She was pretty, stylish, well known by the New York elite – and most importantly, she was a non-threatening liberal.
“Though much of the mainstream media wants us to believe that the Spice Girls redefined feminism, they arguably, through their performative assertions of girl power, made centre-right politics more palatable”
Steinem became the embodiment of what was known as the “liberal takeover” of the feminist movement. This essentially meant that Steinem’s feminism was seen as benign and “in the hands of the left/liberal male establishment”. Her feminism did not advocate for the abolition of oppressive institutions and instead advocated for equality under capitalism. Even to this day, Steinem still espouses liberal feminist politics, recently calling for the former Lincoln Correctional Facility in New York to be remade into a “feminist” prison. (This shouldn’t need to be said, but anything that drives money into the prison industrial complex can not and should never be considered feminist.)
After Steinem, what became incredibly popular within mainstream liberal feminism was girl power, led by the Spice Girls. The Spice Girls, who were formed in 1994, acted as a sort of antidote to the Riot Grrrl movement, which was flourishing in the early 1990s. Though the Riot Grrrl movement had its issues with inclusion, its mission was simple and brilliant: to end sexism in the punk scene and make it a safe environment for women to flourish.
Riot Grrrl songs from the likes of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Slant 6 dealt with issues of racism, patriarchy, domestic abuse and more. Their radical work clashed with the establishment, especially since, as an underground movement, many of them didn’t believe in communicating or working with the mainstream press. That’s when the Spice Girls came into play. At the height of what seemed to be a feminist revival, music executives created a palatable pro-monarchy and pro-Tory girl group and co-opted the radical nature of girl power established by the Riot Grrrl movement.
Rather than focusing on discrimination, homophobia and classism (all issues which the Riot Grrrl movement discussed in educational zines), the Spice Girls were telling people that “Margaret Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of their ideology” – a real quote by Geri Halliwell, who recently took a selfie with (and basically endorsed) Liz Truss, our Prime Minister by day and Swiftie by night. Though much of the mainstream media wants us to believe that the Spice Girls redefined feminism, they arguably, through their performative assertions of girl power, made centre-right politics more palatable.
It’s no surprise that these non-radical and incredibly vague feminist politics have stayed popular, while the Riot Grrrl movement has faded away. When we think about popular feminism in the UK today, women like Jameela Jamil and Given come to mind. They are aggressively pushed upon us by the media – from The Times labelling Given “The Voice of Gen Z” in 2022, to Vogue naming Jamil one of their “Forces for Change” in 2019 – they are platformed to the point of annoyance. While Given and Jamil’s feminism comes across as slightly more rebellious than the likes of Steinem and the Spice Girls, their platforming by the mainstream media suggests otherwise. While branded as empowering, it comes across as self-serving and performative – and many leftists have since made their disdain for them, and the feminism they have come to represent, clear. When it comes to Given, white women especially are desperate to prove their feminist morality in comparison to her (whenever she comes into controversy, you will see a tweet that reads, “Florence Given is to feminism as Rupi Kaur is to poetry.” Every. Single. Time.)
But the media is to blame for putting us in this destructive, distracting and repetitive cycle. From Steinem to the Spice Girls to Jamil and Given, we rush to denounce these women, the pedestals they’re placed on, and their sometimes lame politics. In the process, we denounce feminism altogether. While so many of us relish in proving that we are better feminists than these women, there is still a reluctance to wear the labelling of feminist with pride.
So, where do we go from here? Becca Rothfeld, in their essay “Feminism and Kitsch” for The Drift, tells us that we should not be fooled into rejecting feminism because of mainstream feminism. “I followed many women I know and love in rejecting the bland, commercial creature that ‘feminism’ had come to represent for us, and, worse, in mistaking this docile pet for the authentic animal.” What Rothfeld means by this is that mainstream feminism is not real feminism. It is merely a poor imitation of it. Feminism is, as Black feminist writer Lola Olufemi defined it, “a weapon for fighting against injustice.”
While we continue to get distracted by cringey popular feminism, capitalism is continuing to rip our societies apart: period poverty runs rampant worldwide, access to abortion is still not seen as a human right and male violence against women is still a leading cause of premature death for women globally. So yes, the aesthetics of mainstream feminism are deeply embarrassing, but we can’t let it distract us, or define the movement as a whole. I still long for the days when the feminist movement felt almost religious, like something we all prayed to and didn’t want to escape from. Because feminism is still a life-saving practice that we desperately need – and desperately need to believe in.