Feminism

so, are you a feminist?

[Taylor Swift, Gina Rodriguez, Shailene Woodley]

It’s become almost de riguer for red-carpet journalists (and others) to confront a female celebrity and demand to know whether or not she considers herself a feminist.

This bothers me.

From what I’ve seen, most of the time the publication asking doesn’t have any vested interest in their answer (see, a Time magazine writer asking Shailene this question, and then another turning right around and putting “feminist” on their “words to ban” poll). This leads me to believe that these people aren’t confronting these women because they care about feminism, or want to help overturn some of the misconceptions about feminism– they just want headlines and clicks and shares, and they don’t really care how it happens.

Unfortunately, throwing “are you a feminist, huh, huh?” in a woman’s face seems to work for the whole “getting page views” thing that drives the capitalist internet—especially if she answers the question “badly”—if she says no. Things become even more interesting if she explains why she’s not a feminist, because it usually has something to do with misconceptions about feminism (“I don’t hate men” being one of the most common reactions).

And the reporter and the editor chuckle gleefully together and they take it to the presses and the misconceptions are reinforced and feminists have to waste more time explaining that no, that’s not what feminism is. I swear, we don’t hate men …

This bothers me because it’s not fair to do this to anyone, especially women whose entire lives are in the public eye and if they say “Yes, absolutely I’m a feminist!” they’ll be vilified and hated by some very disgusting people who are willing to harass and attack them for years, and if they say “no, I’m not,” a bunch of people (who, personally, I think are being a little bit ridiculous) get all upset with their sputtering “well, why not? DON’T YOU BELIEVE IN EQUALITY?!”

And that is exactly the problem, because anyone who isn’t an outspoken misogynist is going to respond with “well, of course I believe in equality!” At this point in our culture, I think it’s pretty rare for a person to consciously choose to believe that men and women should be treated unequally.

And while, at its most absolutely basic articulation, feminism is “the belief that the genders should be treated equally,” I feel that this definition is woefully unhelpful.

For example, complementarianism is a methodology espoused by many, probably most, conservative Christians leaders. Complementarianism is sexist, and cannot be divorced from its extremely misogynistic roots—both from the original texts that biblical scholars pull from and from the way it’s been disseminated throughout Christendom. Complementarianism is based on the idea that men and women have been given “different roles,” with men being leaders, teachers, pastors, elders, and kings, and women being submissive, obedient, silent and completely barred from any form of leadership. The point of complementarianism is to treat men and women unequally.

However, every single complementarian teacher will shout until they are blue in the face that what they teach has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not men and women are equal. Of course men and women are equal, they’ll say—they are ontologically equal, and everyone is equally cherished by God. We’re just given different roles. That’s not a statement about which one is worthier than the other, or more valuable, they’ll argue. Pay no attention to the fact that men are the only ones qualified to be in charge of anything. That’s not inequality. That’s just our purpose.

To any feminist, that argument is nonsensical, but if you ask John Piper or Mark Driscoll if men and women should be treated “equally” they’ll say “of course!” but then saying well, that means you’re a feminist in response would be absurd because they are not.

There’s a really big idea shoved into the Merriam-Webster definition that rarely gets unpacked in conversations about whether or not such-and-such female celebrity says she is one or not.

Feminism is the belief that all genders should have equal rights and opportunities.

Inside of those words is a dizzying world of academic and social discussion, intersections of injustice and oppressions, conversations about race and gender and toxic masculinity and benevolent sexism and ableism and heteronormativity. Feminism is more than just the belief that men and women are equal, but how men and women and other genders live.

Feminists are dedicated to dismantling the systemic oppressions that affect women, especially the ones that we all tend to be unconscious of. We fight against internalized misogyny and the need many women feel not to be “One of Those Girls,” whatever those girls might be. We point to ways that whole career fields are hostile to women. We examine how gender roles and stereotypes affect all of us, no matter our gender, and how our communities police these things in sometimes brutal ways.

I don’t think it’s fair to demand that everyone self-identify as a feminist. To me, being a feminist is big work. It’s a commitment. Being a feminist means that when any one of my friends says or does something sexist, I am willing to say something about it, right then, on the spot, no matter the blowback and pressure I might face from others to “not make such a big deal out of it.” It’s a promise to constantly be educating to myself, to always listen to the experiences of women, especially women who experience a different set of intersectional oppressions.

I don’t want to appoint myself as some sort of feminist gatekeeper. Feminism is not a monolith. Feminism is an awfully big tent, filled with many people who can vociferously disagree because we are human beings and that’s inevitably going to happen. I, however, do wish everyone in the world would listen to feminists and think “hey, that makes a lot of sense!” and I’m hopeful that someday that dream will be a reality.

But, for now, there’s a big, uphill battle in front of all of us, and I don’t think handing over a note on the red carpet that asks “are you a feminist? check yes or no” is really helping anybody.

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  • Once again, you blew it out of the park, Samantha. Great article, with lots of things for me to mull over. I think it’s the “little” things (ie, ways that I respond to and avoid microaggressions without realizing it’s happening) that make me realize how unequal things actually are.
    Also, any chance for more Daughters of Eve videos?? 🙂

  • True confession: when I saw the picture, I expected this to be a vilification of some sort of those women’s views. I’m glad it’s not, and this post is way better than anything I expected it to be. Love this so much.

  • Bethel

    Thank you so much Samantha, for addressing how complicated this situation is! It took me a long time to understand feminism, and to self-identify as a feminist. Unless they’ve done a lot of research or something to gain understanding, we can’t expect someone to jump on board with a movement that’s been so misrepresented. Plus there’s many women who believe in feminism’s goals that don’t align themselves with the movement, because of the ableism, racism, etc. they’ve seen from feminists. It’s a lot more complicated than we usually discuss!!

  • I have always really hated the idea–now so widely memed–that “if you believe men and women are equal, then congrats! you’re a feminist!” It’s such an odd, Gotcha!-style approach, and I’m unclear what the point of such logic is. As you point out, for many (most?) of us who so identify, calling oneself a feminist entails commitment and labor.

    For me, the point of understanding feminism as “an awfully big tent” (or, as I usually think about it, as a plurality of “feminisms”) is so I can find and align myself with people whose feminism most closely resembles my own. All these media non-troversies about “does she call herself a feminist??!” are just damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t propositions for the actress being asked.

    • I’ve found the meme helpful when explain my feminism to certain people who have misconceptions about feminism. These kind of simple questions do, I think, help people who wouldn’t consider feminism otherwise – at least spur them to investigate what feminism really is, beneath the word.
      It’s insufficiently simple, sure, but I do think it’s a good starting point.

      I really like your coinage of “feminisms” – very useful in explaining such a broad subject, I think. 🙂

      • I am heartened when I hear people talk, as you do here, about inviting and spurring others to consider feminism who might otherwise never. I don’t do that anymore. (To be clear: not because I don’t think it’s valuable effort; I am just not the person to do it. I work better in other directions.) Thank you for the conversation!

    • I used to do that if someone said they weren’t a feminist. It’s more productive to ask the person what they think feminism is, rather than immediately get on the defensive. And I love that Sarah Bessey reference 🙂

  • Caddy Compson

    I do feel disappointed whenever a celeb I admire says something I consider ignorant about feminism, but then I remind myself that I was raised to believe that “feminism” was a very bad, ungodly thing and that it took me years of education to change my mind and reach the point where I am undeniably a feminist. Just because someone else isn’t as far along that road as I am doesn’t mean that they aren’t on that road at all–they may just need more time. If sixteen-year-old me, who vehemently denied being a feminist, had been attacked by older women for giving the wrong answer, that could have knocked me right off the road to feminism.

  • Come to think of it no, we rarely hear men get asked that question.

    • Men don’t get asked that question, which is probably why it created a minor flutter in the collective-attention-o-sphere a couple months back when Aziz Ansari volunteered (without being asked) on David Letterman that he was a feminist. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sz7ZzQbSiGA He starts off using the bland dictionary definition, but in a bit on Jay-Z and Beyonce, he elaborates on how many people who would claim to accept the dictionary definition but still don’t really have views that fit even with the dictionary definition (e.g., implicit ideas on the acceptability of the gender pay gap, or the espousing of stereotypical gender roles). It’s not that deep, but it’s a bit more substantive than you might expect from a talk show interview. Of course, it should be emphasized again that this was from someone who wasn’t ambushed with the question, and clearly showed up wanting to make some kind of comment.

  • minuteye

    My partner refuses to call himself a feminist. He had some bad experiences as a kid with people who described themselves in those terms and were seriously lacking in compassion. He seems to believe that the majority of feminists are like the radical, man-hating strawman that gets trotted out by misogynists to make a point.

    For a while that really bothered me, but I think at the end of the day I’d rather judge by action than by label. And the actions are good; I’d much rather that over someone who can spout feminist rhetoric all day long but doesn’t think L’Ecole Polytechnique was a hate crime.

    But I guess a soundbite of “Is X female celebrity a feminist or not?” gets more clicks than “Tonight! An in-depth analysis of the gender politics of X female celebrity and how they’ve manifested in her choice of projects, creative work, charity endeavours, and public statements!!!” So labels shall rule us.

    • Yeah, my husband won’t call himself a feminist, but he agrees with me on most feminist issues. And on the areas where we initially disagreed, I’ve brought him to the light. 😉 But with my degree in history, I shoot him down every time he tries to call himself a humanist instead, because that just doesn’t jive with me.

  • ReverendRef

    “At this point in our culture, I think it’s pretty rare for a person to consciously choose to believe that men and women should be treated unequally.”

    I’m not so sure. I hear the rants of various strains of conservatives and/or evangelicals (think Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, etc.), and it seems that they are pretty much actively pushing for unequal treatment between men and women.

    • That’s what they’re doing, but I don’t think that’s how they’d describe what they’re doing.

      • Bri

        I agree, Samantha. They’re absolutely pushing actively for unequal treatment, but they’ll never admit to it in those words. They’ll always insist that “different roles” is somehow different from unequal.

  • Whether rightly or wrongly, the term feminism has a LOT of baggage associated with it. Yes, it can mean that one believes that men and women should have equal opportunities/rights or whatever other positive definition you wish to use, but conversely, it recently has also developed connotations of humorless and extremely easily offended people who want to censor everything that they disagree with. In addition, feminism is also pretty closely linked to left-wing politics and even if one is in agreement with such politics, it is pretty easy to see how someone else could reasonably choose not to associate with the term feminism, even if one agrees with the basic tenets of it, due to not agreeing with the associated political position. In short, the basic concepts of feminism probably appeal to everyone who isn’t a sexist jackass, but the associated baggage that comes with the term discourages people from self-identifying as feminists.

    • “it recently has also developed connotations of humorless and extremely easily offended people who want to censor everything that they disagree with.”

      This tends to be the biggest weapon used by people who are against equal rights/opportunities for women. Distracting and derailing the real issues women face by ascribing certain character traits to feminists, which have nothing to do with what we are arguing for or against. In truth you have to be strong and resilient in order to be a feminist just endure the countless verbal lacerations that ensue.

  • Perhaps, but then feminists do things that help reinforce said perceptions, like hounding a scientist for wearing a freaking shirt. Yes, the perception of feminists as humorless and easily offended is not relevant to most discussions of issues, but it isn’t something that you can just tell people to ignore either.

    • I do not believe anyone except you has suggested that the perception of feminists as humorless and easily offended is irrelevant to most issues or that anyone at all has suggested that it should be ignored. As iturnandburn said, it’s a tactic used to discredit feminism–for example, when someone sums up “a scientist wears a shirt with pictures of scantily-clad pinup girls for an interview about the Philae comet landing, a number of people–most of them women by a strange coincidence–object, the scientist himself quickly apologizes, over a month later later men all over the Internet are still screaming about it, caricaturing the people who objected in all sorts of ways” as “feminists…[hound] a scientist for wearing a freaking shirt.”

      This feminist would never dream of suggesting you should consider yourself a feminist.

    • Emilie

      I’m going to be honest: as a physics grad student, I would feel very uncomfortable if my advisor came into work wearing a shirt like that (but he’s awesome and professional and wouldn’t dream of doing something of that nature). The fact that so many people now seem to be suggesting that this uncomfortability is somehow unreasonable, has been, well…confusing.
      http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2014/11/17/casual_sexism_when_a_shirt_is_more_than_a_shirt.html

    • Tim

      I concur with Beroli on the topic of the shirt. It wasn’t just feminists who had an issue with the shirt. Neither of the women I live with consider themselves feminists or are particularly interested in feminism for a variety of reasons. Both were offended by the shirt. Essentially the reason for the offense was this: in our culture, the images on the shirt were iconographically identifiable as pin-up girls. In our culture, wearing a shirt with those images is pretty similar to wearing a shirt stating: “I think it’s cool to treat women as objects whose primary function is to provide pleasure to men.” And a lot of women, whether they consciously identify as feminists or not, find that message distasteful regardless of who is putting it out there.

      Whether the guy wearing the shirt, Matt Taylor, was actually intending to send that message by wearing the shirt is debateable. As an inhabitant of the nerd bubble for most of my life, I can testify that a fair number of guys within the bubble suffered painfully in the few humanities courses they were required to take and ideas like, “images are symbolic. What you wear may cause people to infer things about who you are and what you believe,” would just never enter their decision-making processes. When the issue was pointed out to Matt, he apologized. Good enough.

      That people continued to ruminate on it weeks afterward is definitely part of the phenomenon of anti-feminists looking for any opportunity to create a caricature of “the feminist” as unreasonable and easily offended. There are some feminist ideas that are pretty radical to my mind (for example: http://witchwind.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/piv-is-always-rape-ok/ ) . But complaints about the shirt are not one of those ideas.

      • I’m not defending the guy’s shirt. I don’t really find it especially tasteful either, but the reaction to it seemed a bit out of proportion to the offense itself.

        That link you posted is pure gold. I wonder what it is like to be so absorbed into one’s mad delusion like that blogger is?

        • Tim

          The shirt was not tasteful. It also was broadcasting an offensive and damaging message. It seemed to me that the reaction was proportional to the offense and the reaction to the reaction was out of proportion, but that’s just me.

          Regarding the link: I do think the comment above about feminisms is fair. The term encompasses a number of views; not everyone who embraces the label would embrace all of those views. Think about how different (though similar at core) Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant beliefs are. About Witchwind, I see her reasoning technique as exemplary of conspiracy theory types of rationalizations. Every group (and fundamentalists and evangelicals are not excluded from this rule) has members who hold to “one big theory that explains it all” that is so fervently believed it can easily overcome all individual brute facts.

      • KP

        “Neither of the women I live with consider themselves feminists or are particularly interested in feminism for a variety of reasons. Both were offended by the shirt. Essentially the reason for the offense was this: in our culture, the images on the shirt were iconographically identifiable as pin-up girls. In our culture, wearing a shirt with those images is pretty similar to wearing a shirt stating: “I think it’s cool to treat women as objects whose primary function is to provide pleasure to men.” And a lot of women, whether they consciously identify as feminists or not, find that message distasteful regardless of who is putting it out there.”

        Well, that certainly sounds like they’re interested in feminist ideas, even if they don’t, for whatever reason, claim the label. I don’t think you can use language like “we shouldn’t treat women as objects whose primary function is to provide pleasure to men” without landing squarely in feminist discursive territory.

        • Tim

          Right. In Samantha’s post she said feminism is the belief that all genders should have equal rights and opportunities. And she followed that up by saying that feminists are dedicated to dismantling systemic oppressions, particularly ones we’re unconscious of, like internalized misogyny.

          I agree with you that language about not treating women as objects falls within the boundaries of feminist discourse. But it’s squarely within the discourse of other schools of thought as well. And some people don’t engage in analysis at all perhaps because of personality types and educational backgrounds and yet have formed beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of something like treating people as objects whether they articulate them in those words or not.

          I think a lot of women see a world where all genders have equal rights and opportunities as a laudable goal. But may not be convinced that, for example, dismantling systemic oppressions, is the best way for them, personally, to invest their time and energy in making the world a better place; that the time they personally might spend on an endeavor like that would ultimately move society in the direction of that goal in any significant way, if that makes sense. We’re all gifted in different ways.

  • It seemed to me that the reaction was proportional to the offense and the reaction to the reaction was out of proportion, but that’s just me.

    I also think a lot of people, whether sincerely or as a rhetorical tool, are eliding the reaction to the reaction entirely (pretending that it never happened, that the only people involved are one man and a Feminist Hivemind) and treating it as though the reaction to the reaction to the reaction (try saying that five times fast…) is just part of the reaction. That is, acting as though it was a matter of “scientist wears an inappropriate shirt->feminists go on about it for over a month,” rather than, “scientist wears an inappropriate shirt->feminists say something about it->scientist apologizes->self-appointed defenders of scientist/enemies of feminism go on about it for over a month->feminists respond to SADSEF.”

    • Tim

      I agree with you. My overall impression of the back and forth and corresponding tone and spin is the same as yours. It’s personally frustrating to me. It seems like an incident like this could be a great opportunity to point to something concrete and say, “Look.This is an example (intentional or not) of objectification of women. Can we agree that objectification is harmful to people (men and women and regardless of any theories about patriarchy) and just stop it when we see it?” Uniting on reasonable principles irrespective of tribes or labels. But sadly, no.

  • Excellent points, as always. I appreciate your comments about feminism being “an awfully big tent” – as a Christian feminist (a Jesus Feminist, as Sarah Bessey puts it), I struggle to publicly identify as a feminist in “both camps”. To many of my Christian contacts, it’s a foul word and means a lot of things it doesn’t actually mean, but also means some things that they’re kind of horrified I believe. To my non-Christian contacts, it means things I don’t believe, and they think that means I’m not really a feminist…but I am. I believe absolutely that all people, regardless of gender or any other factor, deserve equal opportunities and rights. It’s some of the secondary to feminism issues that I don’t support, though I still support education and opportunity within the contexts of those issues. Feminism isn’t a one-size-fits-all label. It’s…well, a very big tent.

  • Nine

    I fit the definition of feminist, and if someone asks me if I’m a feminist I say “yes.” When I self-identify, however, I choose the word “egalitarian.” I understand that in the context of the current cultural struggle, usage of the term “feminist” highlights that the biggest problem, the problem needing the most work, is the way women are treated. I just prefer a broader term for my own personal use. I needn’t identify as a feminist, anti-racist, LGBT supporter, advocate for cultural tolerance, etc, etc, when I have one lovely, elegant word that incorporates all of the above.