Some People Still Seem to Be Confused About What Feminism Is

Here are ten things that feminism is NOT, with an assist from “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams, and a giant misstep from Project Consent.
Publish date:
April 11, 2016
rape, sexism, feminism

Young “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams gave an interview last week that had buzzy parts of the internet buzzing hard over her comments about the word “feminist.” Speaking to James Hibberd of Entertainment Weekly, Ms. Williams said, in part, “…we should stop calling feminists ‘feminists’ and just start calling people who aren’t feminist ‘sexist’ – and then everyone else is just a human. You are either a normal person or a sexist. People get a label when they’re bad.”

I kind of squealed when I read this, barely containing the high-pitched noises that tried to leak from the corners of my mouth.

The first word I’ve used to describe Ms. Williams here is young, which is both the caveat and the beauty of her statement. When the interviewer brings up the topic of “Game of Thrones” and feminism, Ms. Williams says that she was asked about that in one of her first interviews and that at the time, she “didn’t even know what a feminist was.” The interviewer reminds her, and readers, that she was about 12 years old then, and she says, “And then someone explained it to me. And I remember thinking, ‘Isn’t that just like everyone?’ And then I realized everyone is not a feminist, unfortunately.”

That is the lead-in to the quote that was widely circulated, and it is beautiful in its innocence. Women who have lived longer lives and suffered seriously due to sexism might be less likely to find beauty in her blitheness, of course, and she does go on to say, “Because it works the other way, as well. A lot of men have it hard too,” which is an unfortunate follow-up that reveals her not fully embracing the idea of sexism as a systemic ill that actually doesn’t work the same way in reverse.

Still, the name of the movement, which was, and is, so very necessary, remains a disastrous sticking point for many men and women alike. The “fem-“ throws them off. It’s not that complicated: active interest in gender equality is called FEMinism because to correct inequality, the initially subjugated group must be uplifted, supported, and highlighted—not to overcome and suppress the current power group, but to simply meet them where they are.

It’s simple enough to those of us who are not actively seeking ways to undermine it, but those who stand in the way of progress, even if they don’t think or know that’s what they’re doing, continue to be loud and wrong. That group isn’t just the stereotype of a backwards man, either. It’s a mixed bag, women included, that I would like to take this opportunity to address, with a few things that feminism is not.

Feminism is NOT…

1. …A buzzword.

For every Maisie Williams, there’s another starlet on a red carpet who says something foolish when she is asked about feminism. Feminism as a concept and a movement has been with us since decades before many of these young ladies were born, and while that doesn’t preclude them from owning feminism and potentially having brilliant things to say about it, it’s become a go-to question particularly for young ladies in the public eye, from journalistic vultures at the ready to shove a mic in someone’s face for the next controversial click-y pull quote.

Feminism is a movement that is vital to societal progress, not the latest headline or hot topic. Why are so few men publicly asked about feminism? Women of all ages, perhaps? I’m not suggesting we stop asking women of younger ages, just that we add all kinds of people, because it’s an issue for all kinds of people.

2. …Determined by your career.

Sure, a woman who becomes a civil rights lawyer or a professional activist against sexism might have chosen a career path that is “more feminist” than others, but feminists are also teachers, sex workers, stay-at-home parents… anything.

It feels a bit silly to state something that I think is so obvious, but measuring women’s feminism based on career and pitting us against each other seems to be some folks’ idea of a good time, which undermines the entire movement.

3. …A 100% lovey-dovey sorority pact.

Please do not take the previous paragraph to be some sort of call for all women everywhere to never have any arguments or differences, because feminism. My feminism is such that I want gender equality and specifically to support women, but I’ll tell another woman she done fucked up if that’s what went down, and I expect the same.

My feminism is such that I don’t expect a woman to mess something up simply by virtue of being a woman, especially not in an area where she might be the first woman to do something. Experience is a valuable commodity, but it hasn’t been doled out evenly, so we know that lack of experience does not equal lack of ability. We’re still underrepresented in many industries, and we’re still having so many “first woman [X].”

I like the idea of women sticking together, but conflicts happen. And when they do, I can read you to filth without attacking physical appearance, like history so often has with women, or using gendered/coded insults. After all, even biological sisters fight.

4. …Your appearance.

Grow whatever hair your body grows, wherever it grows. Shave it all off. Wax your pubes in the shape of a lightning bolt.

Identify as a man and wear lipstick every day. Identify as a woman and live in dickies and flannel workshirts. Identify as genderqueer and wear tea-length dresses in the classic 50’s Dior silhouette.

Be a transgender woman with a shaved head. Be a cis/het man in a bespoke suit. Be a little girl with a head full of curly cornrows. It really doesn’t matter. You could present as the archetype of the manly man, the girly girl, anything in-between, and new archetypes we haven’t even seen yet because you’re carving them out.

You could wear the tiniest of booty shorts or a ball gown. Espouse feminism? Then you’re a feminist.

5. …Automatically pro-abortion.

Ultra-conservatives like to paint ugly pictures of so-called feminazis sneaking into the bedrooms of pregnant women at night and forcing abortions upon them. We know this is bullshit, but even some women struggle with the notion that belief in bodily autonomy means belief in bodily autonomy.

That means that a woman might know for certain that abortion would never be the right choice for her, her body, and her life, and still be a hardcore feminist who supports other women’s right to choose. Simple.

6. …Against men.

Again, we’ve all seen and heard the “scary” propaganda. But there is a space to address the difference between misandry as a playful pushback against misogyny that we know can’t have the societal gravitas of historic woman-hating, but can still be used to express fully justified frustrations, and… straight-up hating men.

Hating men overall, as a gender, is not a part of feminism. It is something else entirely, and it hurts the movement to conflate the two.

Project Consent, the organization responsible for the quite effective videos on consent that feature anthropomorphized genitalia, just demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the word with this painfully messy tweet:

Feminism is not just “women’s issues,” advanced to the full exclusion of men, and feminists certainly know that male victims of rape absolutely matter as well, while fighting the highly gendered scourge of rape overall.

The tweet was deleted and the following apology was issued, although I think it would have served them better to simply say that an individual tweeting for them misused a word.

This strange sort of othering of “feminists or the feminist movement” implies that same sort of misunderstanding. “Feminists or the feminist movement” is not some fringe organization to be considered along with “people who don’t identify as feminists,” as though being in the latter group is a perfectly reasonable choice to which we are all entitled, with no consequences to the fight we’re fighting in the first place.

I’m also lowkey horrified that an organization that educates about rape and consent cannot identify as feminist as a whole, but that “many of [their] staff” does. Who are those other folks who make the talking vaginas???

Or maybe they don’t know what feminism means.

7. …In need of backlash.

Ultra-conservative ladies of social media, you can keep your signs about why you “don’t need feminism.” You’re operating on behalf of the enemy, and the devil needs no more advocates. There is much conversation about feminism’s waves and generations, but what we don’t need are the women who seem to think they’re doing something revolutionary by loudly declaring that they choose to be subservient to their husbands or they prefer to assume a “lesser” role in the home.

It’s not revolutionary, it’s the oldest ideas in the book dressed up as a revolution because people are still terrified of women who don’t feel inferior. And worst of all, a decent portion of these women are just unable to express that maybe they enjoy putting a meal on the table for themselves and their family because they are good at cooking and provide a valuable commodity.

They’re unable or afraid to assert that work done in the home, including child-rearing, is valuable beyond belief and they should be prized as contributing members of society. They might have been made to feel inferior or somehow inadequate for choosing a path that looks from the outside like what feminism seeks to combat, and, unaware or not in command of their agency, they think they’ll take up arms for those they perceive to be on their side.

We are on your side. Feminism is on your side. It bears repeating that choosing to be a devoted wife, mother, or female partner of any kind who works to maintain a home for yourself and your partner/family because you want to does not exclude you from feminism or make you the enemy.

Doing so because you feel that’s “a woman’s place?” Well, that kind of does.

8. …A quality pickup line.

Cis/het men who declare themselves to be feminists and expect panties to fall to the floor really have to stop. Please claim feminism and behave in ways that support your claim, which may in turn be very attractive. But don’t expect automatic swooning because you said the word.

9. …An insult.

This goes back to the narrow minds who spread hateful propaganda and are ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of what the word means. To the fools who spew “oh she’s one of those feminists” as though it’s a negative thing, I’m sorry that you’re so lost, but you’re damn right I am.

10. …Going anywhere.

It’s not a trend. It’s vital to progress, and if you’re not with us, you’re against us. What Maisie said.

Promo image credit: Amanda Hirsch / Creative Commons