A lot of people seem to think that “feminism” means “gender equality”. While it can, and has and often does and sometimes doesn’t, contribute to achieving it, that is not what it means. And trying to bully or pressure people into using the terms “feminist” and “feminism”, with clever-sounding yet empty soundbites and excruciatingly smug condescension via YouTube, needs to end.
Here’s a quote from Emma Watson herself, which seems to agree with my upcoming argument that the word should not be universally adopted, yet comes from her mission to make the word exactly that:
Why has the word [feminism] become such an uncomfortable one? It is not the word that is important; it’s the idea and the ambition behind it.” —Emma Watson
Exactly! The word is not important – why, then, the campaign to save it? Why, then, are we increasingly being told that we simply must be feminist? If so many people do not want to use the label for themselves and what they do or say, if it is so divisive and if the fight for gender equality would be much less complicated and distracted were this terminology battle not raging, then what the hell is with the deluge of stuff like this:
Where to start…
Well, to borrow the words of one half of the outrageously patronising pair from the above video: For anyone who needs a refresher in what “feminism” means, here is the actual definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (bearing in mind that the word “feminist” is defined by the OED only as “a person who supports feminism”):
UK: “The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes.”
US: “The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.”
The Advocacy of Women’s Rights. This is not the damage control definition evangelised by all these people desperately trying to avoid considering the idea that the words “feminist” and “feminism” are not, and do not have to be, for everybody. Go further and type “feminism” into the online thesaurus and you get these synonyms:
“Women’s rights”; “Sisterhood”; “Womanism”; “Women’s liberation”.
There is a subtle theme running through it all when you make an effort to find out what the word actually means. If there is still a use for the term (and I sincerely believe that there is), then it is to describe projects, books, articles, and people which/who focus solely on helping women and girls in order to bring about gender equality. But it is not a synonym for “gender equality” – it is a completely gendered word, a word constructed so as to be explicitly about, referring to, and for, the female gender and not the male. That is a good and valid thing in a great number of situations, just as projects, books, articles, and people which/who focus solely on men and boys are equally good and valid in a great number of situations. If the term “feminist” was applied to anything and everything promoting and trying to achieve gender equality then you would have to concede that a great number of Men’s Rights Activists, and their projects, would count as feminist, and as feminism. Of course they don’t, but that is not because they do not seek gender equality –
it is because the words “feminist” and “feminism” are inappropriate for gender equality as a whole.
A non-gendered word would be appropriate. A word like “humanist”. If there must be a label, if people who are not against gender equality have to be the ones who define themselves, then that has my support in being the word for it. Why the Huffpost video cuts off when the question of the label “humanist” is raised, I don’t know. They seem to be trying to be cute, amusing. However, the ending of the video does not so much scream “we’re folksy and nonchalant” as it does “we have no argument”.
“Feminism is about equality of the sexes. But right now, one sex has a lot more power than the other.” (Supremely Privileged Affluent Western Internet Lady, 2015)
There’s not a whole lot else to the Huffpost video, other than them telling other women what they actually think and mean. A little warning through a smile to the women who dare say they are not feminist. Then they do the usual listing of things any moral modern person supports and conflating that with feminism, the barely implicit accusation that if you say you are not a feminist, then you are saying that you are an asshole. Towards the video’s end, one of the insipid presenters says: “Feel free to identify, or not identify, anyway you want. But if you say you’re not a feminist, at least understand what the term actually means.”
Way ahead of you, my friend.
Way ahead of you.
This is the kind of sweeping, empty, nonsense that is so irritating (though much less so than Buzzfeed and Huffpost videos). This stuff is so easy to say, and undoubtedly entirely well-intentioned, but it is dishonest and detrimental to reduce and simplify the topics of gender equality, labels and identity (both personal and those of others), and feminism itself. We’re beginning to live in a society in which, for example, if you are born biologically male, but feel, for one reason or another (or for no verbalisable reason), that the label “male” does not apply to you, then there is ever-increasing support behind the idea that you do not have to call yourself that. Equally, if you are somebody who dates people of both sexes, yet feel that the label “bisexual” is simply not you, does not apply to you, doesn’t feel right, or you just plain don’t want to use it, then you do not have to. And the thing is, these people in these videos and blogs who say you have to call yourself a “feminist”, or inform you that you are one despite what you might think, are no doubt the kind of people who would support both the cases I just suggested. They would be throwing all kinds of support behind the person rejecting the label “male” despite being indisputably male in terms of physical biology. They would never dream of approaching this free spirit who does not want the label “bisexual”, despite superficially fitting it, and demanding that they use it – they would castigate people who did. So why, why, when it comes to their label, their identity politics and ideology affirmation, are we told that we have no choice, and that we are simply wrong about our own minds, our own selves, do not understand our own reasons and feelings? Mr Ansari’s quote above could easily be read as thus:
‘If you do not openly and proudly identify as feminist, then you are either:
a) Misogynist, or;
I do not for a even minute think that he is truly suggesting and believing this, but the problem is that he is not for even a minute thinking. By his words “if you believe that men and women have equal rights, and someone asks you if you’re a feminist, you have to say yes”, he implies that if you say “no”, then you do not believe in gender equality.
To be entirely clear, if I have not been already: anybody who wants to use the label “feminist” for themselves and “feminism” for their set of beliefs ought be able to. If some little girl finds solace, inspiration, knowledge, growth, happiness, belonging, in feminism and cannot wait to tell others she is feminist: truly wonderful, so long as it isn’t the thoughtless kind found on Buzzfeed and Huffpost, where smug facial expression is preferred to brain activity. I have thought, while doing this, that, currently saying that I am not feminist, if there is a situation where I would be tempted to just say that I am, then it would be the aforementioned little feminist asking me if I was. Would I just say yes… but no, it would be wrong, quite simply. It’s a complex topic, and, no matter to whom you are talking, it should not be reduced to one word, and that one word does not encompass either the whole of “gender equality” nor the diverse individuals who seek to bring it about by numerous different paths.
These people, the famous with their sweeping quotes and the denizens of Huffpost and Buzzfeed with their insufferable and unhelpful video-speeches, may have an actual case hidden away somewhere, a stream of real logic combined with a clear explanation as to why the term should be used by everybody, countering everything I’ve said here and ultimately convincing me that it does apply to myself and I ought to proudly use it. I’m not being facetious – the argument may exist, but if it does it needs to be properly voiced. Because at the moment, the dominating rhetoric in defense of the words “feminist” & “feminism” is shaped by and consists of celebrities and trendy liberals saying nothing like it’s fucking obvious.