Madelaine Lucas ponders her friendship with the F-word.
It seems like every day, another celebrity denounces feminism. Recently, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Sarah Jessica Parker have all tried to distance themselves from any feminist associations, and I can’t help being disappointed. There was a time in my own memory when not only was it not a bad thing to be a feminist, but it was actually kind of fashionable.
While I am now old enough and wise enough not to look to pop stars as role models, there was definitely a time when I did, looking for inspiration in the pages of TV Hits and in Saturday morning video clips. Whenever I think of ‘the ‘90s’ as an era, I separate my associations into two groups:
- Fashion and music I love now, but that only existed on the periphery for me back then because I was a kid (Pavement and Mazzy Star and that specifically ‘90s vampire/goth chic).
- What actually defined the ‘90s, the decade of my childhood. For example, The Spice Girls.
Now, I realise that The Spice Girls were not exactly Riot Grrrls. When they sung, “I tell you what I want, what I really, really want”, the answer was not “the end of gender-based violence” or “equal pay for equal work”.
The lyrics and cute, themed personas of The Spice Girls would have seemed pale in comparison to other female musicians in the charts during the same era. In the alternative rock scene, Courtney Love was granting grunge a decidedly female perspective and writing songs about rape and incest, while Liz Phair and Kathleen Hanna were questioning the masculine sexuality embedded in rock music by both mocking it and embodying it simultaneously.
Had I been and Writing and Cultural Studies major in my twenties in the mid-‘90s, I probably also would have been frustrated at the repackaging and commercialisation of the Riot Grrrl message into the more fun, colourful and marketable notion of Girl Power (all grrrit, grrrunge, and grrrowl removed).
But in 1998, I was eight years old, and the message I received from my pop idols Ginger, Baby, Scary, Sporty and Posh, was, simple: being a girl is awesome and powerful.
The very fact that this sentiment, if only vaguely feminist, was popular enough to be commercially viable amazes me, seeing as it now seems that the newest trend amongst A-list pop icons is feminist denial. Whether you listened to Hole, Bikini Kill or The Spice Girls in the ‘90s, the female pop icons of the day were presenting the idea that feminism was cool.
I don’t remember exactly when I grew out of The Spice Girls, but it was definitely post-millennium, probably around the time I started high school. Somehow, my ideas about girl power got discarded along with the broken butterfly clips and Spice paraphernalia of my childhood, things I no longer needed now that I was ‘A Teenager’.
It is important to note that I never stopped believing in equality (not only between men and women, but for people of all genders, races, abilities and sexual orientations). But if you had asked me at age 15 or 16 if I was a feminist, I probably would have muttered something along the lines of the popular disclaimers espoused by Katy Perry or Taylor Swift: I am not a feminist but I believe in equal rights (and equal pay. And access to health services and reproductive choices. Amongst other things).
Part of my doubt was obviously related to being a teenager, and, particularly, a teen girl wanting to belong in a society that sends conflicting messages about what a girl/woman should be/do/say/look like. But that was only a small aspect of my hesitation. After all, I went to a public girls’ school, and my best friend and I both listened to Hole and Bikini Kill (as did our liberal minded parents, whom we stole the CDs from). I wouldn’t have been isolated for branding myself with the F-word. Although my beliefs didn’t change, I didn’t fight for them, because I felt like I didn’t have to.
Recently I have become aware of how much my attitude has changed again, and I can’t tell how much of this is just me alone, or if there is a collective push for women’s rights again from society at large. I know that for the first time I am confronting the world without the shelters of family or school, and that in your 20s, things that have always been deemed ‘feminist issues’ – like access to health facilities and birth control, or ideas about the kind of work you can get and how much you get paid to do it – start to matter in a new, shit-getting-real kind of way.
When I was a child, I thought I would grow up and become an adult, and go about being the adult I wanted to be, achieving whatever dreams I happened to dream. But when I stopped being a child, a girl, a teen, I became something else: A Woman. Which, apparently, means my way of being an adult, making decisions, or achieving dreams is supposed to be significantly different.
Sometimes, we get a label slapped on us that is completely out of our own control. I can’t help being seen as A Woman. But I do believe I can choose to call myself a feminist, and that that label can be inclusive and flexible enough to mean what I want it to mean. If there is one thing I have learned from spending days thinking about both Geri Halliwell and Kathleen Hanna, it’s that there is more than one way to be a feminist.
For a long time, I questioned calling myself a feminist because I thought it might preclude me from being other things. I was afraid that my allegiance would deny me other choices – that I’d be called a hypocrite if I wore make up or decided to marry a man one day or wanted to procreate. I was misguided into thinking that feminism came with a set of rules.
But of course, that is exactly what feminism is supposed to be fighting against, people being told by others what is expected of their bodies, their choices and behaviors. As stated in the 1991 Riot Grrrl manifesto, we need feminism “BECAUSE we are being divided by our labels and our philosophies and we need to accept and support each other as girls; acknowledging our different approaches to life and accepting all of them as valid”.
To reject a label which stands for what you believe in, purely because of that label, seems counterproductive and boring. I’m tired of hearing people almost apologising for believing in women’s rights and back-pedaling away from feminism. I’m tired of hearing the words, “I’m not a feminist but…” It’s much more interesting to start a conversation and say instead, “I’m a feminist and…” Ellen Page, one actress in Hollywood not afraid to call herself a feminist, put it succinctly in The Guardian this month, “How could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?”
There is an argument that one can fight for women’s rights without adopting the feminist label, but the more I think about it I just can’t shake the idea I learned from my lady heroes of the ‘90s: that girl power is awesome. Without a feminist movement, it will be difficult to mobilise any real political change, especially when there is a war going on – the ‘war on women’ – so common in the media today that I’m surprised it doesn’t have its own hashtag.
As long as it exists, we will need feminism, and all kinds of feminists starting conversations on the front line.