Why forms of feminism that advocate for a return to ‘femininity’ are becoming increasingly appealing, and why should we be wary of them? The danger of lipstick feminism does not lie in its approach to make-up, but in its complicity with neoliberalism and consumer culture.
Lipstick feminism is a third wave feminist movement that supports the idea of accepting and embracing femininity to help women’s empowerment. Quite literally, lipstick feminists believe that wearing makeup and sexy clothes does not make you less of a feminist, on the contrary, it means taking control of society’s beauty standards and reclaiming what belongs to women. The underlining idea of lipstick feminism is that traditional feminism is entrenched in a negative attitude towards femininity and discourages women to pursue what is traditionally seen as female. This self-imposed deprivation is seen as yet another form of oppression towards women and as an obstacle to their liberation.
In the past decade, more and more feminists such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie began to actively encourage women not to be afraid wearing makeup, high heels, or engaging in activities traditionally labelled as feminine. According to Adichie, there is no conflict between dressing up, wearing makeup and holding feminist values. By taking control of their image and their sexuality women to empower themselves and as such, they empower other women as well. Embracing and respecting women’s desires and choices is an important aspect of feminism after all; so why is lipstick feminism so controversial?
…traditional feminism is entrenched in a negative attitude towards femininity and discourages women to pursue what is traditionally seen as female. This self-imposed deprivation is seen as yet another form of oppression towards women and as an obstacle to their liberation.
Lipstick feminism has been harshly criticised for helping the reproduction of the patriarchal system and promote the objectification of the female’s body. But also for being unable to adequately respond to the social challenges that women face, especially those related to women’s portrayal on media and their hyper-sexualisation in popular culture. Lipstick feminism holds that the power of femininity equips women with the right tools to navigate into the dominant culture. Wanting to be more beautiful, sexier, etc. is seen as a rational desire to achieve confidence and success. And indeed, women feel more empowered and confident when they wear makeup, or when they profit from their sexual appeal. This might help them to be more acknowledged and appreciated and makes them feel more powerful, in so far they are better integrated into the dominant culture. Nonetheless, can these be considered signs of women’s liberation?
What is wrong with lipstick feminism?
Lipstick feminism is clearly in line with a new model of neoliberal female’s citizenship, in which the achievement of a ‘glamourous individuality’ is seen as the key to women’s empowerment and success. The focus has shifted on individual’s projects, which are influenced and supported by consumer culture. Women’s liberation becomes an individual project that women can realise throughout their life and within this framework, a feminist political agenda becomes useless as feminism is perceived as an ideal to be practised in isolation.
Feminism should then pursue critical strategies that aim at the unmasking of the dangers lying beyond the promises of self-emancipation and the aftereffect of consumerism.
In “The Aftermath of Feminism”, Angela Mc Robbie expresses her concerns over the current cultural forces that according to her are dismantling feminism as a social movement. She explores the post-feminist cultural environment by focusing on the changes occurring as a result of neoliberal consumer culture and the psychological impact they have on women. According to McRobbie, the consumer culture is playing a vital role in the undoing of feminism, since it provides an illusion of infinite possibilities and freedom, while in reality, it helps to sustain new constraining forms of gender power which operate through the granting of capacity to young women:
“The earlier period of modernisation created a welfare state and a set of institutions (e.g. education) which allowed people in the second modernity to become more independent and able, for example, to earn their own living. Young women are, as a result, now disembodied from communities where gender roles were fixed. And, as the old structures of social class fade away, and lose their grip in the context of late or second modernity, individuals are increasingly called upon to invent their own structures. They must do this internally and individualistically, so that self-monitoring practices replace reliance on set ways”.
This strong individualism gets in the way of feminism as a social movement and subtly leads women into believing that their attitude and their efforts in becoming a better version of themselves will eventually determine their success or failure in society. In other words, women are offered sexual and social recognition in spheres of employment, education, and civil society, as long as young women successfully ‘choose’ to embody acceptable hetero- femininities.
Neoliberalism: Feminists’ Enemy
Feminism’s success in bringing changes forward has always been a result of inclusive joint political action. Throughout the years, however, feminism proved unable to maintain and nurture cohesion and to create a space for different views, backgrounds and beliefs. For some, feminism is perceived as yet another form of oppression that judges and poses standards on women and makes them feel guilty for their desire to be ‘feminine’. Critiques of lipstick feminism have also tended to focus on more trivial issues which have diverted the attention from the real threat that lipstick feminism poses. The real danger of lipstick feminism does not lie in its approach to makeup, way of dressing and the like, but in its complicity with neoliberalism.
Lipstick feminism managed to become a more appealing version of feminism, as it does not stand in contradiction to the neoliberal consumer culture, but it indirectly supports it as it pushes women to consume more and to focus on individual projects of emancipation rather than on collective ventures. Feminism should then pursue critical strategies that aim at the unmasking of the dangers lying beyond the promises of self-emancipation and the aftereffect of consumerism. Ultimately developing critical tools against it should get the precedence over discussions oriented at defining what a feminist is, can or should be.
Originally published on 20/04/2020 in Young Feminist Europe