June 4, 2018

Phases of feminism across the 15-year cultural excitement cycle

So far I've been detailing a 15-year cycle in the excitability of pop music, which progresses in three phases of five years each -- an easily identifiable bouncy manic phase where energy levels are spiking, followed by a mellow vulnerable phase when those levels crash into a refractory period, and winding back toward normal with a restless warm-up phase where people are able to be stimulated again but have not yet taken off into the next manic spike.

Although the pattern is clear for pop music, the question arises how much more broadly it applies to other cultural domains. A recent post showed that it affects the kind of kinesthetic hobbies that people take up, such as people in the manic phase turning to dance props that are normally used in rhythmic gymnastics -- hula hoops, ropes, tethers, sticks, and so on. That is a kinesthetic activity, not necessarily a musical one, though they interact well together.

Thinking over some other cultural phenomena that distinguished the manic phase of the early 2010s, the whole Social Justice Warrior movement stood out. It's died off in the past few years, just as the manic phase of pop music ended, and it has nothing to do with Trump since it wasn't there for most of Obama's first term either.

The strain of SJWs that really shouted "manic" was the revival of pro-slut feminism -- most notably the marches called, unabashedly, "Slutwalk". The point was to declare, "We're in such a manic state that we're going to strut around in public while dressed like sluts, and act provocatively -- but that doesn't mean we want anyone hitting on us, let alone touching us. We're just in a really exhibitionistic mood -- and don't confuse that with sluttiness (not that there's anything wrong with sluttiness)."

Aside from Slutwalk, girls exhibited themselves at the then-popular gay pride parades, took pole dance fitness classes (and uploaded videos on YouTube to show everyone else), minced around in their underwear on No Pants Subway Ride day, turned toplessness into activism -- #FreeTheNipple -- and wore painted-on yoga pants no matter where they went. The overall message was "Don't body-shame me" and "don't slut-shame me," the rallying cry of exhibitionists.

Belle Knox, a porn girl who was attending Duke at the time, made the case that doing porn was empowering because she was choosing to get sexually abused -- wielding agency -- rather than being the unwilling victim of sexual abuse (as she obviously had been while growing up). She also rationalized the act by saying it blew up stereotypes about porn girls only being dumb druggies, now even upper-middle class girls at Good Schools can get molested on camera for posterity.

And typical of feminists during the manic phase, Anita Sarkeesian made a brand for herself by complaining about female characters in video games being portrayed as cloistered damsels in distress, when they ought to be strutting around doing their own in-your-face thang, like the girls in the Slutwalk marches.

Five years later, it's hard to believe any of that happened, let alone that it was the defining cause of feminism at the time. But then feminism has had little coherence or consistency across time, other than "What women are asserting themselves about today".

The issues they feel like asserting themselves about change in a regular rhythm that alternates between the three phases of the cultural excitement cycle -- exhibitionism and demands for more agency during the manic phase, followed by withdrawal and demands for more protection from male predators during the refractory phase, ending with a resting phase where they are neither one nor the other, capable of being excited back into exhibitionism yet still open to discussion about how dangerous it is to put yourself out there.

Rather than conduct an in-depth tour of the history of feminism since the 1950s, I'll just list the distinguishing feminist phenomena of each five-year period, and you can look them up if they don't ring a bell. These topics came up as I read over the various Wikipedia articles on different waves and sub-waves of feminism, from the 1950s to today. They are not things that I had to think of on my own, subject to cherry-picking.

I'll group them by phase of the excitement cycle, to show how similar the periods were despite being 15 years apart each time, owing to their identical placement in the cycle. For the entries in the refractory phase, I'll remark what they were in reaction to during the previous manic phase, to give a sense of the dynamics.

And I'll only look at the manic and refractory phases, since my survey turned up little that was unique to the restless warm-up phase. It tends to have issues from the refractory phase carrying over, as well as sowing the seeds for the next manic phase. That's typical of the resting state of an excitable system -- it's a fairly neutral, nondescript state where it can actually take some stimulation, unlike the refractory phase, but has not taken off into the characteristic spike yet.

The "women's issues" here are from the domains that are relevant to changing levels of excitement, namely sexuality and physical appearance. I did not notice any strong pattern about kinship relations, like motherhood or husband-wife roles, but maybe someone who knows the history better will be able to tell. There was no clear pattern either for how women's issues related to economic issues or racial / ethnic issues -- and it's hard to see how they would relate to the dynamics of cultural excitement, rather than changes in the economy or in community relations. But who knows? This is the purely social-cultural kind of feminism.

Manic phase mood: invincible exhibitionism

When people are in a manic phase, they feel invincible, hence eager to take greater risks, which in turn leads to a greater sense of agency. In the domain of sexuality and appearance, what is dangerous for women is to just put themselves all out there, since some of the spectators may interpret it as an invitation to approach, touch, or molest. Thus, the major themes are sexual agency and exhibitionism.

Early '50s - Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Playboy founded.

Late '60s - Masters & Johnson's Human Sexual Response, the Summer of Love, free love, "Make love, not war," and the Sexual Revolution generally.

Early '80s - Sex-positive feminist victory during the feminist sex wars (in favor of porn, S&M, prostitution, promiscuity).

Late '90s - Girl Power in many media, lipstick feminism, The Vagina Monologues, re-claiming slurs (slut, bitch, etc.).

Early '10s - Slutwalk, gay pride parade, #FreeTheNipple, Belle Knox, GamerGate, pole dance fitness craze, No Pants Day / Subway Ride, anti-body-shaming, anti-slut-shaming, anti-yoga-pants-shaming.

Refractory phase mood: vulnerable withdrawal

After excitement levels have spiked for awhile, they not only come down, but plunge into a refractory phase where no stimulation is possible. Before they felt invincible, now they feel incredibly vulnerable. Before they took greater risks, now they are more averse to risks. Before they put themselves all out there, now they want to withdraw from public view. Before they felt a strong sense of agency, now they feel more like victims who can only react to male predators and oppressors, seeking protection.

Early '70s - Consciousness raising and "The personal is political," brooding over how pervasive and victorious male domination is throughout society. A reaction to being passed around during the Summer of Love manic phase. During the restless phase of the late '70s, this will also be a reaction against "porno chic" and the swinging craze, which delighted men but alienated women.

Late '80s - Date rape panic spurred by Koss et al 1987 research article, McMartin Preschool trial (hallucinatory claims of child sexual abuse). Violent crime rates were rising, so it made some sense, but they were also rising five years earlier during the sex-positive victory in the feminist sex wars, and during the late '60s Sexual Revolution. So, more of a reaction to the previous manic phase of feminism, than to trends in rape rates per se. Being too sex-positive made you too naive about the dangers. This topic would carry over into the resting phase of the early '90s, when it also gave attention to sexual harassment.

Early '00s - Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and its imitators. Perverted Justice, the group that spawned To Catch a Predator. Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, where 80% of victims were male but still 20% were female. Reaction against the cultural over-validation of female freedom during Girl Power, which had delivered its message to young girls in addition to grown women (Spice Girls). Apart from emphasizing victimhood, feminist culture had to highlight young girls in particular as targets. Carrying over also into the late '00s, ubiquitous emo girls adopted a persona of a fallen or wounded angel in their online avatars, self-portraits, Halloween costumes, and dance club outfits.

Late '10s - Mattress Girl, campaign against manspreading, hysteria over "Trump's treatment of women," Women's Marches, #MeToo and Time's Up, Pedo-gate, trad-wives. Reaction against the licentious culture of Slutwalk and No Pants Subway Ride, reminding women they're not invincible near predators, no matter how much they naively believed so in an earlier manic phase. Presumably these themes will carry over into the next resting phase beginning in 2020, until they are quickly jettisoned during the next manic phase around 2025.

As these cycles show, the cultural domain may be only loosely related, if at all, to the kinship domain. It's not as though dangerous behavior by males cycles on the order of five or so years -- rape rates rise and fall steadily over a period of decades. Manspreading has been common for decades, so why only in the late 2010s react against it? It's more like the cultural excitement cycle puts people in a certain mindset during one phase, and that mindset either allows them or prevents them from seeing certain things at that time.

Likewise, slutty vs. prudish behavior does not cycle on the order of years, but on the order of decades -- rising sexual behavior during the rising-crime period, and falling during the falling-crime period. That became clear during the late '90s and the early '10s, when girls were in a manic phase and acted like exhibitionists in public, but the trend in sexual behavior had been falling since roughly 1990, so they weren't actually slutty in their private lives. As exhibitionistic as they were in their public cultural personas, the Spice Girls and Kesha made it clear that they weren't horny just because they were full of energy and wanted to dance, and at most you can look but don't touch.

The worldviews that women articulate about their situation in the domain of sexuality and appearance is more of a rationalization of their gut-level intuition. It's the gut-level sense that says ramp up energy during a manic phase, or keep stimulation away during a refractory phase. After too much cultural stimulation, the moment has passed, and it's time to dial the level down. After the level has been dialed down for awhile, then it's time to dial it back up again. Narratives, worldviews, etc., are conjured up to attempt to explain why they feel the way they feel, why they're behaving the way they're behaving.

So for five whole years, the view is free love and enjoying all the cat-calls from men at the Summer of Love, and then suddenly the view is that all men are rapists and pigs who just chew you up and spit you out. They try to rationalize this as the lessons learned from the previous phase, but it's not like it takes five years to figure that out -- and the lessons should then stay learned, rather than fade away in a few years, opening the door to another round of repeating the same mistakes all over again.

With the social-cultural kind of feminism, the entire "world of ideas" is just whatever rationalization is needed at the time for their fluctuating gut-level moods. That doesn't mean that those rationalizations are accurate or inaccurate views of what women's problems are and how they should be solved. Maybe they have to be in the right gut-level mood to hit on the correct view. But it does show why feminism's "world of ideas" fluctuates as much as it does, giving it little coherence over time.

The same would be true for anti-feminist, or men's rights movements as well. Those gut-level moods fluctuate just as much, and with the same timing, as women's moods during the cultural excitement cycle. There's nothing really to cover in-depth there -- it's an instant reaction against whatever the feminists are advocating at the moment.

At any rate, it's important to keep in mind these various cycles -- cultural excitement, outgoing / rising-crime, status-striving / inequality -- when looking at the history of ideas, especially the more they relate to human beings rather than planets or atoms.


  1. Its possible that political activism in general is more common in the manic phases. Remember Occupy Wall Street, in 2011? When people have more energy, they're more inclined to get up and go protest or volunteer.

    During a refractory people, the public is more inclined to elect a strongman to carry out their views, because they themselves lack energy, i.e. the Trump/Bernie movements starting in 2015.

    Other examples: the protest movements in the late 1960s(1968 Democratic convention), the 1999 Seattle WTO protests("Battle in Seattle").


  2. We think of spending time in public places as being linked to cocooning, but it may also be linked to manic vs. vulnerable, cocooning having more to do with social interaction and promiscuity.

    What this would mean is that house parties, for instance, are more common during the refractory periods; whereas going out to a club is more common during the manic period.

    When you're burned out of a energy, it becomes harder to deal with threats, so more retreating to the private sphere, but still socially interacting with people.

  3. Criminals and "the bad element" can pick up on when a person looks tired and demoralized, vs. when they are more energetic and confident. So during the refractory phase, its not just that people are more afraid of being harassed or victimized, but that they are more likely to be so - because they are more tired-looking, or don't move around as much or look around as much(unobservant), it encourages victimization.

  4. Exhibitionism dead as yoga pants replaced by denim again within the past few years. Yoga pants began narrowing the gap in 2010, closed it completely during 2014, but have since fallen off a cliff, as denim has taken off like a rocket:


    Do people remember how ubiquitous that "athleisure" look was? -- leggings that were airbrushed on? Now that's, like, *so* five years ago...

    Same with the Juicy Couture track pants of the late '00s. That was the restless warm-up phase, setting the stage for the next manic phase. Start out with sweatpants that are tight-ish in the pelvic area and smooth in texture, though still made of thick fibers. Put some text across the butt just to provoke. Then during the manic phase, make them tighter all over, and shrink the thickness to barely-there.

    The decline of Western civilization! Thot status: not patrolled! Sluts running amok!

    Conservatives take fleeting fashion fads too seriously, rather that focus on phenomena that are long-lasting shifts and that are substantial rather than symbolic.

    Age at first marriage, age at first birth, illegitimacy, etc. -- those shifts are meaningful and enduring. But you rarely hear about them in Conservative Inc. media, or the grassroots.

    Instead it's, "Cultural Marxist college professors indoctrinating our daughters into dressing like sluts in public. And those youths wearing their sagging jeans, amirite folks?"

    You can object to some fashion fad as annoying, obnoxious, etc. -- but blowing it up into something of civilizational importance is typical of the overwrought culture war era.

    FWIW, contempo post I wrote on how girls could still take part in the tights as pants trend, without it being so form-revealing -- bold, busy, colorful patterns that distract the eye from the form or volume underneath, and draw it to the lines and shapes of the pattern itself:


  5. Earlier cycles of exhibitionist fashion fads like thongs, skin-tight jeans, and mini-skirts show a similar rise-and-fall according to the cultural excitement phases.

    They begin at a low level during the restless warm-up phase, when people are able to experiment a little bit. Then they really take off during the manic phase. They fade away during the refractory phase.

    Yoga pants: began as the track pant craze of the late '00s, peaked as yoga pants / leggings / athleisure during the early '10s, now going away in the late '10s.

    Thongs: introduced in the early '90s, soar during the late '90s (marked by Sisqo's "Thong Song," recorded in '99 but released in 2000), then fall off a cliff in the early '00s. They get replaced by boy shorts in the early and late '00s.

    Sales peaked around '03, but sales are a lagging indicator of popularity, compared to number of individuals buying them (as the trend gains popularity, individuals buy higher quantities of the item). At their peak in the Girl Power era, they paired with low-rise jeans / track pants and crop tops to expose quite a bit.

    Skin-tight jeans: begin during the late '70s disco era, take over the culture during the early '80s (e.g., Jordache, Brooke Shields' CK ads, opening credits to Fast Times at Ridgemont High). By late '80s, they loosen and bulk out, plus take the acid-washed textured surface which obscures the underlying volume -- the typical "mom jeans," which lasted into the early '90s as well.

    Mini-skirt and micro-mini: begin as edgy in the early '60s, become ubiquitous during the late '60s, and by the early '70s they've vanished in favor of midi and maxi dresses, which lasted into the late '70s.

  6. During the refractory period, there's more of an emphasis on trying to process past experiences and traumas. For instance, in "Garden State" the characters have discussions about their pasts, they watch a home movie of Natalie Portman's character in an ice rink, talk about getting beat up in high school, etc.

    In refractory/resting zeitgeist, the public is more likely to fixate on past negative experiences, to try to deal with it and process it.


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