In a recent sketch on Saturday Night Live, Cecily Strong sits alone at crowded bar and fends off a series of dudes. Each guy seems, at first, to be enlightened. One wears a t-shirt with “The Future is Female” written on it, another says he chartered a bus to the Women’s March, yet another is wearing a pink knitted pussy hat. But after a few minutes of sensitive guy preening, they all wind up being creeps, coming on to Strong in increasingly pervy ways and then calling her a “bitch” when she politely turns them down.
It’s a clever send up of sexual harassment and male entitlement. But it also contains a timely observation about this current feminist moment. Since the election of Donald Trump, fighting for gender equality has become so acceptable and mainstream that it’s now even a badge of a certain kind of urban hipness, like podcasts and microbreweries and brunch. Here in Canada, the “f-word” is now the norm — a recent poll found that 59 percent of us consider ourselves a “feminist.”
The question is, when a movement suddenly finds itself trending, can it still be an effective force for serious political change? After all, no one, not even the organizers, anticipated that the Women’s March in January would become the largest political demonstration in U.S. history, with sister events on every continent. Today, on International Women’s Day, the organizers have called for a massive strike, and they promise more events and protests to come. In 2017, feminism isn’t just any old political movement, it’s at the heart of progressive resistance.
Which is remarkable, because among all the other recent and robust movements — Idle No More, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, environmental activism — women’s rights seems like an unlikely frontrunner to lead the charge. For one thing, feminism has long been divisive, and from its second-wave rise in the 1970s, it’s struggled to get women to buy into it. Some continue to find it too radical and strident, others don’t see it as being inclusive and radical enough.
But while these debates rage, representations of feminism have been thriving squarely in mainstream popular culture. Consider the strong, smart, complicated women on TV shows like Insecure, Jane the Virgin, The Americans and Scandal, and the critical and box office success of the movie Hidden Figures, about three female African-American scientists.
Spring book lists abound with novels and personal essays by and about women’s lives. Media for young women like Rookie, Teen Vogue and Lenny is unabashedly political. Pop music has powerhouses like Adele, Rihanna and, most importantly Beyoncé, who champions feminism, black history and culture, civil rights activism, economic independence, sexual freedom and maternal bliss.
Some critics have pointed to these developments as a sign that the battle for women’s rights has gone corporate and sold itself out — and there’s some truth in that. Pop culture has, in some cases, reduced feminism to a feel-good form of eat-pray-love-and-live-your-best-life personal transformation. In her book We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler argues that “feminist” has become a brand identity, with advertisers using images of empowerment to sell beauty products. And Jessa Crispin, author of Why I’m Not a Feminist, has said that feminism has become “about personal essays. It’s about what’s a good television show. It has nothing to do with how do we actually improve the lives of all women.”
Like the dudes in the SNL sketch, declaring yourself enlightened has become as simple as liking a video of Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists,” or retweeting an insight about rape culture, or even just taking some Me Time with your best girlfriends. A picture from the Women’s March that went viral summed up this tension perfectly: There’s a bunch of white women in pink hats taking selfies like they were at a party. In front of them, a black woman in a “Stop Killing Black People” hat holds up a sign that reads, “Don’t forget: White women voted for Trump.”
Whether it’s Trump’s reinstatement of the global gag rule and his threat to defund Planned Parenthood, or Canada’s failing grade on pay equity, violence against women, affordable childcare and supporting domestic workers, change will require effort, and hard, persistent, loud effort at that. It requires not just sticking up for some women, but all of them.
Time and time again, feminism has been declared dying, dead or simply passé. Up until November 9, there were many who might have agreed. But then, people who never marched before, marched. People whose only political statement to date had been commenting on Facebook, starting calling their elected representatives. When Trump enforced his travel ban, airports were jammed with protestors and civil rights organizations received a fortune in donations. When a mosque was attacked and six of its members killed, people came together to stand vigil. And at the centre of it all, were women as organizers and participants.
Turns out the popularization of feminism didn’t weaken or water down the movement, after all. Instead, it seems to have primed and emboldened many women to finally suit up for the fight.