kirkhamilton asked: You were talking about that Salon article where famous women avoided calling themselves Feminists. Do you think that’s a poor reflection on them, or a sign of how thoroughly the word has been subverted/twisted? Is it fair to criticize people for wanting to avoid a word that, to them, has come to mean “crazy, hostile, man-hating?” Is it important to reclaim the word, or is it a lost cause?
It’s fair to criticize them – to point out what they’re saying, and what it actually means – but if we’re going to talk about what this really reflects on, I don’t think the most useful response is blaming the women. Why not take it to the real source and talk about how it reflects poorly on our society?
I believe that the disavowing (and poisoning) of the word “feminist” reflects a couple of very insidious things about our culture: the intense pressure on women to be liked/accepted/”good” on one end, and the unbelievably negative and dismissive reactions that women get (from both women and men) when they try to address the experiences and problems of being female.
My story, briefly: As a young woman, I was raised in an upper-middle class, white Christian household (with a father who was a moderate conservative and a lawyer), and I was taught to believe in the meritocracy. If I worked hard, demanded my worth, had confidence, and made strong arguments that I could support, then I could do anything a man could. In many ways, this was a fantastic way to raise a young woman. I believed, genuinely, that I could do anything, and that belief – and the support and resources of my parents – was a powerful combination (incidentally, one that a lot of people from a lot of other circumstances don’t get. See: privilege).
But it also meant that I was in for some surprises, especially when I stepped into the public sphere as a writer and started talking about gender issues in the extremely male-dominated field of comics. Despite the more subtle sexism I’d experienced (and dismissed) most of my life, I honestly wasn’t prepared for what would happen when I broached the issue. I figured there would be some controversy, sure. But I felt that I had a very reasonable argument – my critiques were, frankly, basic and obvious – and I’d been raised to believed that was enough.
No one had really taught me how different it would be to talk about women’s issues, as a woman. About the unique feelings of anger and power and cruelty it stirs up in other people. About sexism. No one had taught me about sexism, about how very real and ugly and bizarre it can be. Or if they did, I hadn’t been listening.
So the Internet taught me (and boy, did it teach me). The threats, the anger, the backlash were so unbelievably disproportionate by any rational measure that I didn’t know how to understand them. Of course if I’m honest, it wasn’t the first time; there were after all, all those quiet, dark moments of powerlessness that I had learned to ignore, to treat as interstitial in my life. But it is a much harder thing to ignore a large indignity than a thousand small ones, even when the small ones can add up to something very insidious and very large. And this was the first time that all the ugliness, the specifically gendered ugliness whose name I had always been afraid to speak, put its hands around my throat and squeezed.
That’s when everything changed. I started to question things, to examine the code that programs our culture, to try and understand its implications. Suddenly, I could see the Matrix, and all of the microaggressions and gendered slights – all of the fear, all of the things I avoided saying and doing without even really knowing why – suddenly it came into focus.
The problem had become so blatant, so personal, and so real that I could not ignore it, and for the first time, I realized I had a choice: I could disingenuously refuse to acknowledge it (the way I had fail to acknowledge so many other small indignities, or simply looked away) and take the bullseye off my chest, or I could be intellectually honest about what I saw and how it was transforming my knowledge of the world, knowing that it would be a punishing experience every time I talked about it.
This was how I saw feminism, and this is how it felt to me. It wasn’t a liberating experience. I didn’t feel free. I felt scared. Being a feminist was terrifying, because I knew what it meant, and would happen to me when I said I was a feminist. I knew what people would think of me.
But claiming that title, and that word, was important. I was attacked online not because I claimed I was feminist – I didn’t, at the time – but because I did an essentially feminist thing: I talked about the problems with how our society treats women. That’s why people got so angry at me, not the word. The things that I did were tarred and feathered in the exact same way as the word “feminist” for the exact same reason: because they dared to. And if I was being punished for doing what the word feminism actually means, then by my estimation, I had to claim it unless I wanted to be a hypocrite. And I didn’t want to be, anymore.
(It’s worth noting that there are people who reject the label of feminist for some very important and nuanced reasons – people who have dealt with racism and other forms of exclusion from feminist culture, and I don’t discount that. I don’t have a good solution for it in terms of nomenclature, but I think it is absolutely valid. Some have suggested intersectionality as an alternative, and I embrace the concept fully – that we are all coming from differing perspectives of privilege and disadvantage that interact in complex ways — but it’s also not a word that deals specifically with the unique problems with women. And we need one, because it is specific and unique problem, and not to acknowledge that is to erase that experience.)
Personally, I’m not willing to abandon the word “feminist” for the same reason that I wasn’t willing to stop criticizing sexism: because people being dicks to me isn’t a good enough reason. Our culture has trained us to use the word as an insult, and as women it has trained us to be afraid of those insults. But if people want to tell me I’m an ugly, stupid bitch who will die alone because I pointed out how poorly our culture treats women, well – first of all, Lewis’s Law, but secondly: I will not be bullied anymore. I will not be afraid. And the moment I took fear out of the equation, I couldn’t see any reason not to name it what it was.
That said, it is often incredibly painful to stand in the world wearing the label of “feminist.” It makes you a target. Sometimes the backlash is extreme: rape threats, death threats; sometimes it’s the endless needling of trolololols who decide to feminist-bash for kicks; sometimes it’s the micro-aggressions: the constant implications that I am an unreasonable person – or rather, an unreasonable WOMAN, a phrase that carries a different weight – and that I am angry, hate men, hate families.
I used to find these accusations bizarre, until I realized they didn’t have anything to do with me: They had to do with the label that I was wearing. And I knew that continuing to wear it would mark me for abuse, just like simply walking down the street as a woman sometimes marks me for abuse. Just like continuing to have these discussions marks me for abuse. But I keep doing all of those things anyway, because they are all important for the very reason that they are so hard.
So when I look at the women on that list at Salon, yes: I feel shitty. Because it has not been easy to constantly be painted as man-hating, anti-equality and irrational for wearing the “feminist” label. And seeing impressive, powerful women pick up that same brush, well — it makes it just a little bit harder to keep wearing it. Whether they realize it or not, their dismissal and disavowals are cloaked insults that help reinforce the same painful, punishing ideas. When you say, “I’m not a feminist; I [like men/care about equality/am not a crazy militant].” you’re implying mutual exclusivity. You’re saying you’re not a feminist – you’re a NORMAL woman. And you’re saying that I’m not.
But when I look at the women on that list, and at the things they’re saying, I don’t feel angry. I feel sad in the same way I feel sad when I think about how I dealt with these issues, even five or six years ago. About the mistreatment I brushed off, about the experiences and perspectives that I ignored, but mostly about the fear – about the desire to be thought “normal,” to not be stigmatized, to not be abused. To be treated as a professional. To be one of the boys. To be liked. To be loved.
I never would have spoken about it in those terms, at the time. I probably would have scoffed at it. Because I didn’t know the name yet, for my fear. I didn’t want to. And while I knew the word that would ultimately help me understand it and combat it – feminism — I wasn’t willing to pay the price for it yet.
I think about it now and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
But to get back to your question, Kirk, it’s not so much that I have any particular allegiance to the word “feminist,” per se (words are inventions, and defined by their descriptive utility to us) but rather to the idea of a word – any word – that describes dealing with women’s issues in particular. Because it is a very different thing than dealing with men’s issues, or “human” issues, in ways that have a very quantifiable impact.
“Feminist” has become a dangerous word, but it has become dangerous for a specific reason: because when women (and sometimes men) talk about sexism, the immune system of sexist culture responds by tagging them as a threat (“crazy/angry/irrational” and “white knights/pussies”), marginalizing them and making other women (and men) afraid of being tagged the same way. It is a form of policing behavior (and reinforcing culture), and as evidenced by the Salon article, a very effective one.
If we could throw away the word “feminist” because it was too irradiated and gain some advantage by starting fresh with a new word (ladyism! womanism!), then why not? But the problem is, the word isn’t the problem. It’s that cultural immune system that tags and attacks and dismisses and laughs and bullies and intimidates people who broach these topics. Rebranding isn’t going to stop that, because the phenomenon isn’t happening because of bad branding. It’s happening because of sexism.
Any new word for feminism that deals with women’s issues (without watering them down to less threatening and more palatable “human” ones) will get the exact same tarring and feathering for the exact same reason: sexism doesn’t want it to exist. Put simply, it’s a lot more important to fix the institutional problem that turned women’s issues into a dirty word than the word itself. And in a very real way, the word has become a shibboleth for the issues it points out.
Is that really a bad thing, or is it an astonishingly revealing one? Does the scarlet letter of feminism say more about the people who wear it, or the culture that turned it into a slur?