To paraphrase that great bastion of women’s rights, Ernest Hemingway, it happened first very slowly, then all at once. Feminism, once a dirty word, then a cool one, then a reassuringly popular one, then a mawkish fridge magnet-type one, has nigh-on eaten itself. It goes without saying that feminism is still amazing, and equality is still amazing, but I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with seeing it as an appendage with which to make a concept cooler, or more appealing, or to clumsily tack on to something to make it more media/PSHE curriculum-friendly.
A case in point: last week was a special private view/press-sweetener for the stunning Barbara Hepworth show at Tate Britain. To reiterate: it’s a very special show. Hepworth was a very special woman. But seemingly in a bid to win the artist a few more column inches and to draw in a crowd of teenage girls who, in the introductory talks, we have drilled into us only have eyes for Instagram and Kim Kardashian, suddenly it became all about feminism, in a rather loose and confused way.
It seemed an odd choice to have two speakers who both openly admitted to knowing next to nothing about art or Hepworth to introduce the show. Instead, they both popped the artist neatly into the definitely-not-pink feminist box. Revelations abound: she was a woman! With children! Whose little lady arms managed to work with STONE! And METAL! Once again that old bugbear filled the room – “she didn’t want to be known as a female artist, but just as an artist.” So why are we talking about her as a woman? Why make the point that she’s NOT Kim Kardashian, that Instagram didn’t exist in the 1930s, that she had triplets? What exactly is wrong or anti-feminist about Kim Kardashian anyway?
The Kim debate has surely been exhaustively explored elsewhere, but these comparisons, the lazy social media references and most pertinently, the big, loud (and good on her!) feminist foghorn being used for lack of any other ideas is one in a long list of such instances. It’s like glancing at a Daily Mail URL and seeing the words “teenager” or “curvy.” It’s become a neat little click-guarantor and a word that’s sadly losing meaning. I’m not here to say “I was a feminist before it was cool,” or to deride the fact the word has become so popular. I’m here to celebrate it, and commend its popularity. But for the love of god, let’s stop diluting its meaning. Let’s stop haphazardly tacking it on to anything to do with women – especially women like Hepworth so reticent to use it themselves. Otherwise, heaven forfend, it might become the new Kim Kardashian. On second thoughts, perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad.
Photo Credit: Barbara Hepworth. “Stringed Figure (Curlew),” Version II 1956, edition 1959.