Feminism: how often do we hear that word laced with negative connotations? Merriam-Webster defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and as “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests”. What then creates such strong reactions to the word? It can be used to dismiss legitimate points made by women, whether related to gender or not. It can also be prefaced with “angry” to negate opinions, character traits, or to explain a lack of leg-shaving. Not only are some women called “angry feminists”, one often hears “just” before the term, so that she is “just an angry feminist”.
If you were to ask whether someone believed that men and women should be socially, economically, and politically equal, I would guess that the majority of respondents would agree. When you instead ask if people are feminists, most will quickly reply in the negative. Many men believe it is a term that can only be ascribed to women. Many women what has been propagated by media: that feminists can only be women who are angry, hate men, and don’t shave their armpits.
Feminism is not about physical appearance or man-hating. It is not about diminishing one gender in order for the other to become equal. It is about recognizing that men and women have equal potential and should thus be given equal opportunities. There is some anger involved, yes, but why should I not be angry that my vagina means that I will statistically make less money in my life than someone with a penis? Penises and vaginas are both good, but I do not think they really play a role in my ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
Has feminism reached its best-before date? Let’s look a couple examples in recent media. Miley Cyrus is not the best role model for young women. She recently performed at the MTV Video Music Awards, facing much criticism from the media for her twerking (a dance move that culturally appropriates traditional African dance) and borderline-pornographic performance. She faced outrage from many sources for her inappropriateness, but most ignored her co-performer Robin Thicke. The performance was of Thicke’s hit, “Blurred Lines”. The song describes the so-called ‘blurred line’ between consensual sex and rape. In defending the video to the song, Thicke was quoted as saying: “People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What is a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women’”. Um – really? But yes, let’s just continue to criticize the 20-year-old Cyrus and ignore the 36-year-old married father who performed with her.
The media is full of other examples of sexism. While in Superstore a few weeks ago, there was a sign on the Kinder Surprise display exclaiming that they now had toys for girls! Books like 50 Shades of Grey idolize the dominant man and the passive woman (literally). Shows like Breaking Bad condition us to dislike the wife who is trying to keep her family together. Not supporting your drug-producing husband is just such a buzzkill! We are taught that the level of attractiveness of female politicians is somehow relevant when deciphering their ability to perform their jobs. Their sex life is also in the public eye in a different way than it is for men. It is okay for a radio show host to ask BC Premier Christy Clark whether she is a MILF (Google it…) or a cougar, though one would never think of asking a sexual question of Greg Selinger. The University of Manitoba Students’ Union recently elected a new president who was photographed wearing a shirt reading, “Cool story babe. Now go make me a sandwich”.
We clearly have more work to do before equality is reached. Equality is the right thing to aim for, and it also has huge benefits for the community. Boards have been shown to make better decisions when a woman is a part of the decision-making process. We have more good leaders if we choose from the entire population instead of half of it. (This assumes equality across races, sexualities, socio-economic status, etc.) Instead of being scared of feminism, we can all do more to treat each other better, since it is likely that we all contribute to the inequality whether we know it or not. Women contribute to sexism every time they call another woman a slut because of the way she dresses (or because of the number of people she sleeps with – really, does it matter?). Men contribute to sexism when they assume specific gender roles apply to someone they do not know. Feminism is not bad. The term should not be scary. So if you ascribe to the goals of feminism, do not be afraid to call yourself a feminist. There is still lots of work to be done, but it is good and useful work.
Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 104, Issue 3, September 17, 2013.