Poet Tayi Tibble on young women, feminism and power

14 May 2019
By Fashion Quarterly

In a world that sometimes feels bleak, you can disappear into the darkness or you can shine. Poet Tayi Tibble, winner at the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, explores millennials and their relationship with feminism, social media and power.

Young women today are burning for a future, but the future we imagined for ourselves no longer exists. A future at all might no longer exist. The international political climate, and climate change itself, seems so uncertain that it’s easy to feel like we’re living in the last days.

Maybe we are. Look at any timeline, any newsfeed, and there will generally be enough horror to make you want to lie down and never get back up again – and yet despite it all, young women are getting back up and working hard and partying hard, and looking good on the ’gram while doing it.

The life of a millennial today… Apparently all we do is complain, wear pink and take selfies for our Instagrams – and it’s true, we love pink, we love selfies, we love Instagram. I don’t think we love complaining as passionately, but we do enjoy a healthy vent over two-for-one cocktails.

But as well as being fabulous, we’re also working extremely hard. Everyone I know is constantly on the grind, hustling and working multiple jobs just to pay the bills. My friend said to me the other day, “aren’t we lucky to live in this creative city, all working so hard, with absolutely no savings?” I felt that. I felt that deep in my electronic millennial soul.

Which is why whenever I encounter uninspired millennial slander like “lazy” or “entitled”, I find myself so bored that my eyes automatically roll to the back of my head to see if I still have a brain. Turns out, I do. Hello, it’s 2019 and women can like pink and upload bikini pics and still be thoughtful members of society. They’re not mutually exclusive.

Women are multifaceted. We just want our cake and a snap before we eat it too.

We’re not entitled, but we did grow up with expectations that the world would be willing to work with us. We’re the generation born into third-wave feminism, whose mothers went to work. As soon as we started school, we were encouraged to have career ambitions. All our hopes seemed possible and elevated by our location.

We felt fortunate to have been born in progressive, green New Zealand, the first country to give women the vote. We have Aunty Jenny, Helen and Jacinda. We have Kate Sheppard on our $10 note.

But at the same time, while our mothers were working, we were being raised as dual citizens of America. We sat in front of the television and were exposed to Hollywood’s glorious and gory Technicolor.

We grew up with Britney, Lindsay and Miley. We’re a generation that reminisces as fondly about the tacky 2000s shows on MTV as we do about our family Christmases. Our idols of womanhood and femininity were also idols of fame and celebrity, sometimes debauchery. We grew up accustomed to voyeurism and exhibitionism, wanting to look and be looked at.

So we entered womanhood with both drive and stars in our eyes, believing in the American Dream. We thought that if we worked hard we could attain the lives we aspired to as children. We soon realised that the world we imagined couldn’t accommodate us or didn’t exist anymore. Instead, we live burdened with astronomical rents, jobs that don’t pay enough and debilitating student debt.

And despite the diet of Spice Girls’ messages of girl power we’ve been raised on, we still exist in a world where men like Trump are put in positions of power. Where one percent of the population owns more than 50 percent of the world’s wealth. Where the damage done to the planet is near irreversible.

It’s enough to make anyone, even the starry-eyed young, feel hopeless. Other times it feels laughable, like living in a satire. It’s seems that everyone in this social media age is both aware of the precariousness of the world and numb to it.


Lana Del Rey sang about it on her album Lust for Life – the rising temperatures, kids going crazy, dancing while the world is at war. Janelle Monáe sings about it too. “Let’s get screwed!” she sings. “I don’t care. You f*cked the world up now we’ll f*ck it all back down.” And that’s precisely it. The world seems so dire sometimes that having fun seems radical and subversive.

And that’s what a lot of young women do. We’re all out here trying to live our best lives, despite how hard that is to do. Our Instagrams are filled with pictures of the best bits – parties, dinners out, trips and selfies on the days when our makeup is popping.

Of course, certain anxieties can grow from this perfected culture, and the pressure of having to constantly perform as a woman can be paralysing, especially if you get caught up in comparing your reality to someone else’s filtered online highlights.

But, for the most part, young woman today are comfortable existing in the space between reality and digital artifice. We were raised on it, and we find a kind of autonomy in curating our online presence. Sometimes it feels like it’s the only control we have.

We’re no longer clueless consumers of photoshopped blondes shot through the male lens. We can curate the content we’re exposed to based on which accounts we follow. And for marginalised groups who’ve often been excluded or misrepresented by mainstream media, user-generated media has revolutionised the way we can be seen and see ourselves.

Of course, whenever a woman makes herself visible in a way that’s not readily consumable and targeted towards men, she faces criticism. I’ve seen a lot of harassment of women online by men who will defend themselves by believing that if a woman puts herself on the internet she’s asking for his opinion. It comes from the same part of the unevolved brain that says the way a woman dresses correlates to how deserving she is of sexual assault.

It’s not as if IRL is any safer for women. Women get catcalled and harassed while walking to work. At least when a creep slides into my DMs, I have the ability to screenshot the message and post it to a group chat. Also, a block button.

I ride for the women who smash that block button, who don’t feel ashamed for taking up space or taking a selfie.

In a world that can seem so bleak, as a young woman it often feels like there are only two options: you can either disappear into the darkness or you can shine.

So I admire the girls packing on the highlighter, going out, having fun and adding the evidence to their Instagram. We might not have access to the lives we imagined as children. International politics might be frightening, the cost of living might be rising, and the world might be getting hotter. But so are we.

A good future might not be guaranteed. A future at all might not be guaranteed. But if I’m scrolling through my feeds and see a total babe smiling and thriving, at least it’s a good day. I’ll comment with an excessive suite of love-heart emojis. I want her to know she’s doing okay.

Tayi Tibble is a Wellington-based writer and poet who published her first collection of poems, Poūkahangatus (Victoria University Press, $20), last year. She is a finalist in the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

This article originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly, Issue 1, 2019.


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