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Beyond Pop Feminism

10/10/2014 13:30 BST | Updated 09/12/2014 10:59 GMT

You know feminism has gone mainstream once it has made it to Cosmo's infamous "handy guides". Celebrities have been successful in making feminism a buzzword. After Beyoncé's VMA performance and Emma Watson's UN speech, everyone is required to have a stand on feminism, as journalists everywhere try to figure out which celebrities are part of the cause. From the UN to fashion shows, feminism is so 'trendy' that it's all over the mainstream media, fuelled by young celebrities that have turned it into pop culture's next big thing. But what if pop culture is actually feminism's worst nightmare?

As part of the UN's long history of designating celebrities as UN ambassadors, Watson was recently able to deliver a very powerful speech that galvanized social media. Her intervention at the UN was perhaps not as radical as many feminists would have wanted, but she was able to convey a message that few others have even considered, that men are also victims of gender inequality. Watson's speech inspired a wave of male celebrities to stand up for the campaign #HeForShe. While it's great to hear men speaking out for gender equality, let's be honest - Pop culture is full of negative female stereotypes, which male artists often encourage. Until these male celebrities engage in becoming role models who respect women, taking a selfie with the UN Women hashtag just won't cut it.

Before Emma came Beyoncé and her ten-foot tall feminist sign at the VMA's, one of the most chauvinistic events in the music industry. The universally lauded performer took feminism and its definition and transformed it overnight into a popular trend for the 12 million Americans who watched the show live. The significance of Beyoncé's performance shouldn't be understated. It broke the mainstream idea that only lonely, unhappy, unmarried, man-hating women are feminists. How can feminism be evil if the world's favourite pop artist -who happens to have a hot husband, a child and a body that fits every beauty standard- calls herself a feminist? Apart from that, Beyoncé didn't do anything radical. Putting feminism into pop culture is only a big deal if she actually gets people on board; I would love to see Jay-Z calling himself a feminist. Let's hope this is not simply drunken love.

Many women many feminisms

The danger of pop culture monopolizing the use of the word is that it establishes a benchmark for what constitutes feminism. While celebrities have sparked the debate about feminism, they do so in a very superficial way, obscuring the complexity of gender equality. Pop culture presents a specific type of feminism, a stripped-down version coated in make-up, it provides definitions but it barely talks about oppression and struggle. This approach turns feminism into an umbrella word that generalizes and oversimplifies women's daily battles.

Both Emma Watson and Beyoncé have faced criticism for their approach to gender equality. It's not about who is right or who is wrong; the debate shows that there are many types of feminism. A one-size-fits-all feminism cannot deal, for example, with the socio-economic particularities of women as individual human beings. What dissident voices show is that women are not simply discriminated because they are women but also because of their race, ethnicity, and social status. Pop culture feminism leaves aside the cultural and historical factors so heavily engrained in our societies that women have struggled with since New Zealand's hallmark decision to allow women to vote in 1893.

Faux feminism

Embracing feminism requires more than labelling oneself as a feminist. The use of the word feminism becomes meaningless unless actions correspond to what the concept seeks to achieve: gender equality. If we are willing to leave feminism at the hands of celebrities, there needs to be more substance beyond high-level conferences and flashy stage performances. The participation of celebrities in the public sphere could help to demystify feminism and raise awareness, but only actions and behavioural changes can create gender equality. If we leave feminism to the show business it can easily become a trivial marketing tool like any other.

Pop culture has a track record of misrepresenting women's struggles. Take fashion brands for example. Chanel has always been seen as a revolutionary fashion house that changed women's clothes by replacing the uncomfortable corset for easy-to-wear dresses and trousers. Even if fashion is not the most important thing women need to worry about, the message behind Chanel attires sent ripples across the public consciousness in the wake of World War II. At this year's Paris Fashion Week, however, Chanel mounted a bizarre campaign based around slogans like "Feminist but feminine" while "Votez Coco" ("Vote Coco [Chanel]"), models enacted a noisy street protest led by supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Let's face it, it is unlikely that Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel's lead designer who once quipped that no one wants to see plump women on the catwalk, had an epiphany and woke up a feminist. Far from it. He saw that (faux) feminism sells and who is better placed than Chanel to make it chic?

Here it is, empty pop feminism. It's kind of ironic that Chanel chose to close its show 'on the street' with these slogans considering that 25% of Parisian women are scared to walk on the street. Well, Chanel's little black dress and tweed jackets simply don't go to the areas where most women actually live.