Are you a feminist? Only a few years ago, it was still very unfashionable to answer, emphatically, YES. A lot has happened –most of it in 2017! – to change that. A growing wave of awareness and a revitalisation of both the word, and the women’s movement, has taken place – perhaps one of the silver linings in some of the more somber political and social clouds that gathered over the US in particular. A tsunami is building; Vanishing Pictures are ready to surf.
I have always declared myself a feminist, even at the risk of being seen as earnest, possibly aggressive and – ironically – unfeminine. I believe in female solidarity, and while ‘girl’ is still an insult in the boys’ playground, I believe there is work to be done. However, the word ‘feminism’ has come to mean so many things, to stand for many beliefs that cannot be held at the same time. The opposite of ‘man’ is ‘woman’, and yet we demand to be the same; we have the same brains but use them differently; we all have arms and legs and smiles and hearts and yet our bodies can do vastly different things. We are equal in the eyes of the law and yet our culture sets up expectations that can be anything but.
Navigating this multidirectional space is a series of ideologies and movements that concerns itself with the multi-faceted aspects women’s rights and concerns — feminism. But is this still a conversation that needs to be held separately to general discussions about the human condition? What do we women want for ourselves, and is it really that different to what anybody wants? Do we really want to be treated the same as men? And what does that mean today, as men increasingly encroach on spaces that were traditionally female: wearing make-up, taking jobs as secretaries or staying home to raise the children, marrying other men? Do we want to be desired and sexy in the light of the male gaze? Do we want to be respected and powerful, leaning in and scooping the career pot? Do we want to be loving and present mothers raising enlightened children? Do we strive to have muscles like steel or for the bird-like bone structure of a Parisian fashionplate? Do we want to be adventurers and cupcake bakers, wear uncomfortable, exquisite high heels while talking about the latest developments in bio-security? Do we want to walk out on our own, needing no one but a press secretary, to take on the world, or do we want a sisterhood of women to gossip with, and to plot world domination with, over a cup of tea? I would say: all of the above please. And therein lies the difficult balancing act that the modern woman must undertake when embarking upon that tricky process called self-creation. We want it all, and thanks to our equality of education and opportunity, we are told we can have it — encouraged even — to take it all. We are giddy with the women we might become. Then we torture ourselves over how to defy the laws of time and space and biology and have it all, completely and without compromise, at the same time.
But, again, is this really a purely feminist discussion? Is this not the modern condition, the flip side to the freedoms and opportunities and wealth most of us enjoy in the West? Aren’t women’s rights essentially human rights?
It wasn’t always this way. The Rights Revolution happened in stages, but women eventually became individuals rather than property, with the right to education, the ability to work outside the home, to control their income and their own bodies, to participate in the political process and to choose whom to associate with. Basically, they got to own their own lives. Today, the debate in the west largely centres around what women choose to do with that right, what sort of culture should we promote/ celebrate around women, and to what extent that right is respected by the other half of the population. Is Miley Cyrus’ twerking a feminist issue, for example? (I love The Times description of twerking: “ a portmanteau of “twisting” and “jerking” to describe a suggestive dancing style.”) The debate seems to confound feminism with sexuality, freedom of expression with attention-seeking. Cyrus and her gyrations is not a symbol of emancipation. It is a marketing display. It seeks and receives attention. And when it comes to cultural expressions of femininity that we disagree with, we can champion the ones that we do believe in. We can stop consuming, imitating and taking on board values we disagree with. We can teach our daughters to think; we can teach our sons to value women as equal human beings; we have responsibilities there that we cannot shirk from. We may not like the female Reality TV role models held up as the pinnacle (or parody??) of western womanhood – the all-pervasiveness of ‘Raunch culture’ that says you’re nothing if you’re not ‘hot’ – but we have the choice to look away, to turn off the television; we can celebrate different women as role models, and indeed become the amazing examples of women our children — boys as well as girls – need. Refusal to participate can be a political act.
If we don’t like the cultural expressions that are promoted to girls, we can make sure that we celebrate competing values, that we offer refuges of self-creative possibility that lie outside of a current trend. We can choose to surround ourselves with men who see us as we would like to be seen. Just as there are many ways to be a successful woman in the workforce or the world, there are many ways to navigate femininity. We have power and we have options.
However, I am a feminist because these choices are not available to every girl. I believe the frontier of the feminist movement today lies in a place where women and girls are still frightened for their lives as they campaign to have control over them. Some of these places are far-away countries that we associate with poverty and conflict, but other girls live amongst us, trapped in bubbles of deprivation within our liberties. We don’t hear as much about them. The feminist debate makes much less noise about these women because of the cultural and religious issues that usually surround the problem. This silence should not be tolerated in the guise of cultural sensitivity; there should be no double standards in our countries, no two legal systems, no communities where the human rights of half the population go unrecognised. Women’s rights are human rights; they transcend the claims of religions, or other systems of organised thought, to repress that. The ways of the Enlightenment should not be cowed and thrust into reverse because we don’t want to offend the men who champion dominance and tyranny over their women. Feminism in the west can reclaim its relevance and clarity by focusing on the rights of the women everywhere who still have none, by speaking clearly and with unwavering confidence for all those girls who have not been born free, wherever they are.
By Miranda Darling
Co-founder and co-conspirator at Vanishing Pictures Productions