Girl Power Messaging Hides A Dark Reality: Things Haven’t Changed
A demonstrator holds a sign that reads Girl Power during the Women's March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2018. (Photographer: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg)

Girl Power Messaging Hides A Dark Reality: Things Haven’t Changed

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“Mama you have to listen to my new favourite song,” 10-year-old Babyjaan said. I’ve referred to my daughter by this name in my writing for the last decade, though I’m expecting her to revolt any day now. “Please no,” I replied. “I find it difficult to appreciate the music you listen to.”

Girl Power Messaging Hides A Dark Reality: Things Haven’t Changed

Eventually, I relented and she played me Ava Max’s Kings & Queens. The song begins with, “If all of the kings had their queens on the throne, we would pop champagne and raise a toast, to all of the queens who are fighting alone, baby, you’re not dancin’ on your own.”

Sweet enough, although I couldn’t help feeling irritated that even in 2021, feminist pop songs need kings to push queens onto the throne and that queens can only exist in relation to these kings. I made a mental note to introduce Babyjaan and her friends to Madonna – “Long stem roses are the way to your heart but, he needs to start with your head…you deserve the best in life, so if the time isn’t right then move on, second best is never enough, you’ll do much better baby on your own…”.

As marketers effectively monetise women’s anger that has exploded these past few years, fourth-wave feminists are being exposed to an avalanche of mostly mediocre girl power messaging that doesn’t change a thing in the world around them.

Our girls are bombarded with a punchy new vocabulary: brave, bold, fierce, rebel. While this is great at one level, it’s important to remember that this twister of powerful terms that lifts them and makes them feel like they can fly, eventually deposits them in the same unjust world where only they seem to have heard the songs and read the books and seen the movies.

In Netflix’s new teen movie Moxie, a high school rebellion is stoked by a zine produced anonymously by an angry girl. Female students begin to question everything from dress code rules to discriminatory treatment meted out to the women’s football team. The climax makes a weak attempt to tackle the issue of sexual violence against young women.

On the same platform, The Bold Type, yet another take on Sex and the City, airbrushes the struggles of young working women, in impeccably-styled, fast feminism episodes. These are just two examples in an ocean of similar ‘women-oriented’ content, available in the form of books, poetry, movies, and more. Even I recently succumbed and bought a book of poems titled She Is Fierce. No, I wouldn’t recommend it.

For a while now, Babyjaan’s library has been full of stories of women who beat the system. Most of them focus on achievement, only mentioning in passing how difficult society made it for these women to succeed. One exception is Penelope Bagieu’s Brazen, an illustrated book that dwells on the messy battles of women for/against everything and everyone, from dictators and violent husbands to accusations of immodesty and the right to work as a gynaecologist in ancient Athens (where women were prohibited from practising medicine).

Most of the messaging today puts the onus of fighting injustice on women themselves. Despite all the feminist remakes of cult films and all the news stories devoted to Daniel Craig handing over his coveted 007 tag to a woman in the next James Bond film, the reality is still heavily skewed against us.

In this real-world, men still get paid more than women. Supreme Court justices still tell women to marry their rapists. A global pandemic results in more sexual violence against women across the world. The weight of unpaid care work that most women carry quietly only increased this past year.

When will we revamp curricula to ensure they study our histories in school? When will everyone see the world through our eyes?
School girls gather around a hand pump to wash their food plates in Lalgarh, West Bengal. (Photographer: Adeel Halim/Bloomberg News)
School girls gather around a hand pump to wash their food plates in Lalgarh, West Bengal. (Photographer: Adeel Halim/Bloomberg News)

Aside: My pet micro-peeve: even young girls’ t-shirts are now shaped differently from boys, to be body-hugging rather than fall straight.

In 2020, 25 years after the historic Beijing Platform For Action, a United Nations Women report said that “progress towards gender equality is faltering and hard-won advances are being reversed”. Yes, reversed.

“Rampant inequality, the climate emergency, conflict, and the alarming rise of exclusionary politics all threaten future progress towards gender equality,” the report said. If you read the news, you know that women are leading political resistance movements against authoritarian governments and getting jailed for speaking up in many countries across the world.

Some of its other findings: 32 million girls are still not in school; men control three-quarters of parliamentary seats; less than two-thirds of women aged 25-54 are in the labour force, compared to more than nine out of 10 men.

So enough with the Girl Power messaging. For things to really change, we’ll just have to nurture our rage, read more Maya Angelou, and be brazen enough to fight battles despite the lack of resources available to us.

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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