Has feminism become all brand and no substance?

Posted by
Stylist Team
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Fewer than one in five young women would call themselves a feminist. Has the movement become more brand than substance? Nine activists tell Stylist whether they think feminism has gone lite…

If you’d walked into a book shop looking for a “feminist read” back when Stylist first launched in 2009, chances are you’d have been directed to a single copy of Germaine Greer’s 1970 text The Female Eunuch.

Now? Search “feminist book” on Amazon and you’ll be deluged with so many new releases, blogs and podcasts you could start your own library. From Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist to Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist, and every other type of feminist in between, there’s no shortage of memoirs and manifestos to choose from in 2016, all promising their own take on the movement. Unsure of whether you can be a feminist and wear a white wedding dress or dance to Blurred Lines? The answer is out there.

Feminism has never seemed more popular than now. Membership to the UK’s biggest women’s rights organisation, The Fawcett Society, rose by 5% in the last year alone. Beyoncé’s Flawless video, featuring the author of We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has had over 32 million views on YouTube. Almost 1.5 million Instagram posts are tagged #feminist. The movement has spawned its own stars, such as Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham, whose sweary calling out of sexism and raucous high-fiving of other women via social media have become synonymous with today’s fresh, irreverent way of championing women’s rights.

To many, feminism has never had it so good. And yet, despite all of this, fewer than one in five young women would call themselves a feminist, according to polling in the UK and US.

You may also like

'Women against feminism are missing the point,' says Lucy Mangan

This may have something to do with modern society’s particular brand of feminism. After all, it’s a very different rallying cry from earlier waves, when active protest focused on righting legal or global wrongs was at the heart of the movement. Such as suffragette Emily Davison throwing herself under King George V’s horse in 1913 in the fight for the vote; the Sixties bra-burning to symbolise the freedom to be natural or the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in 1982, when 30,000 women gathered to protest about nuclear weapons there. And while today’s feminism is widespread, vocal and populist, for the more hardcore of the movement, it’s a watered down version of the original: feminist lite if you will.

Certainly, posing for a selfie in a feminist T-shirt requires far less effort than going on a protest march or writing to a politician. And this can override serious feminist issues, forcing them to slip off the radar. Angelina Jolie’s campaign against sexual violence in war zones last September was splashed across front pages. But weeks later, without the glamorous figurehead, the media had switched its attention elsewhere. It’s clear the patriarchy plays its part in choosing which feminist issues get airtime.

But this isn’t just about headlines. Brands, from EDF Energy encouraging young girls to explore STEM careers to CoverGirl with its #GirlsCan campaign, have embraced ‘femvertising’. And there’s been an explosion of feminist merchandise too, including the pink Bic For Her ballpoint pen (misguidedly believed to be a feminist act). Speaking of misguided, see Emily ‘Blurred Lines’ Ratajkowski posing naked for a Harper’s Bazaar interview on feminism…

Every week seems to bring a new feminist brand extension, at times smacking of nothing more than a marketing bandwagon, especially when there are still such big issues at stake. In the UK alone, the gender pay gap means we earn £300,000 less than men over our working lives and domestic violence is at epidemic levels – 1.5 million women were victims in the last year. Outside the UK, the situation is much worse. Feminism needs us now more than ever. And we need it. So perhaps this advocacy and visibility of feminism is for the best – despite a lack of actions behind the words. After all, all feminism is good feminism. Stylist asked nine leading activists whether they believe feminism has gone lite…

“Millennial feminists kick ass”

says Dr Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, CEO of DailyClout and former political advisor to Bill Clinton

“Since I was a baby feminist in the early Nineties, I’ve been waiting for this time. After decades of people claiming feminism was done and irrelevant, there’s now a gigantic groundswell of interest.

I love the can-do creativity of millennial feminists rather than a whine about inequity, the besetting sin of my own generation. Empowered by technology, they kick ass in assuming they can get results. If there’s a problem, why not blog about it? Make a viral video? Join a demo? Launch a crowdfunded campaign? Technology has extinguished the old feminist complaint that ‘power is in the hands of the patriarchy’.

But in feminism’s new-found popularity, there are risks of making this critical struggle ‘fluffy’. With a large audience now interested, we risk energy being directed into the non-issues consumer capitalism finds convenient. Core issues remain: only 6% of reported rapes are prosecuted in the UK. British women are still sexually harassed at work, poverty’s face is still disproportionately female, and vile misogyny is still tolerated and reproduced in at least a few major newspapers, with the intelligence, seriousness and sexuality of female leaders routinely mocked.

What’s more, the media doesn’t ask feminists about these critical issues, but about relatively minor details such as, ‘Is watching porn feminist?’ ‘Is taking off your clothes feminist?’ ‘What about the “free the nipple” movement?’

Ladies, we can have it all. History shows style without substance makes no real change; but substance without style leads to burnout. We can organise online petitions to put audience pressure on media that insult women, we can blog about policies that tolerate harassment of female students, and run for office ourselves. We can start businesses and have gender-fair policies. We can engage in shareholder activism to force corporations to take notice.

Those skills – along with the beautiful style, passionate debate and wild feminist tweeting – will make sure this generation of inspiring feminists lead a tremendous wave of change.”

“If you’re fortunate enough to have a voice, use it”

says Alice Stride, the director of I Call Myself A Feminist

“Feminism today is awash with contradictions. Politicians wear T-shirts proclaiming commitment to the cause, but do not prioritise policies that help women. Kim Kardashian posts naked selfies in the name of empowerment. ‘Feminism’ and ‘empowerment’ have been grossly misappropriated and rendered meaningless.

There’s nothing wrong with drinking your tea from a mug emblazoned ‘feminist’, but it’s wrong to be all talk and no trousers. So if you’re fortunate enough to have a voice, remember that the freedom to use it is a privilege. There are women all over the country who do not have the space for action many of us take for granted. Women who are not allowed to work, or have friends, or access to their own money. We live on the same streets. She could be your colleague. She could be your friend. And with an average of two women a week being killed by a partner or ex-partner, we cannot be complacent. We cannot stick on a T-shirt and think ‘job done’.

If we all do our bit, we can make the world a better place for women everywhere – ‘deeds, not words’, as Emmeline Pankhurst would say. Start on social media by getting behind the #FaceHerFuture campaign, the united voice of feminist organisations calling for women’s rights to be protected as we leave the European Union. Next, support your local domestic abuse or rape crisis service. Visit to find out what your local Women’s Aid needs. Finally, talk about feminism as a normal, natural thing – because the more we all talk about it, the more it will be.”

“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m a feminist’ – DO something”

says Yas Necati, feminist activist who founded Campaign4Consent and was a former member of the No More Page 3 team

“When I saw a picture of Russell Brand – the same man who prank called a rape hotline and phoned a woman’s grandad about her sex life without her consent – holding up a ‘No More Page Three’ T-shirt, I had the uneasy realisation that posing for a picture is all you need to do to call yourself a feminist these days. So yes, I do think feminism has gone lite. As more and more people join the cause, the definition of feminism is shifting and I’m scared to think we might have lost what we were once fighting for.

Nonetheless, the popularity of feminism has also brought a rise in direct action, and many ways to get involved. Don’t dismiss ‘clicktivism’: it plays a key role in feminism. When I organised a protest outside The Sun’s headquarters, our main campaign tool was an online petition. And it worked: with 215,000 signatures, the paper stopped featuring topless glamour models.

If you’re passionate about a particular aspect of feminism, whether it’s the treatment of refugees at Yarl’s Wood, the issue of consent or representation of women in the media, I urge you to google it, join a local group, start a petition, organise a protest – do whatever feels right for you, and for the thing you’re trying to change. We all campaign in our own ways, and it doesn’t take much to go beyond ‘lite’. The fact feminism is gaining momentum can only be a good thing, as people come into it with the intention of creating change, not just saying they support it.”

“Feminism must recruit men in order to make progress”

says actress Romola Garai, star of Suffragette

“I don’t think that ‘feminist lite’ is a fair term as it undermines the fact that talking – whether that’s women debating matters on social media or a celebrity simply saying they’re a feminist – is often the best way of solving problems and spreading the word. Direct action isn’t necessarily better, in my mind. Suffragettes weren’t left with any choice – they debated for 50 years before taking direct action.

But it’s fair to say that not all current debate takes feminism seriously. The focus on appearance, for example, is irrelevant. While the fourth wave of feminism we’re experiencing now has a strong media presence, I’m not convinced it’s affecting real change to women’s lives. What’s the single thing we’ll be remembered for?

If we want to achieve bigger ambitions, we need to include men. Some people may think that’s a betrayal of feminism in history, but gender equality means equality between men and women. A new term is needed: perhaps ‘genderism’? I’m not distancing myself from the word feminist, I love it. I could walk naked just wearing that word painted on my body. But ‘feminism’ suggests it’s solely the preserve of women, and I believe that it’s only together that we can create real change.”

“Mass appeal is positive”

says Martha Mosse, an award-winning feminist performance artist

“Feminism has become a little like click-bait. The terminology is being used more than it ever was, so of course it’s become appealing to big brands, like the global #LikeAGirl campaign by Always. Is it a bad thing? No. It’s what happens when something becomes a mainstream debate. And it’s much better for feminism to be mainstream than to exist on the fringes of society.

So yes, it’s not the more academically rooted feminism that we’ve seen in the past. But with a more fluid interpretation – which reaches the masses, rather than the few – there’s more room for change, big and small. As feminism gets higher on the food chain and ingrained within wealthy businesses and brands like Pantene, whose ‘Not Sorry’ campaign encouraged women to speak up and be strong (feminist advertising even has its own term, ‘femvertising’), there’s a greater grass-roots level take-up with the movement. Just look at the way Everyday Sexism took off, as thousands of women and girls – 253,000 of us on Twitter – became more engaged in speaking out about their experiences.

Now it’s natural for young men and women to identify as a feminist. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but this pattern suggests we’re on our way to a place where we can make a real, affecting difference.

What’s important is, as brands start to sell feminism as a commodity or marketing tool, we stop bemoaning it and start looking at how we can use that to start implementing real change for women around the world who are suffering simply because they are female.

Of course, there’s a danger that the cause becomes a bandwagon or the message becomes diluted – often there are cynical fingers pointed at women like Beyoncé for using the term for her own gain. But how do we know that women like her aren’t making a tangible difference? How do we know that her message has not influenced and inspired young girls who look up to her? Changing individual lives and opinions, even in their few, is just as important as huge, global change in many ways.”

“Lite issues are essential for broadening feminist debate”

says Natasha Devon, MBE, founder of the Body Gossip education programme and Self-Esteem Team

“I don’t think modern feminism has gone lite at all. But it can feel that way because the lite issues tend to get more press.

Look at recently covered ‘lite’ subjects like heels at work, the tampon tax and wolf whistling. Yet these debates are important, as they’re all indicative of wider attitudes toward equality.

Why? Because these lighter issues often exist where worryingly sexist attitudes are exposed. No-one publicly admits to supporting domestic violence or FGM. But if you believe women should wear heels to work, for example, you might not think that’s particularly outrageous until you realise you’re saying that in order to be ‘respected’ in the workplace, a woman has to wear an item that was invented to sexualise her. You’re giving a very clear indication of where you believe women belong in society. We need to offer up those ideas for discussion, and forcefully challenge blatant sexism. Current feminism might look very different to the original movement, but we’re making an impact simply by reaching more people.”

“By being fashionable, feminism can affect real change”

says Jenni Murray, OBE, presenter of Woman’s Hour and president of The Fawcett Society

“Feminism used to be called ‘the F word’ and not in a nice way. Forty years ago, few people were brave enough to use the term ‘feminist’ openly, and were cruelly ridiculed for it. Others were too scared to admit to feminist leanings, and would preface their fury at unequal pay, discrimination and harassment with, ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ So it’s gratifying to find so many people now not just proudly proclaiming their feminist credentials, but changing their lifestyles to accommodate it. Demonstrating that breadwinning, childcare, shopping, housework and birthday cards are jobs to be shared between men and women. Talking about these things isn’t feminism lite: the personal is political. The fact ‘fluffier’ elements are part of the national conversation is progress.

That’s not to say there aren’t wider-reaching issues still to address. A prime minister should not be judged on her shoes, but on her policies. Online trolls who threaten rape must be stopped. Misogyny and sexual assault should be as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving.

For that we need activism and political pressure. Hashtags and online petitions are all well and good, but we need to lobby our MPs too. In 1975, I had a viable salary and a deposit, yet I was refused a mortgage without the signature of a husband or father. Thanks to the Sex Discrimination Act later that year, I finally got my mortgage. Things have come a long way since then, but there is no room for complacency. We need better gender education, so every person joins the adult world with feminist principles running through them like a stick of rock. If that means mixing Twitter campaigns with real-life protest marches I’m all for it.”

“Feminism needs to make noise every day”

says comedian Amy Annette, editor of I Call Myself A Feminist

“What critics call ‘lite’, I call being adaptive, and feminism has to adapt because misogyny hasn’t gone away.

When I hear claims feminism has been diluted by Taylor Swift jumping on the bandwagon, I don’t understand what people mean. Surely the movement is strengthened by people taking it up. The inspiration people feel listening to Taylor sing Blank Space is real and has value; it’s an eye-opening moment, a brain-lifting second when the world seems bigger and your role less rigidly defined within it. This wave of feminism emphasises the everyday nature of inequality.

Small accumulations of everyday feminism are changing the world. What is the feminist equivalent to switching off lights when you leave a room? In the same way you unthinkingly do the right thing for climate change, what is that bare minimum of feminist action we can do every day? The answer is this: make noise. Make noise when you’re uncomfortable, whether it’s telling a friend or making a formal complaint. Make noise so that other people hear you, feel strengthened and compelled to make their own. Make noise when it’s not you being directly attacked, so others know they aren’t alone in their battle.”

“We need to go deeper than ‘lite’”

says social affairs journalist Dawn Foster, author of Lean Out

“I love that T-shirts and feminist-emblazoned accessories are on sale, that it’s rare for a female celebrity not to share her views on the movement, and that books on women’s rights are seeing a revival. Ten years ago, the closest we had to mainstream feminism was a Dove advert.

But I’m concerned feminism has gone lite, as it focuses on individual choices and whether those choices (from hair removal to fashion, to jobs and relationships) constitute feminist actions. We’re self-policing rather than building a broad movement as previous generations did: feminism has turned inwards.

The focus on individuality ignores wider socio-economic problems that affect women. There’s little press coverage of how austerity hurts women, how cuts to councils impact female residents most, and childcare that’s so expensive it locks many women out of work.

Feminism is far more than a lifestyle choice – it’s a movement to liberate women from gender-based oppression. To do that, we need to get to grips with economic structures that cause inequality and build bridges across the income spectrum.”

Join the debate using #feminismlite

Words: Kate Faithfull-Williams


Share this article


Stylist Team

Recommended by Stylist Team


'Who has the right to talk about feminism?'

This week's Ask A Feminist dilemma

Posted by
Stylist Team

'Women against feminism are missing the point,' says Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan Is... Outspoken

Posted by
Stylist Team

"Feminism has become synonymous with man hating": Emma Watson gives moving speech at UN

"Feminism has become synonymous with man hating": Emma Watson gives moving speech at UN

Posted by
Abi Jackson

Salma Hayek; 'I would die if I did nothing but manicures and lunches'

The actress on why she'll never be a society lady

Posted by
Stylist Team

"We still need feminism!"

Lucy Mangan is... outspoken

Posted by
Stylist Team