"Third-wave feminism" is a catchy yet contested term for the ideas and activism of young North American women. Lara Karaian, Allyson Mitchell and Lisa Rundle created an anthology that reflects the issues and experiences of these women. Their book, Turbo Chicks, (Sumach Press, 2001) challenges the image of young women as apathetic, apolitical dupes of an anti-feminist backlash. Instead, the contributors to Turbo Chicks present a lively, intriguing series of opinions and perspectives which are by turns thoughtful, provocative, funny, angry and poignant.
"Third-wave feminism" is a catchy yet contested term for the ideas and activism of young North American women. Lara Karaian, Allyson Mitchell and Lisa Rundle created an anthology that reflects the issues and experiences of these women. Their book, Turbo Chicks, (Sumach Press, 2001) challenges the image of young women as apathetic, apolitical dupes of an anti-feminist backlash. Instead, the contributors to Turbo Chicks present a lively, intriguing series of opinions and perspectives which are by turns thoughtful, provocative, funny, angry and poignant. In this interview, the editors reflect on third-wave feminism.
What inspired you to create Turbo Chicks?
Lara Karaian: I always wondered how it was that I became a feminist and because of this, I started a research project on the influences and barriers to women taking on the feminist label. Allyson Mitchell: I started on the path of creating the book because I was genuinely interested in what young women were doing with feminism.
Finding out about the activism that young women were doing around zines, music, actions and film made so much sense to me. It was the place where all of my school learning fit into actions that weren't just about writing essays. At the same time, I was concerned by some of the sentiments that 'older' feminists were voicing about young women like me. My experiences contradicted their accusations of apathy. I thought, if I'm going to pursue this as a career, I want to help set the record straight so my colleagues wouldn't be so dismissive or threatened by women my age and younger.
Lisa Rundle: I'm a writer and now the editor of the on-line alternative media portal rabble.ca . I write a lot on issues involving young women and feminism. My interest in young feminism came from the shock of discovering that there were generational appreciation gaps between feminists. I hoped Turbo Chicks would help make space or some of the perspectives of younger women in and about feminisms and encourage the kind of great discussion feminism has always inspired.
Lisa, in the book's introduction you ask, "What does it mean to have grown up in Canada after the women's movement's influence of the 1970s?A lot of the structural equality rights had been won by the time we came along and we grew up with different expectations." Can you expand on this a bit?
Lisa: I mean that political movements and personal experiences change as the world changes. For example, I was just reading an article written in 1968 about the first organized protest of the American women's movement -against the Miss America pageant. They were fighting against a system of patriarchy and exploitation that hadn't been widely critiqued yet -or at least all the feminist critiques that were out there hadn't seeped into mainstream culture. They were naming things or the first time and, in a way, fighting clearer foes because sexism was so unchecked.
By the time I was born in the mid-70s, the world had already changed because of the work of second-wave feminists, as well as average people who thought that the world needed to be fairer. Many unfair laws had changed and many more would change before I became a conscious political being.
My world was different than my mother's. And my feminism is different. My challenges are new. It's different being told, 'You're just a girl and you can only be a nurse, a secretary, a teacher or a full-time mom,' like my mother was and being told, 'You can do anything; there aren't any boxes,' but finding yourself in them anyway and trying to find your own way out. I think the boxes change or women, depending when and where and who you are.
Allyson, you work a lot with pop culture. Many of the pieces in the book use pop culture in some way. What do you feel is the influence of pop culture on young feminism and how can young feminists engage productively with it?
Allyson: The term 'third-wave feminism' began as a positive assertion of feminism after a media blitz about post-feminism or the death of feminism. To me, this seems positive on many levels. On the other hand, I understand how things get co-opted and watered down by the media. There is much discussion about whose third wave gets portrayed in pop culture, how it is attached to sexy and confusing ideas about "liberated women," "sexual agency "and "girl power "and steers clear of anti-globalization, anti-racism or anti-poverty. Pop culture limits and constricts what gets represented and third-wave feminism is just one of them.
There are two basic ways of engaging with pop culture. The first is to be media literate and selective with pop culture. It is unavoidable but you can also choose not to buy and read fashion magazines or watch so much television. It is like realizing when I eat too much candy, I feel dizzy. Same or pop culture: if I ingest too much, I get low self-esteem and a claustrophobic world view.
Boycotting (or girlcotting) or cutting down is the first and easiest method of disengagement. The second is to use it. Pop culture is everywhere and this makes it cheap. It is an excellent tool or arts and crafts. Use it to make your own culture. Rip it apart and re-fashion it; cut and paste the words so that they tell a story about your own existence, not someone else's.
It has been suggested that part of young feminism is the ability to choose a feminist path that is right for each of us, and that there are many ways to be feminist. How do you respond to people who say that this type of diversity represents an "anything goes " attitude that dilutes the political power of feminism?
Lara: If anyone thinks that there's ever been a single unified feminism, they're delusional. Any criticism that rejects complexity in favour of simplification is the real threat to the political power of feminism. I see the 'anything goes' retort as a way to dismiss a generation of feminists who embrace complexity and fight oppressions in multiple, unique and creative ways.
Allyson: I'm very suspicious of some sort of party line written in stone. Who gets to decide what are the things that can't fit into "anything goes?" Who is threatened by people expanding the arena of feminism? How the hell are you going to control it anyway?
Lisa: Digging your heels in and telling other women how to be the 'right' kind of feminist is not helpful in any way. There is no one feminism because there is no one woman. The reason we put together Turbo Chicks was to show a diversity of voices; we wanted to counteract the idea of a monolithic feminism where everyone thinks alike, dresses alike, acts alike. That's not real life. We disagree. We complement. We come from different places. Yay.
Why suppress that? Third-wave feminism is comfortable with contradiction because that's the only way the world makes sense.
It has also been suggested that young feminists are being encouraged to be 'consumer feminists' who live their feminism through consumption and acquisition of "girl power " goods. How do you respond to this?
Lara: I think that the co-opting and the commodification of feminism and revolution in general is a real problem, but I don't think that that's young women's fault. I bet there is something to wearing underwear that says "pussy power "for even the least socially-conscious gal. Still, the relationship of feminism to consumerism has to be interrogated and challenged because of the oppressive nature of both patriarchy and capitalism.
Allyson: Of course 'consumer feminism' isn't an ideal. At the same time, or some people, this is the only strategy they know. What needs to happen is education about the effects of globalization and consumption. People need alternatives. As well, if slogan T-shirts and Lilith-type fairs make feminism accessible and sexy to a segment of the population that would not have identified as feminist before -it can be seen as positive. I don't think that these things make the feminist movement in Canada any weaker.
Do we lose members to consumerism or do people make the switch to an easier politics that has a price tag attached? We live and move in the world around us. Politics don't exist in a vacuum. That is the contradiction: people buy Subway subs on the way to or from an anti-globalization demo.
Postmodernism is a theoretical current that has informed some feminist theory in the academy. Lara, you teach these ideas to undergraduate women's studies students; can you explain the role of postmodernism in third-wave feminism?
Lara: Postmodern feminism is a position that rejects rigid and simplistic binaries like men/women, active/passive and so on. Postmodern feminism rejects a simplistic opposition between the sexes, where men are bad and women are good and instead focuses on the differences within the sexes. This means recognizing that our identities are complex, contingent and fluid. We are not women first and then a person of colour, rich or a person who is disabled.
Postmodern feminism focuses on the fact that we are all parts at once. Our identities are the result of the intersection of our sex, gender, class, race, ability and sexuality in a particular time and place. Therefore, our subjectivity and identity is complicated, fluid and ever changing. This challenges ideas of people's selves as uncomplicated, unified and whole. This, I think, has had the effect of making feminism about more than just sexism first and foremost.
What do you envision as a positive relationship between older and younger feminists? What challenges might have to be overcome before this can happen?
Lara: I think this means taking seriously the history of different feminists that came before us, as opposed to dismissing it or their struggles as "done " or not worthy of attention.
Lisa: It's crucial that we try to understand each other. Lots of learning and wisdom risks being lost and then it's a typical divide and conquer, except we're dividing ourselves. It happens across all kinds of fault lines in social justice movements and one of the priorities of third-wave feminism as I see it, is to be more multiple and supportive across political priorities.
Where do you see young feminism 10 years from now? What currents or themes do you see as significant?
Allyson: I see young feminists continuing on in areas of workers' rights, environmentalism, anti-racism, anti-poverty and cultural critique. We are continually opening up, not closing down. I hope that my nine-year-old niece (also a contributor to Turbo Chicks ) doesn't feel like she has to re-invent the wheel or act out against my generation of feminists.
I hope that the significant work that is getting done now by young feminists around anti-globalization, accessibility and education isn't lost and ill-recorded so that we look like a bunch of 'consumer-only feminists' to future generations. Gloria Steinem talks about this sort misrepresentation or eroded history in her introduction to Rebecca Walker's To Be Real, one of the first third- wave texts.
I think it is really sad and I feel the responsibility to do as much archiving, story telling and accounting as possible now so that we can continue on instead of stepping back. Lara: I hope that complexity and diversity will be recognized as more of a strength than a threat and that feminism will keep changing the times and with the times.
This article first appeared in Herizons Fall 2002 issue.