Is Contemporary Feminism Radical Enough?

Raavya Bhattacharyya

Examining the digital-age ideas of feminism, where they stand in historical context and why they fail to challenge patriarchal capitalism

The feminist movement has consistently evolved to show the world the many ways in which women have been discriminated against and made to feel like lesser beings. Each wave of feminism emerged with its concerns – voting rights, equal pay, workplace rights, reproductive rights, and so on. Right from when it began in the early twentieth century, the movement allowed women to awaken to the systemic injustice that was all around them, the kind of injustice many of them had learned to internalise. This collective angst had finally manifested itself into philosophy and an ideology that placed women at the forefront, recognising them as human beings capable of living a life of dignity without male intervention. Women wanted to be seen as individuals with rights of their own, deserving of equality and respect. After centuries of oppression, women were finally examining their lived experiences to see how much was being withheld from them. 

“At home, in the workplace, and nearly every sphere of society, women are viewed as the weaker sex who are always in need of male guidance and are incapable of making their own decisions. These sexist beliefs have stripped women of their agency and their rights.” 

The core principle of feminism, as feminist author Bell Hooks succinctly describes in her book ‘Feminism Is For Everybody’, is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” She’s careful to explain that sexism is the enemy, “all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult.” As a belief, sexism inherently privileges one sex over the other. For centuries, the world has privileged men and their experiences over women. At home, in the workplace, and nearly every sphere of society, women are viewed as the weaker sex who are always in need of male guidance and are incapable of making their own decisions. These sexist beliefs have stripped women of their agency and their rights. 

In the first few phases of feminism, women had concrete issues to tackle, problems that needed fixing in the form of new laws and policy change. Years of struggle saw a significant amount of change, women were finally given rights that men had taken for granted. But for many women, these changes in law and order never seemed to reach the world they were living in. Despite societal proclamations of emancipation and empowerment, women were still regarded as the inferior gender. Feminist scrutiny and inquiry had to take on new forms to understand complex gender dynamics. Feminists were interrogating social and cultural systems to understand how inequality and sexism were still intact despite changing laws and policies that were in favour of women. 

Where does modern-day feminism stand?

Modern-day feminism prides itself on being inclusive after having tackled major conflicts and contradictions the earlier waves had. The rise of choice feminism saw women reclaiming their agency, supposedly liberated from the shackles of patriarchy. The assumption was that the ability to make any kind of choice is a form of absolute and complete empowerment. What we tend to overlook is that choice doesn’t necessarily imply a decision free from patriarchal conditioning. As choice feminism has grown in popularity, there has been a visible shift towards a kind of feminism that is accessible to a fault. 

“Social media has been instrumental in peddling a watered-down, ‘accessible’ version of feminism. This kind of feminism seems to pride itself in brandishing catch-phrases like ‘girl-power’ without any real exploration of where women stand today or the kind of new struggles they face and how feminists must work to abolish them.”

Social media has been instrumental in peddling a watered-down, “accessible” version of feminism. This kind of feminism seems to pride itself in brandishing catch-phrases like “girl-power” without any real exploration of where women stand today or the kind of new struggles they face and how feminists must work to abolish them. The birth of a consumerist form of feminism, a kind that distances itself from nuance and exists solely for temporary placation is our biggest challenge, one we need to overcome to understand that the inherent discrimination between genders still exists. Our capitalist society has comfortably bought into this accessible version of feminism because it serves their agenda, there are now more things to “sell” to women, a way to monetise a movement that has always been against the very system of reduction and objectification. 

Decades of living within a system that privileges men and their needs over women has resulted in many women perpetuating the very biases they’re so sure of having rid themselves of. An important example here is that of women’s beauty and grooming. Beauty standards for women are incredibly unrealistic, but so many of us, despite calling ourselves feminists, give in to them. We call it our ‘choice’ when we get rid of body hair, our ‘choice’ when we spend time obsessing over how good or bad we’re looking, constantly worried about being ‘appealing’ enough. A closer examination of these choices will reveal our internalised misogyny, the diminished ways in which we regard ourselves because of the way we look. What does ‘appealing’ mean? What does it have to say about the culture of shame and stigma the beauty industry has taught women to accept as part of themselves? 

Existing power structures that uphold patriarchy are alive and well, while we’ve made tremendous strides in women empowerment, we still have a long way to go. Class, race, caste, and socio-economic challenges add to the layers of disadvantage to many women. These women don’t have platforms to show the world the struggles they go through every day. Dalit women in rural India are at the mercy of the upper caste, routinely harassed by them, on the basis of their caste and their gender. These women also face discrimination within their households, bound by strict gender roles. Mainstream media is selective in its outrage which is why these women continue to be victims of cyclical oppression. 

“Intersectional feminism has consistently highlighted the importance of inclusion in the larger feminist movement, the need for voices of women who are victims of ‘double-oppression’ as a result of their gender and race/class or caste to be heard.”

Intersectional feminism has consistently highlighted the importance of inclusion in the larger feminist movement, the need for voices of women who are victims of “double-oppression” as a result of their gender and race/class or caste to be heard. These women are doubly exploited – first on the basis of their gender and then on the basis of their socio-economic status, race, ethnicity and other social identities. American law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectional feminism in 1989 to describe how the overlap of social identities was responsible for “compounding experiences of discrimination.” She explains that intersectional feminism is “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. All inequality is not created equal.”

Women in rural India are still victims of brutal, regressive caste-based traditions that offer them no room for free thought and action. The latest data shows that four Dalit women are raped everyday, with many being raped on multiple occasions. Crimes against Dalit women are the highest as compared to all crimes committed against members of the scheduled cast. Gender-based violence persists, unchecked, at an alarming rate. Estimates show that  35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced some form of physical partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (not including sexual harassment) at some point in their lives. The stifling continues, but tokenisms on social media and the blatant commercialisation of ‘empowerment’ will have us believe that we’ve achieved all that we set out to. 

Choice feminism needs to be re-examined and questioned

Feminist author Jessa Crispin addresses similar concerns in her polemic essay “Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto”. She writes: “To understand how surface-level contemporary feminism really is, we need only note that the most common markers of feminism’s success are the same markers of patriarchal capitalism.” Crispin also sees choice feminism as inherently individualistic, a kind of feminism that is satisfied with token gestures in one’s personal life that only mimic true empowerment but still function within the accepted norms of patriarchy. We’re so consumed with “living our best life” and making choices that we think are radical that we don’t interrogate our mind-sets, our reasons for being and deciding. “Choice feminism blocks any discussion about consequences of how people choose to live their lives. Because the choice itself is feminist,” Crispin notes.

“Gender equality has not been normalised. Modern-day feminism has diluted many of the core, radical ideas that shone when the feminist movement first began. Early waves of feminism were focused on bringing down a capitalist, patriarchal society that privileged men and awarded them unchecked power.”

Many women feel a kind of dissonance when they look at the world around them. Posters proudly declare “the future is female” but women still have to “break the glass ceiling”, they still have to battle anxiety when they step out of their homes at night. They see women in positions of power struggle to consistently prove their mettle, they’re reminded every day what a “privilege” it is to even occupy such a role. Gender equality has not been normalised. Modern-day feminism has diluted many of the core, radical ideas that shone when the feminist movement first began. Early waves of feminism were focused on bringing down a capitalist, patriarchal society that privileged men and awarded them unchecked power. Feminism wanted women to have platforms that gave them the opportunity to make their own decisions while also promoting critical thinking. The fight for equal pay, reproductive rights and the right to education took place right beside the fight for a world that reimagined gender. Questioning and interrogating our corrupt, power-hungry social systems has always been intrinsic to feminism. 

Now we seem to be more interested in how a largely unjust system finds a way to benefit us instead of working to dismantle that very system, to question its immorality and the way it upholds oppression in the most insidious of ways. 

“Women empowerment is not solely about choice and agency, it is about a deeper investigation of the place of women in society, it is understanding that oppression can sometimes look a lot like freedom. A reclamation is essential, a need to make feminism political again, to make it more than the hollow shell it is becoming.”

Today, we need feminism more than ever to start conversations that have slowly been forgotten, buried under a shiny veneer of what we assume women empowerment to be. Our fight against patriarchy continues. We have to battle uncomfortable questions about the lives we lead as women that we wake up to the everyday and the casual sexism that relentlessly persists. We have to call out systems of oppression that don’t allow women a way out of their lives of misery. Women empowerment is not solely about choice and agency, it is about a deeper investigation of the place of women in society, it is understanding that oppression can sometimes look a lot like freedom. A reclamation is essential, a need to make feminism political again, to make it more than the hollow shell it is becoming. Our revolution must begin in our personal spaces where we reject patriarchy’s idea of liberated women. “Feminist thinking teaches us all,” as Bell Hooks says “especially, how to love justice and freedom in ways that foster and affirm life.”

Raavya is a pop-culture nerd who lives and breathes books and cinema. An unrelenting feminist, she hopes to change regressive mindsets through the written word.

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