The XX Factor

“Lifestyle Feminism” Gets a Bad Rap, But It’s a Great Gateway to Activism

Protesters wearing “pussy hats” march in Washington, D.C., during the Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

“Lifestyle feminism” has been getting a lot of flack lately. First it was the chorus of voices insisting that all those pink pussy hats took attention away from the important political issues of the Women’s March on Washington. Then there was the kerfuffle over Beyoncé’s Instagram feed, with detractors charging that the pregnant goddess poses were more about self-promotion than celebrating real maternal bodies. Most recently, Jessa Crispin has published a book, Why I Am Not a Feminist, in which she characterizes contemporary feminism as a toothless universal phenomenon, more interested in parsing good and bad television shows than in income inequality and paid parental leave. As she puts it, “For too long, feminism has been moving away from being about collective action and imagination, and towards being a lifestyle. Lifestyles do not change the world.”

Those on the left excoriate “lifestyle feminism” (sometimes called pop feminism or cultural feminism) because they see it as both apolitical and in league with corporate capitalism. According to this logic, far from authentically empowering women, Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series Girls or superstar Rihanna’s latest album water down feminism turning it into nothing more than watching television or listening to music. (Hence the epithet “lifestyle.”) Seemingly pro-women behavior like rejecting thongs for “granny underwear” or liking Amy Schumer on Facebook are more symbolic than material, more feel-good than transformational, and more focused on individual choice and self-actualization than on systemic and collective social change. Andi Zeisler sums it up in her 2016 book, We Were Feminists Once: “It’s a feminism that trades on simple themes of sisterhood and support—you-go-girl tweets and Instagram photos, cheery magazine editorials about dressing to please yourself.”

These critics are not altogether wrong. In the past decade feminism has gone from being a malediction to being a popular, even trendy, phenomenon, embraced by everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Ivanka Trump. And as might be expected, it’s also attracted corporate dollars. Woke apparel is all the rage these days, with La Ligne selling “Libérez Le Nipple” tees for $115 and models for Jason Wu and Kate Spade sporting “Fashion stands with Planned Parenthood” buttons on the runway. As Frank Bruni exasperatedly asked about Girls, “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” Surely, feminism must have as its endgame something more than watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, downloading Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or wearing the slogan “Nasty Woman” on a shirt.

But if history has taught us anything, it’s that divorcing lifestyle from larger political movements is a mistake. In the 1960s, the New Left criticized the larger counterculture as “merely lifestyle,” a distraction from the real work of ending the Vietnam war and promoting civil rights. When hippie counterculturalists creatively reimagined life through a politicization of style, their behavior was dismissed as apolitical (if not sheer lunacy!). Yet the outward expression of their beliefs through clothing, music, and artful ways of living was rooted in the emancipatory political projects of the period. Although only a small portion of young people actually joined communes, the Back to the Land movement drew millions of followers to the environmental cause and ultimately led to the promotion of organic farming, Locavorism, and Slow Food. Which is to say, the counterculture had a hand in igniting aspects of environmentalism as we know it today. We cannot dismiss the impact of this work as mere “lifestyle.”

In the early ‘70s many leftist feminists replicated this kind of dismissal by sequestering and repudiating art and other forms of creative activity by women as “cultural feminism.” Yet if it weren’t for these creative practices—practices that ranged from the poetry of Adrienne Rich, to the art works of Judy Chicago, to the African American a cappella music of “Sweet Honey in the Rock”—the two of us, and countless others, might never have begun identifying as feminists decades ago as young women.

Feminist cultural practices are deeply important as points of access—places where women first encounter feminism and begin to identify with it. Indeed, what’s significant about feminism is that its political platform has always incorporated lifestyle, not as an afterthought, but as an integral part of its conception. When early women’s rights advocates donned trousers, they recognized the connection between women’s physical mobility and their political emancipation, and thus a clothing revolution was born. During the second wave of feminism, changing national law was important, but no less important was changing the national mindset; for this reason, women’s oppositional politics was accompanied by myriad cultural manifestations, that changed the way women lived, dressed, ate, had sex, and spent their leisure time.

Today’s variants of lifestyle feminism are far from perfect. Their flaws—which range from superficiality, to lack of racial diversity, to corporate appeasement—are only too apparent. They often offend because their ideological commitments are ambiguous. Does Nicki Minaj encourage women to take charge of their own sexuality or merely teach them to perform what men want to see? Are the stoner girls of Comedy Central’s Broad City liberated or just as lost as their male slacker counterparts? Lifestyle feminism provides no clear answers to these questions, whereas most of us can agree that working towards legislation for cheap and accessible birth control is a good thing. But it’s precisely in its ambiguity that these popular cultural forms can spark interest, engagement, and joy, and thus a way into a feminist identity. Contemporary feminist artists like Mickalene Thomas and Marilyn Minter have been accused of replicating the conventions of male-focused pornography in their work, but they’ve also attracted legions of young female fans, newly committed to rethinking conventional standards of beauty, fashion, and sexuality.

We need to recognize that the future of the feminist movement rests on these cultural practices. For most women no other feminist context may exist. Sure, it would be great if more people were willing to dig into meaty academic essays on intersectionality or gender fluidity. But far more accessible is HBO’s Insecure, a show that focuses on being female and being black or the Amazon series Transparent and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, both of which feature trans women in different stages of transition. If our recent experiences in the undergraduate classroom are an indication of how powerful these shows are, they have done as much as anything else to change the national conversation on gender.

The reality is that as feminists we need all the help we can get. Turning away from those who identify with the women’s movement because their commitment doesn’t seem pure enough is misguided. Rather, we need to harness the energy of lifestyle feminism and direct it into something more transformational for women across lines of race and class, so that its benefits extend beyond those most likely to watch Netflix or buy concert tickets. When we dismiss cultural feminism because of its popular appeal, we engage in elitism and alienate the very women who should be our allies. Wearing a pussy hat doesn’t make you a feminist. But it’s a start.