“Wait, who’s a feminist?”
“I said I am a feminist.”
“Oh. But you’re not the butch kind so you’re not really a feminist.”
Feminism is one of those words that literally no one understands. Those who disregard feminism likely do so because they think that being a feminist is akin to any number of man-hating, female-only cult-forming, kill joy stereotypes. For those of us who do resonate with feminism (GASP!!! Because apparently me being a feminist is surprising to people which is actually kind of weird and offensive), we recognize there is no such thing as a singular feminism. There are feiminisms. Not only are there an annoying amount of classifications in academic feminist literature, but each person interprets feminism in a way that works for them and their unique life experience.
This is how I see it: Feminism is not some institutionalized doctrine that has a list of rules to follow in order to be a member of the club. Feminism has no dress code, no required hairstyle, and no standard for one’s sexual frequency or preference. Feminism doesn’t have some obscure figure of worship (except for you, bell hooks *illuminati hands*), nor does it have required reading material to prove your investment. Feminism is not something you have to believe in full-heartedly OR ELSE *shakes fist*. Lastly, feminism is not solely about women. Hell, it isn’t even about absolute equality: it isn’t about having everyone agree all women can lift the same amount of weight as any man, it isn’t about ending “chivalry” (or complaining that it’s dead), and it certainly isn’t about hating or punishing men and taking away their jobs and freedoms.
Feminism – put simply – is the call for equal social, political, and economical opportunities for all people. All. People. Not “all people except men”, not “all people except those who dress like cats on the weekend”, not “all people except misogynistic assholes.”ALL. PEOPLE. (And actually, many theorists argue that feminism includes animal and environmental rights too.)
But, but…. It’s called FEMinism. That clearly does not include me because I identify as a dude.
Feminism works to change the irrational ideals of masculinity as much as femininity. Remember that when you have kids and are offered paternity leave or when you cry during Bambi and fewer people crack a joke about it each time.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states flawlessly (yeah, I went there, #sorrynotsorry):
“Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. that the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem acknowledge that.” (We Should All Be Feminists, 2014)
It’s not that feminists believe male voices and experiences no longer matter as much as women’s. Instead, we believe it’s time to pass the mic around the table and hear from our side too. Because, for centuries, texts were written by men about men (so the language suggests) and we’re kind of tired of having theories and stories about men being assumed to relate to us too. Take biology for example: male researchers looked at male specimen and were all like “Yeaaaaaaah, that’ll also work for females. Probably.”
And all this talk about “male” and “female” is super limiting too, as a substantial proportion of the population does not identify as either one of those gender binaries. In fact, feminism can often be noninclusive to those who do not identify with these arbitrary labels. So, lets all be better about this and work on using gender neutral language when unsure, and/or ask individuals about their preferred gendered pronouns. (Check out a great read about cissexism here.)
Next, Imma talk language. Have you ever considered the words “mankind” or “history”? Or how some older buildings have bathroom signs that read: MEN and then the other room has a picture of a body in a dress? Perhaps it’s nitpicky of me, but part of being a feminist is at the very least acknowledging that language can, to some extent, be problematic when it denies the lived experiences of women who, not all that long ago, were denied to be human all together. So, masculine language like “mankind” and “history (his story)” is just a reminder that much of our social discourse is rooted in a patriarchal system that has traditionally limited the inclusion of women and their unique perspectives. And when we consistently regard men as subjects (i.e. in the case of the bathroom situation, as they are referred to as a noun) and women as objects (i.e. a body who is performing femininity by wearing a dress), we have a really big problem in terms of how we regard the worth of one another. If women are perpetually considered worthy because of their body alone, then how does this play into things like rape culture and the gender gap in the work place?
But… but… women have all kinds of amazing jobs. And important roles in movies, video games, and literature. And you can, like, vote and stuff.
Sure, this is true. In fact, part of the reason why we cling to the term “feminism” is in tribute to the work that our foremothers did in achieving “human status” for women with earning the right to vote and you know, making marital rape illegal.(Thanks, y’all.) But, just because we see women in powerful corporate, professional or civic positions doesn’t mean all women are provided with equal opportunities along the way (or while in those roles); it doesn’t mean that they do not continue to experience discrimination and abuse; and it certainly doesn’t mean that they earn the same amount of money as men in the exact same positions. Further, it cannot be assumed that the rights of female bodies are protected because of these “exceptional” women’s successes. Feminism accounts for and stands up to the vulnerability of all female bodies, which have been traditionally ignored and/or exploited. Yet, again, feminism makes ample room to include the consideration and protection of vulnerable male bodies too.
I hear it all the time: If feminism is about men too, then why do I only hear about women’s issues? Why doesn’t feminism address physical and sexual violence against men? In fact, I’ve heard people proclaim, “I’m anti-feminist because feminism ignores violence against men.”
I’m sorry, what?
Please do not blame feminism for issues of patriarchy. I will reiterate: Feminism is not primarily concerned with women’s issues. It’s not primarily concerned with men’s issues. It is primarily concerned with the patriarch, i.e. the gendered system in place that (among other things) promotes unrealistic expectations and standards for masculinity and femininity. The fact that our culture continuously ridicules male victims of violence and rape is not a fault of feminism. Feminism attempts to create an inclusive and safe space for everyone, but the problem is, men’s voices are not heard in feminist spaces because they’re very rarely part of the conversation. BUT WE KEEP INVITING YOU. Think of it this way: if you want to be part of my epic birthday group photo on Facebook, then you have to accept the invite and show up to the party. Because we can each only speak to our own experience, or we end up looking like douche bags by appropriating someone else’s suffering. As a feminist, I want to talk about the unrealistic expectations of masculinity, in fact, that’s what my current research does. My research is grounded in feminist discourse and it’s ABOUT men and the incredibly debilitating pressure that masculinity ideals cause.
Alas for my friends who haven’t read anything and are hoping to find an easy-to-glance-over list, this is a summary of what feminism means to me:
- Feminism is not about women, it is about humanity, but we keep the language “feminism” to acknowledge the historical exclusion of women.
- Language can be a tool of discrete (cis)sexism, so watch your language. For example, I use the pronoun “their” when I can, and when giving compliments, I say “they’re an extraordinary person” (instead of man or woman, because you are not an exception; you’re not awesome for a girl or for a dude. Yet, I see the other side too where you want to celebrate one’s woman-ness or man-ness. It’s really just about being cognizant about the effect your language might have on others.)
- Feminism doesn’t mean you can’t hold the door open for someone or buy them dinner, that is an expression of love or compassion in western culture. Just don’t act like a weirdo or feel like less of a “man” when someone wants to treat you too. In the same way you don’t want me to think that you’re assuming I’m not capable, I do not intend to take your independence away either. Let’s all just chill out here.
- Feminism means that we reclaim our own bodies and we resist various degrees of harassment and abuse in ways that we know how. Feminism isn’t belittling someone for how they choose to deal with their victimization. It is about supporting and listening to and caring for one another.
- Being a feminist doesn’t mean you cannot be feminine, or should demean others for choosing to identify as feminine, masculine, asexual, etc. regardless of gender. For example, I have pink everything. That is not an excuse to call me “such a cute little girl” in my professional workplace.
- Acknowledge your privilege as much as your vulnerabilities, and recognize that you benefit from society in ways that others might not. Feminism isn’t about apologizing for who you are, but how you treat others. Be compassionate and open to hear others’ perspectives. (I’m talking to you, fellow straight, white feminists.)
- Women are _____. But men are also ______. My _____ness is not a reflection of me being a woman or a man, it is me being a person. So stop limiting people for their so-called gendered ______ness.
- Feminism isn’t some exclusive club. It’s a community. And when you join, you get to share stories, provide and receive support, and be a better you while keeping true to who you are.
Finally, it shouldn’t, but it takes great bravery (for all kinds of people) to stand up and reclaim the word “feminist” because of all the negative crap that’s attached to it. But for those of you who tell me antedotes about feminist-related stuffs in private, I’m thankful for you. And those of you who have things like a “Feminist Kill Joy” broach on your birthday wishlist, I admire you. And those of you who are aggressively annoyed by the fact that you’re now expected to change some of your impolite language so you stop offending “overly sensitive” people, well… sorry.
The author is a graduate student at the University of Calgary in Canada studying the lived experiences of women growing up with homeless fathers. In her personal time, the author is quite fond of cat naps, adventuring, and frequently asking strangers for high-fives.