The categorisation of feminism into distinct subdivisions emphasising separate yet intertwined sociopolitical concerns dependent on the time period is a familiar concept to many, highlighting the rifts and progression that the history of feminism has faced. Each subsequent wave aimed to address either new or neglected concerns that feminists of the former generation had yet to tackle, with the fourth wave being the most recent – and arguably, the most distinct.
The fourth wave of feminism came about around 2012 and is markedly characterised by the use of internet activism, the empowerment of women, and an emphasis on intersectionality when tackling issues of equality. So, how exactly do these ideas play into the larger sphere of feminism – and what implications do they have for the next generation of women?
The turn of the twenty-first century was accompanied by the rise of the internet and the growing ubiquity of social media; technological tools that have become increasingly accessible and are, for the first time in history, able to be utilised as means of sociopolitical change. Suddenly, billions of people were almost instantaneously given a platform of greater magnitude than ever before, resulting in a plethora of marginalised groups collectively mobilising and having their voices heard in a newfound way.
One of the largest and most recognisable online movements, #MeToo, highlighted the widespread frequency of sexual harassment and led to millions of women publicly coming forward with their stories for the first time. Prominent celebrities soon followed suit, launching the movement to even greater heights and leading to worldwide media coverage, with women from all over the world coming forward. The #MeToo movement gained momentum across cultures and regions, appearing in Kenya, France, Mexico, Turkey, and Spain, amongst others. The results were significant: the ubiquity of sexual harassment was understood to be a global injustice, present across women of a range of socioeconomic status, race, religion, and sexuality. With more and more data being analysed, however, distinctive trends across certain groups became clear, and the globalism that accompanied fourth wave feminism led to a spotlight on an issue of great importance: intersectionality.
The recent focus on intersectionality aims to dismantle the clumping together of one singular experience of gender inequality and recognises that a plethora of power structures exist that enmesh with one’s individualistic identity, resulting in certain groups being disproportionality affected by gender violence and injustice. Examining the #MeToo movement under an intersectional lens, for example, showcases just how differently women’s accounts of sexual harassment are dismissed or received. Activist Kimberlé Crenshew draws attention to how stereotypical notions of which women are perceived as sexually attractive or undesirable dictates how likely their reports are to be believed or neglected. For example, the longstanding racist stereotype regarding Black women as hypersexual has led to their accounts of harassment often being readily dismissed. Similarly, when women with intellectual disabilities report sexual harassment, their credibility in recalling the incident is often undermined.
The physical location and the cultural environment of a nation also play a role in how a woman’s reports of sexual harassment are received, and instances of imminent physical danger remain a reality for many women. In Bangladesh, a nineteen-year-old student named Nusrat Jahan Rafi was set alight and murdered for coming forward with a report that her principal had sexually harassed her. In Pakistan, a prominent musician and actress Meesha Shafi came forward and accused actor Ali Zafar of sexual harassment in 2018, buther case was promptly dismissed by Pakistan’s courts, and she was victim to a number of social media attacks and death threats. While the #MeToo movement has undoubtedly made progress in empowering women to get their voices heard and create a global solidarity around shared injustices, it’s important to remain perceptive to the differences within these shared experiences.
Feminist scholar Anne-Emmanuelle Berger further sheds light on the importance of not letting a façade of one singular shared global experience of sexual harassment camouflage the uniquely oppressed reality of Black, trans, lesbian, and disabled women. She argues that certain perceptions of the #MeToo movement may be harmfully universalist, as it can send out the message that no matter who you are – Black, white, rich or poor – male exploitation of female sexuality occurs internationally and can hence be used as an encompassing blanket of a monolithic female experience, signalling a return to the formerly whitewashed brand of feminism reminiscent of the earlier waves. Now more than ever, an intersectional approach of feminism is needed in order to understand and fill in the gaps previous waves of feminism have been unable to. The accessibility of the internet has led to virtual protests and the sharing of lived experiences across different ethnic, racial, and sexual groups, providing women everywhere with an opportunity to hone in on these structural differences and work towards political, social, and cultural rectification for those who need it most.
Parry, D. (2018). Feminisms in Leisure Studies: Advancing a Fourth Wave. Milton: Routledge.
Irma Erlingsdóttir, & Chandra, G. (2021). The Routledge Handbook of the Politics of the #MeToo Movement. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.