FEATURES | winter 2004
The End of Feminism’s Third Wave
“Are you in the third wave?”
I always want to pepper my interlocutor with questions instead:
Do you want to know how I identify, or how others would label me? Are you asking when the term was coined? When the first feminists who are considered part of the third wave became politicized? When the first riot grrl zine was published? What makes you think it’s possible to elevate one issue over all others? Which definition of the third wave are we talking about here, the chronological or the ideological?
This reluctance isn’t just me being cranky and not wanting to answer any hard questions. Here is the reality: We’ve reached the end of the wave terminology’s usefulness. What was at first a handy-dandy way to refer to feminism’s history and its present and future potential with a single metaphor has become shorthand that invites intellectual laziness, an escape hatch from the hard work of distinguishing between core beliefs and a cultural moment.
Using the simplest and most straightforward definition, I am, indisputably, a member of the third wave: I was born in 1972, right smack in the demographic that people think about when they think about the third wave. But discussions of the waves are only nominally about demographics. The metaphor wraps up differences in age, ideology, tactics and style, and pretends that distinguishing among these factors is unimportant.
Even the more nuanced discussions of third-wavers tend to cast them (or, given my birthday, should I say “us”?) as sex-obsessed young thangs with a penchant for lip gloss and a disregard for recent history, or sophisticated identity politicians who have moved past the dated concerns of their predecessors.
It’s no mystery why the discourse that has developed around the waves is divisive and oppositional. Writers and theorists love oppositional categories — they make things so much easier to talk about. Similarities are much more difficult. So, naturally, much has been said and written about the disagreements, conflicts, differences and antagonisms between feminists of the second and third waves, while hardly anything is ever said about our similarities and continuities.
The rap goes something like this: Older women drained their movement of sexuality; younger women are uncritically sexualized. Older women won’t recognize the importance of pop culture; younger women are obsessed with media representation. Older women have too narrow a definition of what makes a feminist issue; younger women are scattered and don’t know what’s important.
Stodgy versus frivolous. Won’t share power versus spoiled and ignorant.
Nothing on this list is actually true — but, because this supposedly great generational divide has been constructed out of very flimsy but readily available materials, the ideas persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
It’s just so much easier to hit on the playful cultural elements of the third wave and contrast them with the brass-tacks agenda — and impressive gains — of the second wave: It’s become the master narrative of feminism’s progression (or regression, as some see it).
But when has it ever been a good idea to trust a master narrative? After all, the oft-repeated notion among self-described third-wavers that those labeled as hopelessly second-wave reject humor, fashion, sex or anything else that might be fun is just a slightly — and only slightly — more nuanced and polite version of the stone-faced, hairy-legged manhater whom we all know to be a myth that originated in the sexist culture at large and was cultivated and amplified by conservative, antifeminist and/or just plain clueless journalists and pundits.
The image of the frivolous young pseudofeminist has the same provenance. Take Time’s infamous June 29, 1998, cover story “Is Feminism Dead?,” for instance. In lambasting young women for being more interested in celebrity than the wage gap and seeing vibrators as more important than protests, writer Ginia Bellafante had to carefully ignore the vibrant anti-sweatshop movement spawning on college campuses at the time, or organizations like the Third Wave Foundation, feminist.com, SOUL, Home Alive or many of the other activist projects founded and run by women born in the ’70s and after.
When feminists engage in this kind of nuance-deprived conflation of age and ideology, we’re doing little more than reinscribing the thoroughly debunked notion that we need to agree with each other all the time.
As we all know, feminism has always held within it multitudes of ideologies, tactics and priorities. The movement’s two current generations have come to be painted as internally monolithic, but they are each as diverse philosophically as feminism itself — they have to be; they are feminism itself.
There are elements of both that are playful and take pop culture as both their medium and their subject matter: The 1968 Miss America protests defined the very start of the second wave, and their lineage extends to guerrilla theater groups like Ladies Against Women in the ’80s and the Radical Cheerleaders today.
Chronologically thirdwave publications such as Feminista! share their ideologies about pornography and sex work with Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. The riot grrls groups that sprang up in the early ’90s have clear connections to consciousness-raising groups. Last April’s hugely successful and inspiring March for Women’s Lives was intergenerational in both planning and attendance.
There’s certainly no shortage of disagreements both large and small within feminism. There are those who see transgender folks as interlopers in feminist spaces, and those who see genderqueers as the frontline soldiers against sexist systems of power.
There are those who would like to see “feminine” values replace “masculine” values as the defining characteristics of our society, and those who reject the very notion that these values have any gender apart from what’s been assigned by a sexist culture.
There are those who see gender as the overarching factor that shapes women’s oppression, and those who think that raising the minimum wage would achieve more feminist goals in one fell swoop than any other single act.
The issues motivating both sides of the ’80s sex wars are very much still with us. Even if some views are more common among one generation than another, at their roots these are ideological disagreements — but they can’t be discussed productively while in disguise as generational issues. That disguise keeps us distracted from the real work before the movement today.
Here’s what we all need to recognize so that we can move on: Those in their 20s and 30s who don’t see their concerns reflected in the feminism of their elders are ignorant of history; those in their 50s and beyond who think that young women aren’t politically active — or active enough, or active around the right issues — don’t know where to look.
We all want the same thing: To borrow bell hooks’ phrase, we want gender justice.
We may not all agree on exactly what it looks like or how to get it. We should never expect to agree. Feminism has always thrived on and grown from internal discussions and disagreements. Our many different and often opposing perspectives are what push us forward, honing our theories, refining our tactics, driving us toward a more thorough dismantling of the white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy (to borrow another phrase from hooks).
I want to see these internal disagreements continue. I want to see as much wrangling over them as ever. But I want them articulated accurately. And that means recognizing the generational divide for what it is — an illusion.
Lisa Jervis is the cofounder and publisher of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture and the editor at large of LiP: Informed Revolt. This piece is adapted from a speech given at the 2004 conference of the National Women’s Studies Association.
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