On Performative Feminism | By Mardiya Siba Yahaya

July 4, 2022
On Performative Feminism

Mardiya Siba Yahaya traces the roots of feminism, its evolution and a commodification of feminist thinking in a post modern society.

Feminism as a movement has undergone a series of evolutions in terms of how activism is carried out. In its early stages, during the 19th and 20th centuries, it focused on the temperance and abolitionist movements and gave voice to now-famous activists. It was during these moments when activists like Sojourner Truth’s work was recognized. While the first wave of feminism focused on achieving legal rights for women, such as voting rights and the right to participate in leadership positions, the second wave began during the 1960s. It rallied around women’s experiences, including family, work and sexuality, to name a few. (Burkett, 2019). Creativity and scholarship were significant to the movement during this period as feminists theorized women’s experiences, deconstructing and challenging patriarchal ideologies of power and domination.  Still, the creative landscape has persisted until today – the fourth wave of feminisms and many more.

Feminisms, just like any other political movement and ideology, is influenced by the trends and cultures in a particular era. For instance, in the digital age of feminism, digital advocacy and activism have significantly shaped how campaigns and education are carried out. I was first introduced to feminist thoughts through the digital landscape. Through this space, I discovered my feminist icons, and I also contributed to the movement through digital advocacy. Technology has shaped the way activism is carried out. It has also created space for different types of activism through poetry, music, articles, and hashtags that have amplified the reach of the feminist discourse. Activists used hashtags to rally people behind different causes, and political institutions have never been under such extreme pressure to take a stance. This stance also meant reforms in policies that dehumanize and marginalize women and other genders in various institutions. Movements like #Metoo have also created more pressure on corporates to revisit their policies on sexual harassment. Countries like China, which had never had a law allowing women to press charges against sexual harassment, finally added this clause.

While the positive aspect of digital media (read social media) for activism cannot be understated, we cannot ignore the issues it facilitates.  For some time, being a ‘Feminist’  or an ‘Equal rights advocate’  became the new cool, increasing the reach of feminist thoughts and conversations. Thus, making the movement more popular than it had ever been in a while. Social media gave it political and social attention and, this is not to say it did not exist in the past – yet this ‘attention’ was very concerning and pretentious.

The progress seemed very compelling until feminism, as mentioned previously, became the new “cool.” This new trend, where “women’s rights” became the politically correct stance to take, saw the progress we continue to fight for turn into a capitalist marketing scheme.

In 2018, Davido, a Nigerian Afrobeats artist, released a song called “Wonder woman” claiming to celebrate women. He is one of the many artists who have used their music to supposedly ‘celebrate’ women. While I do not deny the authenticity of some, I do question the song made by this very afrobeats artist. Although he was following the new capitalist trend, the song promoted hyper-humanising women, i.e. ‘wonder woman’. – which, in my opinion, is violence.  Meanwhile, from the 2nd  – 4th wave of feminisms, theories and experiences highlighted all the reasons for not identifying women as ‘strong’.  This  ‘strength’, whatever it means, never acknowledges the liberation feminists seek against patriarchal power. Instead, it (strong woman) is used to glorify suffering, minimize the violence of all kinds of abuse most of these women claimed to be celebrated would have rather not experienced.

The progress seemed very compelling until feminism, as mentioned previously, became the new “cool.” This new trend, where “women’s rights” became the politically correct stance to take, saw the progress we continue to fight for turn into a capitalist marketing scheme.

Similarly, fashion brands that historically propagated beauty standards have also begun to leverage the new trends where women, who did not previously fit into their original ideals of beauty such as plus size, dark-skinned, and kinky-haired women, are being ‘uplifted’. There is also the capitalization of ‘self-love’ to sell their products. It has become less about women and dismantling domains of power and more about marketing and sales. These brands know what millennials, Generation Z’s and feminists want to hear and see. Hence,  have given us exactly that. Yet, within their institutions, there are still powers of domination, primarily through capitalism and racism. There is very little transformative politics. We can attest that despite the progress towards dismantling systems of domination, they continue to persist more than ever and adapt to each situation.

However, we must acknowledge that the capitalization of feminism is not recent.  In Bell Hooks’ book “Teaching to Transgress”, she highlights situations where there was the commodification of feminist thinking. She wrote, ‘Within white supremacist patriarchy, we have already witnessed a commodification of feminist thinking in ways that make it seem as though one can partake of the “good” that these movements produce without any commitment to transformative politics and practice.’ This means that for us to champion change, there is a need for transformative politics and practice, which is social change as a philosophical, practical and strategic process to affect revolutionary change. When we continue to live in a “thing-oriented” rather than “person-oriented” society, machines, profit motives, and computers matter more, and as described by Martin Luther King Junior, dismantling systems of domination becomes almost impossible to achieve. Nonetheless, this can only be achieved when there is a true revolution of values.

The recognition of feminism in the mainstream, without doubt, is progressive in its way.  In her recent talk, ‘The future of feminism must be fearless, illuminating and global-minded’, Minna Salami stated that ‘the mainstream seems to promote about feminism: an image of women having achieved so many rights that they can now be problem-free, apolitical and unconcerned and just carry on polishing their egalitarian household kitchen tables with Ariel’.  The commercialization of the movement has painted an image where we have reached our goal, which we are pretty far from in reality. Hence, to achieve a true revolution, feminism must transcend the social, political and economic empowerment of women attaining psychological and spiritual freedom, enabling us to dismantle the systems of domination. As described by Minna Salami, the psychological and spiritual freedom of marginalized genders will allow us to thrive and surpass oppression and the systems that hold it in place.

A former Ananke intern, Mardiya is a creative writer, a feminist and her own revolution. In between schoolwork and reading African and Feminist literature, Mardiya writes articles that highlight issues in gender, politics, media, and education. She also explores the possibilities of exponential technologies such as blockchain and Artificial Intelligence and their place in the future of activism.


Photo by Josh Gordon on Unsplash

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