Third-wave feminism, sometimes also referred to (both lovingly and derogatorily) as "lipstick feminism" or "slutty feminism," is a somewhat controversial and contested term used to refer to the ingrained, reflexive, and often unconscious feminism of younger generations of women from the late 1980s to the present. "Third-wave" feminism is named in continuity with the "first-wave" feminists that fought for female suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the "second-wave" feminist movement that fought for equal rights in the workplace and in making reproductive decisions in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the behaviors most commonly identified with third-wave feminism is an acceptance of many of the traditional trappings of female sexuality as empowering and as a personal choice, rather than viewing them as a submission to male desire.
The third-wave feminists grew up at a time when feminism had already become (relatively) ingrained in Western culture and many feminist claims had already come to be accepted as self-evident by large portions of the population. The third-wave feminists are distinguished from the second-wave feminists (who were often their mothers or grandmothers) by their embrace of aspects of the female experience the previous wave is perceived to have rejected. In many ways the third wave was a reaction to and a backlash against popular perceptions of the second-wave feminists, such as that they were unstylish, against sex, against men, or against fun.
The label "third-wave feminist" is broad enough to encompass everyone from committed activists who continue to proudly self-identify as "feminists" to women who loudly deny that they are "feminist," yet nevertheless strongly believe in, adhere to, and actively derive benefit from a system of beliefs about the equality of the sexes that was not widespread only a few decades before and which the second wave of feminists had to fight fiercely to promote.
Moreso than either of the preceding waves, the term "third-wave feminist" can also be, and often is, applied to men as well as women.
A prominent aspect of third-wave feminism has been a sustained effort to reappropriate or reclaim terms previously seen as derogatory to women, such as "bitch," "slut," and "cunt," rather than attempting to censor or remove them from public discourse. Third-wave feminists are also seen as embracing or otherwise accepting things their predecessors are believed to have shunned, protested against, or excoriated, such as, among others, pornography, high-heeled shoes, feminine beauty products, housewifery, female promiscuity, submissive relationship roles, the use of female sexuality to get ahead, etc.
Third-wave feminists are often portrayed as being in conflict with second-wave feminists, who view them as losing sight of the continuing struggle for equal rights and settling for the sense of power and control women can feel in a society in which women are nearly equal to men, remaining inequalities are papered over and hidden from view, and women are free to use their sexuality to gain some degree of dominance over men without the opprobrium of previous years but also without actually undermining male dominance of the socio-political power structure.
In this negative viewpoint, a typical image of the third-wave feminist is of a high-powered woman with a good job who stands up to men, speaks the language of female empowerment, and revels in her ability to sleep around without commitment, but unconsciously seeks the approval of men and is lonelier than she admits or realizes. Think Sex and the City, and the intense criticism it engendered.
In short, the second-wave criticism of the third wave arises out of the impression that because the third wave grew up never knowing a world before feminism, they take for granted the idea of female equality, do not adequately appreciate or sympathize with the struggles of their mothers, and tend to overlook the inequalities that persist in society.