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In contrast to first-wave feminism, which focused on the right of a woman to vote, and second-wave feminism, which was centered around equality in the workplace and the fight for reproductive rights, third-wave feminism was mostly about fishnet stockings, excessive wordiness, and the belief that lesbian erotica is somehow empowering.
One of the primary differences between second-wave feminism and third-wave feminism lies in the way a feminist is expected to present herself. A second-wave feminist would dress in a smart business suit to better compete with men and would employ assertive but polite language. By comparison, a third-wave feminist would dress primarily in body piercings, tattoos, and tattered rags, and would frequently tell everyone within earshot that, fuck yes, she is a bitch and a slut, and what are you going to do about it, huh, bitch?
Third-wave feminism embraced contradictions and conflict, and accommodated diversity and change. There was, however no all-encompassing single feminist idea; while some third-wave feminists believed men to be unnecessary so long as lesbians continued to exist, others rejected such beliefs as extremist and maintained that the rightful place of an empowered woman is in the kitchen.
Activism and the third-wave agenda
Reclaiming derogatory terms
Third-wave feminists believed that it is better to change the meaning of a derogatory word than to censor it from speech, and engaged in a campaign to change the meanings of words such as spinster, bitch, whore, cunt, and menstrual. For example, in 1997, Meredith Brooks submitted the following text to Webster's dictionary for their consideration:
- -noun, plural bit-ches
- 1. A lover.
- 2. A child.
- 3. A mother.
- 4. A sinner.
- 5. A saint.
- 6. One who is unashamed.
Webster's categorically rejected Brooks' proposed definition as "fucking retarded," but her definition did eventually achieve the lesser glory of becoming one of the worst pop songs of the 1990s, and, indeed, the twentieth century.
Third-wave feminists did have somewhat greater success at reclaiming the word "spinster," frequently greeting each other with the salutation "What up, my spinsta?" Today, the word "spinster" is rarely used in a derogatory sense, as only dead first-wave feminists can remember what it meant in the first place. Or could, if they weren't dead.
A major tenet of third-wave feminism was that all women have the right to define themselves in multiple and sometimes apparently contradictory terms. For example, third-wave feminists believed that a woman should be able to unapologetically celebrate being, all at once, a sweetheart, a bitch, a soccer mom, a nun, and a prostitute.
This focus on self-definition was a reaction to second-wave feminism, which focused primarily on upper-middle class white women, who tended to define themselves in the same way because they were creepy Stepford clones of each other. Third-wave feminists felt that feminism should be more inclusive: they asserted that their ranks were comprised of not only businesswomen and female politicians, but also angsty girls in their early 20s sporting mangy dreadlocks and making far too many references to their vaginas. Interestingly, gatherings of third-wave feminists tended to be populated by that latter category, to the exclusion of all others.
The first wave of feminism did not concern itself with the objectification of women, because they were preoccupied with the right to vote, and, let's face it, no one wanted to see Susan B. Anthony in a thong, anyway. That's just fucking gross. However, by the 1970s, second-wave feminists became concerned that men were objectifying women by portraying them as sex symbols and hiring them to strut around half-nude, and that this objectification subtly undermined their struggle for legal and social equality.
However, a problem arose with this philosophy: many women actually enjoy bending over and licking a doorknob while a group of drunk men ogle their asses. Third-wave feminists addressed this dilemma by suggesting that women objectify themselves. They reasoned that as long as women were rude, aggressive, strung out, and hadn't bathed for several days, they were free to dress and act as provocatively as they desired.
This ethos gained traction as it was embraced by notable pop culture figures such as Courtney Love, Amy Winehouse, Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, and various other skanks. By the year 2000, it was difficult to find a fifteen-year-old girl anywhere in the United States who wasn't perpetually displaying the tops of her breasts.
The riot grrrrrrl movement
The underground feminist punk movement known as "riot grrrrrrl" is often credited as being the crucible in which third-wave feminism was forged. The movement began, as most social movements do, with a typo. In 1989, feminist writer Amy Richards, a notoriously sloppy typist, accidentally omitted the "i" in "girl," instead typing "grl." Rival author Jennifer Baumgardner added a second "r" to give the word a sexy growly sound, and Richards responded by adding a third "r." Things kind of got out of hand from there.
Riot grrrrrrl bands are considered a cornerstone of the third-wave feminist movement. Their philosophy could essentially be distilled down to three general statements: big corporations are bad, body modification is awesome, and men are pigs.
In 2006, the riot grrrrrrl movement officially packed it in when Sleater-Kinney co-founder and former lesbian Corin Taylor got married and pregnant - actions so un-riotous that the band became unable to maintain any semblance of credibility. As though to rub the point in the movement's face, she married a man with arguably the most phallic name in history: Lance Bangs.
Although riot grrrrrrl bands made critical contributions to third-wave feminism, music critics unanimously agree that they made no contributions whatsoever to music.