A new wave: the rise of dissociative feminism

26 July 2022
By Isabelle Truman

Disillusioned by the girlboss era and lack of change, why are some stepping away from activism & empowerment and hitching their wagon to a messier ‘Fleabag’ vibe?

Image: Gallerystock.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but sometime in the past couple of years, there was a significant feminist vibe shift. Friends and social media acquaintances went from posting calls to action on Canva-created graphics to sharing ironic memes about the same situations. Serious captions were replaced with self-deprecating ones and being a messy bitch was deemed far hotter than being earnest. Suddenly, it felt embarrassing to care too much about, well, everything. Women began to reassess their relationship with work because capitalism is gross and so too is girlbossing, resulting in 2021 being dubbed the year of the ‘Great Resignation’. Yet so too were we switching off from things we should prioritise a lot more than climbing the career ladder: climate change, equality and even the likes of Me Too.

This transition was dubbed “dissociative feminism” by writer Emmeline Clein in a late-2019 piece for Buzzfeed titled ‘The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating’. Clein cited the likes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag as an example, using the character’s messy, self-deprecating and self-destructing traits, and women’s obsession with glamorising those traits online, as proof of what she’d been seeing play out among those around her.

“Maybe it’s a curdling of the hyperoptimistic, #girlboss, ‘Run the World (Girls)’ feminism of the aughts, characterised by an uneasy combination of plaintive begging and swaggering confidence that gender equality was just past the horizon line,” she wrote. “But Sex and the City and Cosmo tutorials on how to come didn’t make much of a crack in the bell jar. So instead we now seem to be interiorising our existential aches and angst, smirking knowingly at them and numbing ourselves
to maintain our nonchalance.”

Instead of being anxiety-ridden and neurotic like Girls’ Hannah Horvath, whose flaws made her unlikeable for some viewers, Fleabag instead raises her eyebrows at the camera and smirks when she messes up, ready with a witty and darkly sarcastic line. Her attitude — and that of the real-life Waller-Bridge, who puffed on cigarettes in a designer gown while holding the awards she won for the show — made both the character and the woman behind her instant icons.

At the time, Clein was ahead of the trend. Though it was slowly happening all around us, it took two years for the culture to really start analysing what she’d already assessed. When the original article was shared on TikTok recently, it immediately went viral. “This is so spot on,” I wrote to a friend, sending her the link via WhatsApp. “Wow, I was literally just watching that and about to send it to you,” she replied.

Not only had I noticed, but not yet pinpointed, a societal and cultural shift, I’d also been experiencing a personal one. I used to passionately speak and write about climate change, and was an outspoken feminist who’d attend marches and vigils and cry when the name of another innocent victim of violence against women would show up on the news. But recently I’ve felt disengaged, tired and as though nothing I do really changes anything. It doesn’t matter how far along in the conversation we get, there’ll still be a voice replying, “Not all men!” and for every plastic straw we avoid, there’s a politician planning a new coal mine in Australia. 

Image: Gallerystock.

This rhetoric is shared by many women around me and it makes sense: the pandemic made clear the limitations of capitalism and how little those with real power want to change a structure that benefits them immensely, and after years of being sold the girlboss dream, only to realise alongside girlbossing comes gaslighting and gatekeeping, we’re suffering from empowerment exhaustion. This is something founder and editor of independent feminist publication Polyester, Ione Gamble, says is at the heart of dissociative feminism. “This shift is definitely a reaction to the extreme posi-vibes feminism that has dominated social discourse in the past decade or so,” she says.

“We’ve been told that loving ourselves is the key to all happiness, to lift women up regardless of whether we agree with them and that empowerment is ours for the taking. I think people are exhausted and realising that feminism isn’t as simple as slogan T-shirts would have us believe. As we come out the pandemic, it’s hard to feel optimistic about the future, and part of the dissociative feminist discourse online is a bit tongue in cheek. It’s a presentation of the fact that we’re not all perfect; we’re messy and annoying and not always right. These facets of our existence were suppressed in the girlboss feminism era.”

This state of being is not only an internal shift among women, it’s being reflected back through tangible cultural trends too. Thanks to TikTok, the fashion cycle is moving faster than ever. It churned through the ’90s and early aughts at lightning speed, and most recently, Y2K made way for the return of indie sleaze. For this, being messy is a key component to looking the part, and Skins’ Effy Stonem’s cool nonchalance is its face. Last year, the New York Times declared “smoking is back”, revealing that in 2020, for the first time in two decades, cigarette sales had increased. On the most recent New York Fashion Week runway, ultimate dissociative cool-girl brand Eckhaus Latta sent models down the runway smoking lit cigarettes as Red Scare podcaster and actress Dasha Nekrasova — a poster child of dissociative feminism — sat front row. Indie sleaze is the look; dissociative feminism is the feel.

Fashion’s new focus coincides with a move away from wellness. Instead of Goopifying your life with green juice and eight-hour sleeps, social media, beauty brands and catwalks are pivoting to glorifying partying all night, the sleeping-with-your-best-friend’s-boyfriend Fleabag stage and arriving at work in last night’s make-up. As Glossier struggles (the brand recently laid off a third of its staff), skincare brands such as 4AM, which held its launch at a New York club, are taking off with slogans like 4AM’s “We’re not here to fix your bad habits”. Bottom line: be messy.

I’ve noticed this regurgitated online too, through people who, in lieu of finstas (secondary ‘fake Instagram’ accounts used to document their more ‘real’ moments), post messy ‘close friends’ content (to many more people than their actual close friends) in a bid to prove they’re low-maintenance. Model Bella Hadid posts herself eating pizza and partying more than she shows herself working out, even though in reality the scale would be tipped overwhelmingly in the other direction. In fact, despite having the grid of a naughties party girl, she recently admitted she doesn’t even drink alcohol. 

With all we’ve survived over the past few years, is making nihilistic jokes helping to alleviate the doom really such a bad thing? Well, actually, yes, when it’s to the detriment of others. Recently, trans activist Munroe Bergdorf shared a statement to her Instagram after she received a comment from an angry follower who called her “selfish” and “disgusting” for not sharing enough “activism” content recently. Bergdorf explained that the past five years of being a face at the forefront of a movement has taken an immense toll on her physical and mental wellbeing, so much so that she suffered from a “complete breakdown” at the end of 2021 and had to seek help for PTSD, anxiety and depression at an inpatient facility. “Navigating life as a person of multiple marginalised experiences is hard enough,” she wrote. “I had been living in survival mode way past the point of burnout.”

For Bergdorf, dissociating has been an important coping mechanism. But for many, to have the opportunity to dissociate is to be incredibly privileged. As Clein cited in her Buzzfeed piece, in writer Rebecca Liu’s article about the “archetypal Young Millennial Woman”, Liu points out that the characters in Girls, Fleabag and Sally Rooney novels are “pretty, white, cisgender and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive. Often described as relatable, she is, in actuality, not.”

Bergdorf can dissociate online, but she still has to live in a dangerous world. For others, namely white, cisgender women, dissociating means turning away from supporting, helping and elevating others who need it. “Giving up on progress is perhaps the epitome of white feminism, and promotes a nihilism that is somewhere between unproductive and genuinely dangerous,” writes Clein.

Gamble, whose soon-to-be-released book Poor Little Sick Girls discusses these very notions, agrees. “To dissociate is to detach — and it’s always easiest for those who don’t rely on the social progress of movements such as feminism to discard them when it no longer serves them,” she explains. “When this happens, the most marginalised communities are left with their rights being stripped back, while the rest of the world focuses on a good time. We need a middle ground!”

Currently, we’re turning away from the girlboss era but not towards anything. Instead, we’re arriving in a limbo pit of despair, looking towards a post-feminist world that doesn’t seek to dismantle any of the structures we live under. “We’re all under the assumption that we can only exist in extreme irony or extremely earnestly — I don’t believe either are helpful,” says Gamble. “Being messy, hot and not giving a fuck is really fun, but you can most definitely still be the former and believe in social politics and be tuned in. Maybe it’s because we’re only susceptible to commodification if we exist at extreme opposites, whereas the reality is we don’t want to ditch all the groundwork that fourth-wave feminism laid out, but rather find a way to make it work for us that isn’t packed full of meaningless platitudes and cringe sentiment.”

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