Activist burnout: Why feminism isn't cool anymore
I am a half-arsed, accidental feminist. I said it.
It's a relief to get it off my chest.
By half-arsed, I don't mean that I don't care deeply about the feminist cause; I do, I just only engage with it about half the time. The rest of the time, I'm doing other stuff, "problematic" stuff, stuff that might not even be that feminist: reading Mail Online, doing drunken twerking in the kitchen, having friends. Oh, and the diet. I've been on a diet for the last year, which you might say, considering how vocal I've been about regimes, is the height of hypocrisy. Or you might find it rather sad that someone who spends a lot of their time lamenting how society's unrealistic beauty standards are used to control and oppress women is a victim of those same standards. Either way, I've lost two stone and my clothes fit me again.
It's difficult being a half-arsed feminist in a movement that seems to demand both your innards and your soul, but I think I've been pulling it off with panache. I always maintained that I would never write one of those inward-looking columns that aims to unpick the intricacies of the feminist movement, mainly because they bore the tits off me, but then it struck me that some of the barriers facing young women in terms of engaging with gender equality are so great that this needs to be discussed. If you're anything like me, prepare to be bored by this – I apologise in advance.
When my friend Holly Baxter and I set up a satirical blog called the Vagenda two years ago, along with a group of our university friends, we never saw ourselves as part of the feminist movement. The blog took a tongue-in-cheek look at women's magazines, was written in a slangy, easily comprehensible style, and didn't take itself all that seriously. In ridiculing the way women were portrayed in the media, the entire ethos of the blog could be said to be feminist, but I didn't really know anything about the modern feminist movement, what it entailed, and where my place in it might be; we just got on with it. Indeed, one of the great things about this new wave of female activism is that young women no longer feel they have to subscribe to a whole checklist of rigid ideas before becoming involved; they focus on what's closest to their hearts, whether that's No More Page Three or Everyday Sexism or violence against women, and try and do the best they can, just as many women out there in their communities have been doing for generations, some without ever feeling a need to use the term "feminist".
Part of our work with the Vagenda has involved visiting schools and universities to chat to young women about just what it is about feminism they find so distasteful. They told us that they think feminism is angry and scary and difficult and "not for them", and that feminists aren't feminine or sexy and that they hate men. Frankly, anyone who doesn't think feminism has an image problem or doesn't need "rebranding" (a horrible term, yes, but one which essentially means communicating the same idea – the equality of men and women – differently for a new audience) can't see the nose in front of their face. The image these girls have of feminism comes partly from negative coverage in the media but I also get the sense that some of the more radical elements of the movement from the 1970s and 1980s – lesbian separatism, for instance – alienated many women and made them nervous. Now their daughters are too.
After talking to these young women, we wrote a column criticising academic feminists' use of alienating terms such as "intersectionality" on the basis that most people don't understand them. "Intersectionality" basically means taking into account the way different systems of oppression – race, class, disability, sexual orientation – relate to one another. The article raised issue with the language, not the concept, but because we deigned to criticise the method of communication, we were deemed racist. It was very difficult, because I fundamentally believe that we have a problem with representation that needs to be tackled and feminism needs to be for everyone, but having a platform means that people without one direct their anger at you, at your face and at your writing, and, as a half-arsed feminist, I'm still learning how to cope with the pressure to represent everyone, all the time.
Some months later, we were speaking at a debate about "the most important issues facing British feminism today", and the topic came up again. One of the panellists said: "If you don't understand what intersectionality means, then you can just Google it." I thought about the estate my dad lived on, at the time working in IT helping people learn to use computers, luxuries many of the residents didn't have. How the hell would they "just Google it?" For someone who wanted feminism to transcend class and racial barriers, it seemed like the least intersectional thing you could ever say. Much like all those columns saying: "Feminism is simple. People just need to educate themselves."
The reaction to our getting involved with Elle's "rebranding feminism" campaign was in this vein. Just what it is that could be done to motivate people to want to find out more about feminism got lost in the criticism. I just thought: "We're doing our own thing – why can't you do yours?" The constant litany of "you're doing it wrong" is dispiriting.
It's been a huge struggle coming into this movement as a young woman. All the ideological quibbling at that debate, for example, meant that such topics as sexual and domestic violence and the pay gap went undiscussed, as they are going undiscussed here now again. I fear sometimes that feminism will never have any mass appeal. There are some people who I truly believe don't want to share it. Because it is a movement centred around oppression, there are a lot of angry people involved in it. I am not saying that that anger is not righteous. I became more interested in feminism myself after I was attacked by a man. But such anger can be alienating.
The in-fighting and the vitriol are turnoffs to a new generation. A friend of mine who has been researching cannabis farming says that the legalise pot movement is the same – factions, all warring – but at least they get to be stoned while doing it.
"Activist burnout" is a well-known condition – a Barnard University report warned that the dropout rate among feminist bloggers is incredibly high.
Camilla Long once wrote that feminism was almost like an emotion. I agree. And it's draining. Eventually, feeling this way all the time might mean you end up being that angry keyboard warrior, or a lump of flubber on the floor. And most women can't afford to do that, because more than half the time they're doing something else, and often that something else involves looking after vulnerable people, so being expected to look after their entire gender as well is a bit of a big ask. The feminist movement needs these women, and it's losing them. As the hilarious blog Is This Feminist? points out, "being a marginally accepted feminist is a full-time job". And who on this Earth has the time for that? – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013