Harriet Fitch Little

Feminism Lite? The Kids Are Alright

Over the last few years, give or take an unspecified amount of time, feminism has gone ‘mainstream’. Lily Allen’s singing it, Beyoncé’s blogging it, and Lena Dunham’s getting naked. Again. Sheryl Sandberg is teaching young women to ‘lean in’, and Caitlin Moran is (according to her Twitter bio) ‘writing the fuck out of shit’ about it on an almost daily basis.

Many feminists have come to see women like Caitlin Moran as doing more harm than good. In a dialogue which is seemingly both endlessly looped and constantly regenerating, ‘feminism lite’ is being dissected and distained. Almost always, it’s the critics who are in the right; the more questions of gender advance into the limelight, the more complexity is whitewashed for the sake of accessibility. Fact. Moran’s take-away litmus test for inequality in the bestselling ‘How to be a Woman’ – the question ‘Are the men doing it too?’ – doesn’t simplify sexism, it steamrolls it. And there is a deep and persistent failure amongst popular talking heads to address in any meaningful way how oppression is experienced by those for whom sexism is also informed by racism, ableism, classism, homophobia, or transphobia.

Consequently, many believe that introducing new audiences, and in particular young audiences, to such a pared down, problematic account of feminism is about as much use as a sex-ed class that opens with ‘when a man and a woman love each other very much…’ Surely, they argue, full-blown feminism is not such a bitter pill to swallow that we must sugar coat it first. Kids deserve more credit than that, don’t they?

I agree with the premise, but not the conclusions. Kids absolutely deserve more credit, but critics of Moran’s brand of easy access feminism aren’t giving it to them. Implicit in the idea that it is unsatisfactory for young minds to engage with less than perfect presentations of how patriarchy works is a supposition I find just as problematic; the idea that the poor darlings will listen carefully, nod wisely, and absorb wholeheartedly. And that’s about as patronising as it gets.

My sister was 15 when one of her circle first picked up a copy of ‘How to be a Woman’. Like most 15 year olds who’ve got round to reading something that isn’t a textbook or trashy magazine, she told her friends all about it. But that didn’t involve dolling out some kind of melange of empowering sound bites.

She didn’t preach sagely about how makeup was all right but only because David Bowie wears it, or that you shouldn’t get a Brazilian because ‘gentle finger-combing your Wookie’ is just the most tremendous fun. Her first forays into feminism didn’t provide some sticking plaster empowerment for her and her friends to stroke reassuringly as they jostled their way through the patriarchy. It tore the plaster off.

Over the last two years I’ve watched as my sister and her friends have delved, unbidden, into an increasingly sophisticated understanding of feminist thought. They write about it, they read about it, and they spend so much time talking about it that one of the boys in my sister’s life skill’s class put up his hand and asked politely whether they couldn’t perhaps have a debate about ‘something other than feminism’ this term. They didn’t.

My sister’s peers are surely just the kind of young women imagined to be adversely affected by their exposure to the more flippant facets of ‘fourth wave’ feminism; for all their diversity the balance of privilege still hangs very much in their favour. Surely if funny, white, middleclass women are telling them that gender equality means sassing into the board room in a power suit with your ‘lady balls’ bulging they’ll buy it, right? But they don’t. And from what I can deduce, they’re not some bizarre exception to the rule.

The thing is, intersectionality isn’t an alien philosophy to teenagers. In fact the feeling of being under attack from all sides probably resonates more profoundly during our angst-ridden adolescence than at any other point in life. Young minds are fairly adept at perceiving injustice, and they’re also for the most part unwilling to accept answers presented to them neatly on a plate.

I’m not in any way suggesting that there are positives to be found in the domination of a small handful of unrepresentative female voices in the mainstream media, and I don’t think the argument that they’re to be celebrated an easy entry point into a complex discourse holds much water – people are smarter than that. However I would argue strongly against the idea that they are a damaging blight- a plague which threatens to make the next generation of feminists impotent accomplices to a system of capitalist inequality.

We need to have more faith in young women’s desire to understand questions of oppression for themselves, and stop worrying that we don’t find all the answers they might encounter on that journey satisfactory. Feminism is complex, young minds are curious, and the resources are out there the moment they start looking. Let them.