"Coming up we have the newest leader of the modern feminist movement..." touts the perky news anchor. Eyebrow raised, I curiously direct my gaze towards the television. The dramatic headline left me intrigued; it's not every day that issues of gender inequality are given publicity in mainstream media. I listen intently as a bubbly young woman appears on the screen, excitedly discussing her new book/movie/song/etc. that supposedly advocates strongly for women's rights. I nod my head in eager agreement, impressed by the woman's intellectual commentary, until I comprehend her offensive comment, or condescending tone, or the lack of diversity in her project. Seriously? I roll my eyes and turn off the TV with a sigh. Why do people like that get the most attention?
Now, don't get me wrong, I appreciate anyone who is working to end the oppression of marginalized groups. But activist movements are extremely diverse, and a conscious effort must be made to fight for everyone. There is no feminism without working towards equal rights for low-income and minority women. There are no gay rights without demanding action for thousands of homeless LGBTQ youth. Considering this, I've always found it unsettling that the "activists" who garner the most attention only advocate for a small subset of the overall movement, blatantly ignoring the complexity of equal rights issues in favor of their own brand of justice. I scoffed at Lena Dunham for claiming to represent women on her TV show Girls while excluding women of color from the main cast (especially since the show takes place in NYC, one of the most diverse cities in the world). I rolled my eyes as white, straight rapper Mackelmore received praise for supporting gay rights while actual LGBTQ hip hop artists go largely unnoticed. I discreetly shoved Sheryl Sandberg's book under my bed after receiving it as a (well-meaning) gift; there is only so much leaning in I can do as an African American girl before centuries-old oppressive barriers push me right back out. I chuckled as my classmates flaunted their "socially conscious" TOMS shoes or posted a Facebook status about KONY 2012, as those Western organizations favored their own desire for a profit over making any significant impact on the well-being of Africans. While it may seem like I'm overly critical, these instances are all too common and are ultimately harmful despite their good intentions.
From what I've observed, although these popular activists do oppose one form of discrimination, they frequently enforce other oppressions by failing to recognize the overlapping tendencies of marginalization. So, why are the most one-dimensional advocates often deemed spokespeople for movements far more vast than their tunnel vision allows? The most apparent reason is the fact that society shuns anything seen as radical. Thus, the people who push for assimilation instead of liberation (i.e. leaning in instead of eliminating gender inequalities) are usually given more attention because they don't threaten the current societal hierarchy. Their diluted versions of activism provide people with the self-esteem boost from supporting a cause without the risk of ostracizing themselves. By utilizing their inherent privilege, whether it is race, class, familial connections or corporate power, these activists can gain widespread publicity while usurping the control from truly oppressed people who need representation. What eventually results is a group of popular advocates who bear a striking resemblance to the people who imposed the obstacles in the first place.
In order to fix this disparity within social activism, the media has to stop favoring the ideas and opinions of those who have already made it to the top over those who are struggling to get there. The voices of people who regularly experience inequality should be amplified in order to form more inclusive movements. As a teenager, my generation is largely aware of the need for equal rights for all and represents a large portion of many campaigns. My peers and I need to dig deeper within the issues we care about and not rely on mainstream media to properly educate us on current events. Additionally, our (albeit excessive) use of social media can be utilized for good by providing access to a wide variety of viewpoints. Finally, as we navigate our way into adulthood, supporting people who strive to represent us in their movements will undoubtedly lead to positive change for years to come.