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Why Is Mainstream Feminism Chasing Its Own Tail?

Lately, it's felt like many of the 'feminist' issues brought to light by journalism and publishing are conversations we've already had.
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
illustrated by Marta Parszeniew
Mainstream UK feminism collage
Collage: Marta Parszeniew (credits at the bottom of the page)

On the 22nd of January, an Independent op-ed carried the headline “Come on feminists, ditch the makeup bag. It’s far more radical than burning your bra.” That unpleasant grinding sound you hear is a combination of my eyes rolling into the back of my head, and the time-travelling DeLorean of contemporary feminist discourse reversing about five years back.

“I have only worn makeup twice in my life,” writer Julie Bindel recalls in the article. She instead enjoys “campaigning against sexist stereotypes, such as the notion that women look better with makeup” on the estimated “nine days” per year that stupid and unenlightened women spend applying silly potions to their faces. Firstly, it would be remiss not to congratulate Bindel on keeping such detailed timesheets, but secondly, haven’t we, er, been over this?


In the year 2019, issues like “whether it’s feminist to wear makeup” feel as well-trod as the designated smoking area of a shit party. It’s the sort of topic people discussed when the internet felt like a novel way to talk about these things, and when feminists were grappling with a new wave of popular culture.

Essentially, by now, makeup’s image has changed. This has in part been helped by the fact that beauty marketing by millennial brands like Glossier and Milk Makeup has seen a real shift in ideas about why people wear makeup. That shift can probably be described as the movement from thinking of makeup as something that exists to make women into consumable morsels, to the sense that people of all genders wear makeup for themselves and their own ideas about how they’d like to present to the world (although obviously there’s a push and pull here: companies like this are still aiming to make as much money as possible, and their appeals to self-definition are part of that, as they attempt to monetise “millennial” values).

In any case, in this way, makeup is especially valuable as a daily tool for trans women. Indeed, as activist Charlie Craggs recently wrote for Stylist magazine: “Makeup is crucial to transition: it enables me to be seen how I see myself and how I want to be seen by society.” The fact that the cis mainstream is starting to better understand trans and non-binary gender identities now also widens the concept of what makeup is for – at least it does for people in their early thirties and younger.


Essentially, a large part of mainstream feminist discourse is still stuck on “should we wear makeup?” and “is it feminist to wear a leotard?”. This means it fails to keep up with the quick proliferation of more nuanced ideas about gender, sexuality, and identity that takes place on sites like Twitter and Tumblr. By contrast, the mainstream, white feminism disseminated by much traditional media lags behind, as Bindel’s article indicates a wider trend – one of treading water, going over and over debates that feel simple, or concepts which many of us feel like we’ve moved past. For example, though she comes from a very different place on the political spectrum from Bindel, consider Jameela Jamil.

The actress and presenter has recently made a name outside her work for her online activism, which is great. But Jamil constantly raises eyebrows for making statements that feel like they were plucked from about 2014. What she says is not wrong as such: we should be body positive, and airbrushing in magazines does give us unrealistic ideas about beauty standards. Of course. It’s more that she tends to grate because, for one, it’s hard not to feel like she’s trying to turn her politics into some sort of personal brand. This is sort of gross just because feminism is intrinsically liberatory, and the capitalistic concept of a personal brand is intrinsically not (for what it’s worth, I’m aware of the irony of writing this for the website of a multi-million dollar business!). While it’s valuable to give feminist stances more visibility, there’s a grubbiness about doing so when they’re so shallow, and when there’s self-promotion so obviously tied to it, rather than a drive to point people towards past literature and activism done by those who’ve been fighting this fight for decades.


Beyond that, to see Jamil tweeting, you’d think she was the first person to ever spout this stuff, as if she just woke up one morning, newly enlightened, and decided to get on Twitter about it before typing her ideas into Google first. In fact, during some of Jamil’s first forays into body positivity, the black, plus-size blogger and journalist Stephanie Yeboah, who had educated her behind the scenes, noted that she didn’t cite those who had helped her get to her ideas in the first place when discussing them publicly.

Jamil’s moment in the sun also comes amid a publishing trend which, in the last year or so, has sought to commodify feminism and take its easiest-to-swallow tenets as its headlines. Often, these take forms that feel irrelevant or downright antithetical to actual feminist causes; like the exultation of individual “bad ass women,” or, most gallingly, the eye-rolling “girl boss”-ism which rules the waves right now – yes SheEO, slay your way up the capitalist food chain!!!

It’s true that books or figures like those I’ve mentioned sometimes help nudge people towards more complex feminist thought, and can appeal to people who aren’t constantly plugged into The Discourse™. But their habit of boiling feminism down to glib statements, or shouting endlessly about the most obvious issues is ultimately backwards. Society’s systems of privilege mean that white feminism – pussy hats, putting women on money, free the bastard nipple – forms the major tentpole of mainstream feminist thought, but this has never really been enough, and it’s certainly not anymore.


We need a mainstream feminism that’s willing to get into the nitty gritty of intersectionality; a feminism that comes out in support of women of colour, disabled women, lesbians, queer women, poor women, trans women. But this is difficult when the commentariat on feminist issues in the UK is so dominated by older white women, like Bindel, whose prejudices and priorities show through their columns.

By keeping the mainstream feminist agenda on topics that could have been written about at any point over the past ten years, rather than fully on the frontlines of urgent issues like trans rights, and the rights of immigrant women, these columnists at best routinely distract from what is actually important. At worst, they attack those vulnerable groups, as is the case with the current war on trans rights (this has become so dangerously endemic in British journalism and online discourse that only last week the New York Times ran an opinion piece titled "How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans"). And in constantly pushing books about “leaning in,” publishers patronise audiences by wrapping feminism up in a shiny, neoliberal bow.

For Jameela Jamil’s part, she has acknowledged her need to widen her lens (and she’s also right that it’s easy for adults to dismiss the issues she discusses as less important, since airbrushing and beauty standards tend to harm teens most). But since then, she’s announced herself as part of a “body positive,” non-airbrushing campaign which… features no plus size models, despite her claims that it’s “inclusive of everyone.” This perfectly illustrates the point that lip service doesn’t cut it; you can’t half-arse the thing you’re basing your whole public image on, after all.

On a broader level, however, the gaps in Jamil’s politics illustrate a more general need to sometimes look to places other than the timeline for our feminist education. Reading, learning, and listening to marginalised voices (which social media does helpfully amplify) are all crucially important. Let’s hope that those in charge of our systems of communication will soon eliminate debates we’ve already had – which distract and patronise – paying closer attention to far more urgent problems.

Collage: Jameela Jamil (via.jpg)); Julie Bindel (via); Girl Boss (via); Sheryl Sandberg (via); Germaine Greer (via).