Fourth-wave feminism (?)
Today, many people celebrate the label ‘feminist’. The approaches to the label are however still very variable. In this much discussed fourth wave of feminism there’s an attempt to unite the numerous different types of feminism as well as the equality-battle that the third-wave ended up fighting for, based on their original and fundamental understanding of feminism. They define it as follows: “The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes” (Web). This means that a feminist is “A person who supports feminism” (Web). The mission however is not yet complete since there are many branches and individual interpretations of what feminism is today as well as what it should be doing for women that cannot coexist.
The third-wave’s large focus on neoliberalism and postfeminism is something that recurs within parts of the fourth-wave. Some of the new feminists still dissociate themselves from the political part of the second-wave feminism – mainly because they associate this with man-haters and homophobia:
The homophobic rejection of the 1970’ers raises questions about the new feminism’s critical and emancipatory potential. It seems that the new feminism do not sufficiently interrogate the social constellations that initially gave rise to the felt need for a new feminist politics
(Scharff 2013: 265)
In contrast to this approach there is an academic intake which is slowly moving back towards more mainstream media – with themes such as sexual assaults, rapes, violence against women, equal pay, body ideals, masculinity and femininity (Rampton 2015). Rampton outlines this understanding of feminism as:
Feminism no longer just refers to the struggles of women; it is a clarion call for gender equity (…) They speak in terms of intersectionality whereby women’s suppression can only fully be understood in a context of the marginalization of other groups and genders
We see a connection between feminism and the fight for all oppressed groups, whether it’s gender-, race- or class-wise (Web 2017: 27:23).
At the same time it’s important to be aware of one’s own position as well as privileges when participating in a feminist debate. The more academic voice is however often drowned by those feminists that hold on to third-wave’s focus on ‘girlie feminism’ (equality between the genders is about reconquering feminine activities while still being a feminist); hence ‘choice-feminism’ and liberation through female sexuality. That is, sexuality for her own sake in order to fight the stigma surrounding an active female sexuality. An example of this way of interpreting feminism is the danish ‘Girl Squad’: Nikita Klæstrup, Louise Kjølsen (‘Twerk Queen’) and Katja Krarup Andersen, who among other things fight towards (re-)conquering women’s right to a distinct and visible sexuality (Von Sperling 2017).
These two approaches collide when talking about feminist icon, singer, independent academic object of study, and businesswoman, Beyoncé Knowles’ and her brand:
In relation to sexuality, Knowles has expressed:
I don’t have any shame about being sexual and I’m not embarrassed about it and I don’t feel like I have to protect that side of me. Because I do believe that sexuality is a power that we all have
(Knowles 2013: 04:18)
With a statement like this, Beyoncé mirrors a mindset where sexuality is understood as a symbol of empowerment and women’s liberation. On the contrary, there’s a stance in which Beyoncé is seen as someone that presents herself in a degrading way because she is steering herself towards a specific hyper-sexualised subject-position created for African American women (within the time of slavery) (Hooks 1990: 29, 60).
This discussion is especially relevant in relation to Beyoncé as a ‘brand’. With songs like Independent Woman and Run the World she has given the world a powerful and independent, black female role model that young girls and women can look up to. On social media, she is praised for promoting a different ideal ideal for women. hooks however states that Beyoncé is anti-feminist in her appearance, since she doesn’t change any of the historically constructed structures within an ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ by doing what she does in her subjective interests – she reproduces them (ibid.: 38:20) by using her hypersexualized subject position, which is exactly one of the few positions, African American women are ‘offered’ (Harris 2010: 33:58). hooks adds to this that:
Viewers who like to suggest Lemonade was created solely or primarily for black female audiences are missing the point. Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no color
Beyoncé as well as many of her fans can be seen as representatives of a focus on sexuality as liberating as within the third-wave’s focus.
What makes Beyoncé especially controversial is her choice to mix academic feminism with her own feminist agenda. For instance by ‘quoting’ a different feminist and writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the song “Flawless” whose message is that young girls’ upbringing is centered around one ting; boys/men: they cannot be too successful, marriage is the most important thing, and they have to compete for men’s attention. At the same time she makes it clear that a feminist is someone who wants social, political as well as financial equality between genders. Adichie however does not solely agree with Beyoncés feminism:
Still, her type of feminism is not mine, as it is the kind that, at the same time, gives quite a lot of space to the necessity of men. I think men are lovely, but I don’t think that women should relate everything they do to men: did he hurt me, do I forgive him, did he put a ring on my finger?
(Adichie in Kiene 2016),
which only gets more apparent when we take a look at the critique scholars like bell hooks face when trying to question Beyoncé’s cultural impact. It seems as if the debate surrounding women’s liberation is controlled by a patriarchal mindset where the label ‘woman’ means all women (except from the fact that you have to look like a ‘woman’ from birth).
Julia Serano however, talks about how many people today understand femininity and feminism as two opposites, which can been seen as the feminist movement’s biggest tactical mistake: “It’s high time we rectify this mistake by purposefully putting feminine back into feminism” (Serano 2016: 320) as well as make sure that those two conceptions no longer are subjected to manliness nor masculinity (ibid. 326). She also states that the critique of femininity as being related to feminine attire in reality reflects the anti-feminist tendencies because it reduces women to objects of the man’s interest instead of calling it self-development (for instance saying that a rape-survivor ‘asks to be raped’ because they dress in a revealing manner) (Serano 2016: 328).
Therefore there is an interesting field of tensions in which the neoliberal and postfeminist approaches are put across from a queer-theoretical starting point which is trying to break with binary understandings of gender, compulsory heterosexuality as well as dominating understandings of masculinity and femininity.
In that way the third-wave and the academic feminism collide which is also why they might not be able to coexist when taking the question about the subject’s options into consideration: is one free to choose or is one assigned to oppressive structures that are steering one towards a certain choice? This is evident when looking at religion. Is religion oppressive because some women have to cover themselves – or is it liverating since it might be their own choice? Is make-up and focus on the ideals of beauty created by the media in reality even more oppressive? Are both oppressive in their own different ways? (Chakravarty & Mortensen 2016: 94).
Women’s liberation is, in our perspective, about being aware of the structural oppressions (patriarchal discourses) that are sustaining women in a role, where they first and foremost choose to present themselves as sexual objects as well as buy themselves to womanliness and femininity.