What unites Beyonce, a Texan Grammy award-winning singer, with Nick Clegg, a Cambridge-educated Liberal Democrat? Feminism. It’s been the word on everybody’s lips for the last few years, and is no longer a term dripping with the derogatory stereotypes of militant, unshaven lesbians; feminism has emerged as a seemingly progressive bandwagon that everybody- from presidents to actors to writers- is tripping over themselves jump on. From the controversial 19th Century suffragettes demanding the vote, to the unifying image of the empowered woman, commanding equality of pay, parenthood and political status, 21st Century feminism has certainly evolved and is breeding a new generation of politically-engaged women. The term ‘feminist’ has been a label worn with pride, an aspiration for women to fulfil the role of mother, wife, and careerist.
Yet in recent years, fashion magazines (in particular Vogue, Glamour, and Elle) have latched onto this political movement, cheapening and exploiting its good intentions. As an avid reader of such magazines, this piece serves not as a medium through which to attack and condemn them or those who read them, or even to question the notion of being interested in both fashion and feminism; on the contrary, it serves simply to challenge the underlying assertion projected by magazines that they, as organisations, embody the solutions to the sexual, political and economic problems faced globally by women today.
Whilst reading Glamour magazine, I came across an article that profiled the rising British female politicians, and it was brimming with the oh-so-familiar undertones of ‘girl power’. I was left feeling impressed and inspired by such talented women- thus the article had served its purpose. Such journalism provides a small glimpse into the deluge of feminist writing that has swamped contemporary news stands, handbags and office desks as part of a self-perpetuating cycle: a magazine features seemingly feminist articles, women buy the magazine, women feel better about themselves, job done. Further still, I can’t help but align the empowering rhetoric lodged amidst those glossy, aspirational pages with the unchanging images of flawless, predominantly white, thin women. The message given is that ‘women ought to feel powerful and capable’- that is, middle class, educated and white women.
In Winter 2014, Elle promoted its Feminism issue in which Emma Watson was hailed as the ideal modern woman. But who is this modern woman and can she ever realistically represent the diversity, complexity, creativity, and struggles of womanhood? No, she cannot. Whilst the intention is to unify, such magazines are divisive. How can a single mother on benefits, or an Asian or black woman relate to the supposedly feminist ideals projected within these magazines which do not incite real radical change, but simply shift the focus from the male, white, middle-class to the female, white middle-class, thus supporting established monopolies of power? Far from tackling the imperfect reality of feminism which encompasses sexual abuse, FGM, and abortion, in the hands of the fashion industry, feminism is airbrushed, commercialised, and glamorised.
Yet even as I write these words, I question whether it is the responsibility for the likes of Vogue to tackle anything. In light of the horrific Charlie Hebdo attacks which have highlighted the need for freedom of speech, perhaps it is not my place to criticise what is published within the journalism business industry. Publishers, editors and writers simply feed off the concerns of the people and report findings in an accessible manner in order to make money. Certainly, these corporations are able to appeal to a quick fix society, suggesting that by purchasing one of their magazines you can become not only a reformed woman with glossier hair but a well-rounded feminist. In short, fashion magazines promote fashion trends, of which feminism is now one.
In the Women’s Rights movement, Virginia Woolf condemned the overuse of the term ‘woman’ stating “Women — but are you not sick to death of the word?”, and a similar sentiment can be applied to the overused term ‘feminism’. What should be emphasised, however, is the fact that feminism remains an illogical term, which for years has resisted any attempt to encase it within a permanent definition. In this sphere of ambiguity, companies (especially fashion magazines) are now able to manufacture their own exclusive meaning of the term and unthinkingly toss it into their business plan in the hope of adding value. Maybe we are all caught up in the linguistics and theoretical concepts surrounding feminism, and if we are not careful, by relying upon constructed, externally imposed ideas of feminism created by these industries, we could restrict ourselves and undermine our potential.
Undoubtedly, whether or not you label yourself as a feminist is a personal choice. But you should be able to define what ‘feminism’ means in your own terms and not on the basis of ideas propelled by the media. After all, political movements are led not by the establishment but by the people.