It seems that this writing malarkey has become an annual event for me, so far be it for me to deny people all over the Internet the joy of becoming so incensed by the ideas in my feminist ramblings, that they are prompted to brand us, “the rotten toe that must be severed to save the foot of the equal rights movement!” I’m JOKING, of course, I appreciate the comments, and anyone taking the time to read this stuff.
What is it though, about the word feminism, that seems to get people so pissed off? Over the past weeks and months, I have had the pleasure of many (albeit mostly rather drunken) conversations with men who share the views of my commenting friend. The problem seems to be thus; the structural make-up of the word feminism does not imply equality, but superiority – all men are equal, but some (like the ones with tits), are more equal than others. For some reason simply saying READ A FUCKING DICTIONARY really loudly hasn’t resolved the debate on any of these occasions (who knew?) so I began to consider whether there was something in it after all.
Even Joss Whedon, a self-confessed feminist, put forward a pretty good case for a re-brand (which, if you haven’t seen yet, you can do here). I won’t attempt to paraphrase him because he is extremely clever and brilliant and disagreeing with him even a little bit hurts my soul. If you haven’t seen his argument, just watch it, your day will be 14 minutes’ better for it. The thing that gets me about Joss’ (yes, we’re on first name terms) argument, the bad PR and the rotten toe argument’s is this: (confessed or otherwise) all of these men ARE feminists. They believe that people, regardless of their gender, deserve the same rights as one another. That is what feminist means (it’s in the dictionary). But if these men, who are in agreement with the motion but not the description of the feminist movement, take such an issue with it, would it not be worth coming up with something that they can get behind? My drunken self is always really defensive of this, it is hard not to see it as a self-righteous academic argument that shifts focus back onto men and their right to have equal rights for women more attractively packaged. My sober self is inclined to think that including as many people as possible actively identifying with, and as such acting on, positive social change on a day-to-day basis is ultimately the best way to make progress, fast.
A friend of mine recently wrote a Facebook status because he was angry about some comments he had read on an article regarding consent. The gist [of the comments] seemed to be that if you go on a date with a woman, assuming it will result in sex, then the time/money spent with that person constitutes a contract and as such non-consensual sex would be fulfilment of this as oppose to rape. In response, someone I don’t know sparked a lively debate about male issues, consent and feminism, which included various claims of forged rape statistics, feminist propaganda and accused feminist rhetoric of being responsible for the high level of suicide in young men. My favourite retort to all of this came from another friend of mine who made the point I wanted to, far better than I would have, so I am going to quote her now:
“I think you may be confusing who your enemy is. You are right to point out that men face a lot of issues caused through sexism in our society. But these aren’t caused by feminism, they’re caused by patriarchy. Patriarchy reinforces in all of use certain ideas about how men and women should live. As this is a system dominated by men, feminism has evolved as a reaction. Feminists do not aim to fight against men, they aim to fight against patriarchy. And, although to a much lesser extent, you are right to point out that men are also victims of patriarchy… If you want to work on the issues you have mentioned, your best bet is to embrace feminism, as feminism strives for gender equality.”
I love the first line of this quote; “I think you may be confusing who your enemy is.” For me, this hits on a real issue with social movements across the board, the idea that one is somehow mutually exclusive from another. One of the main reasons people seem to have beef with the word feminism is that it is too specific. Some very lovely chaps I work with recently put forward a very good case for a word that incorporates all of the equal rights movements; they aren’t more interested in women’s rights than gay rights for example, so they want a term to express that.
There are arguably far more people in this world who are oppressed than who aren’t. Be it race, religion, sexuality, class, IQ, political persuasion, gender or being a cat person, there are so many examples of discrimination and persecution worldwide that, naturally, a whole host of movements have developed in order to fight against them. Sadly, there are too many for one person to even conceive of knowing about, let alone joining, every movement that deserves time and recognition. We are naturally drawn to the issues that affect us the most in our own lives, and the things that we feel we can change. This shouldn’t mean that we don’t support other causes, or worse, we have negative reactions to those fighting for them. Yes, men’s issues are important, but we don’t have to choose between standing up for women’s rights and confronting the problems that men face. We can, for example, support the legalisation of gay marriage whilst acknowledging that there is still a long way to go before equality reaches the whole LGBTQ community. It isn’t a league kind of a deal here, it isn’t choose your colours and sing dodgy chants with a can of Special Brew until the other team relents. We must not resent the achievements of some because they have not reached us all. The liberation of one person should not mean the oppression of another and we should all (in my humble opinion) be celebrating the success of any movement which leads to greater social liberty and be looking to the next step and how we can be part of it.
Simply by identifying as (in this case) a feminist, we acknowledge to ourselves and to other people that we recognise a place where progress is needed. I had great conversation with a friend of mine about this and he made a brilliant point about adopting causes and the names of causes and the difficulty of identifying as something you are not directly (ie. A man who is a feminist). He used the phrase (which I am claiming and using every-day from now on) “hipster privilege”. He doesn’t want to be perceived as someone who adopts rights movements to be cool, or as someone who believes he understands what it is like to be every oppressed party. We decided, two bottles later, that the solution is to ask people; how can we be a part of your movement? To do that, we need to know what to ask about. The names we give to these movements express more than us believing in equality for everyone, they express a choice that people are making to support marginalised people and help to insight change that means this might actually happen (although I’m not that much of a hippy, it’ll never happen, sorry mum).
Which brings me, I suppose, to the real problem I have with the negativity towards the word feminism. Sure, it doesn’t make perfect sense, it isn’t the most attractive or strong sounding word (I’ll give you that one, Joss), it might even be bad PR. But, it is also the most direct line to an ongoing social movement with a rich and varied history of confronting patriarchy and gaining equal rights for women. If a young person types feminism into Google, or even opens a book (I hear they still exist) and looks it up they will find decades’ worth of information. The good, the bad, the ugly. Stuff they agree with, stuff they don’t, and, most importantly, stuff they can relate to which is happening now. If they meet a feminist, they can ask them what it means to them. If we scrap the word, we confine the movement to antiquity, we separate that which has been won from the battles still being fought. We don’t need to disassociate the word from the areas of the debate that some people find less palatable because discussion and debate are how society evolves and that is when all the cool shit happens. My favourite conversation about the word was with a man and went like this:
“So are you one of those people who has an issue with the word feminism?”
“I used to be.”
“Did you get over it?”
Join us, let’s all rot together…
By Sarah Dearing
Sarah runs a small studio in the centre of her hometown, Brighton, where she makes costumes and produces various fabric based trinkets. She has a keen interest in politics and feminism and occasionally dabbles in writing for fun, or for this blog.
Artwork by Laura Brown
Laura Suzy Brown is a visual artist/image maker working in Brighton and London.