A dummy’s guide to feminism

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If a new American campaign is to be believed, being a feminist has never been so easy. ‘We Are The XX’ prescribes three simple steps: first, draw ‘XX’ on your body, then take your best selfie and upload it on Twitter and Instagram. In six months, they aim to collect a million such photos and thus be able to show a million new recruits to the movement. And so a complex socio-politico-economic movement that traces its history to over 200 years has been reduced to three steps, one of which involves that most overused of fads — taking a selfie. Even for a term that has been thoroughly misunderstood over the years, this new-age definition is a new low. To make things worse, it comes at a time when feminism is grappling with its worst identity crisis.

We are in what is described as the Fourth Wave of feminism, one that is characterised by the use of social media to disseminate the message. It has resulted in some brilliant campaigns, but also some decidedly off-kilter ones like this. ‘We Are The XX’ sets out to rebrand feminism, to prettify and commodify it, to rid it essentially of any challenging or unsettling connotations. “We can’t run from the word ‘feminism’,” their manifesto states, “but we can change what it looks like and feels like to get on board with it”, so that feminism can be “inclusive, celebratory and desirable”.

Every second poll conducted in the Western world, particularly the US and UK, seems to establish that most women are rejecting feminism as “too aggressive”, “man-hating” and “old-fashioned”. “I’m not a feminist, but…” has become the easiest cop-out for most people when confronted with the subject, a list that includes some rather unlikely names: Katy Perry, Marissa Meyer, Carla Bruni, Madonna and Lady Gaga.

To add to this, the November issue of Elle UK sets out to further upset the movement by carrying a glossy spread that aims to rebrand feminism, a term “burdened with complications and negativity”, with the help of three advertising agencies working with three feminist groups. All this sounds encouraging — it is undeniable that the movement could do with some form of rejuvenation — except that Elle’s version of feminism, rendered in bold pink lettering and easy flowcharts, primarily seeks to make it a saleable product. Vitamin W, a women’s media platform in the US, carried out a similar task in a contest last month to rebrand feminism and faced as much of an outcry as Elle did.

The myths surrounding feminism do need to be dispelled. (Bra-burning, that visual of the 1960s, is an example of something that never happened but eventually came to define the movement. No bra was ever burnt, feminists have clarified over a period of time.) But oversimplification is not the answer. While social media has ensured that more people can access feminism, it has also led to many misguided attempts to dilute the movement and make it more widely acceptable.

But has feminism truly lost its relevance? Certainly not, as the scores of us protesting and outraging against the 16 December gangrape, and many others that either followed or preceded it, will know. The truth is that a movement like feminism can never be a victim to fads or, for that matter, become a homogenous brand.

Feminism is as much about expecting equality as it is about protesting violence against women; it is a movement towards building a better society. The people who poured out onto the streets did not do so in order to express solidarity with the feminist movement. All they were doing was demanding a better, more equal life. It is they who will give heart to those who decry the depths feminism finds itself in today.

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