Recently, I have been thinking about the context in which feminist activism presents itself and the rhetoric used to frame the issues. I have identified two camps, which I would call positive and negative feminism, that sometimes oppose each other and sometimes overlap. To be clear, I don’t mean to hierarchize the two via this labelling, but I am curious which approach would be better suited to aiding certain causes.
What do I mean by positive and negative feminism? Positive feminism to me is the kind of feminism that emphasizes the positive outcomes and benefits of gender equality, the achievements of feminism, and the particular qualities and contributions of women within society.
Negative feminism, then, would be focussing on the problematic issues of an unjust society, would draw particular attention to the discrimination and suffering faced by women and minorities, and would be more accusatory rather than celebratory.
As you can see, these two camps are in no way prescriptive or exclusionary. I hardly know any feminist who would only subscribe to one or the other. However, to me this distinction becomes important when thinking about how to frame a particular issue or campaign for the public.
One example would be the conception of a campaign in favor of equal marriage. A positive approach could focus on the portrayal of happy couples, regardless of sexuality, and on love and family. A negative campaign could feature anger over the continuing deprivation of certain freedoms and benefits, should the law not be passed.
The latter campaign is quite an exception, as a topic such as equal marriage and its proximity to questions of commitment and family tends to lend itself to a more positive approach. Quite the contrary is true for campaigns against domestic violence and rape. Feminists have been accused of “victimizing” women with their rhetoric, but it’s hard to do otherwise when you’re dealing with issues that kill and harm women and LGBTQ every day (link in German only).
The recent campaign for One Billion Rising attempted an interesting overlap of both positive and negative elements. (Trigger Warning for implicit and explicit depiction of domestic violence, rape, FGM etc.)
In this video, the premise is a negative one: Women are subjected to violence and exploitation all over the world, and this fact is illustrated by rather explicit imagery. However, the negative departure is then followed by images of women “rising up” and dancing as a response. It is not my desire to criticize the video or the movement here, just to illustrate the pros and cons of positive and negative feminist campaigns.
Negative campaigns are often used to trigger strong emotions of outrage, anger and the urge to change something. However, they have, I believe, become a bit over-used and the many calls for action and donations often inspire more helplessness and complacency rather than any concrete response. A campaign’s emphasis on victims of violence etc. can come at the expense of these same “victims'” empowerment, as they are being silenced and Othered (especially in campaigns addressing Third World issues to a primarily Western audience).
Positive campaigns can be useful to inspire confidence in people that are generally opposed to change (such as in the campaign in favor of equal marriage) and it can make those affected by discrimination feel empowered rather than victimized. On the downside, positive framing can seem a little disingenuous or even trivial in the face of people’s actual experiences of violence and other human rights abuses. Moreover, the celebration of certain “feminine” qualities can also easily lead to essentializing of gender traits and the exclusion of others.
But let’s get away from issues that – due to their nature – seem more obvious as to which campaign approach would be favored. I would like to use the example of gender equality in the workplace. The following video is by a recent French campaign, but I believe the images are pretty self-explanatory:
I think this video is really funny, and I would venture and say that most women have felt like those in the video many times in their lives, both in private and professionally. However, its premise is entirely negative; it shows women as weak, passive and with little assertiveness, thus certainly not inspiring the confidence of employers or lawmakers, or serving a particularly feminist cause, for that matter.
A positive campaign could have emphasized women’s leadership qualities as equal to men’s, or businesses and economies that are flourishing due to more female employees. These sort of campaigns may speak to the concerns of enterprises and quota opponents, but they still don’t speak for me or my feminism. After all, I don’t think women should have to prove that they are better for business and have the same or better qualities as men, in order to be treated equally.
That’s why I really like this Turkish campaign (which promotes equal representation in parliament). It may not look like much, but I like the message that gets across: firstly, that equal representation is a right and not a privilege, and secondly, that women shouldn’t have to be just like men to achieve the same things. Women deserve an equal share of power, regardless of the pros and cons.
Communication is key in political activism and lobbying. Getting the message across can define the success or failure of a political campaign. I think, feminist campaigns are facing a particular dilemma, because often the message adressed to an audience to achieve a certain purpose may not be in line with all of feminists’ beliefs. Therefore, any feminist campaign would benefit from looking at both positive and negative angles, and combinations thereof, to avoid harmful clichés and dubious subtexts.
Do you know any great or horrible feminist campaigns? Feel free to share in the comments.