Why do people still struggle to identify as feminists?

Image credit: Markus Winkler via Unsplash.

In 2021 we are seeing the development of fourth wave feminism, a movement that advocates for gender equality, intersectionality and the empowerment of women. It maintains the key values of feminism but utilises internet tools and global unity of women; it is largely influenced by the media. Whilst the West has witnessed great strides in gender equality in recent decades, the UK certainly has glaring gaps for improvement.

Fewer than 1 in 5 women within the UK call themselves feminists and, in an LSE post published on International Women’s Day 2021, it was argued that it is largely due to the connotations surrounding the label itself.

Similarly, in 2013 a poll was conducted by The Economist/YouGov where 72% of those asked said they were not feminists. It wasn’t until they were given the dictionary definition of feminism that 57% voted in favour of being a feminist. This is a dramatic change and demonstrates the effect that stereotypes and misjudgement of the feminist movement has.

This article aims to demonstrate how the negative use of the words ‘feminist and ‘feminism’ within the UK’s media has led to people not wanting to call themselves feminists.

You may remember October 2018, all news outlets were churning out stories about popular tissue brand Kleenex. Kleenex had decided to rebrand their ‘man-sized’ tissues due to ‘customers complaints about gender inequality’. The media’s relentless focus on this went on for weeks, it generated a meme about the sensitivity of modern day feminists and dug up dirt on how feminism’s focus was to make everything gender neutral. Kleenex was dubbed weak for giving in to customer complaints and for being supposedly complacent t in feminist’s movement toward matriarchy.

This was deliberate of the media.

It is inevitable that companies will rebrand products; the media has never cared so much until there came an opportunity to devalue a specific movement. They saw this as an ample opportunity to make an attack on modern day feminism and label ‘feminists’ as those who cared about trivial pursuits of performative justice. The insistence that this is the world feminists want gave the impression that fourth wave feminism was no longer about gender equality and intersectionality, but instead was about getting rid of ‘man-sized tissues’.

These articles catalysed a huge social media surge of trolls and memes targeted towards those who identified as feminists, to many people feminism is a joke, something that advocated for trivial matters that stirred up controversy. People whose beliefs did resonate with true feminism were now put off calling themselves feminists as it was a word associated with something that didn’t not represent what feminism fights for.

"Kleenex rebrands 'sexist' Mansize tissues following customer complaints" - Sky News

Not only has the media warped the view of feminism by how they label feminists and what the feminist movement stands for, they also neglect to correctly label those who are fighting for gender equality and representing the correct views of the movement ‘feminists’.

Malala Yousafzai was 14 when she was shot in the head by the Taliban for attending school, the Taliban had ordered all girls schools to be closed but Malala had protested this gender inequality that denied women of their education. She has since gone on to win a Nobel Peace prize. Yet, the media refused to label her a feminist.

All of the headlines documenting the attack labelled her as an ‘activist’ against the Taliban’s restriction of education, failing to mention it was the sexism and misogyny that she was protesting, and by definition she is one of the greatest feminist icons of the 21st century. This neglect was due to the fact that the media’s perception of feminism is fundamentally damaged and the image they portray of feminists is not strong women who fight for equality through acts of courage and resistance, but radicalised individuals who want Santa to be a woman.

By not calling acts of feminism as they are, and instead using the umbrella term of ‘activism’, the media detaches the feminist movement from these inspiring figures and their courageous acts. This detachment means people will not resonate with feminism and will not immediately want to identify themselves as a feminists when they support these causes, despite that being what they stand for. Conversely, by labelling the word feminist onto acts that are negative and likely to cause disagreement, feminism becomes disagreeable. People do not want to be perceived as disagreeable and, therefore, will not call themselves feminists.

"Gunmen have wounded a 14-year-old rights activist who has campaigned for girls' education in the Swat Valley in north-west Pakistan." - BBC News

Another example that comes to mind is very recent, Sarah Vine a British columnist for the Daily Mail wrote an article in June 2021 arguing that "feminists' biggest fight" would be protesting the so-called "war on mothers". This "war" that she describes is in opposition to the supposed ‘erasure’ of women and motherhood due to the rise in prevalence use of gender neutral terms in an attempt at trans-inclusivity.

"SARAH VINE: War on mothers is feminism's biggest fight for decades" - Daily Mail

Echoing the views now synonymous with a certain Harry Potter author, Vine expresses that trans-inclusive vocabulary and gender neutrality strips women of their right to be proud of femininity and motherhood. These feminists are known as ‘TERFs’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and, like the mis-labelling of feminism and its values within the media, the publicity these women have gained from their views furthers negative and untrue ideas about the feminist movement.

In publishing this article, the Daily Mail perpetuates yet against another false image of feminism, ignoring intersectionality that is so intrinsic to the fourth wave and suggests that feminists should not be considered allies to the trans community. By suggesting that feminists ought to fight against this movement of trans-inclusivity, the media has pitted feminist values against its own title. It creates an environment that means trans people may not want to call themselves feminists as they do not believe the movement is for them.

This article is not unique, the Daily Mail routinely publishes articles that promote misjudgment of feminism and value its existence.

"Why feminism 'could be bad for your health'" - Daily Mail

As a newspaper with approximately 2.2 million daily readers, the Daily Mail clearly has a large amount of influence. By consistently seeing feminism associated with bad things and shunned by articles, their readers will form that connection and begin to view feminist movement the same way. The Daily Mail is also explicit in its use of the word feminism, not afraid to use it within headlines despite the article not in any way being reflective to feminist values, as is the case with the Sarah Vine article. This over- and misuse of 'feminism' allowed it to become an umbrella term used simply to label things people do not agree with.

"Danish women prefer wolf-whistles to feminism" - Daily Mail

The media has a huge influence in every day life, and fourth-wave feminism relies heavily on the internet and social media to make links, raise awareness and fundraise. However, people are discouraged by the negative connotations surrounding the term. Its consistent use in situations targeted to create controversy and trivialise matters means people get the wrong impression of feminism. The medias reluctance to call feminists by that title means that people never truly understand what a feminist looks like, further distancing themselves from the movement.

I hope everyone who reads this would call themselves a feminist and not shy away from that label despite its connotations.