Nobody likes a feminist. At least not according to researchers at the University of Toronto, following a study where it emerged that people still defer to stereotypes about "typical" feminist activists, stereotypes including "man-hating" and "unhygienic". These stereotypes are apparently seriously limiting the appeal of women's liberation as a lifestyle choice. Feminism is a mess, and needs to sort itself out. In order to be "relevant to young women today" it needs to shave its legs and get a haircut.
Elle seems to think so too. The fashion and beauty magazine, not a historically notable manual for gender revolution has weighed in this month with a spread on "rebranding feminism", asking three advertising agencies to give gender politics a nip, tuck and polish. The result is flowcharts and a lot of hot pink equivocation that airbrushes out the ugly, uncomfortable bits of women's liberation. Like the word feminism, which some people seem to have a problem with. They'd prefer us to consider men's feelings first when we speak about work, pay and sexual violence, to be less threatening, to dress it up; they'd prefer us to talk about "equalism" if we must speak at all. Those with a vested interest in the status quo would prefer young women to act more like they're supposed to – to make everything, including our politics, as pretty and pleasing as possible.
Those with a vested interest in the status quo would prefer young women to act more like they're supposed to – to make everything, including our politics, as pretty and pleasing as possible.
The rebranding of feminism as an aspirational lifestyle choice, a desirable accessory, as easy to adjust to as a detox diet and just as unthreatening, is not a new idea. Nor is ELLE magazine even the first glossy to attempt the task in recent years. But unfortunately there's only so much you can "rebrand" feminism without losing its essential energy, which is difficult, challenging, and full of righteous anger. You can smooth it out and sex it up, but ultimately the reason many people find the word feminism frightening is that it is a fearful thing for anyone invested in male privilege. Feminism asks men to embrace a world where they do not get extra special treats merely because they were born male. Any number of jazzy fonts won't make that easy to swallow.
It is not "young women today" who need to be convinced that feminism remains necessary and "relevant". Changing technology has shaken up a tsunami of activism around gender and politics, from initiatives like the Unslut project and Everyday Sexism to sea changes in culture like the backlash against sexual violence in India. In all of these movements, young women are leading the charge, along with a few fighters from older generations who have not been worn down by decades of mockery and marginalisation. While the fashion press and the beauty industry remain invested in the idea of young women as pliant, affable and terminally anxious about getting boys to like them, real women and girls are fighting back against a culture that persists in trying to present our desires and rebrand our politics as fluffy and marketable.
The stereotype of the ugly, unfuckable feminist exists for a reason – because it's still the last, best line of defence against any woman who is a little too loud, a little too political. Just tell her that if she goes on as she is, nobody will love her. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I've always believed that part of the point of feminist politics – part of the point of any sort of radical politics – is that some principles are more important than being universally adored, particularly by the sort of men who would prefer women to smile quietly and grow our hair out.
In the words of the early suffragist and civil rights campaigner Susan B Anthony: "Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest are willing to avow their sympathies with despised ideas and their advocates and bear the consequences."
I am not so very old, but I'm old enough to have noticed that the times in my life when I was most admired by men, the times when I was considered most likeable, were also the times when I was most vulnerable, most powerless and unsure of myself. The times when I've been strongest and most daring, the times when I've been proudest of my own achievements – that's when I've been called a difficult bitch. That's what women get to choose, now as much as at any point in history: how much we are willing to sacrifice to make men like us.