Although I’ve heard the term “fourth wave feminism” referenced in casual conversation, its contours remain fuzzy as a movement. A quick Google search reveals that the term has been bandied about for at least the last four years. Jennifer Baumgardner, a former Ms. magazine editor and current publisher and executive director of the Feminist Press at CUNY, described fourth-wavers in 2011 as “tech-savvy and gender-sophisticated.” In her 2011 book, F’em: Goo Goo Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls, Baumgardner takes a stab at defining the movement. She claims that the fourth wave is led by Millennials who (like me) have been raised in the culture of equality symbolized by initiatives like Take Your Daughter to Work Day. More importantly, we are the first generation to have grown up with the Internet. Baumgardner characterizes the fourth wave as pursuing more or less the same goals of the third—reproductive justice, trans inclusion, sexual-minority rights, intersectionality, and the deconstruction of privilege—while utilizing social media and other burgeoning technologies to spread their activist message.
Yet this definition seems flimsy, techno-utopian at best. While it is true, as Baumgardner suggests, that each successive wave of feminism carried over concerns from the previous generation, each wave has been grounded in a culture and theory all its own. Women’s liberation of the ’60s and ’70s was yoked to the civil rights movements of its day, categorized by what the postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak later called “strategic essentialism.” Third-wave feminism argued for broader critiques of race and class in addition to gender, while also advancing the theories of performativity and queerness grounded in the work of philosophers like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler.
On a broad social level, the impact of performativity theory cannot be understated. Like the liberationist discourse of the mid-century, the concept of gender as a performative, social construct has laid the groundwork for progressive political action. This theory led to the practice of depathologizing gender dysphoria—in the DSM V, it is no longer considered a mental illness—and subsequent trans-rights advances. Its denaturalizing of social and behavioral norms has also paved the way for conversations on marriage equality and critical studies about disability.
Yet we cannot deny that the concept of performativity, grounded as it is in the linguistic theory of utterances, has also been somewhat hollowed of meaning in recent years; it has become a cliché to connote past or potential movement. In the visual arts, the adjective “performative” can be lazily applied to the most static of objects, the most traditional modes of painting and sculpture. Moreover, with new expressions of gender made easier by the increasing availability of hormone therapy, sexual reassignment surgery, and even puberty-delaying drugs for trans children, performativity as we have come to know it no longer seems an adequate description of our gender reality. Can performativity as a daily repetition of outward signs of “passing” (dress, grooming, mannerisms, speech) circumscribe our new gender reality?
Beatriz Preciado, one of the most radical philosophers on gender, argues that new terms are needed. In an excerpt from her 2013 book Testo Junkie published in the April 2013 issue of e-flux journal, the writer details her experience applying topical testosterone—to which she is quickly hooked. She categorizes the contemporary era as one of “pharmacopornographic capitalism,” and that her experience with T links her to a series of biopolitical experiments and advances that have been growing in importance and invasiveness since World War II: “I’m the molecule and the State, and I’m the laboratory rat and the scientific subject that conducts the research; I’m the residue of a biochemical process. I am the future common artificial ancestor for the elaboration of new species in the perpetually random process of mutation and genetic drift.” For Preciado, the deregulation of testosterone and other biochemical technologies—“the materiality of gender”—is the first step toward revolution.
On the other end of the gender-rights continuum, as profiled in a recent New Yorker article by Michelle Goldberg entitled “What Is a Woman?”, radical feminists continue to recognize gender as a “caste system” of discrimination that one is born into. Among their most trenchant ranks, radfems are exclusionary toward trans people. They feel that trans women cannot understand the oppression shared by cis women, and trans men benefit from the privilege of passing as male. While this view strikes many feminists as unsympathetic, even hostile, radical feminists’ continued interest in topics like feminist ecology, and their fundamental belief in reproduction as the basis of oppression, bears rethinking. The issue of sustainability and critical consideration of humans’ brutal colonization of nature links up with the new materialism espoused by thinkers like Jane Bennett, who threads feminism and Marxism into her intellectual project to reconsider the ethical relationships between humanity, animals, and non-sentient “vibrant matter.” As female-identified artists and cultural workers continue to work in a political context where they experience not only a wage and visibility gap and a retrenchment of their reproductive choice, but also a redefinition of feminism’s scope and terms, it’s not only topical but vital to embody the fourth wave as they would like to see it.
WENDY VOGEL is online editor at Art in America.