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14 March 2024

The return of 2010s feminism

Concepts popularised and dismissed a decade ago have returned to mainstream popular culture. Are we living in a time warp?

By Sarah Manavis

There was no better time to champion a thin vision of feminism than in the early 2010s. The height of girl power was reclaiming the word “slut”, defending pop music or freeing the nipple. Taylor Swift was selling us a narrow, slick story of female empowerment. Beyoncé was quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Obvious points about the ignorance of “white feminism” abounded, where guilt could be absolved by admissions of one’s own “privilege” or by knowing the term “intersectionality”. It was easy, hashtag-friendly and Instagrammable, where patriarchal, capitalistic structures were referred to, but solutions came only from symptoms – be it catcalling, corporate glass ceilings or all-male members’ clubs. The movement’s progress was measured by the success of individuals (Hillary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, even Swift) rather than women collectively. The idea that feminism had gone mainstream was made constantly – even if it yielded limited, if any, meaningful results for gender equality.

That era seems to have returned. The past year has felt like a time warp back to when the movement first entered the zeitgeist, as an egregiously basic understanding of feminism has once again become pervasive in popular culture.

We can see it across all media. The famous monologue from Barbie – which moved some audiences to tears of recognition – was nearly identical to soundbites we heard from Swift in 2014. SEO-friendly articles over the last 12 months have warned us of the dangers of girlboss feminism, relitigated institutions like the women-only Wing Club, or the “Lean In” philosophy. The recent obsession with “girlhood” – seen in endless TikTok trends – feels reminiscent of the 2010s rise of poptimism and the “reclamation” of millennial pink. An “affirmative consent” campaign announced last week by the advertising agency CPB London and the non-profit Right to Equality, featuring the activist Emily Atack, aims to change the legal definition of consent to one requiring a “yes” to sex – a similar concept was popularised in 2014 around the “Yes means yes” law in California, but was criticised for placing the potential burden of non-coercive sex on women. We have seen the return of choice feminism, which suggests that traditional gender roles can be feminist so long as a women is choosing them, and in the popularity of tradwife content, reframing the belief that women should stay at home as an instance of female empowerment. 

What binds all of these ideas together, wherever they arise – beyond their reductive view of the “universal female experience” and how to improve it – is their distinct lack of originality: all, in one way or another, rehash feminist debates that were the subject of interminable discourse just a decade ago. Feminist thinkers and writers – as well as left-leaning society more broadly – have spent the past several years unpicking these arguments, explaining that slogan-friendly ideas such as “more female CEOs” or reductive logic like “it’s feminist if a woman does it” can’t solve deep-rooted misogyny. To progress, we need both nuance and truly radical change. Instead, a chillingly basic strain of feminism has come to dominate popular thinking once again, though it has ironically been branded modern and groundbreaking.

Some might argue that these ideas are returning because they weren’t listened to the first time round. But more often than not, these points are being pitched to an audience that already agrees with them, or are being repeated by the same people as last decade. In many cases the points being made aren’t wrong – but they are arguments that we all agreed on the answers to in the 2010s. It’s farcical to suggest left-leaning, politically engaged women in their twenties and thirties have never been taught about the way white men are favoured under capitalism.

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Why are these ideas dominating popular feminism once more? They are solutions to the real problem of misogyny that ultimately satisfy a mainstream audience: they are palatable and digestible, answers that sound straightforward but will only ever address a symptom rather than the rotten social structure beneath. This vision of feminism opts for the easy answers rather than the complicated ones that could lead to real progress. We patronise ourselves by acting like we haven’t had more than a decade to push the good ideas from the 2010s further. The evidence shows that many of the trendy topics during this time haven’t just stalled, but have in many cases become worse: the gender pay gap in places like the US has remained effectively static since the 2010s, while sexual offences in the UK have actually increased, and younger generations are turning against feminism in larger numbers than even baby boomers.

This all leads us into a cyclical pattern of self-defeat. If the real solutions are always going to be more radical than the mainstream is willing to go, we will inevitably end up debating the same things again and again, whenever half-baked attempts at change lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. The result isn’t just jogging in place, but something actively regressive: after clawing past these reductive arguments, thinking we’re getting somewhere better, their return takes us several steps back.

If we continue to talk so much about feminism, but so shallowly, a sense of forward momentum without positive outcomes will be created. This has real consequences, particularly in our current moment of acute backlash to women’s rights and a rise in socially accepted misogyny. We will never get off the hamster wheel if we continue to ignore the obvious limitations of answers that were proved futile a decade ago. Otherwise, in another ten years, we can expect to see the cycle rinse and repeat.

[See also: No one asked for it]

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