Sorry this is up so late. This is a big topic and I’m still not sure I dealt with it adequately, but I needed all this time.
Feminism as a Bad Thing
It’s an oft-repeated trope that feminism has become a dirty word, that there is an aversion to the term that is new in this young generation. The claim that the youth don’t care about political feminism is questionable at best, but the un-mainstream nature of feminism has much more compelling evidence on it side.
We see this everywhere. We see it in this video, where despite some excellent, totally rockin’ responses, we also have a socialist who refuses to call herself a feminist as well as someone who sees it as a thing of the past.
We see it in Lady Gaga’s response to the question. Lady Gaga, who sees herself as transgressive and boundary-breaking and who questions her interviewer’s sexist bias, demurs from calling herself a feminist, not because she doesn’t believe in the tenets or agree with the direction of the movement, but because she doesn’t want to be associated with man-haters, with those who hate the “male culture” of beer and fast cars and don’t ‘love’ and ‘hail’ men. What has gone so deeply wrong that this powerful, adventurous woman cannot bring herself to say loudly and proudly, “I have a deep appreciation for certain aspects of what it means to be a man in this culture, but there is no earthly reason why those should be restricted to men and damn it, someone whose gentialia have been as questioned as mine have should understand that at our core we must respect the flourishing and empowerment of everyone, and we are not there yet, especially not for women.”
We see it in this blogger, who conceptually pits feminism against love, baking and children, associating it only with careerism and an aversion to cleaning. She tells her readers that it is impossible for women to have it all, that in fact they must choose between jobs and love and family. In fact, if they are successful and capable, men will not like them, and thus, the empowerment that feminism offered was in fact a destruction of her chances at happiness. A competent, intelligent woman is repudiating feminism, not because she wants a traditionally feminine role or lifestyle rather than a career, but because she feels that feminism, as a political movement designed to open up choices, has given her only one that she didn’t want.
But these are common examples. Women who likely agree with all of the things that many political and theoretical feminists would deem feminist principles refusing to call themselves feminists are everywhere. More poignant is the example set by Randall Munroe, of xkcd webcomic fame, who took to Google+ recently to point out that making the name and gender of every user of the new social network not only mandatory but public is somewhat problematic. He noted that not everyone might want to disclose their gender, and that is not quite the same as Other, and furthermore, that there are power dynamics at play that disadvantage women in the social and internet spheres. Upon reading this, I braced myself for thousands of vitriolic, insensitive, misogynistic, transphobic comments, and was pleasantly surprised to see an outpouring of support for the silliness of a clearly unnecessary disclosure. But then, of course, someone had to ruin it. One commenter said,
“Let me TL;DR for you, “Gender shouldn’t be mandatory and/or public”.
Anything more descriptive beyond that is going to lose support, especially in the way you presented it. I’ll take the hit here, but if you weren’t XKCD (and I didn’t pick up on who typed this until AFTER reading it) it would appear very femi-nazi and I doubt you’d be getting the 99% positive comments you have on this post.
The main issue I have with it is that for your first paragraph you basically call women helpless vulnerable humans who are defined by what other people think about them (and nothing can be done about that, like say taking a self-confidence class) and that men are imposing, dominating sociopaths who will stalk and rape you because you put “female” on your profile.
It’s just stereotyping all around, and using some/most qualifiers to sort out people who can feel superior by not conforming to your statements would appear disingenuous at best.
I almost wonder if you posted this as a test just to see if people would agree with you just because you’re XKCD :?”
A man had the courage to, in this feminist-skeptical world, stand up for something which is not even, as I imagine it, particularly controversial, and he received back, from the wonderful place which is the internet, a reminder that he should really have kept it short because people might not like what he had to say. In fact, it might be offensive to men to hear that women might be scared of them, or might recognize that the internet is not always a safe place for them. It’s just “stereotyping all around” to point out that the world is not yet equal and not yet safe. How dare he. In fact, had Randall Munroe not been Randall Munroe, had he been, for example, a woman, or an unpopular man, he might be called a feminazi, and then what would he do? Only those who have an extraordinary amount of social cache can survive the impossible negative effects of calling out injustices. In fact, that brave act could be called nothing more than a test.
The question is why. Why feminism is a bad thing, and why no one is allowed to be one. Some ideas:
Feminism, at its best, is a broad criticism of a patriarchal society, which reaches everything from types of knowledge and understanding to institutional discrimination to subtle bias to divisive and damaging prescribed roles to norms of all kinds. And that makes it incredibly annoying. With wrongs all too pervasive in everyday life, someone committed to righting them must show a remarkable amount of commitment to being constantly on the offensive, never giving up or letting slide simply because it is convenient. The immense difficulty in engaging in that kind of project is enough to be a considerable psychological barrier that stops feminism as a project from being widely popular (though of course there are many other reasons, some more sinister). The flip side of that phenomenon is that someone not engaged in that kind of work can be made to feel constantly on the defensive, as if all parts of their lives, all of what they consider normal, is an injustice that must be eradicated, because all too often, it is. Unfortunately, what this almost inevitably leads to is a distancing from feminism, and a perpetual shutting down and dismissal of feminist discourse.
Certainly, there are weaknesses in feminism that have caused all of the bloggers here to ask some tough questions about where the movement is going. Feminism was incredibly hard on women through all times, asking them to give up what was comfortable and easy for the hope of something better. It had many successes and many failures. Feminism has been racist, classist and transphobic. It has been essentialist. It has caused women to question every aspect of their lives and being, wondering if they’re doing it right. At times, it put up a new dogma in the place of the old one, helping no one (for an example of this as relates to appearance and an all around fantastic read, I suggest The Politics of Appearance). Lady Gaga has somehow learned that male culture must be unacceptable to feminists (unless she is only using that as a cover to distance herself from feminism). The blogger was taught that she could only be a good feminist if she indeed managed to have it all, and any decision towards ‘traditional’ femininity was a repudiation of feminism.
The weaknesses are there, but more powerful are the strengths, and the fact is that feminism by its very nature will make it difficult to be a part of it. It is supposed to put forth a set of overwhelming and never-ending problems to overcome. It is intended to make us all uncomfortable with how we have acted and behaved, treated ourselves and each other, and how we have interacted to make the global society that exists today. How else are we to end rape culture and attacks on reproductive rights? How else are to to form a safe space for butch women and effeminate men, gays and lesbians, single women and married, religious and secular? There has been no insurpassable blockade of failure placed on feminism by the scary, critical, elitist intellectual feminists who constantly theorize about how wrong we all are to live the way we so, nor by the terrifying, ever-present, critical political activist feminist who is always asking us to change in ways we don’t want to. They have made mistakes, but they have not failed. They have done exactly what they were meant to.
I have very few ideas for solutions, mostly because as a result of this opinion I hold I am reluctant to make feminism an easier pill to swallow, to make it palatable and easy. It has nothing to do with populism or elitism; feminism is for the masses. But I don’t know how much I want to change it to make it that way. I do want to acknowledge all people (cis women, who have always been accepted into feminism, as well as others) who proudly identify as feminist, and Randall Munroe and my co-bloggers and Sociological Images and all things like it which go about their work politely, gracefully but quite forcefully. Maybe when the waves subside, we’ll be leading the charge.