Thursday, March 9, 2017

Taking Back the Feminine Mystique

With apologies to every English teacher who ever told me not to start an essay like this...

Feminism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, is "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes". A feminist, by extension, is a person who believes in these things.  Definitions matter, so it makes sense to start there.  As I watched a webcast by vlogger Philip DeFranco on International Women's Day, though, I was struck by his refusal to call himself a feminist - even though he states he believes in the equality that characterizes the term - because he doesn't want to be associated with man-hating "toxic feminism".

Maybe he said it to appease the advertisers on his feed - which only serves to reinforce the pervasive nature of the problem. I've seen similar sentiments - mostly by women - on my social media feed, though, that essentially express support for the ideals of feminism, but rejection of the term. It's as if they're saying, "I sort of believe in equality, but not in any way that could be deemed offensive or would group me with man-hating frigid feminists." They feel compelled to make this distinction because they've allowed those who oppose  - either overtly or covertly - the equality espoused by feminism to define the conversation. By selectively highlighting stereotypes and inflammatory language, conservatives hoping to maintain the status quo - or, with luck, to get back to the good ol' days, when wives had slippers, a pipe, and a Manhattan waiting at 5:30 - have created the notion that feminists are angry, unshaven beasts. And we've allowed them to do it.

This is an aggressive and effective tactic that works particularly well on social media. The playbook reads like this:
  • Identify a small group of people aligned with your enemy
  • Write up a scathing invective that reveals this small group to be unpleasant, evil, or - God forbid - un-American.
  • Generally apply all the criticisms of this minority to the larger target group, even though most of your ridicule does not apply.
  • Mitigate the risk of backlash against your smear campaign with a line that reflects vague support for the ideals of the group, while still distinguishing yourself from the target group.
  • Maintain an ongoing negative campaign to prevent new members from affiliating with the target group.
  • Allow the target group to dissolve by attrition.

This approach is not inevitably successful, though. Members of the Republican Party, for example, don't feel the same compulsion to perseverate over connotation. Many of the Republicans I know are good people who reject the more racist, jingoistic, and sexist aspects of their current leader and his ilk. But they don't reject the term "Republican" because of some rather flamboyant bad actors. If the notion of Republicanism is not anathema, despite some fairly disagreeable Republicans, then why so feminism?

And there are real consequences to relinquishing the term. When every conversation about equality includes excuses, qualifications, and apologies - when literally no term exists for the position you purport to hold - then your position is necessarily weak and unconvincing. This is not an accident. Words matter, and when we allow the opposition to define terms - to take away our words - then that position suffers. If you believe in equality of the sexes, then you are a feminist - like it or not. If you reject the term, then what are you? By the transitive property (Ooh! English AND math in the same essay - public high school teachers FTW) where "x" is "feminism" and "y" is the definition thereof: if "x=y" and you are not "x", then you are not "y". When you reject the term, you implicitly (even if unintentionally) reject the position.

If you believe in equality of the sexes, say so. If you wish to introduce nuance, feel free. But understand you are nuancing your feminism, not creating something new from whole cloth. The connotation changes when we take ownership and change it.

I am a feminist. Are you?





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