'Tumblr feminism' and the Fourth Wave

Sophie Quinn argues for the value of challenging gender stereotypes through a softer medium.

Growing up in the digital age is an experience seldom understood by older generations. Technological advancement has happened in such a short timeframe that the black-and-white Nokia bricks and Myspace pages of my early childhood are now obsolete. Teenagers much younger than myself will have experienced similar changes in their formative years. Born in 1998, I am on the youngest end of the spectrum of 90s kids, but still experience a sense of nostalgia that older generations scoff at.

As a child growing up on the cusp of the digital age, I’ve seen the inevitable ‘internet-isation’ of gender politics. Between softly lit photo sets of body positive models and red carpet scrutiny, feminism has never been more widely publicised. In a world where many girls’ first introduction to western feminism is the soft grunge aesthetics of Frida Kahlo’s face, what initially seemed a progressive, forward thinking approach to femininity is now considered by many as passé.

While second or third wave feminists adopted perceived masculinity as a way to challenge gender roles, the fourth seeks to dispel stereotypes by taking notions of femininity to extremes with glitter graphics and pink colour palettes. It is no coincidence that many of the personality traits associated with iPhones, make-up, selfies, and all that encompasses clichéd girlishness – being vain, superficial, or desperate – are common misogynistic insults aimed at young women. But this new, younger wave of feminists are combating these stereotypes by appropriating that which is perceived as negative and reworking it into something positive and empowering.

Liberated by the rise of accessible camera equipment and publishing platforms, it is easier than ever to represent real bodies and subvert society’s expectations of what it means to be beautiful. But being the first feminist wave to be built largely upon a visual philosophy, many have been quick to dismiss the work of artists under fourth wave as vapid and apolitical due to their ties with the aesthetics of the fashion and beauty industry. While this could be true, it is without doubt that photography in the digital age is free from class restrictions, often creating space for marginalised communities to represent themselves and others like them even though the mainstream media refuses to.

With an attention to self-care, body positivity, and better mental health awareness at its core, this so-called ‘Tumblr feminism’ focuses on a rejection of narrow beauty ideals and maintaining a more inclusive approach to gender equality. Inevitably this has opened the fourth wave up to a lot of criticism, not to mention the shutdown of the ‘social justice warrior’ label.

The rapid marketability of Tumblr feminism is a particularly adverse effect. Messages of diversity and acceptance have been lost among sweatshop-made ‘feminist’ apparel. As much as one might agree with the sentiment, ‘GRL PWR’ emblazoned on an H&M t-shirt is enough to make anyone gag. Capitalism has transformed Tumblr feminism into the stereotype it aimed to reject, making it about products rather than politics.

Although it is reasonable to question a focus on ‘white feminist’ issues such as body hair and menstruation, many criticisms fall back on the lazy stereotypes which equate femininity with weakness. Though the emphasis has shifted from shouting in the streets in the Riot Grrl-style of older feminism, a sense of community and comfort is crucial, especially when your opinions and experiences can be brushed off as a generational quirk.

Dismissing this brand of ‘girlish’ feminism is as naive as the stereotypes previously surrounding feminism in the first place. While previous aesthetic affiliations with the politics of gender equality ultimately enforced negative stereotypes, reducing a movement down to its visual representative is as pointless now as it was then. Nonetheless, while companies continue to unfairly cash in on the visuals of fourth wave, feminist artists are continue to fight for the dismantling of gendered oppression without any commercialist intent. They are still striving for the normalisation of the non-typical female body each step of the way. •

Sophie Quinn is a first year Law student