I grew up on Annie Lennox, Aretha Franklin, and Cyndi Lauper. My mum had short hair, baggy jeans, and a ‘fuck you’ attitude for anyone who dared to question her brilliance. From Robert Munsch’s children’s book, The Paper Bag Princess, to Gloria Gaynor’s iconic anthem, “I Will Survive,” she built me a whole universe — one that engendered my interest in the human condition.
By five, I knew that girls were just as special as boys.
By 10, I knew that I had to speak twice as loudly if I wanted to be heard.
By 15, I knew that women had to work harder to break any sort of glass ceiling.
I wrote about ‘equal pay for equal work,’ sexual assault, and justice for minority groups. I went on marches. I joined societies. I talked a lot about things I didn’t really understand, consumed in a rhetoric that I am only beginning to unlearn.
Now at 21, I’m stuck. There seems to be gaps in my mum’s universe. I am finding it difficult to associate myself with a movement that seems intent on merging the personal with the political.
With its disregard for feeling and emotion, when did society stop being kind?
Feminism is a social and political movement that aims to encourage and create equality between all genders. Recently, a subset of feminism has emerged: intersectional feminism. The New York Times wrote that “this brand of feminism — frequently referred to as ‘intersectionality’ — asks white women to acknowledge that they have had it easier.” This subculture tries to move away from the ‘white middle class’ era of feminism, and instead aims to draw attention to the inequalities faced by people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community and individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
It is distinct from white feminism, also referred to as liberal feminism, which brands itself as the ‘women’s movement.’ Before them, third-wave feminists declared that a fixed female identity does not exist. Second-wave feminists believe that all individuals are of equal moral worth, and therefore should all have the same opportunities to fulfil their potential. However, this promotion of ‘human rights’ often only extends to white, educated, middle-class women.
Intersectional feminism acknowledges that liberal feminism champions legal and political equality for both men and women. Yet it criticizes the reductionist white feminist belief that many women are not only marginalized because of their gender, but also because of their race and sexuality.
The white feminism of the 1970s, propounded by the baby boomer generation, is embodied in the works of women like Gloria Steinem, Susie Orbach, Annie Lennox, and Margaret Atwood. When Atwood was writing The Handmaid’s Tale, the second-wave feminism of the late twentieth century had reached its height. She questioned in an interview, “If a woman’s place is in the home, then what? If you actually decide to enforce that, what follows?” Her commentary drew attention to the gendered division of public and private spheres — with the public sphere dominated by men, and the private sphere of domestic life left to women. The feminists of the ’70s and ’80s rejected the private-public divide. They argued that traditional political and power relationships did not just occur within the public sphere; they also existed within the private sphere.
Annie Lennox described Beyoncé as “feminist lite” after her 2014 Video Music Awards performance. Lennox said that her music and branding did not “necessarily represent wholeheartedly the depths of feminism.” By reducing Beyoncé to her on-stage persona and dismissing her many other notable attributes — artist, business woman, activist — Lennox drew attention to outdated dialogues surrounding empowerment and feminism.
In a later interview with National Public Radio, she clarified that “twerking is not feminism… it’s not liberating, it’s not empowering. It’s a sexual thing you’re doing on a stage; it doesn’t empower you.” By dismissing Beyoncé’s version of feminism, Lennox, like Atwood, not only reduces the movement to one of white women against white men, but also suggests that the only societal issues surrounding female empowerment are how women present themselves to men.
Once again, they ignore the nuances that arise when talking — or in this case, not talking — about race and sexuality. American author and feminist activist bell hooks argues that if white women become the authoritarian voice of the feminist movement, the patriarchal system would just be replaced by one of white women, who would in turn repress the voices of other marginalized groups.
It is this version of feminism that has dominated the #MeToo movement and, perhaps, made it so difficult for survivors to speak out about their trauma.
In a world of #MeToo, where sexual assault has become something of a dinner party topic, there is an increasing tendency to overpoliticize and oversimplify the complexities of consent.
The discourse surrounding feminism about a supposed ‘right way’ to follow the movement has allowed media outlets to reduce sexual misconduct to ‘no means no’ and ‘yes means yes,’ when in reality, it is rarely that clear cut.
When looking at the intersections of popular culture and assault, there is usually an imbalance of power between the accuser and the accused. The #MeToo movement also privileges the voices of survivors who already have huge followings, leaving working-class women — who arguably bear the heaviest load — behind them. This means that their voices are often not heard, overpowered as they are by the rhetoric of their abusers as well as that of rich, often white, actresses.
Last November, I wrote an article for The Varsity that reflected on the legacies of some of Hollywood’s newest notorious men — Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, and the like — and their abuse scandals. A year on, the conversations surrounding #MeToo have not really changed. Most recently, on October 6, the US Senate voted 50–48 in favour of appointing Brett Kavanaugh as an associate justice to the Supreme Court. In doing so, the US Supreme Court decided that Kavanaugh is eligible to sit on America’s highest bench, despite sexual assault allegations from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Kavanaugh is yet another example of a man who was never truly on trial for his sexual misdemeanours. Rather, his only risk was not getting a job. Just like the countless perpetrators of the many assaults that happen on college campuses, workplaces, and transport systems every day, Kavanaugh could not lose in his narrative — because it is a narrative that he, and other powerful figures, wrote and still dominate.
The slogan of the #MeToo movement is “we believe survivors” — but do we? I worry that sexual assault has become just a conversation, a political movement in which everyone is trying to shout the loudest. It is not enough that media platforms, governmental bodies, and the general public choose to entertain the voices of survivors if they refuse to propel any actual shift in societal values. Furthermore, let’s not forget that these very platforms — news outlets and social media sites alike, including Facebook and Twitter — actively profit from victims sharing their stories through monetizing views and clicks.
It takes social and legal change for patterns of social behaviour to shift and, on a surface level, sexual assault is being taken more seriously. However, despite finally talking about it, the statistics do not reflect the current political climate of ‘caring’: 43 per cent of victims do not report because they think that nothing can be done, 27 per cent think it is a private matter, 12 per cent are afraid of the police response, and 12 per cent feel that it is not important enough to report.
Over the course of a lifetime, one in six women and one in 33 men will experience sexual assault or rape, and eight of 10 of these assaults will be perpetrated by an individual that the survivor knows. Rape is not about sex. Rather, it is about power and control. And, in between discussions of how this power is distributed, who is accountable when power is abused, and why powerful media outlets, institutions, and Hollywood allow morality to be undermined — we demand unrealistic responses from survivors. The slogan “the personal is political” is a rallying cry for feminists, but it can be damaging discourse for survivors. We’ve maintained a system by which survivors are required to relive their trauma in constricted narratives in order to be believed. Who does that really serve?
Too often, we forget that the personal is also the personal, and that our main priority should be facilitating healing for survivors. It’s time to leave the debates for the lecture theatre and to start genuinely focusing on the people who are hurting.
We can do better.