Feminism is a word that many women today shy away from. While it would seem obvious that a woman should want to fight the oppression associated with her own gender, the issue is much more complex than that. Often women like to avoid labels, because once a woman declares herself a feminist, she opens the door for criticism and ridicule from anti-feminists and feminists alike. It may also seem odd that one feminist would ridicule another, but there is ongoing debate over what a feminist should be, exactly. Is Emma Watson, a woman who fights injustices such as the wage gap with poise and eloquence the ideal feminist? Or is it Beyoncé, whose confidence and bold displays of sexuality speak for themselves? Or could Miley Cyrus, who preaches sexual fluidity and the breaking of gender roles, be considered the ideal? The debate over the “correct” form of feminism stems from the fact that modern feminism is influenced by the women of second-wave feminism who used academics to earn their respect in society, like feminist writer Betty Friedan, as well as the culturally radical Riot Grrrls of the punk movement.
Second-Wave Feminists and What They Did for Women
Second-wave feminism occurred during a time of social revolution and a change in the general way of thinking. Women had rights in the 1960s, but they began to see the injustices they faced beyond what legislation could determine. Women were fed up with having to play housewife like they had throughout the 1950s, and they let the world know. Bold female writers such as Betty Friedan expressed their dissatisfaction with their roles in the home that prevented them from pursuing their dreams. Friedan describes “the problem that has no name”, which forced women to get married and raise a family without a career after graduating college. Friedan’s account shows that the issues with women go far beyond the realm of legislation, because women could legally work. However, it was society that held them back and made it nearly impossible for women to be respected professionally.
What is significant about Betty Friedan’s work, as well as other feminist works of the time, is that by mere fact of using literature to protest the patriarchy, they were submitting to their expected roles. While women in the 1960s worked hard to make a change for themselves, they did so while maintaining their lady-like composures in order to be respected and heard by men. This is not to say that there were no radical feminists of the 1960s; Valerie Solanas, for example, was among those “bra-burning” feminists who hated men and wanted to ruthlessly destroy the patriarchy. However, the women that were successful in gaining support for the feminist movement were women like Betty Friedan, who conformed to the image of the submissive woman in their efforts to fight sexism.
Punk Feminists Heat Things Up
As feminism continued into the 1980s and 1990s, the language and ideas of feminists began to change. Feminism became less about getting women out of the house and into the workplace, and more about changing the way they were viewed in society. Although she doesn’t identify as a feminist, Patti Smith challenged the idea of femininity being forced onto girls. In her book, Just Kids, Smith writes about a point early in her childhood when she realized she did not want to be a woman. She did not like the restraints put on women, even things as simple as having to wear a shirt while men did not. Smith also wrote songs that challenged femininity and female roles, singing about romantic relationships with women and using vulgar lyrics. She was confident singing about sex, which has always been, and still is, controversial for women. The way Smith expresses her sexuality through song shows her blatant disregard for gender norms placed on her by society. Patti Smith also had a very androgynous style, which included wearing ties and forgoing makeup. The significance of Patti Smith’s contribution to feminism was that she did not even identify as a feminist, but was still able to contribute to the movement simply through her actions. Women, like Smith, in the punk movement advanced the feminist cause through their sexual fluidity and confidence with their sexual expression.
During the 1990s, the feminist punk “Riot Grrrls” continued what Patti Smith and other punk rock icons started by counteracting the focus punk had on masculinity. Women began to develop a new attitude that involved dressing and acting how they wanted, despite being taught how women should behave. Kathleen Hanna, the woman credited with launching the Riot Grrrls movement, worked hard to promote sexual equality with her radical performances with her band, Bikini Kill. At her concerts, she would force all of the men to the back, and had all of the women up front in order to assure that men did not dominate the room so women could feel comfortable. Her performances were extremely radical; she would curse and scream and wear very little clothing. This was to fight the stigma around women’s sexuality and to fight what is now called “slut-shaming”. Because feminists work to ensure the equality of men and women, it was important that women make it clear that behavior that is acceptable for men is also acceptable for women. (See: http://onewarart.org/riot_grrrl_manifesto.htm)
What This All Means for Modern Feminists
The aftermath of second-wave and third-wave feminism is what we are left with today. Some claim that sexism no longer exists, and that the feminist movement is over. However, feminism is still alive and well today, with women like Emma Watson still fighting for equality. Emma Watson is following in the footsteps of Gloria Steinem, who made her famous speech “A New Egalitarian Lifestyle” at Harvard University, by making speeches at the UN for gender equality. Her eloquence and self-respect have gained her the acceptance of men and women, mostly because her ideas and behaviors are not radical or threatening. Dressed in a conservative collared dress, soft-spoken Watson delivered her speech at the UN, asking for the help of men in the fight for gender equality. Her words were persuasive, but she maintained her feminine image throughout the entire speech. In her speech, she calls the people that do not discriminate her for being a woman “the inadvertent feminists who are changing the world today”. This is the type of attitude, however, that has prolonged the feminist movement for as long as it has been going on. Instead of praising the brave, strong women who fight for their respect with whatever means they find effective, those who simply do nothing are praised for “not making it worse”. Second-wave feminists such as Betty Friedan would approve of Watson’s dignified call to equality, but the radical feminists who have made significant changes during the punk movement would argue that she is taking a step backwards.
Another significant woman in modern day feminism is Beyoncé. While she did not even identify as a feminist until very recently, Beyoncé has long been one of the most talked-about women regarding the matter. Her bold portrayal of her own femininity and sexuality has made her very controversial. She encourages women to be confident and self-sufficient with songs such as “Single Ladies” and “Irreplaceable”. Beyoncé also sings songs like “Drunk in Love” and “Partition” that are clear cases of self-objectification. Beyoncé portrays herself in blatantly sexual situations, most of which is strictly for male pleasure. In “Partition”, Beyoncé sings the lyrics, “Boy this all for you just walk my way. Just tell me how it’s lookin’ babe.” In these lyrics, she is asserting that her whole body and appearance is only for a man, and then she goes on to ask for his approval. Many feminists who oppose male dominance over women sexually and in society strongly disapprove of these types of lyrics and other similar behavior by Beyoncé.
Feminist Bell Hooks heavily criticized Beyoncé in a panel discussion, particularly her 2014 Grammy performance of “Drunk in Love”. Hooks argues that Beyoncé’s submission to the powerful, white men that manage her reinforces the patriarchy. She also criticized her Grammy performance, saying, “The live [Grammy awards] performance is disruptive in its essentialist rendition of patriarchy, which makes her powerful embodiment no longer sexy nor as compelling as it was in the video.” (Sieczkowski). However, while many women disapprove of women sexualizing themselves, other would argue that it gives them power. Men sexualize women whether they approve of it or not, so objectifying themselves takes this power away from men. Beyoncé is comfortable with her body and her sexuality, and chooses to show it off how she pleases. She refuses to cover herself up and act like a stereotypical “lady” just because men interpret her sexuality in a certain way. Also, regardless of her intentions with her sexual lyrics, clothing, and dance moves, Beyoncé’s decision to embrace her own sexuality just proves that she has the power to behave however she wants, regardless of societal criticism. Whether or not Beyoncé’s blatant sexuality submits her to the impact of the patriarchy, or if it takes the power away from the patriarchy depends on one’s view of what feminism should be today.
Another self-proclaimed feminist today is the highly controversial Miley Cyrus. Miley Cyrus is a celebrity even more criticized than Beyoncé, due to her outright vulgar performances. The most notable performance was her 2013 VMA performance of “We Can’t Stop” and “Blurred Lines”, in which she stuck her tongue out, grabbed her crotch, and danced up against Robin Thicke very suggestively. After this performance, there was immediate backlash. Parents were horrified that their children used to look up to Cyrus, feminists were outraged by her self-objectification, and men were disgusted by her lack of femininity.
The reasons for people’s disapproval of the video are relatively obvious, but it can also be argued that her performance is feminist in nature. While her behavior was more extreme than that of what is acceptable even for men, the backlash did prove a double standard. Performers such as Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, for example, would grab at their crotch, and this was deemed socially acceptable. Of course Elvis’ behavior was highly controversial, but only due to the fact that he performed during the 1950s. For today’s standards, this is more acceptable, as well as behavior more vulgar. Miley Cyrus’ “grinding” and “twerking” on Thicke is similar to Beyoncé’s self-objectification. By making these sexual gestures to a man, Cyrus is taking the power of making her a sexual object away from him. It is as if he is a prop for her, as often women are in mainstream culture, especially in rap videos. Robin Thicke stands on the stage, helpless, as Cyrus uses him as her own sexual object. People were quick to come to Thicke’s defense, arguing that she made him uncomfortable and attempted to point out the double standard. Some said that, had the roles been reversed, he would be accused of sexual assault. The fact, however, is that men treat women this way every day, but no one notices because it has become so acceptable in society. Miley Cyrus’ performance points out this double standard, so whether or not feminists approve of her means, she is nonetheless able to call an issue to attention.
More recently, Miley Cyrus has made an attempt to erase the stereotypes placed on women, especially regarding appearance. She cut her hair short, which shocked the media, since women are expected to have long, soft, feminine hair. Her style, like that of non-feminist, Patti Smith, and other punk artists, is very androgynous. Miley Cyrus has come to her own defense many times regarding her style, pointing out that women can have short hair too, and that it makes her feel confident and sexy. Regarding her sexuality and body image, Cyrus said in an interview, “I feel like I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world because I tell women to not be scared of anything,” (Izundu). While many feminists regard her behavior as degrading and offensive to women, Cyrus would argue that her bold portrayal of sexuality is, if anything, empowering.
Feminism today is much more complicated than it was during the 1960s. It is largely influenced by these feminist scholars and their dignified approach to equality, but it is also influenced by the vulgar and confident women of the punk movement, particularly Riot Grrrls. Every time a public figure does something involving feminism, both sides of the feminist spectrum race to give their input on why the action is wrong or right. Many modern feminists believe there is a right and a wrong way to be a feminist, and are quick to attack when they believe a feminist has a different view. Feminist and friend of Miley Cyrus, Lena Dunham, points this out, and argues, “Part of being a feminist is giving other women the space to make choices you don’t necessarily agree with,” (Heller). In other words, while the technicalities of feminism may differ among women, the most important thing is that there is a united effort. This means, in order to achieve equality, women must support each other and respect their decisions. Men are not nearly as criticized for actions regarding their gender. When a man’s action is controversial, it is never due to the fact that he is a man, unless, of course, feminists are pointing out sexism.
It is clear that feminism has made huge progress over the past 50 years, and this is due to the efforts of second-wave and punk feminism. Therefore, there is no right or wrong way to go about fighting the patriarchy, because both ways have contributed to the movement’s success. There is also a means to each end regarding feminism. Emma Watson’s articulate and persuasive speeches are important in the efforts to close the wage gap and to have men in power on board, because as difficult as it is to admit, we need these men to help fight inequality. However, gender issues reach far beyond economic and political equality. Social stigmas involving women will not go away because Emma Watson told the Prime Minister of England to make them stop. Alternatively, women will not suddenly be paid equally because Miley Cyrus twerked on Robin Thicke or because Beyoncé performed a new song about sex during an award show. In today’s world, we need both.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Feminism is simply the belief that there should be social, economic, and political equality between the sexes. In order to do this, women must be raised up to end the oppression and discrimination that they face. How to go about his depends on the woman you ask. Because feminism is a controversial issue, for some reason beyond logic, every move a woman makes in support of feminism will be attacked from feminists and anti-feminists, as well as those indifferent to the issue. Regarding feminists who critique other feminists, some may find Betty Friedan’s approach most important and effective, while others may be more inspired by Kathleen Hanna and Patti Smith. In the end, both are necessary to fighting different aspects of equality. As soon as women come to terms with this fact and are able to support each other’s decisions no matter what, feminism will be much less controversial and difficult.
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