A sign with “the future is female” written on it with roses attached.

The Problem with Popular Feminism

By Brandi Mitchell
Web Content Contributor

We are approaching 57 years since Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique”, an essay identifying the pervasive underlying dissatisfaction of women who were told by society that their worth was primarily found in their homes, their marriages and their families. When Friedan wrote her essay, she was addressing a tragic phenomenon of women actually believing that they had less to offer the world than a man. 

This was a time in history when women needed to be broken out of the shackles of society’s expectations and limitations. When a heart-breaking narrative was being pushed onto women that was harmful and demeaning, insulting to the genuine and explosive potential that females possessed then and possess now.

Yet, a new set of shackles has been placed on women today. The trajectory of feminism was dazzling; a future of women emboldened to pursue academia and fulfilling careers, women emboldened to have families and marriages and satisfy their intellectual hunger was brilliant and inspiring. 

Tragically, feminism today has been hijacked to mean something that is a far cry from the broad ideology that men and women are equal and warrant the same respect and opportunities. 

Twentieth century feminism has seen media and popular culture twisting it into a weapon that pits women against women and then condemns them for speaking their minds. Feminism has become aligned with political parties, institutions, policies and ideologies that are ready to burn at the stake anyone who dares to minimize a feminism that has long left behind simply believing that women are equal and capable. 

The propagation of the idea that feminism is a set of political ideologies and particular stances on political issues is an idea that needs to wither and die yet is currently being fueled by the media and celebrities. 

“Anti-feminist” is thrown around with reckless abandon. Political and social movements have become synonymous with feminism in a way that isolates and excludes women who are smart, bold, powerful and fully on board with women taking the world by storm but may vote differently or hold to religious or ethical values that keep them from supporting all of what is modern cultural feminism.

This idea is dangerous to true feminism and undermines the notion that women can and should think for themselves. Women are intelligent and worthy of forming their own political and philosophical notions and do not need to be fed propaganda of who they should be. 

A pink sign that says “I am a woman on a mission to” with yellow sticky notes all around.
Women write their aspirations and encourage one another. Image by Valentina Conde.

This new feminism as a weapon against individuality places women in a new prison; one not of the home, but of thought and worldview. Instead of empowering women to believe in themselves and working to build institutions that encourage and allow them to succeed and trusting women to form their own educated views on controversial issues, this new cultural feminism rips apart any woman who does not fit a very narrow mold.

This is the ultimate tragedy of the evolution of feminism; it has taken something so beautiful and needed and twisted it into a weapon to further a political and social agenda, while denouncing and attacking any woman not comfortable in this new place of intellectual and social confinement.

This corrupting of the original intent began with those in the spotlight. In this media-rich world, celebrities have capitalized on the power and ability to influence masses of people with their notoriety and wealth.

It has become remarkably common for celebrities to engage in political discourse, speak on controversial current events, campaign for political candidates, advocate for social change and even become ambassadors. 

The American people often look up to and idolize celebrity opinions and even demand that they use their voice and spotlight to advocate for whatever popular opinion deems the social issue of the moment. Even so, they are only heralded as prophets of progression so long as they are the paragons of a very specific cultural ideal, feminist being one of these inescapable labels. 

To be a feminist spokesperson is certainly no immediate ruin, but to be a feminist spokesperson and not adhere to an astonishingly limited worldview that allows only utter perfection and what culture at the time deems to be moral elitism is certainly a stamp of doom.

The second a celebrity who formerly was worshipped as a feminist advocate voices an opinion, even an intelligent one, that fails to urgently advance the strict political and social agenda masqueraded as modern feminism, they are denounced and vilified as any type of voice for the movement at all.

We see this in the dangerously explosive “cancel culture” that has become pervasive on social media platforms; a trend that harms healthy discourse surrounding feminism and replaces it with fear. 

Feminism is no longer focused on women embracing and loving their bodies, their potential, their intelligence and their ambition. It is no longer about women becoming CEOs, pursuing STEM careers, demanding respect from their male colleagues and standing behind victims of sexual violence and harassment. 

Feminism will never be wholly unpolitical, as few things are, and it will always be subject to criticism in a time where worldviews differ radically from person to person, woman to woman. 

However, the movement finally began to remove itself from a stereotype of bra-burning man-haters who don’t shave their legs, only to lose itself again. The beauty and worth of feminism has become muddied into a meaningless aesthetic, a marketable catch-phrase, a platform for outrage and a political ideology that is more centered around partisan politics than women-empowerment.

Women are brilliant, funny, charismatic, clever, driven and capable. They are full of revolutionary ideas, beautiful prose, innovations and business ventures. It is important that society begins to trust its women to choose their own political notions, social alliances, religions, friendships, interests and philosophies. 

Contemporary feminism has begun to tell women what candidate to support, religion- or lack there-of- to practice, what people to include or cut out of their lives, what events to attend, what men to date, what children to raise and what ideas to believe in. 

Feminism should be telling women that they are intelligent and competent enough to make each and every one of those decisions themselves, in whatever form that may be, in whatever lifestyle that may look like. And that whatever they choose, so long as they choose it of their own free will and passion, that their feminist sisters stand behind them.

Feminism needs scientists. Feminism needs lawyers. Feminism needs stay-at-home mothers. Feminism needs single women. Feminism needs married women. Feminism needs women of every size, shape, background, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status and profession.

Feminism is not just for the rich white girl tired of being trapped in her house. Feminism is not just for the girls growing up in poverty and oppression. Feminism is not just for white women, ethnic women, immigrant women, or career women. 

Feminism is just for women, period. Whatever they look like, whatever they are doing, whatever economic policy they support, or social agenda they champion, or political candidate they like or dislike for a variety of reasons; whether they dress modestly or wear anything they please, whether they wear makeup or shave their head. 

Friedan was a product of her time and certainly did not delineate a perfect and all-inclusive feminism, but she saw a noble cause to break women from a trance and encourage them to pursue their potential to the fullest. 

Friedan and the “Feminine Mystique” is a much-needed reminder today of a second-wave feminism that knew its platform and its audience, that did not aggressively isolate or soften so as not to offend. Women need the philosophical feminism that broke them of the shackles that had weighed them down for thousands of years in a host of different civilizations, that believed in them when institutionalized sexism broke their spirits and raised them on lies. 

Women needed a feminism that turned the tides of higher education, the right to vote, equality in the workplace and gave a voice to victims of sexual violence. 

Women do not need another critical voice that demonizes and castigates anyone not worshipping at the altar of every social movement or idea or view that mainstream feminism has adopted and rallied behind. 

Instead of being the women that crumble the stereotypes, modern feminism has become obsessed with the perceptions of women in conversation and abstract concepts instead of bravely battling the reality by facing that reality and conquering it themselves. 

Don’t just study brave and powerful women then demand that everyone see women that way. Actually be those women and embolden other women to do the same. Die on the right hills; die in the right trenches. 

This is where feminism lives, and breathes, and thrives. Let it help us to raise strong women, know strong women, and be strong women. And let us lend each other grace as we learn what it means to be and do that.

Featured image by Lindsey LaMont.

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