Aesthetic Feminism: a source of empowerment or a reinforcement of stereotypes?

Image credited: florencegiven

Molly Russell is a contributing writer at TPN, currently studying Media & Communications at Liverpool University.

Feminism is both a simple concept and an indescribable movement. It’s arguably an issue so fluid, erratic and individualistic that it may never be quite the same for two people. In a constant state of change and contradiction, feminism continues to evolve at different rates and in different forms around the globe. Countries, provinces, states, communities and individuals have their own brand of feminism; reflecting their own current issues and injustices.

Researching feminism, I have found, is like learning to ride a bike and then realising you still need to learn to drive – a small victory that only highlights how much more work there is to be done. As part of my course this year, I had to undertake a research task using focus groups to investigate a chosen topic relating to feminism. My research team and I decided to study what place online feminism has in the lives of students. The results were both obvious and yet curious, we found that social media was a key resource for people our age to gain knowledge and understanding of feminist issues. We explored a new brand of aesthetic feminism online and discovered the fear many had of ‘outing’ themselves as a feminist on social media.

The idea of online feminism such as quotes, posters or rally signs looking pretty, floral and decorative as a deceptive way to appear less aggressively feminist, was a point I found almost laughable when expressed so concisely, but something I knew I was guilty of too. I found it ironic women had come so far since being confined to the idea of ‘pretty and pink’ but here I was using it as scapegoat for sharing a message I truly believed in. So many times I’d come across posts online I felt so deeply were ringing true to values I believed in or issues I thought needed more awareness but I hesitated to share for fear of coming off ‘too strong’ or being labelled a ‘raging feminist.’

The discussion groups posited a number of reasons people were attracted to aesthetically pleasing feminism, some (including myself) generally appreciated visually appealing content, others felt it better reflected them and the message it was putting out and some thought the prettiness of the post adequately diluted the level of feminism – claiming if they received backlash for sharing it they could excuse themselves as just ‘liking the visuals.’

Initially I began to feel frustrated by myself and those around me for taking such menial aspects into consideration. Thinking back, I suddenly felt guilty for window dressing issues and condensing them down to a ‘cute’ picture when they represented such weighted topics – a lot of which I had had the privilege not to experience. However, I began to wonder if those producing this content knew exactly what they were doing and manipulating this shallow aspect of social media. These sites, especially photo-sharing platforms like Instagram, are notorious for placing the focus on beauty, so why not use it to get people talking about social issues? Creating an important message or shedding light on an issue is more likely to get traction if it catches your eye. With the mass of content online and ever-growing choice of what to consume, it’s a modern revelation that even feminism too must now in some ways commercialise itself to create appeal.

I found myself on a proverbial fence as I considered this. It’s important to mention here that obviously there is hard-hitting journalism and personal accounts that do not provide this gloss over issues – and participants were aware of this and had even engaged with it online. However, it was starkly clear that this new aesthetically alternative ‘take’ on feminist content was what most of our age group were interacting with online. On one hand I felt that this reduction down to visuals could be regressive, but then again, I considered how these aesthetic aspects of a post linked to its potential of going viral and, hence having a bigger reach. Using others content to express yourself is also a cultural shift as social media becomes increasingly connected to our everyday lives. A feminist influencer Florence Given (@florencegiven), is a prime example of this process. Her feminism art is published via her social media, but also through commercial products like print outs, phone cases and t-shirts which many use as a catalyst to express their views in a non-aggressive way that fits their personal aesthetic. This example made me consider that this ‘brand’ of feminism was not less effective than others, but instead a new form that simply fits with the growing connections between the individualistic post-feminist and consumer market.

This content may not exactly be campaigning, or on the surface look to be doing much change, but the discussion showed that many knew this but felt it was the connection to the message or a sense of solidarity sharing a post symbolised. A reoccurring example discussed was the abortion laws in America, which has been depicted by some artists through several cartoon-style posts that then circulated virally. Many girls felt the anger for American women but felt somewhat helpless in regards to taking action, however sharing the message and getting other people involved and angry too helped the issue gain online traction and kept it in mainstream news – many also said it opened their eyes to local issues within the UK.

In the introduction to this article I used the word ‘outing’ to describe what many felt they were doing when attaching the feminist label to themselves. I do not use this word lightly. I understand I am in this case borrowing its cultural connotations from the LGBTQ+ community, but use it here to demonstrate the idea that being a feminist is a trait that many hide from peers, family, society and the digital world for fear of backlash or abuse. I’d also like to illustrate my understandings from these discussions that not being a feminist was assumed until an individual said otherwise, much like heterosexuality is assumed until an individual says otherwise. This came from the idea that being a feminist was a ‘status’ that went against the norm, although many agreed with core feminist principles most didn’t label themselves feminists. Many felt the definition has become misconstrued in mainstream media, especially regarding male peers’ perceptions of it. The few men that volunteered for the discussion outlined how they felt feminism was a ‘female’ gender issue and their presence in debates or online conversations was much more like visiting or borrowing aspects than being a feminist.

Backlash seemed to be an underlying factor influencing everyone’s interaction with online feminism. The process of analysing feminism online and deciding if it went to the group chat, a single person, or publicly shared was something I felt myself doing both consciously and unconsciously and was surprised to hear it was such a common practice. Although I feel confident sharing strong political messages or feminist viewpoints, it seemed apparent that the fear of being questioned, targeted or generally embarrassed online was a shared feeling by many other users my age.

When asked to share their stories of backlash, I noticed many participants had the same narrative with minor differences. I would like to point out here that the discussion groups were heavily female dominated hence I am predominately discussing their viewpoint. Many expressed that their interactions with feminism online are influenced not by fear of online strangers but by male peers and family members, and their reaction both online and in person. Characters ranged from dads, brothers, male peers or housemates that negatively reacted to women expressing their views on feminist issues. From making jokes that ‘weren’t jokes’ to continuously challenging women on their views until they would no longer voice them, these reactions discouraged many from sharing opinions online.

This is not to ignorantly portray a regressive narrative that all women are feminists and all men challenge this – we have come a long way from such a narrow view. However, what my research has shown is that most women do experience a form a backlash for engaging with feminism online, many related to the facts that ‘lad culture’ is yet to find a place for feminism as it seems to be viewed as a direct attack on men. Participants described their understanding of ‘lad culture’ as both a vicious circle of regressive views and a barrier that denies other men from identifying or interacting with feminist content due to fear of experiencing the harassment that they see women subjected to.

This study is in no way fully representative, but it has highlighted key issues women and men from the 18-24 age group suffer from when engaging with feminism online and started a discussion amongst participants that reflects on their individual engagement habits. It also highlighted a new brand of feminism that I’d like to see more academic research into, as the presence of aesthetic feminism becomes increasing apparent on social media.


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