Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What Feminism Isn't

Ugly, boring and angry?
Posted by Courtney E. Martin

As I travel across the country speaking about feminist issues I like to take a quick survey of the audiences. I ask them “What are the stereotypes you’ve heard about feminists?”After a few timid moments, folks start shouting a flood of unsavory characteristics: ugly, bitchy, man-hating, boring, angry, bra-burning.

The wild thing is that whether I am in a lecture hall in Jacksonville, Illinois, or a woman’s club in suburban New Jersey, or an immigration center in Queens, New York, whether I am among 15 year-olds, or 25 year-olds, or 60 year-olds, whether the crowd of faces that I see are mostly white, or mostly of color, or a welcome mix of all—this list tends to be almost identical.

I tell those in the audiences as much, and then I ask, “So how did all of you—from such vastly different backgrounds—get the exactly same stereotypes about feminism? Why would feminism be so vilified?”And to this they usually shrug their shoulders.

I believe that feminism has attracted so many unsavory stereotypes because of its profound power and potential. It has gained such a reputation, been so inaccurately demonized, because it promises to upset one of the foundations on which this world, its corporations, its families, and its religions are based—gender roles.

If you asked diverse audiences to give you stereotypes about Protestantism, for example, you would have some groups that starred at you blank-faced and some that might have a jab or two.

If you asked about the history of civil rights, even, you would get a fairly innocuous, probably even partly accurate sense of the progress afforded by sit-ins, freedom rides, and protests. But you ask about feminism and the whole room erupts with media-manufactured myths, passed down from generation to generation. Some of these stereotypes can be traced to events or controversial figures in the women’s movement, though they are still perversions. That whole bra-burning thing came out of the 1968 Miss America protests in which feminists paraded one another around like cattle to show the dehumanizing effects of beauty pageants, but they didn’t actually burn any bras.

There have surely been some feminists who despised men and advocated for female-only spaces; others have undoubtedly resorted to an angry m.o.; there were probably even a few shabby dressers (though, I have to tell you, us third-wave gals tend to be pretty snappy).
More recently one of the most pervasive misperceptions about what feminism purports to do is actually perpetuated by strong, intelligent women; I refer to the mistaken belief that feminism is solely about achievement, competition, and death-defying acrobatics (sometimes called multitasking). I like to think of this as “shoulder-pad feminism”—the do it all, all at once circus act that so many of my friends and I witnessed growing up in households headed by superwomen.

The ugly truth about superwomen, my generation has come to realize, is that they tend to be exhausted, self-sacrificing, unsatisfied, and sometimes even self-loathing and sick. Feminism—and the progress it envisions—was never supposed to compromise women’s health. It was supposed to lead to richer, more enlightened, authentic lives characterized by a deep sense of wellness.

Feminism in its most glorious, transformative, inclusive sense, is not about man-hating, nor is it about superwomen. For what it is, come back tomorrow…

9 comments:

kydemocrat said...

There is perhaps no other words in the English language any more stigmatized, demonized, or stereotyped than the words: "feminism", or "feminist". Mentioning one of these words around most anybody- male or female, young or old, educated or uneducated- leads to a similar negative response. To be honest, I held very negative opinions of the feminist movement until I began college, and realized what it was all about. Prior to that, I was subjected to the constant assault on feminism on popular TV shows, and other media forms, as well as the absent, at best, or the negative, at worst, portrayals of feminism within the public school system.

It is an all too familiar idea in our society that feminists have almost single- handedly been responsible for the moral demise of the United States. Individuals adhering to these notions generally view feminists as men- hating and mean- spirited fanatics. Further, they credit them with liberating society sexually. However, it is evident by watching TV, listening to TV, going to the movies, and even reading the news, who the vulgarity is intended to satisfy--- and it certainly is not the women of society. Finally, many even blame the breakdown of the nuclear family on feminist’s desires to be economically and socially liberated. Nevertheless, it is often the man of the family who runs off, leaving the woman to assume full responsibility for the family, not vice versa. Regardless, however, this is how society has came to view feminism, by and large. Until this changes, the progress made in gender equality will likely be slim to none.

feMENist said...

I think the author raises a very valid point here: feminism is not about creating an uber-female species nor about hating males, an idea that, if realized, I believe would really help feminism.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to identify where these stereotypes derive from. A large part of them have to derive from men themselves. Mostly uneducated men, but men none the less. I would also argue that a large number of these stereotypes come from women, which ultimately comes from men. Feminists are rejecting norms, and women employing name calling and other methods to bring down feminism have been seduced in their way of thinking (Bordo).

The one thing I do disagree with is that stereotyping and name-calling is particular too or more prevelant in feminism. The author brings up the point of Protestantism, which is a bad example to raise because ultimately people are unfamiliar with it. Ask a group of people about civil rights, especially for African-Americans, and see what kind of reaction you receive, or what words are used.

It is a flawed argument to present feminism as ugly, boring and angry, but seperating it from other movements on this basis is flawed as well.

andsoitgoes said...

The two points that most stand out to me in this article are:
1. The Feminist Movement being grouped as different than the civil rights movement.
2. The way that people have misconstrued the specific ideas and actions of feminism.

The first point is unfair because people react favorably to freedom fighters and sit ins when it is to create a better world for a minority class but aren't women a minority. Yes they are but people respect the Civil Rights Movement and degrate women and call them ugly, boring or angry when they stand up for the rights they feel they should have as minorities in a white male dominated society.

The second point is directly addressed in the article, specific instances of the Feminist Movement were completely changed by society. The bra burning instance for example makes me laugh out loud. Society really thinks this is what Feminism is, they think angry women took their bras off and burned them. That is an example that is constantly brought up by evryone I have talked to when discussing feminism. Ugly, many people are ugly how can that word be used to describe feminists fairly? It can't, its an unfair stereotype that both men and women have used so much it has become almost factual. All of the adjectives used to explain a feminist are skewed versions of what society wants people to believe so that Feminism is not sought after. It is a way to keep people, and I say people because it applies to men too, away from becoming active in the equal rights of women. Just like the bra burning incident was never really about bra's feminism is not about bitchiness.

What I want to know is how to change the stereotype? How to make it okay for young women to get involved and push for equal pay and stronger punishment for sexual violence? How does it become the popular thing to try harder and better the world for a minority?

freedom-is-slavery said...

The post by kydemocrat is a very real description of how feminism is thought of in society. I believe I have (to an extent) been a feminist for many years, however reluctant I have been to consider labeling myself as such. Even now when the subject of feminism comes up on conversation, I no longer deny that I am a feminist, but for some reason I still make sure to qualify it with “but I am not an extremist.”

Feminism does not mean man-hater, but I believe it does mean “I love myself enough to not accept less.” I believe there are many, many feminists out there, but like myself, they, too, are reluctant to use the label because of all the negative connotations this word brings to mind.

The popular meaning of ‘feminism’ is a reflection of our patriarchal society. Feminism is a direct threat to the traditional structure of the family. For women to demand equality to men (sadly, this is the current level of progress) is perceived as very harmful to traditional hierarchy of man. There is a naturalness to men as the superman, but not woman and the superwoman.

Most women are no longer willing to accept that their roles are defined for them; they believe they will decide their path for themselves. How I wish this was possible.

Scottye said...

I have a strong amount of empathy for feminists and women in general. For me feminism isn’t so much about fighting for equal rights in relation to men as it is in uniting women for the fight that’s yet to come. It is a sad fact that the majority of women work against feminism because they have been seduced by the white patriarchal power structure.

From my personal experiences in this deeply conservative area it is the women who work hardest against feminism. For example let’s look at abortion. I argue with more women about abortion than I do men by a wide margin, and what’s more I typically am taking the pro-abortion side while they are taking the anti-abortion side. It strikes me as peculiar that women are so entrenched against themselves.

These anti-feminist women, I think, feel more threatened by the movement because, as mentioned in class, they can’t envision a world where women are truly equal. A world wherein women and men make the same amount of money for doing the same job, a world where women aren’t forced to have sex in order to acquiesce and function within an abusive and demeaning society. Until this happens women will be just as, if not more vicious about demonizing feminism than men ever could be.

Brandy01 said...

I can say that sometimes I wish I could burn my bra. What angers me the most is that women hold these negative sterotypes. I have actually felt attacked by some of the comments that girls in my building have made about feminism. Especially when these are girls who proclaim to have an open mind about things. Usually it is the people who claim to have an open mind that are the most narrow minded.

It is the narrow minded that have these sterotypes about feminism because they get scared, that their narrow mind might have to expand. Learning and growing can sometimes not be so comfortable. I think that these narrow minded people are lazy because they do not want to get out of their comfort zones. The narrow mind is simply one step away from being a scared mind.

I would be scared too. I scare myself with how angry I get when I come back to my dorm and find MILF written out on my door because someone thought that it would be funny. I still can't get over how that some people find making fun of women to be fun and a good way to spend time. Until degrading women stops being so fun, I think the narrow mindedness might stick around for awhile.

It was a little scary to actually realize that I hold a feminist viewpoint on many many issues. I felt scared because I was afraid that I would be degraded even further. Not only would I be attacked because I was a woman, but I would be attacked because I went against what men want for women and what other women want for themselves. I'm a little hesitant to place blame entirely on men because the women who wish to remain in their narrowminded ways are just as much at fault.

Feminism is not about making an issue about anything and everything. It isn't about making a big deal out of something small. What a lot of women fail to realize is that feminism can mean a lot of different things and that because women are different, feminism can be different. While the philosphies can be the same, what it means to the individual can be different.

whitney said...

I can really relate to this article. When I first decided to minor in women’s studies, I talked about what classes I would be taking with my friends and family. Their reaction to it kind of surprised me. I found I had to defend my position a lot more than I thought I would. Whenever I tried to talk with them about books I had read, they didn’t really want to know what it was about. The question I got most was, “But are you a feminist?” Like, everything that I had been talking about didn’t really matter as long as I didn’t accept that horrible label. Now I try not to even bring it up because I am tired of telling people exactly what this article is about. So many of my friends that I would talk with would agree with just about everything I had to say. The only difference between me and them was that they refused to label themselves as feminists. After a while I think most of them started seeing that being a feminist didn’t mean that you were ugly and hated men. It only refers to a group of people that believed in the equality of men and women.

Anonymous said...

Keith-
This article hits the nail on the head in my opinion. When i went to the book at the beginning of the semester to buy books the cashier asked me what class these books were for. I replied, "they are for feminist political theory." The cashier then replied, "Why do want to take that class, its probably just a bunch of man haters in there."
I found this characteristic to be common among a lot of people, especially guys. I think this mentality comes from a long line of other people framing the argument. When it turns into this we don't have to look any farther than the media which are corporate owned, to see where people get this idea. They frame it like this because they don't want there to be feminists, or at least new ones. They don't want the social order disturbed. I'll be honest, my conception of feminism when i was younger had the same ring to it but as we all grow older and actually read the material ourselves we realize that this idea is simply wrong. The people who characterize feminism as the author depicts are simply uneducated about feminism. Sure feminist blame men for their oppression, but that is with good merit. Feminism is not about man hating, although warranted, its about equality, and until people read it and see it for themselves, this depiction will always be the case.

James said...

I want to quickly discuss a point that Brandy makes in her post. It is interesting that people, who make claims about how open minded or sympathetic they are to others, are often among the more intellectually closed because of their fear of discovery. It is important that we do not dismiss this fear of self-discovery or discovery of others too quickly. From my own intellectual and emotional growth, I can attest to the often-painful nature of discovery. Ignorance in many ways is a much safer life path.
I identify myself as a white, heterosexual male, and at times I have done this with an extreme amount of guilt, because of my own self-awareness of the person I was before I began college. I am reminded of Minnie Bruce Pratt’s ongoing internal monologue as she walks down the streets of Washington, D.C. At every encounter she has she wonders what personal/social history informed the brief encounter. I catch myself wondering the same thing now. The journey to honest self-discovery and the attempt to meet others at a point of mutual understanding are ongoing, often emotionally harrowing, and sometimes end in failure.
I would also like to echo the sentiment that I have seen in several of the posts, that self-identification as a feminist or accepting feminist ideas automatically ends in having to take a defensive posture. Interestingly this correlates with one of Andrea Dworkin’s points that patriarchy has the power of naming, and obviously it has named feminism as dangerous.