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Friday essay: The personal is now commercial – popular feminism online

Once a week, during electives at primary school in 1980, I walked with a group of girls to the local hairdressing salon where we were taught how to apply eyeshadow, lipstick and smooth foundation onto our perfect skins. We also played AFL with the boys during sports period, but the news from women’s liberation about make-up and women’s oppression hadn’t yet arrived at my little school in the sleepy seaside town of Sorrento.

Second-wave feminism, to a large extent, defined itself against the beauty industry. As Susan Magarey writes, one of the Australian Women’s Liberation movement’s first actions was a 1970 protest against Adelaide University’s “Miss Fresher” beauty contest. It was inspired, in part, by a protest in the US against the 1968 Miss America pageant.

Women’s liberationists did have their disagreements about individual choices and tactics. Anne Summers, writing in the newsletter MeJane in 1973, said she was abused for wearing make-up at a Women’s Liberation conference. Carol Hanisch, a member of the New York Radical Women group behind the 1968 protest, argued later that protesters should target not the women who enter beauty contests, but “the men and bosses who imposed false beauty standards on women”.

In 1963, Betty Friedan had argued women’s magazines were central to creating the feminine mystique, an infantalising image of womanhood built around a myth of beautiful women in beautiful homes tending to handsome husbands and beautiful children. By 1975, Summers agreed. In Damned Whores and God’s Police, she wrote:

Popular magazines have as their principal raison d'être the codification and constant updating of femininity.

And by 1991, feminists were still linking beauty to women’s oppression. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth argued that women’s progress in the public sphere was matched by a fashion and media industry that promoted increasingly narrow standards of physical perfection: the superwoman also had to be a supermodel.

Wolf’s thesis was an important and galvanising one, but by the 1990s popular culture was in some ways outrunning popular feminism. As an undergraduate, I nodded along with my feminist friends reading Wolf during the day, while at night we frocked up and painted our lips to visit inner-city clubs where androgyny and queer culture were increasingly visible.

Celebrity figures such as Bowie, Prince and Madonna had prompted fans, as well as gender and cultural studies scholars, to ask if fashion and make-up, rather than necessarily being oppressive, could be seen in terms of play, choice and experiments around gender and sexuality.

Scholars had also started to ask whether women who consumed fashion and beauty products really were all passive dupes of big corporations. In more recent years, some have convincingly argued that beauty and fashion magazines might have been slipping feminist messages and empowering information into their pages all along.

The women’s magazine formula

The relationship of feminism to the beauty industry and women’s magazines, in other words, has a complex history. Still, as I listened to Elaine Welteroth, the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, speak to the Sydney Writers’ Festival in June this year, it occurred to me that today’s popular feminism would be unrecognisable to many of the Miss America protesters half a century ago.

For Welteroth, an African-American former beauty editor at Teen Vogue, women’s magazines and beauty products are feminism now. “Beauty and style are just really great platforms to open up important conversations,” she said.

Welteroth has been widely celebrated for commissioning stories ranging from Trump gaslighting America and abortion rights to cultural appropriation at the Coachella music festival and the difficulties of being intersex.

Teen Vogue’s website this week.

She told her Sydney audience that fashion and beauty are portals to sisterhood and political awareness:

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the bathroom with another woman … we feel we have nothing in common but we talk about a great lipstick shade or great hair … and it’s just this doorway for connection and for understanding and for dialogue.

While acknowledging earlier magazines that pioneered this path, like Marie Claire, Sassy and Ms. Magazine, Welteroth claimed Teen Vogue’s pairing of “fashion and beauty” with “radical information” is “special and unprecedented”.

On my most Pollyannaish days, I want to cheer Welteroth and other online publications that mix politics with fashion and beauty for the way they are mainstreaming feminism. In Australia, Fairfax’s Daily Life blends wide-eyed articles about Miranda Kerr’s wedding dress with stories about Rosie Batty and smart commentary by writers such as Ruby Hamad about the relationship between feminism and Islam.

Mia Freedman’s Mamamia mixes stories about making waxing less painful with articles on reproductive rights. Freedman’s websites were described as being at the epicentre of the mainstream Australian women’s movement three years ago, although even then, as writer Chloe Hooper observed, Freedman had become “something of a lightning rod for contemporary feminism”.

On closer inspection, though, this lashing together of feminist politics with a women’s magazine sensibility has produced some odd results. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan ridiculed a 1960s edition of the women’s magazine McCall’s for running articles on baldness in women, on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and on finding a second husband. In 2015, when Freedman launched a new (and now defunct) site called Debrief Daily, the site included stories on why women’s hair thins out, the name of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s new baby, and one titled “Four reasons why second marriages are happier marriages”.

In other words, the women’s magazine formula runs deep in many online publications newly rebranded as “feminist”. And as Freedman’s recent and widely criticised podcast interview with feminist writer Roxane Gay suggests, the relationship between feminism and online women’s magazines may be at breaking point (more on this below).

But does this mash-up of fashion and celebrity and feminism have to be incompatible? For Welteroth the answer is no: she says you can cover hard-hitting political and social issues and beauty, fashion and fame. Teen Vogue, she told us, takes news stories that “maybe needed a little bit more context for a younger audience, needed maybe a personal narrative to make [them] seem relevant to them”.

It’s this making the political personal that echoes the second-wave idea of the personal being political, albeit in a reversed way.

The personal is neoliberal

In my PhD research, I’ve looked at the origin of the phrase “the personal is political”. Gloria Steinem once said crediting someone for coming up with it would be as absurd as assigning credit to someone for inventing the term “World War II”. Still, its first use in a publication is commonly cited as being the headline of an article by the member of New York Radical Women I mentioned earlier, Carol Hanisch, in the 1970 collection of essays Notes from the Second Year.

Notes from the Second Year.

Hanisch’s article was a defence of second-wave feminism’s consciousness-raising. Meeting in small groups, women told stories about their lives to understand how their personal problems were actually political ones. And they planned collective action.

Women in the left and the civil rights movement felt that while they protested inequalities between black and white, and the imperialist war in Vietnam, there were glaring injustices in their personal lives. Women took the bulk of responsibility for housework and childcare, did the “shitwork” (Hanisch’s word) in protest movements, were judged on their appearances, and took all the responsibility for contraception and abortion.

Second-wave feminists wanted sexual emancipation and the right to work alongside men, but they didn’t want to do everything. They discussed all kinds of solutions, from communal living to state-provided free childcare, to a total revolution in the consumerist capitalist system.

The jarring thing about the feminism of sites such as Daily Life or Mamamia is that they seem to want to make women responsible for doing everything again. Take a look at the sections at the top of a magazine’s website and you’ll see a list of topics such as “relationships”, “health”, “beauty”, “careers” and so on.

Daily Life’s home page this Wednesday morning.

The endless articles and lists of ways to improve and excel in all those areas can make these sites exhausting just to look at. It seems no coincidence that the same sites will carry articles about managing anxiety, or “ten ways to cope with your depression” and, most famously, Freedman’s own tale of using Lexapro to cope with anxiety, a drug she endorsed to readers.

Many second-wavers were influenced by the counter culture and, with their radical therapy groups and interest in personal growth, they were also interested in self-care. And medication, of course, can be life-saving. But when second-wave feminists like Friedan saw large numbers of women who were anxious and using anti-depressants, they asked how the world needed to change. Or as Hanisch said in 1970:

There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.

Reflecting on her original article in 2006, Hanisch did acknowledge that we can change ourselves at the same time as we change the world. But now websites like Mamamia are increasingly asking how women can transform and adapt themselves to fit into a competitive, individualistic world. The emphasis is mostly on individual achievement and adaption to the status quo – rather than on changing the status quo.

The political becomes personal

The use of first-person stories on women’s websites like Daily Life and Mamamia exploded around the same time as media budgets were cut (a trend writer Jia Tolentino has written about in the US). They have been immensely popular, as researcher Kate Wilcox found in her study of Daily Life website.

At their best, these contemporary personal stories are a new form of feminist consciousness-raising, helping women to realise they aren’t alone and to understand that their experiences have social and political contexts. Some great writers with extraordinary stories, such as Mamamia’s Rosie Waterland, emerged from this process.

At their worst, today’s personal story trend never gets beyond the personal to be political, focusing instead on the scandalous, the trivial or sensational, as Roxane Gay recently found.

Gay is an accomplished writer and academic who makes the personal political in her latest book Hunger. She places the story of her body in the context of her past traumatic sexual abuse. She writes that her body has been pathologised by the medical profession, by the media (singling out shows such as The Biggest Loser) and by people who treat her as an object to be feared and commented on, rather than as a person with opinions and feelings.

Freedman’s interview with Gay was not terrible, but it wasn’t very enlightening either. It mostly glided over big political questions. Instead she asked Gay to repeat a series of stories: about her experiences on planes, her relationship with her parents and where Gay sources her clothes.

Freedman’s most egregious mistake, however, was to introduce her podcast by going into minute (and questionable) detail about Gay’s access requirements. Freedman revealed discussions with Gay’s publicists about lifts, stairs and chairs: reducing Gay to a freaky body that doesn’t belong in the world – the very thing her book asks people not to do.

Feminist books, magazines and now websites have allowed consciousness-raising to move out of small intimate groups, opening up a proliferation of stories for women to read anywhere at any time. Observing the US scene, Tolentino says the personal essay trend is all but over.

But books marketed as popular feminist texts have been (and remain) increasingly personal and memoir-based. Often now written by women who are celebrities (Lena Dunham, Sheryl Sandberg, Caitlin Moran …), their life story becomes both the example and proof of the author’s feminist credentials.

The very personal tone in which popular feminism is conducted today can be traced back to both second-wave consciousness-raising and the confessional column of women’s magazines. Although Gay is an academic and cultural commentator as well as a feminist celebrity, as the Mamamia interview debacle showed, these two traditions can collide, creating a new set of problems where the political can become unhelpfully personal.

I’m not suggesting we give Freedman, a publisher who made her name as the youngest editor of Australian Cosmopolitan, a free pass. I am suggesting, though, that we shouldn’t have been surprised by the way this story turned out. Freedman apologised to Gay almost as soon as her interview was published, but her No Filter personal podcast thrives, with Freedman recently tweeting it has reached 4 million downloads.

Selling consciousness-raising

With their roots in the new left and anti-capitalist counter culture, it’s not surprising many early women’s liberationists opposed the beauty industry and the commodification of women’s bodies. They weren’t against sex (who is?), but rather the “commercial exploitation of sex”, as an early Sydney women’s liberation group told Julie Rigg in a 1969 interview with The Australian.

Now, on Welteroth’s Teen Vogue, articles about make-up and hairstyles, or a bathing suit brand worn by model Bella Hadid, jostle with serious stories about cinematic representations of eating disorders. And while Mamamia will run body-positive stories, it’s often tied to products you can buy, like active wear and tights for larger women.

Welteroth and Teen Vogue haven’t been described as “woke” without good reason. And they are challenging publishers and the broader community’s preconceptions about what young readers are interested in.

But the site is still bound to the genre’s code of presenting attractive bodies and aspirational lives. So it will run a critical article about cultural appropriation at Coachella music festival – and illustrate it with Instagram images of stunning models and a Jenner family member wearing an American headdress.

On the face of it, it was encouraging when Welteroth told her Sydney audience her plans for Teen Vogue include bringing young girls together “IRL” to “actually have conversations around the table where they can have their voices heard and work together to try to now solve some of these problems in the world we talk about”.

But this is consciousness-raising version 2.0, branded VogueTM. It has to be a good thing for a struggling and isolated teen to read about a celebrity coming out, or coping with depression, or the mechanics of safe anal sex. But I find it hard to celebrate what is also, in many ways, a major corporation effectively “selling your politics” back to you, as one friend recently put it.

I’m not the target audience. And I don’t think it would be terrible if those Vogue-convened consciousness-raising sessions came with a gift pack of a rainbow tattoo for Pride Week, a T-shirt with a Black Lives Matter-endorsed fist logo, and even purple eyeshadow for feminism. But I can’t help feeling like I’m back in primary school, being marched down to the beauty professionals to learn how to be a woman.

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