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What Does Feminism Mean Today?

Written by Postgraduate Community
Published date 11 December 2018
By Holly Campbell, MA Media, Communications and Critical Practice, LCC

Students from across all the three schools at London College of Communication and beyond, across the broader University Colleges. Guests were invited to a free discussion group event in the new Graduate School space to share thoughts on contemporary feminism. Hosted and led by MA Media, Communications and Critical Practice postgraduate Holly Charlotte Campbell, the agenda focused on the intersection of feminism today and popular culture.

Over centuries feminism’s presence in popular culture has been contested. That continues in the academy today as feminism has appeared to shoot into the mainstream. Some argue that this emergence is a cause for celebration. Where, amidst ‘feminist’ emblazoned t-shirts, women-led storylines and plus-size advertising campaigns, conversations of empowerment, consent and equal pay are sparked. That line of argument suggests that the representations of feminism and feminist tropes through popular cultural mediums, have evoked a critical awareness amongst mass consumers which contributes towards the fundamental goals of the movement – giving rise to explicit feminist action such as #MeToo, the Women’s Marches and the anti-Trump protests.

Concurrently, others argue that feminism and contemporary popular culture are completely incompatible. Wherein magazines, brands and advertisers encroach on the political movement, serving to dilute, popularise and universalise it. They argue that the co-opting of feminism by these popular cultural mediums only leads to inaction whilst the publisher, brand or advertiser is celebrated for appearing to engage in apparently radical, women-centric representations. That inaction seeps through to the consumer where feminist action for many is constituted by the purchasing of that ‘feminist’ emblazoned t-shirt.

Of course, there is no one universal definition of feminism and no all-encompassing set of guidelines that one must abide by to join the club. Feminism is complex and nuanced, and its meaning can only really be defined in the mind of the interpreter. Amongst the conflicting and contesting arguments of what constitutes feminism today, and of what is or isn’t feminist, it seems that, for those invested in the movement, there is a need for grounding through grass roots conversation. This inspired the basis of the student discussion group with an open, honest, sharing and learning for individuals interested. And there were many who were interested. The event was booked out to maximum capacity with a growing waiting list in just two days of it being promoted.

Based on the principles that everyone’s voice, opinion and experiences are important, the group held a comfortable, constructive and respectful space for attendees to share their thoughts. The aim was to also inspire valuable takeaways for each person’s own projects, career aspirations and academic work.

The session followed as Holly gave attendees a brief insight into her own academic research on feminism and popular culture. This included analysing how the UK fashion industry can promote a positive representation of feminism. Attendees listened as the research introduced three main arguments entailing firstly, that dominant idealised images of women characterised as white, able-bodied, slim and passive must be disrupted in favour of representative and inclusive images of models. Secondly, it considered that through social comparison and psychological theory, viewers of those representations are subject to negative consequences for their identity and self-perception. Following the sentiment of ‘if you can’t see it you can’t be it’, the research questioned how many fashion viewers and consumers come to feel that they are deficient or inadequate by the inevitable gap between their real-life bodies and the illusory ideal represented by the fashion industry. Finally, the research questioned consumers’ engagement with the fashion industry – the fashion system as a capitalist and patriarchal institution vs. fashion as an art form, creativity, enjoyment and self-expression for women.

Holly also gave an overview of her research on the engagement of women’s magazines and contemporary feminism. This included considerations of an appropriation, negotiation and accommodation of feminism by the mediums. It found that tropes of empowerment, individualism and the career-driven woman have formed a new ideal on mediums’ ages.  However, instead of replacing the long-critiqued image of the young, slim and beautiful ideal, these representations form an additional ideal that pressures women to conform to. The magazines appear to engage with feminism, apparent through the accommodation of these tropes alongside slightly more diversified images of women’s body types, ethnicities and representations of strength, individualism and activism. In the context of the frame, this seems radical relative to the image of white, passive and youthful images of women that have historically characterised women’s magazines. The research argues however, for caution of celebrating these representations as accomplishments for feminism. Instead, attention should not be distracted from the collusive nature of these business-centric, career-driven and individualistic ideals and neoliberalism. Concluding that, so long as mainstream women’s magazines continue to uphold dominant beauty ideals to the detriment of women, then the type of feminism portrayed on their pages can only be a negotiation. Importantly, the type of feminism negotiated in those representations are insidiously disguised in the interests of neoliberalism.

Following an overview of Holly’s research, the group introduced themselves to each other and contributed thoughts on what feminism means to them as well as what they hoped to gain from the session. Discussion points included how attendees came to learn about feminism, their thoughts on celebrities who have identified themselves as feminists and whether feminism used in advertising and by brands is beneficial or detrimental to the goals of the movement.

After some sharing, the primary theme that arose from the discussion centred on a concern for how one should approach talking about feminist topics. This involved a shared self-awareness from students with an eagerness to learn the best ways to approach feminist conversations with respect for others. Whilst the group was ethnically diverse, multiple attendees shared a general sensitivity of not wanting to offend others from different social intersections by initiating conversations of feminism. Interestingly, it seemed as though this hesitation held a similar, if not more, weight to those in attendance than political topics themselves.

Conversation also gravitated towards students’ own cultural experiences. For example, some shared their thoughts on the criticism of high-profile men in their home country of India, questioning whether it is right for men to be aggressively dismantled form their positions for seemingly trivial actions. This led discussion of whether some feminist movements today have adopted the similar brutal tactics of patriarchy yet reversing the power dynamics to the benefit women.

The moral questioning of these cases by the students seemed to allude to a sensitivity and self-awareness of whether they are right to agree or disagree with the circumstances. Interestingly, there were no wholly assertive individuals who fought their arguments. It was evident that attendees joined the group for the purpose of learning and listening opposed to sharing their thoughts or fighting a particular argument. There was a strong presence of a consciousness of what was or was not ‘right’ to say. This raises a basis for further study and examination.

At the end of the session, students were invited to share anonymous feedback. This included:

“It was very nice talking. It was a good way to interact with other people.”  

“Thank you for making me realise questions are okay that we’re all figuring it out. Helps me to not be scared and just talk about it. Thank you”

“Really enjoyed having space to discuss such a relevant topic and have an open discussion with people from different walks of life.”

Holly Campbell  was awarded an LCC Graduate Student Fund of £300.00 to take up the JOYA residency in Spain. This event was the distillation of that process. Holly Campbell is an MA student on the MA Media, Communications and Critical Practice at LCC.