Pop feminism is a term that has evolved from ‘pop‘ or popular culture. It refers to a more palatable, populist, comforting form of feminism that placates the society and those in power. It preaches ‘girl power’- the idea that you can use individual strength to navigate unfair power systems, without questioning why those systems are there in the first place. It is a non-academic approach to feminism that is used to capitalise on the feminist discourse without addressing political, cultural or institutional biases.
Pop feminism is a watered down version of feminism that holds back, being comfortable in seeming to initiate gender based dialogues within existing structures, without really questioning them. Pop feminism also focuses mainly on cis-het, upper caste, upper class, non-disabled and neurotypical women.
Normalising misogyny through ‘girl power’
Pop feminism excuses misogynistic, sexist and oppressive behaviour under the guise of individual preference. While feminism is undeniably about choice and preferences, pop feminism twists that idea into normalising the acceptance of misogyny as a legitimate preference. If a woman opts to behave a certain way as a result of conditioning, internalised misogyny and oppression, pop feminism presents it as “free” will without investigating the basis of such a choice and whether or not it stems out of gendered expectations.
Examples for this kind of justification can be found in popular culture, mainly in characters primarily written by cis-het male writers. The character of Sweety (Nushratt Bharuccha) in Sonu ke Tiitu ki Sweety (2018) directed by Luv Ranjan, was shown as the manipulative, nagging wife. The actress justified it by saying that it was not misogynistic because the woman was choosing to be that way. This statement completely ignores the fact that the woman in question is a fictional character and is thereby not making any choices but enacting the choices the writers have made for her. This kind of acceptance of systemic, gendered stereotypes normalises them in the society by projecting that they are feminist. It is well received by the society because it is convenient, and does not upset the status quo, while also pretending to be progressive.
Pop feminism has also paved the way for creation of ‘strong female characters’. These are one-dimensional women characters who glare at all men except their (usually misogynistic) love interest, have their hair tied up or cut short, wear a shirt tucked into their pants and stand around with one hand always on their waist. They are always conventionally attractive. They may or may not have a fight scene where their makeup remains perfect. Examples of such characters include Rani Mukherjee in Mardaani 2 (2014, dir. Pradeep Sarkar), Anushka Sharma in PK (2014, dir. Rajkumar Hirani), Shraddha Kapoor in Saaho (2019, dir. Sujeeth), and Amy Jackson in Singh is Bliing (2015, dir. Prabhu Deva).
The so called strength or ‘boss girl power‘ is only cosmetic in the arcs of these characters. They ultimately hold very little decisive power in the plot and either submit to the superiority of the cis-het male lead or end up being unquestioning about the larger, structural, intersectional aspects of the feminist discourse. But pop feminism projects this characterisation as strong, feminist and ideal.
Essentially, pop feminism does not want you to smash patriarchy, but navigate it and pretend that it has stopped existing because of individual success. Its solution to oppression is not to take away the power to oppress but to distribute the power among a handful of privileged women. Instead of trying to dismantle patriarchy, it gives certain privileged women a position of power, pats itself on the back for its ‘feminism’ and continues to oil the gears of patriarchy.
These few women may gatekeep institutions from other women, as well as gender, sexual and social minorities, who are more oppressed than them. An example of this is Ekta Kapoor, who is lauded for being a woman producer, while she continues to profit from furthering misogynistic perceptions by making sexist operas like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (2000-2008), Bade Acche Lagte Hain (2011-2014) and Ye Hai Mohabbatein (2013-2019).
Gaslighting women, making it about personal struggles, enabling status quo
Pop feminism also gaslights women and other gender minorities into thinking that the system is equitable and they simply lack the strength, will power, skills or intelligence to be successful. It posits that since certain individual women have been able to navigate the system, everyone else can and should too, because ‘jinko karna hota hain, vo kar lete hain’ (those who want to do something, will find a way to do it). If the existence of the system is questioned, they are told to stop complaining and channel their inner ‘girl power‘.
Pop feminism does not challenge societal structures, and therefore, it is more appealing and easier to capitalise on. This leads to pink capitalism and rainbow capitalism, with companies profiting off gender-based struggles. There are many examples of this, such as Dabur selling fairness cream by showing queer women celebrating Karva Chauth, essentially using the LGBTQIA+ community to commodify colourism.
Other examples include the Paree sanitary napkin advertisements showing women performing wonders using their product, and Durex making their social media pages rainbow-themed. None of these companies do anything to help the groups they claim to care about, and a problem with their “optimistic” portrayal is that it pretends there are no oppressive power systems in place and that there are just personal hurdles to overcome.
Ultimately, pop feminism becomes an obstacle for feminism. It creates the impression of change, allowing people to pretend or believe that gender equality has already been achieved. It creates space for performative activism and invalidates the concerns raised by the feminist discourse. Pop feminism keeps trying to hand you a map to navigate the obstacles of patriarchy instead of trying to dismantle them. Its only purpose is to pacify and placate substantial feminism while enabling its commodification and co-opting it to make profit.