"Feminism Shouldn't Be So Easy" by Emily Hayes
Feminism is a dirty word. In many spheres, the evocative connotation of the word feminist can effectively dismiss a discussion of women’s issues as the simple hysteria of radical and irrational women, who pose the great threat of making you cognizant of pervasive sexism and the consequences of your own behavior. In recent months and years, there has been a push to re-define and re-contextualize feminism as a set of beliefs shared by all, not just by these aggressive women. Emma Watson, one of my personal heroes, defined feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities,” in a speech to the UN last year. Aziz Ansari, also on my list of best people ever, made big news last year when he called himself a feminist. On the Late Show, Ansari asserted that he is a feminist, and you probably are too, because “feminism is the belief that men and women are equal.”
This definition is inclusive; it makes feminism feel approachable and unthreatening, and gives everyone the chance to be a feminist without any thought. Of course, like Ansari points out, you don’t think Beyonce should be making Jay-Z a steak instead of being the star of their tour, so you can be a feminist. Your uncle who hates the voices of the women on NPR but believes they have a right to be on the radio can be a feminist. Your sister’s friend who calls a girl at their school a slut, but wouldn’t deny that she has a right to sleep around can be a feminist. That dude you work with who talks over the end of every one of your sentences can be a feminist, even though he isn’t morally opposed to your right to work. All they had to do was believe that men and women deserve equal rights.
We can pat ourselves on the backs and call it a job well done because we’ve moved past statutory inequality here in the US. Women have the right to vote, women can go to school, women can run for public office, what more could we ask for?
This definition is bullshit.
Maybe we could ask to not be made into sexual objects while walking down the street. Maybe we could expect people (men and women included) to have no instinctive biases against our performance in the workplace. Maybe we could engage in whatever type of consensual sex we wanted with whoever we wanted and not fear the shame of being labeled a whore or a slut. Maybe we could be socialized to speak up and make our voices heard rather than politely listen to men speak. Maybe women of color could expect men to stop exoticizing and hyper-sexualizing them. Maybe we could have the freedom to make decisions about our reproductive health that aren’t dictated by someone’s interpretation of a religious text. Maybe we could expect to be hired, paid, and promoted at the same rate as men (or better).
Defining feminism as a simple belief in equal rights, devoid of any action or critical thought, is a cop out. It fails to take any intersectional issues, like the experiences of women of color or LGBTQ women, into account. It fails to make any individual confront his or her own actions and lets them avoid that uncomfortable feeling of encountering your own biases. This accessible and friendly brand of feminism may do some good by creating a welcome public dialogue about women’s issues, but it does so at the cost of truly examining the countless damaging ways that men and women are treated differently by society through systemic and “subtle” sexism. If we want to have productive conversations using the word feminism, maybe it does need some rebranding, but it does not need to be lowered the least common denominator. It is still possible for each and every person to be a feminist, even if the term has a much more active and critical frame.