The Fourth and Fifth Waves


by Eleanor Courtemanche

Everyone knows the first 3 waves of feminism: the first was the political fight for women’s suffrage (let’s say 1880-1920), the second was the revival of the struggle around issues of sexual and financial freedom, inspired by the Civil Rights movement (around 1965-1980), and the third is whatever the hell happened after 1980. Various candidates for what counts as Third Wave include the expansion of the white women’s struggle to women of color, a new openness to gay rights, the rise of queer theory, the revaluation of femme fashion choices (but absolutely not in a backlashy way), sex-positive feminism, and the expansion of academic women’s studies to other groups defined by gender, such as masculinity or trans studies.

It’s clear we’re now in a different moment, albeit one that incorporates elements of the previous movements. Wikipedia says we are currently in a “fourth wave,” linked to the revival of open feminist activism around 2012. But I’d like to muddy the waters by suggesting that we have actually experienced two separate waves of feminism since Y2K, and that they are quite different from each other. Both of them are mediated more or less through internet communication: the fourth through blogs and chat rooms, and the fifth through social media.

Here’s my suggestion for what constituted fourth wave feminism—a phenomenon that went under the radar because it was explicitly opposed to academic feminism, and was considered too trivial to be interesting to the national media. Fourth wave feminism was the rise of girls’ fan culture on the internet in response to popular culture.

Hear me out! The early 2000s were an age when the internet rapidly democratized and we found out what people really care about: cat pictures and porn. (It was not, as I mention here, the cyberpunk dystopia our science fiction had prepared us for.) In this cultural turmoil, new communities formed around fan groups, some of the first of which were the communities around TV recap sites. The best of these was probably Television Without Pity, which originated in 1998 as a recap site for the teen drama Dawson’s Creek, and by 2002 had expanded its focus to 30 shows.

Eventually, with the rise of prestige TV, recap culture was integrated into the rest of entertainment journalism. (This article by Alison Herman tells the story.) The writing was personal, funny, irreverent, and addictive—it was an entirely new voice, and one that rapidly spread to the rest of the internet. The recappers and their communities identified fiercely with the characters and their bad choices, and “shipped” characters they longed to see in romantic relationships.

From the perspective of academic literary criticism this point of view is a basic category error: as Linda Holmes recalls in Herman’s article, “It’s easy to think ‘they’re getting angry at a fictional character.’” Fiction is not life, and fictional characters are not real people: this is the basic epistemological bracket within which all literary criticism takes place (though this point gets fudged all the time when we talk about the important historical context of works of art). The idea of “caring” about the characters is not totally scorned, but it’s considered a little immature: literary study means also learning to consider the characters’ actions from a more distanced perspective in the context of the work as a whole.

So there was a true gulf here between academic and popular responses to these TV shows, even though the idea that popular culture is worthy of study was not itself controversial in the academy (see Anne Jamison’s 2013 Fic: Why Fan Fiction is Taking Over The World.) Both in academia and in entertainment journalism, a bit of lingering sexism also made pop culture aimed at boys (like Star Wars) seem just a little more serious than the “trivial” romances aimed at girls (like Twilight). Imagine Fredric Jameson writing about Twilight!

But was this really a new wave of feminism, in particular? Many other marginalized groups and voices also seized this opportunity to have an impact—think, for example, of the impact of African-American fan communities on twitter as they discovered they could boost the ratings of Scandal by live-tweeting it on Thursday nights. However, I believe we can’t understand what’s happening in feminism today unless we understand what was happening in the early 2000s outside the academy and traditional understandings of activist politics. This moment changed feminism in 3 ways:​

1. It was highly democratic, inviting in people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, including tweens, teens, and older women. The only requirement was access to a television and some kind of linked computer. You didn’t need a college degree to understand the community’s codes—all you needed was an opinion.

2. It was based on passionate enthusiasms that were both shared and highly individualistic. This kind of enthusiasm (often for swoony romance genres or dumb reality shows) had been kept at arm’s length by the other waves of feminism, and especially the academic kinds, which were eager to prove that women were not hysterical but in fact deeply learned and professional. It overturned Gen X’s penchant for cynical grownup approaches to culture, and was in harmony with what would become the millennial mood of creative collaboration (with a bit of faux-infantile absurdism). Feminism was about to lose the slight air of elitist snobbery that separated it from girlish play.

3. It was powerfully inclusive of all sexual orientations and experiences—as long as they were consensual. As I noticed here, it sidestepped a lot of complicated ‘90s gender theory and drew directly on the experience of frustrated desire we associate with the teen years. Shows that showcased this openness to queer experiences—like the optimistic TV series Glee, which premiered in 2009—were rewarded by ardent fan bases.

The fourth wave gave new confidence to teens and young women, helping them feel their voices mattered and that they were understood by networks of people like themselves. At the same time, the relation to celebrity was one of direct and probably unhealthy over-identification, blurring the lines between reality and entertainment just like reality TV was doing, and by extension Trump’s political career would do. A more inclusive popular culture was the goal of the fourth wave; undramatic matters such as abortion access and getting more women to vote were less compelling. Just as the second wave was inspired by the other liberation movements of the ‘60s, the fourth wave shared its essential shape with the fun-loving, infantile, oversharing, and profoundly democratic spirit of the internet in the 2000s.

As for the fifth wave, with its organized political activism, its radical fight against sexual abuse on every level, and its keen distress at the overwhelming pressure of entrenched misogyny—I feel that began precisely in August 2014, around the time the internet began to suck. Trolls and flame wars had been endemic to internet communication since the days of e-mail, but Gamergate was something new. We now can see that the gangs of organized trolls who gleefully doxxed female tech journalists for the crime of being SJWs were inspired by Steve Bannon, who would use the same techniques to catalyze the rise of the alt-right in 2016.

August 2014 was also the month Beyoncé famously used the then-shocking word “Feminist” as the backdrop to her song “***Flawless” at the VMA’s, as well as the month of the protests in Ferguson, MO that would give rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The moment of the fourth wave, which rejected conventional political action in favor of individual personal testimony, was passing. Everything got darker, more intense, and more horrifying—we were plunged into an information war of which the stakes were very real. The fifth wave looks more like the second wave, and so we recognize it as “feminism,” whereas the fourth wave—which avoided the vocabulary of “opposition” and “fighting” in favor of identificatory feelings and personal stories—didn’t feel like a noticeable shift, even though it radically transformed the way women articulated their experiences.

Two separate waves of feminism within twenty years! Neither of them will reflect every woman’s interests, but together they have massively expanded the ways women can talk about their experiences in public, and inch closer to a recognition of collective possibilities. For those of us who grew up feeling that feminism had basically done its work, the past few decades have been nothing but wake-up call after wake-up call.

Piece originally published at Arcade under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Image via Michelle Jia / Flickr.

About the Author:

Eleanor Courtemanche teaches Victorian literature and economic thought at the University of Illinois, with occasional digressions into pop culture and media theory. Her book about Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and the construction of moral outcomes in complex Victorian novels was published in 2011.