This past year saw the rise of fourth-wave feminism and a brazen shout-back against the idea that ours is a post-feminist age. If you didn’t already know what feminism was, chances are that you’re more than aware of it now: Beyonce has projected herself into the living rooms of 28.5 million people worldwide (including yours); you probably watched Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech at the UN, and you definitely were not able to ignore the movement’s rumbling, ever-growing presence on the Internet and in the world.
The word is out, and it’s everywhere. Feminist. Feminist. Feminist.
Most dictionaries define feminism as a movement that advocates the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes (Urban Dictionary’s definition is my personal favorite). And if you’re not a total dickwad, you’d probably think, “Huh, sounds fair enough.”
But then someone asks if you are a feminist and you shake your head and sip your drink, mumbling, “No, no, of course not. I mean, I support the movement, but…no.”
Before writing this article, I thought ignorance was the problem, especially with men. But instead of operating on assumptions, I went out and asked a bunch of them some uncomfortable questions on feminism (which was fun, but slightly irking), and realized a few interesting things: they all understood feminism – that’s it about equality, not supremacy, and yes, they agreed, but…no, they would not call themselves feminists.
Typical responses to “Why not?” included, “I’m a humanist, not a feminist” (that one is a classic) and the eternal “I don’t want to be pigeonholed.” All right.
Why do people say these things? Why do people feel alienated by the feminist movement? Why do people feel like it is exclusionary and restrictive when it is everything but?
Why does it seem like feminism is just not accessible?
It all stems from the conception of “bad feminism” versus “good feminism,” from the fact that people ask me questions like “If you’re a feminist, should you really be doing that?”
It stems from the idea of feminism as something prescriptive, didactic, and preachy.
A few people I interviewed said they distanced themselves from the “feminist label” because of how other feminists “lord themselves over everyone else.” But there seems to be some essential idea missing from this thought.
Feminism is a movement comprised of human beings and as human beings we are flawed. Therefore, the movement is bound to have flaws. In fact, when I asked him to define feminism, a self-proclaimed ‘misogynist’ friend of mine said what was possibly the most feminist thing I’ve ever heard:
“The problem with defining feminism is that there’s no formal definition – it’s defined by people who make up the movement, which is not a homogenous group … We have to take into account the radicals, the under-supporters … I consider it just to be a coalition that aims to advance the equality of women.”
“Another thing I noticed about some feminists,” said one person who also does not identify as a feminist, “is that they attributed quality to women being just like men, and doing exactly what the men did. And I was like – what’s so great about us?”
If you are capable of realizing this – congratulations! That’s one feminist achievement unlocked!
The unfortunate thing about calling yourself a feminist is indeed that people do not hesitate to put you up on a pedestal that you’ve tried so hard to evade, and if you do something like put on lipstick to look pretty for a man or give up your career to look after your children, you’ve somehow failed to live up to your feminist image.
Roxane Gay, in her book Bad Feminist, writes about how she evaded the label for the longest time herself, before realizing that feminism is not indeed a one-size-fits-all endeavor, but a way of life. I couldn’t put it better than she does:
“For years, I decided feminism wasn’t for me as a black woman, as a woman who has been queer identified at varying points in her life, because feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others.
But two wrongs do not make a right. Feminism’s failings do not mean we should eschew feminism entirely. People do terrible things all the time, but we don’t regularly disown our humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.
We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”
It’s basic logic: a movement which is basically just saying “WOMEN ARE HUMAN, TOO” better fucking be pluralistic, because women are pluralistic. A shocking number of people just do not seem to grasp this. But how would they?
How would they, when the media paints all women the same color? How would they, when all they see are women who are hardly ever represented in any other context than as the object of conquest of a man or as a subordinate to a man? How would they, when society is so eager to stuff women into the same role when all of them just don’t fit?
It’s almost as if people think that all feminists walk around with a little rulebook. As if we were all visited by some Feminist Being who descended from the Feminist Heavens and presented us with the holy Feminist Doctrine. No. There are no prerequisites to feminism. You don’t get kicked out for bad behavior. You don’t get gold stars for good behavior.
When the topic of the Feminist Label comes up, I see people react as if they haven’t done enough to really earn it. Someone I interviewed said he would not identify as a feminist because “I’m not really up to date on the issues…I mean, I don’t know what’s really going on.”
(Dude, feminism doesn’t come with a syllabus and assigned reading.)
Another said, “I wouldn’t call myself a feminist because I don’t really, like, fight for equality. I mean, I’m not that passionate about it.”
(Nope, no participation grades either.)
If only people realized that feminism does not mean changing anything about you except how you perceive what already exists.
If only people realized that feminism simply means respecting the spectrum of women’s existences.
Consider this: recently, when I told someone that the honor of being my second favorite band is currently held by Led Zeppelin, I was met with raised eyebrows, because “aren’t you a feminist?
You do know that they had a bad history with groupies, right?” I’ve also heard: “You’re a feminist and you read Hemingway?” and “you’re a feminist and you watch porn?” The list is fucking endless.
And YES. We’re human beings and we’re messy and we are not absolute. As a feminist, I don’t have to tell myself not to shave my legs or not to put on lipstick just for that boy, because it’s time we stopped trying to catch women in a net of generalizations. We thrive on absolutisms. We are still not even close to giving up on exaggerated ‘all women’ and ‘all men’ tropes, because it’s more comfortable to see people operate in assigned roles. It’s easier.
All our current harmful economic, political, and social systems are upheld by people who prescribe to the roles they’ve been raised in, who consume the uni-dimensionality of media representation without question, and who force the people around them into the labels they are comfortable with.
Little do people realize that the biggest rebellion comes in the form of the unapologetic realization of one’s individuality.
Feminism promotes this from the standpoint of gender and is individualistic by nature. By virtue of that, it is uncomfortable. It will make people squirm in their seats and look around shiftily, but it will also make people look within themselves and question the root of their very beings – I know that’s what it did for me.
I want to shake up the world and tell people to know this, to understand this, to realize that feminism is about as accessible as any movement gets. Yes, the word ‘feminism’ has racked up some controversy over the past years. Yes, some questionable things have been said and done in the name of the movement. But then again – coming back to what Roxane Gay wrote – you must learn to separate the grain from the chaff and take what is good for you. To quote her brilliance again:
“Feminism is flawed, but it offers, at its best, a way to navigate this shifting cultural climate. Feminism has certainly helped me find my voice. Feminism has helped me believe my voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard.”
Because feminism is not all or nothing. It is not exclusive. And yes, you can be a ‘humanist’ and a feminist, because feminism is an essential part of our modern view of humanism.
Feminism is not a prescription, because your humanity is not a disease.
Embrace your individuality. Love it. You don’t have to have read Simone de Beauvoir or Sylvia Plath to join the club. In fact, there is no club. You can sit with us. Honestly.