Youth and feminist activism: questions and challenges

| July 27, 2016

Feminism is back, re-embraced in particular by young women, and is increasingly moving into mainstream popular culture. Akane Kanai says this opens some difficult but fascinating questions that contemporary feminist activists must address.

In a recent address to the Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association, Professor Clare Hemmings of the London School of Economics and Political Science noted that only twenty years ago, feminism was held to be anachronistic; irrelevant; extreme; a movement on the margins. Yet now it seems that feminism is back on the public agenda. Sometimes touted as ‘fourth wave’, feminism is being re-embraced and publicly driven by young people, particularly girls and young women.

School students have highlighted the necessity for feminism in schools in fighting against sexist double standards in relation to uniform and its enforcement in Britain and in the US. In Melbourne, Australia, a collective of high school students fought to make feminism part of the curriculum. Similarly, young women are now spearheading transnational spaces like Hollaback and Everyday Sexism in which women can make public their personal experiences of sexual harassment. Slutwalk is a feminist protest driven particularly by young people internationally; though it has been critiqued on the basis of its race politics, it has been a highly visible movement protesting the regulation of women’s bodies and sexuality.

Contemporary feminist youth activism is notable in particular for its reliance on the use of digital media to connect feminists, as well as respond to high profile issues of sexism. The internet has facilitated the explosion of feminist campaigns like #Yesallwomen, a Twitter hashtag created in response to the common silencing mechanism of claiming of ‘not all men’ engage in gendered violence. Similarly, the recent #myovariesmademe was an Australian based hashtag that emerged this month as a critical response to sexist statements made by commentator Steve Price on the Australian political panel show, Q & A. Price commented that a female panellist, Van Badham, was being ‘hysterical’ in relation to her empathy for victims of intimate partner violence.

Indeed, the emphasis on women’s rights to be free from sexual violence and intimate partner are strong strands in current youth feminist activism, as is the protection of women’s rights to participate safely in spaces online as the intensity of online sexist and sexual harassment of women has not abated. As feminist media scholar Deborah Jermyn has noted,[1] in its ideals and in its leaders, feminism has had a strong affinity with youth, and as such, reproductive rights and sexual freedom have long been issues on the feminist agenda reflecting its championing of youth liberties. Second wave feminism as a movement, allied with civil rights and other liberationist movements in the 1960s and 1970s was often led by young college women, a fact that is often forgotten given that in common backlash feminism has been characterised as antiquated and passé, notably with all-too-familiar caricatures of feminists as old, bitter women.

But now, in comparison with previous ‘waves’, we have also witnessed a move to the mainstreaming of feminism in popular culture which poses particular challenges and debates for activists. As feminism becomes part of popular culture, we can also observe how its youthful qualities may be co-opted into cycles of consumption and branding. Elle magazine’s December 2014 ‘feminism’ issue featuring young British actress Emma Watson is one high profile example, in which Watson’s appeal as a spokesperson for the UN ‘He for She’ campaign was converted into a fashion spread. A similar trend can be seen in Karl Lagerfeld’s feminist protest campaign for Chanel in October 2014, and this year in Australian makeup retailer Mecca Cosmetica’s eye catching new campaign ‘Rock the Vote’ in which slogans like ‘girls run the world’ and ‘let’s make beauty history’ feature.

Feminism, now, is increasingly seen as something which may be used to sell to young people and to women more generally. As a feminist-inspired discourse takes centre stage in media and popular culture, activists must now tackle complex questions: who gets to speak ‘for’ and in relation to feminism? Can feminism, if it can be consumed by all, really be for everybody? What are the benefits and disadvantages for feminism as a movement when it takes centre stage in popular culture? These and other questions are difficult but fascinating questions that contemporary feminist activists must address.

[1] Jermyn, D. (2016) ‘Pretty past it? Interrogating the post-feminist makeover of aging, style and fashion’. Feminist Media Studies 16 (4): 573-589.




  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    July 28, 2016 at 5:34 am

    Feminism evolves; justice is never unfashionable.

    "Professor Clare Hemmings noted that only twenty years ago, feminism was held to be anachronistic; irrelevant; extreme; a movement on the margins." Without a definition of what Hemmings meant by "feminism" we're free to conjecture that she might have been talking about superficial appearances and the space and time given the subject in the popular media. However, leaving semantics aside, the issue is about achieving justice for women. Behind the scenes and at a deeper level, reforms have been enshrined in legislation and many women have distinguished themselves in high office, perhaps to the disappointment (and shame) of the diehards. The pace of change is arguably 'glacial' but, like that metaphorical force, it is inexorable. And it's encouraging to observe that the kind of despicable vitriol that was hurled at Ms Gillard and others – disgracefully, some of it by women – is condemned by all reasonable men. Far fewer men will tolerate the misogynist talk and behaviour that was common just 20 years ago. Yes, there's long way to go, especially in the prevention of violence against women and also in work value, but we've been moving towards a better place and there's no going back. The notion of 'consumable' feminism seems anathema to the long struggle for permanent change and equality if, to adopt the marketing jargon, feminism is reduced to a mere 'brand' and, like any old hat, subject to the vagaries of fashion.