Sunday, August 14, 2011

On generational tensions and the third wave

I know this blog is called "Fourth Wave Feminism" and, as such, I should probably be claiming some sort of transition away from third wave ideologies and into a hypothetical fourth wave. The problem, of course, is that even after writing this blog for three years, I'm still not quite sure what the fourth wave might look like. That said, I do have some ideas, most of them revolving around a reapplication of feminism for the future while not denying or forgetting its past, which leads me to my reason for posting today...

Yesterday, my good friend L. sent me an article from The Huffington Post. She was curious about my opinion, she said, and, after I'd read the article and devoted an unnecessary amount of Facebook wall space to typing out a response, I decided I might as well turn my response into a blog post, as it so typified the kind of debate that I often see in generational disputes over feminism's relevance, efficacy and enactment.

The article in question is written by filmmaker Dawn Porter, with whose work, I'll be honest, I am not terribly familiar. For the purposes of the case she's making and my reaction, however, knowing her work isn't essential. My response is to her article, not her work (although now I'm curious and will make an effort to track some of it down). Porter's article is intriguingly entitled "Women Like Me are not Like Women Like You, Does That Have to Make us Enemies?" and in it she discusses the negative response she received from an unnamed, presumably older, feminist journalist regarding her latest film Dawn Gets Naked in which, you guessed it, the filmmaker gets naked. According to Porter, her film chronicles women's body image issues in today's society, specifically "challeng[ing] the media's idea of perfection and the pressure that it puts on women."

Porter expresses frustration that her unnamed critic "drew the conclusion that [Porter] presumed that feminism is just about getting your tits out" and "didn't like it one bit." She goes on to argue that feminism can mean a lot of things to different women and, essentially, that's it nobody's business if she chooses to trim her pubic hair, wear stiletto heels, and still call herself a feminist.

I wholeheartedly agree. She points to some of the same problems in the ongoing clash/debate/tension between feminist generations. Obviously, you can't expect a movement or an ideology not to shift as time passes, and for people not to enact its principles differently. (For further reading, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards' book Manifesta addresses these generational dynamics really well.)


I do take serious issue with one thing Porter says (although its worth noting that maybe she doesn't mean it the way it sounds or she wasn't really thinking what it could mean when she wrote it). Towards the end, she writes, "But I do think that as feminism is having a golden moment and there is a chance it might really go somewhere this time, women who want to attack others should pick their arguments more carefully." The latter part is all fine and good. Nudity in a documentary that purports an interest in building self-esteem and interrogating media representations of body image does seem like a rather silly thing to get worked up over vis-a-vis feminism.

So here's me picking my argument carefully: it sounds an awful lot like Porter's saying that feminism hasn't gone anywhere in the past, or anywhere worthwhile, which is a really reductive and naive thing to say (and is precisely what some older/second wave feminists find so disconcerting about the third wave: the elision of history). To suggest that all the advances that women made in the 1960s and 1970s were not worth anything, that feminism didn't go anywhere, is pretty insulting. Perhaps what she means to say is that feminism isn't over, that there are still things left to be done, which would make a lot more sense and, in my opinion, is very true. If that's what she meant to say, it doesn't come across. How about choosing your words carefully?

If Porter does indeed mean to say that feminism hasn't done anything worthwhile yet or ever, I'm not even sure how to respond to that, considering her ability to even make a documentary in which she and other women ride around London in a double-decker bus nude has a lot to do with previous generations of feminists and what they've done for gender equality.

I hope she misspoke, I really do. Although I was deeply disturbed to look in the comments and see that Porter seemingly agreed with one commenter who wrote, "You have equal rights. Now get over yourselves­. Feminism is really now just about narcissism­: debating the finer points of Brazilian waxing, SlutWalk exhibition­ism for Facebook photos, or academic navel-gazi­ng about one's unused ovaries" (unsurprisingly, this commenter's moniker is "Men's Rights Videos"). Yes, women have more rights now than they ever have, especially in so-called first world countries. But, do we have equal rights? No, not by a long shot.

Should women be able to wax their pubic hair, wear high heels, take joy in their nudity and bodies, be super feminine and still call themselves feminists?


Should older feminists accept that the younger generation might do things a little differently than they did but that doesn't make them any less feminist?

Again, absolutely.

But does that mean that third wavers or fourth wavers or whatever feminists want to call themselves these days should forget that there were women who came before them who had to fight and yell and break all the rules in order to help build the relative equality (in some areas, but still not all) we enjoy today?

No. No. No. Absolutely not.

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