Opinions, Column

An Attempt to Humanize Feminists

In 10th grade, I had to film a documentary for my AP government class. A group of 30 students, 15- and 16-year-olds, were divided into groups of about five to six people, and each group could choose any topic on which to do their documentary. The only guideline I remember is that the topic had to be politically or socially relevant. That was it. What a huge responsibility to give a bunch of teenagers.
My group’s final project ended up being a haphazardly thrown together 16-minute video on feminism. Yes, feminism. The term that provokes one of two reactions: “Empowering!” or an eye roll. We called our documentary Co-Dominance. It included a brief history of feminism, stereotypes of male and female professions, and a cockamamie series of clips of people saying the first thing that came to mind upon hearing the words “woman” and “feminism.” There was no thesis. We kind of tried to prove that feminism was ineffective. In conclusion, it was a mess, and the sociologist in me cringes whenever I watch it. I don’t know how or why our feminist documentary ended up being so anti-feminist. I know my 15-year-old self felt uncomfortable presenting the documentary to the class, though at the time I couldn’t exactly figure out why. Looking back, I do believe that it had a little something to do with the negative stigma that unfortunately surrounds being a feminist. It seems that I was a closet feminist before I even knew what feminism really was (and no, our horrific documentary did not help me really understand feminism in the slightest).
It’s sad that when a girl calls herself a feminist, her opinion is immediately less valid. It’s sad that, as a result of this, too many a time have I seen girls state an opinion and then add some kind of “I’m not trying to be a feminist” disclaimer. My question to those girls is, Why not? Why aren’t you trying to be a feminist? Hell, why isn’t everyone trying to be a feminist? At its core, feminism is the belief that women should be politically, socially, and economically equal to men. Essentially, if you think boys and girls are inherently worth the same as human beings, you’re a feminist. Congratulations!
I could go on for days about how much people seem to hate feminism. Is it the fact that feminists are loud and powerful women who simply want their voices to be heard? Is it because people don’t believe that the problems feminists are concerned with are relevant? Because they are. These problems affect every aspect of our daily lives, including the media we indulge in, the political world we’re involved in, the job market we hope to get into, and the general way in which we’re supposed to act. Men, let me explain something to you: patriarchy hurts you, too. You are expected to be powerful, strong, and supremely masculine, and women are expected to simply sit idly beside you as you do it. I don’t know which is more unnerving: the expectation to be successful, 100- percent tough, and emotionally inarticulate and insensitive, or the expectation-almost requirement-to passively do nothing. Think about it.
The beauty of feminism is that women can be anything in the world and still be feminists. As Olivia Wilde once said, “A real feminist doesn’t apologize for her beauty. You can be a sexy, beautiful woman and be the smartest person in the room.” (Amen to that, sister). Women who wear makeup, who are extremely feminine, who are stay-at-home moms, or who leisurely read magazines are not any less feminist than the women who do the opposite of all those things. Feminism says that women are not limited to a set of expected roles. A woman can wear a dress and be the CEO of a business. She can marry or not marry. She can have her kids, adopt, or never touch a diaper in her life. And no gender role, whether the stereotype is adhered to or vehemently gone against, should be valued more than the other.
It is not the differences between men and women that feminism, at least per my definition, has a problem with. Rather, it is the value attached to each set of roles that is the issue. Let’s take the classic example of a woman who wants to be recognized as “serious” who feels that she must reject all of her desires to be feminine. There is definitely an idea of what it means to be influential and dominant, and it’s all masculine. To be seen as relevant and powerful, women must actively embrace qualities of masculinity and reject femininity. Because wearing makeup or caring about your appearance makes you shallow, being beautiful makes you ditsy, being girly makes you lame, and having emotions makes you weak. Too often are elements of femininity beleaguered with negative connotations, and thus devalued. This negative and distorted image of femininity affects how women and men view femininity. Women will even go as far as apologizing for it: “Sorry for being such a girl” is something I’ve found myself saying far too many times. And men are expected to repress such “feminine” qualities of emotion like sensitivity, compassion, empathy, and vulnerability, and this does nothing except further devalue femininity. In reality, these emotions are basic human qualities that we all share, that we all are able to cultivate, and that we all need to sustain lasting relationships and have a fulfilling life.
Feminism is more than just the battle to end male chauvinism or the desire to ensure that women and men have equal rights. It’s about the inequalities that plague America at large. It delves into the interconnections of gender with race and class, because it’s impossible to talk about the inequalities of one without including the influences of the rest. It’s an ongoing conversation about gender roles, discrimination, and society. It’s openness. It’s tolerance. More than that, it’s acceptance.
And, as my own personal disclaimer: Yes, I am trying to be a feminist.
November 18, 2012