Fiercely Feminist by Joy Watson
Having spent some time thinking through different notions of contemporary feminism, I have come to the grand conclusion that there is a space in the world for being fiercely feminist.
When I read Caitlyn Moran’s book on “How to be a Woman’ I was struck by how clever it was to take feminism outside of the jargon of academic language and to render it accessible. Moran talks about feminism in ways that many women can relate to. It got me thinking that if we want to power the feminist movement with more people identifying as feminists, then making feminism accessible is surely the answer.
Moran’s ‘test’ to work out if you are a feminist is ingenious. She argues that all you have to do is to put your hand in your pants and ask yourself whether you have a vagina. Then ask, ‘do you want to be in charge of it?’ If you answered ‘yes’ to both questions, then congratulations, you’re a feminist.
The gains of contemporary feminism
Moran’s book makes a well-articulated argument for reclaiming the word ‘feminism.’ Commenting on the fact that an estimated 29% of American women and 42% of British women identify as feminist, she has this to say, “What do you think feminism is? What part of liberation for women is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit get on your nerves? Or were you just drunk at the time of the survey?” The down-to-earth intonation, laced with an edge of humour has found favour with many women who could not relate to more academic arguments of why feminism in necessary and relevant.
Roxanne Gay and the notion of ‘bad feminist’
In the same vein, Roxanne Gay has emerged as a rather reluctant hero, shooting out the darts of her feminist satire with a sharpness that rings. Even better, she makes us feel like we can live with ourselves when we sometimes get it wrong as feminists, “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to say I’m right. I’m just trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”
Gay’s message that we need not beat ourselves up when we fail has been a welcome, empathetic response standing in contrast to the more limiting notions of what feminism can and cannot be. It will never be possible to reconcile all our feminist values and aspirations with every single aspect of our lives. So there is no point beating ourselves up over the small, inconsequential things that we do that may well emanate from institutionalised patriarchy.
The point is that we stick with the principles of the feminist movement, do our best in living a good feminist life while recognising that there are many different kinds of ‘feminisms’, as a movement powered by people, feminism is always going to be accentuated by different views and at times, even by contradictions.
The dangers of contemporary feminism and the need for a more fierce feminism
While there have been definitive gains in making feminism more accessible and more mainstream, it has not been without its inherent dangers. In a nutshell, contemporary feminism has been lacking in fierceness. Jessa Crispin has been at the forefront of pointing this out with her disavowal of what she calls ‘lifestyle feminism.’ She argues that in this rebranding of feminism, women are encouraged to focus on themselves and engage in self-care. Self-empowerment notions of feminism have become politically ‘sexy’ as women are encouraged to develop themselves, ‘climb every mountain’ and catapult themselves off into an auspicious future.
This self-serving notion of feminism has been worn as a cloak by many women seeking to move up the career ladder, giving rise to a generation of so-called ‘feminist’ CEOs. Many of these women build their empires riding the coattails of feminism and are then found to be lacking in terms of creating a work culture that is sensitive to women and seeks to address gender inequity. While being fierce is sanctioned as a metaphor for focusing on an upward career trajectory, being fiercely feminist in relentlessly pursuing a political agenda that challenges the status quo has not been as popular.
And so it is that we see the co-option of a political movement to sell products and people. This populist branding of feminism has seen the proliferation of a consumerist element, with feminist t-shits and expensive scarves with slogans like ‘radical feminist’ being the new ‘in’ thing. Lifestyle feminism has benefited both capitalist enterprise and women in patriarchal structures of power where the emphasis is not on feminist ideals, but on the pursuit of money and privilege. Being fiercely feminist is decidedly not on this list of priorities.
The notion of lifestyle feminism has placed emphasis on the individual at the expense of the collective. In focusing only on building our sense of self, we lose sight of the structural, systemic discrimination that enables groups of people to be socially and politically marginalised. The focus on self has come at the expense of the communal well-being.
The need for a fierce feminism
Crispin argues that an even bigger danger is that lifestyle feminism, in its pursuit of being universally acceptable and non-threatening, has diluted feminism. We have lost our fierce feminism. In order to effect social change, we need to be radical, we need anger, we need threats. We need to be fierce at times. We need revolutionary thought and action. Significant change like the right to vote, the right to abortion, the right to define sex without consent in marriage as being rape, are all aspects of change that came about as a result of radical thought and action. The approach of contemporary feminism of sticking as close as possible to the status quo will not bring about fundamental change. And this is why a fierce feminism is needed, change can cannot come about without it.
Instead of tackling the issues that really matter, lifestyle feminism has been associated with an obsessive focus on popular culture. Crispin argues that this has translated into thinking about which television shows are good or bad. The drive to sell feminism and render it universally acceptable has resulted in a disavowal of the radical ideas that underpin feminism. At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, what has this really achieved? Donald Trump was still elected to power notwithstanding the popularisation of feminism.
Feminism as profound personal transformation
Sandra Barky describes the process of becoming feminist as a profound personal transformation involving both changes in behaviour and changes in consciousness. The process of becoming feminist is not an end state, but an ongoing process. It entails the development of a multiplicity of feminist consciousness, which is derived from involvement and interpretation of different situated experiences.
And here’s the big thing about feminism – in the personal journey of undergoing this profound personal transformation, we have got to look beyond ourselves and take stock of the bigger picture, which will necessarily entail a focus on the structural and systemic issues that affect us as a community and a society. We have to have moments of fierce feminism. This will mean that we have to think about issues such as the relationship between race, class, gender and sexual orientation in relation to power and privilege. And while there is nothing wrong with building a feminism that is empathetic and inclusive, it will have to be radical and pushing the envelope if we’re serious about real change. The moral of the story is this, there is absolutely nothing wrong with embracing a fierce feminism. On the contrary, it is something to be immensely proud of.