This piece was written for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Ich, Heute. 10 vor Ich. blog. It’s written in response to the widespread reductionist view of feminism that impedes progressive dialogue and as a result, change, using the Glodieblox shitstorm as a case study. You can read the German version here
When discussing feminism today, many feel that it’s redundant, that feminism is an outdated mode of political activism with a simple agenda – it’s burning bras in clogs. Yet once you start to discuss issues around women’s equality and bring in non-debatable facts, eg. The massive gender salary gap between women and men in Germany, it becomes clear that those who purport to be opposed to feminism agree completely with the core of Feminism, namely, achieving a world in which gender does not impede the quality of life or opportunity offered to any individual.
The question of whether we needed feminism or not is the wrong question. For the most part, when we are talking about Feminism in the mainstream, what we are really talking about is what are the right means to achieve equality. Those who oppose feminism are very, very rarely anti-woman. What self-identified anti-feminists are opposed to is a specific form of rhetoric. In pop culture, feminism has become a convenient straw man, diverting us away from broader, much needed discussions.
The lack of clarity around what feminism actually is, stemming from the single-track narrative about whether feminism is or isn’t needed, can be extremely confusing – what does being a feminist mean in practice? A recent case which can be used as an example is the internet-shitstorm around GoldieBlox, a toy-maker focused on encouraging more girls to get into technology.
GoldieBlox created a viral video promoting their toys, the key element of the video being a re-written version of the Beastie Boys’ track ‘Girls’. It had right mix of social-cause and entertainment that gives the viewer a bump of self-satisfaction for passing it on – a KONY 2012 with smiling children and without the African warlord. It reached over 6 million youtube views in 3 days.
And then it got complicated. No rights for the song were cleared for the video, lawyers from the Beastie Boys reached out to the GoldieBlox team to discuss. The GoldieBlox team promptly preemptively sued the Beastie Boys (using an American legal quirk which allows people to defensively sue another party if they think they will be sued themselves). The issue at hand is that of fair use. The Beastie Boys have clearly stated that none of their work can be used commercially, indeed, this was a clause in the late Adam Yauch’s will. Meanwhile supporters of GoldieBlox claim that this video was fair use as it was promoting a the empowerment of women. Muddying the water is the fact that original version of the track ‘Girls’ was written as an ironic commentary on sexist anthems. Let me underline that I am not a legal scholar here, however it’s my impression that in the US and elsewhere, fair use is a very grey matter. Fair-use of copyrighted work can be both commercial and non-commercial, parody is often protected as fair use but not always. The GoldieBlox video is both a parody and commercial. The GoldieBlox team feel that it should be fair use because it supports a good cause, namely, inspiring more women to enter the STEM field – now, a judge will decide.
So how does this relate to feminism? The Beastie Boys don’t allow their work to be used for commercial purposes. As artists, it’s their right to decide that. As the video is an ad, despite that it promotes a good cause, it’s an issue of furthering corporate interests. As the US lawyer Steven M. Ayrpointed out in an interview on the US blog Vulture: “If McDonald’s was trying to sell a hamburger to further female empowerment, we would all look at it very differently.” Goldieblox could have found another track to parody/play off the broad cultural awareness of, from musicians who allow their work to be used commercially and licensed it - whether by old school or Creative Commons methods. They didn’t. Many have even cynically suggested that it was the GoldieBlox marketing plan to cause a legal battle in order to create more visibility for the company. Either the venture backed GoldieBlox have terrible lawyers, are incredibly naive or are ruthless marketers.
Supporting artists and their rights, whether they be big or small is a feminist issue. Doing so is imperative to protecting a culture where people can support themselves from their creative output and aren’t taken advantage of. While IP is a flawed system, it is the best means by which we can compensate artists for the time that they have put into their work. IP is not just about ownership, it’s an expression of labor rights – ignoring that will deconstructs the most viable (and some say only) way that artists can exist within our economic system, regardless of gender. Allowing people to disregard the wishes of creators because we deem their cause to be important is a very slippery slope. It stands directly against empowerment of the individual and the collective good. A truly equitable society cannot be reached if these values are not upheld, and thus, this is a feminist issue. While GoldieBlox have a clearly feminist goal, their means of achieving it is not.
Goldieblox is a pristine example of how feminism is far more complicated than boys against girls (almost literally). While many felt that it is about getting women in STEM fields, it’s actually a debate about economics, art and law. Feminism is a framework for creating a more equitable world, gender equality being the lens through which thought is focused. It touches every aspect of life and thus cannot be defined by one single world-view.
Just like the problems it seeks to remedy, feminism is messy. Reducing feminism to the words of one woman (regardless of whether it’s Silvia Bovenschen or Alice Schwarzer) deprives society from exploring multiple avenues of thought. We must accept a pluralistic perspective of feminism that allows for rich debate that goes beyond the confines of issues such as daycare or quotas, where more than one woman is invited on a talk-show to discuss the ‘woman’s viewpoint,’ and where it as normal for a man to be a feminist as a woman. We need to accept that feminism is about everyone.