Ah, feminism. A word that has become loaded with meaning, especially to those who don’t identify as such. And honestly, a year today, I might not have either.
Talking to a professor of Women’s Studies one day, I had an incredibly interesting discussion, wherein we shared some stories about our own feminist “awakenings”. Why is it, she sought to know, that so many young people refuse to identify as a feminist?
At its core, feminism is the simplest of notions: that all genders should be considered and treated equally. 16 years in school, and somehow, the majority of my peers had found it within themselves to refute this basic idea.
Even in the 60’s, this basic message had been more clearly understood by the masses than today, some 50 years later. How did such a promising movement become so stalled and muddied?
One thing the women’s rights movement could not forsee, were the astoundingly successful attempts made by the conservative traditionalists to co-opt feminism as an antagonistic term. No longer were feminists those seeking mere recognition as full persons — now, feminists were positioned as bra burning, men hating, angry “butch”rebels.
This radical, stereotyped image has since pervaded public discourse, and the misunderstandings coming with it have been many.
While I could continue to spend hours of my time attempting to demystify stereotypes online, it seems a better use of my emotional labour to do so here, in one go.
So, my interested/open-minded/willing to learn/discuss friends, please enjoy this episode of feminist myth busters!
1.Feminism is about women and advancing women’s rights only.
No! Feminism recognizes that gender stereotypes/traditional gender roles are oppressive to everyone.
Have you ever heard: “You throw like a girl!” /”Dude, are you crying?!” /”She’s got you whipped!” / a million other gender stereotypes?
Yes? Then feminism is about you too. Men should be emotional, and increasingly, we realize the consequences of those who fail to interact with them in a healthy way, choosing instead that they be repressed. The amount of violence or self harm associated with male rejection is case in point — just months ago, a young girl was murdered by a boy, just for saying “no” when asked to the prom.
Further, it is all too often that feminine traits are seen as subordinate, or less desirable than masculine ones. Why is it that “unisex” most often means masculine clothing? And why is it that women can wear pants, or “boyfriend” styles jeans without question, but men would arose ridicule for wearing feminine style garments? The reason is sexism in action. We have associated all that is feminine with all that is shameful when taken in the context of a man. A thought experiment I like to refer to goes as follows:
You are in a store, and you need to buy gift for a set of fraternal twins (one boy and one girl). You know that they will fight if they get something different, so you must buy them the same one. There is a small selection: two pink sleeping bags, or two blue sleeping bags. Which do you choose? As I am sure most of us can imagine, we would much rather purchase two blue, seemingly “unisex” sleeping bags, than have to give the male twin a pink “feminine” one. Why? Because feminine is, again, seen as oppressive, while masculine is seen as desirable and normative (the default, per say).
As human beings, we all possess stereotypically gendered traits, both masculine and feminine. And being pressured by society to suppress one side, is denying our full way of being us.
2. Western women aren’t the ones who are oppressed– it could be so much worse!
As a wise classmate one said, this isn’t the oppression olympics. We are all impacted by systemic discrimination in different ways — this is called intersectionality. We should not compare our oppression to others, nor should people use the position of other’s to justify the status quo. Even if women can vote, go to school, etc, in the West, this does not mean that sexism is any less problematic. Sexism is a systemic issue that rears its head in different ways. Although it may manifest itself differently in different situations, the impact is the same, for it conceptualizes the value of the sexes unequally.
3. I believe in gender equality. Feminism is about women’s superiority.
Again, no! If you believe in gender equality, then you are a feminist by definition. It really is as simple as that.
4. If it’s about equality, then why is it called FEMinism?
Because feminism is about advancing the rights of the oppressed/undervalued gender (women) to be equal with men, it is named for those who are yet to be equal. If you feel better calling it the women’s rights movement, then by all means, go by that too! I often hear people making the argument for “humanism” as the new title, but that contradicts the very logic of the movement.
If all humans were equal already, that would be great. Unfortunately, we have quite a ways to go, so it would be inappropriate to connote that we have already reached equality, as humanism does.
5. Why can’t feminists take a joke? Or a compliment?
We can! But if a joke or a compliment perpetuates harmful sexism, we have a right to be upset.
Things like “the friend zone”, for example, are actually quite problematic jokes to make.
As the cool people at everyday feminism explain:
“A key problem with the idea of the friendzone is sexual entitlement – the idea that certain people deserve sex. The idea of the friendzone is as follows: person A (usually a man) is interested romantically and sexually in person B (usually a woman). Person B, however, sees person A as a friend and isn’t interested in them in a romantic or sexual sense. In other words, the man is the one who desires the woman and the woman is the one who rejects the man. Often, the discourse on the friendzone shames women for ‘friendzoning’ men who are nice to them. Because if you’re a good person and you want to sleep with, or date someone, you should be able to do so – right?
What about the other person in that situation? What about what they want? Why are they shamed for their desire to remain friends while the other person’s desire to pursue a relationship generates empathy? Being decent to someone should be expected. We shouldn’t expect to get rewarded with sex or a romantic commitment simply for being a decent human being. The thing is that we’re socialized to view women as trophies we reward to men for good behavior. Think about the plot outline of most male-centric movies: when the male character overcomes the central conflict, and proves himself to be a good, heroic person, he ends up with his female love interest. As a result, we think of ‘nice’ men as deserving of a woman’s time, love and affection. This has the effect of insinuating that men are entitled to certain things from women, and women are awful for rejecting men.
Underplaying female desire is the other side of perpetuating male sexual entitlement. Why is it that we don’t often sympathize with women who feel like they’ve been ‘friendzoned’ by men? Is it because we don’t feel that women are entitled to sex and romantic relationships simply for being ‘nice’? Or is it because we buy into the stereotype that men are always the pursuers and women are always pursued? Ultimately, the idea of the ‘friendzone’ upholds the idea that men deserve women, which objectifies women. Additionally, it shames women for making their own decisions regarding their sexual and romantic relationships.”
6. Am I really privileged by sexism?
It can be hard to see one’s own privilege, especially if one doesn’t identify as female. Sexism can be overt, but it can also be very subtle. Consider some of these examples, and if you have ever been:
- violently or sexually catcalled on the streets
- touched or grabbed without your consent
- conscientious about covering your body, or the way you dress at work or school
- treated like you body was someone else’s property, or decision to make
- blamed for someone else’s crime against you (rape, harassment)
- told an action was “unladylike”
- told you were selfish for pursuing a career, instead of having/raising children
- unwantingly asked out, and only left alone once you said “I have a boyfriend”, instead of just “I don’t want to”
- expected to be submissive, or defer to a male’s judgment over your own
- expected to adhere to impossibly standards of beauty and body type
- etc, etc, etc…..
As a women, we feel the impacts of sexism on a daily basis. Regardless of our various backgrounds, women share a common interest in dismantling a system that denies us autonomy, the right to feel safe, and equal respect.
If you’ve made it this far, I think the big takeaway is that sexism is a permeating system that is hard to abolish in just one day. None of us are perfect, and we will trip up sometimes, but learning to be cognizant of the way sexism works is a huge first step towards gender equality. Learning from each other is possible, and if we engage in discussion in a respectful and open minded fashion, there need not be such polarizing hatefulness surrounding issues of feminism. Feminism needs everyone behind it, including the allyship of men, in order to be successful.