What Does It Mean to be a Feminist?

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by Randall S. Frederick

One of the second-tier conversations taking place going into the 2016 Presidential election in America concerns itself with Feminism. Like racism, it is impolite to directly state one’s views; an individual must couch their views in coded, ambivalent language. But actress Lena Dunham continues to use her celebrity to focus on Feminsim, insisting that the campaign is “rabidly sexist.” It’s not just the candidates, she claims. It’s also the media and, in a very real sense, American culture.

“The way that Hillary Clinton has been talked about in the media is so gendered and rabidly sexist in every single portrayal. The adjectives, whether it’s attacks on her personal life or the adjectives that are used to describe her clothing, we have to do a full re-examination. Like, I literally want to make a list that we hand to media outlets that says these are the words you can’t use when you’re describing a female candidate: shrill, inaccessible, difficult, frumpy, plastic. I mean, there’s just a list of words that if we were allowed to talk about male candidates like that, I’d have a f***ing field day. I’d enjoy my life so much.”

As well-intentioned as Dunham is, her stated views are part of a very real and very conflicted way of talking about gender, politics, and the efforts that respective “sides” in the Gender Equality discussion will go to in pursuit of their views. Amy Chozick of The New York Times writes,

But at an Upper East Side dinner party a few months back, Ms. Dunham expressed more conflicted feelings. She told the guests, at the Park Avenue apartment of Richard Plepler, the chief executive of HBO, that she was disturbed by how, in the 1990s, the Clintons and their allies discredited women who said they had had sexual encounters with or been sexually assaulted by former President Bill Clinton. The conversation, relayed by several people with knowledge of the discussion who would speak about it only anonymously, captures the deeper debate unfolding among liberal-leaning women about how to reconcile Mrs. Clinton’s leadership on women’s issues with her past involvement in her husband’s efforts to fend off accusations of sexual misconduct.

Pushback against Clinton’s campaign (full disclosure: I have contributed to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and will likely be voting for her this November) is not the problem, but yet another facet of the “issues” women face in America today and around the world. Simply, many women do not believe they are Feminists, do not believe in the tenets of Feminism, and do not want social or cultural equality. Vox Media, in a poll conducted by Perry Undem Research & Communication last year revealed that, overwhelmingly, 82% of Americans (yes, you read that correctly; eighty-two percent of Americans) claim they are not Feminists. Only 18% of respondents were willing to take up that title. Confusing as it may be, though participants of the survey indicated they are not Feminists, 85% still believed in equality between the sexes. How is it possible for 85% of the respondents to believe in equality, while 82% are hesitant to take on the title “Feminist”? According to comedian Aziz Ansari, the two are really the same thing. “If you look up feminist in the dictionary, it just means someone who believes men and women have equal rights. And I feel that everyone here believes men and women have equal rights.”

As I’ve written about before, I like to believe I am a Feminist. I’m quick to say, “Yes. I believe in Feminism.” And, along with Ansari, I absolutely believe women should have equal rights. But, I admit, there are times when I feel the new forms of Feminism are misguided, even annoying or “shrill.” I also like to hold on to those reservations loosely. I am occasionally an artist and few things produce anxiety, even anger as quickly as someone telling me they “don’t get it” before the product is finished. In like turn, when I am confused or feel like the Feminist of the Week in the news cycle is saying something I cannot agree with, I try to hold off until I hear their complete statement and understand their context. The last thing Feminism needs is another (primarily) straight white male chiming in. My main issue with the newest version of Feminism is the way that celebrities (typically female celebrities, like Lena Dunham) use the Feminist flag for whatever they’re talking about, or as Amanda Hess of Slate writes, “For a new crop of celebrities, feminism can signify absolutely anything—or to put it another way, nothing. The important thing is just saying the word where somebody hears you.”

Then again, a recent conversation with a friend of mine illuminated part of the reason why I say I’m a Feminist but shy away from certain angles. “It sounds like you’re a Second, maybe even Third Wave Feminist, but maybe not a Fourth Wave.” As much as I would like to claim I’m an early adopter and at the frontier of information, the truth is: I’m not. There are areas I need to grow, challenge old beliefs, and reset old mindsets. That’s what it means to be human. Like all belief systems, worldviews, and ideologies, we are able to adapt.

Instead of plagiarizing, I would encourage you to read Caroline Dorey-Stein’s brief survey of Feminism. There, she reminds her readers that, “Due to the range of feminist issues today, it is much harder to put a label on what a feminist looks like” and that no one can truly claim to be a Feminist until they know the history of the movement and are able to trace the development of it. Interestingly, Dorey-Stein only directs herself to three waves, not four. The Fourth Wave has, I believe, muddled the core tenets of Feminism. While this wave is interesting, even important and valuable, it’s not truly Feminism in my estimation because it seeks to take Gender Equality to mean much more than equality for women. Again, this an important migration and one that, under a different umbrella, I would agree with wholeheartedly. As Martha Rampton of Pacific University writes, 

Because the word feels like it is underpinned by assumptions of a gender binary and an exclusionary subtext: “for women only.” Many fourth wavers who are completely on-board with the movement’s tenants find the term “feminism” sticking in their craws and worry that it is hard to get their message out with a label that raises hackles for a broader audience. Yet the word is winning the day.  The generation now coming of age sees that we face serious problems because of the way society genders and is gendered, and we need a strong “in-your-face” word to combat those problems. Feminism no longer just refers to the struggles of women; it is a clarion call for gender equity.

Trite as it will seem, I think there is certainly something to be said for the development of entertainment geared towards women. Lifetime, which claims to be “Television for Women” spent most of the Nineties cranking out shows of women whose husbands had left them, tried to murder them, or had a secret life as a rapist. Today, shows like Dancing with the StarsThe Bachelor, and Dunham’s Girls show new, more developed interests. As Naomi Zack, professor of Philosophy at the Univ. of Oregon once compared Twilight’s Bella Swan and then Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin as an equal and important face of Feminism even if their function is “historically innocent to the point of complete ignorance.” If women do not want to admit the challenges that face them, that’s alright. They can still be a Feminist. Contrary to the popular misconception of man-haters and bra-burners. Zack writes,

[S]erious scholarly feminists seem not to be aware that these three things are very important to a majority of young American women: practicing heterosexuality in the form of fulfilled romantic love and fertility; looking good according to the prevailing beauty norms of consumer culture; and attaining power in the world as it is, rather than the world as it should be. The good news is that these values and aspirations do not appear or feel like the psychic attitudes of an oppressed and exploited gender. The bad news is that this idealized configuration is not accessible to all members of the female mass, almost by definition… The question is whether feminists ought to further distance themselves from existing women by repudiating idealized heterosexuality, objectified beauty, and male-identified power for women or if they should make a more conscientious attempt to at least bridge their culture gap with the masses.

To better understand Feminism, I’ve asked a few fellow writers to share their thoughts, which they’ll be doing next month. For now, I would welcome comments, questions, challenges, and ideas of what Feminism means to you and what it means to be a Feminist today.

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