The Problem with “Feminism”

If one day while I was walking along minding my own business a journalist leapt out from behind a bush, thrust a microphone into my face and asked, “Would you call yourself a feminist?” here’s what I would say:

If by feminism you mean an acknowledgement of the systematic inequities suffered by women around the globe and throughout history and a commitment to end those inequities, whatever form they may take, then, yes, I am a feminist.

Not that I don’t mean every word of it, but if this answer feels a little rote that’s because it is. When dealing with charged and elastic terms I have learned that that it pays to give a measured reply. Fortunately, no one cares what I think. However, if you are a famous recording artist and female to boot, people will actually ask you this question. Here’s the savvily innocuous non-answer that Taylor Swift gives:

I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.

And here’s Beyoncé saying, essentially, yes, with caveats.

I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman…I do believe in equality and that we have a way to go and it’s something that’s pushed aside and something that we have been conditioned to accept.

A still of the singer Beyoncé from the video for her song

Both these come from a post on Jezebel that collects answers to the question “are you a feminist” from various famous women, mostly entertainers, who answer in something other than the full-throated affirmative. It is called “The Many Misguided Reasons Famous Ladies Say ‘I’m not a Feminist’”, and you don’t have to be on record as a fan of Beyoncé’s fierce élan or Taylor Swift’s gender politics to see that it is a hack job, a compendium of out-of-context quotes that opens with that hoariest trope of inept sarcasm, fake dictionary definitions of “feminism” and “feminist”. Still, I recommend you click through and read the whole thing just to see how many of the women the article attempts to patronize actually give smart answers. You’d expect as much from Sandra Day O’Connor, but I was also impressed by Carrie Underwood and Geri Halliwell, who (perhaps unsurprisingly for an ex-Spice Girl) casts things in terms of “branding”.  In a longish section of an interview that the post does not reproduce, burlesque revival artist Dita Von Teese makes a case for why her act is feminist, but then goes on, in the part quoted here, to muse on how the whole thing is a trick question.

I mean, I kind of do. [Consider myself a feminist] It’s not a word I don’t really like to address, you know? It’s not even that I want to call myself that. I just sort of go, “Oooooh!” It’s an eyeball roller. (laughs) You know what I mean? It’s like, oh man, it’s a weird question. The word “feminist” is so broad.

Broad, indeed. “Feminist” has a core meaning that’s something like “women should not be treated as inferior to men”. And if each of the women quoted had been presented with this question in so many words I don’t doubt they would have all responded “yes” with so little hesitation that there wouldn’t have been any point in asking. It’s only when confronted with the open-ended term “feminist” they hedge, which is an indication that the problem may lie with the term as much as the women. This is unsurprising, because words have connotations, and it is the connotations the women quoted here appear to be shying away from. It’s difficult to distill exactly what they are, because it’s different for different respondents, and unfortunately many of them fall back on 1970s-era Women’s Libber stereotypes (as if anyone had purposefully burned a bra since LBJ was in office), but the reluctance seems to arise from an impression that to call oneself a “feminist” implies an allegiance to a particular variety of identity politics, or a certain dogmatic style that has ceased to be effective. You can think someone is mistaken in either of these beliefs without automatically dismissing them as fellow-travelers of the barefoot-and-pregnant crowd. Sandra Day O’Connor, for instance, disavows the label for herself, gives cogent reasons for doing so, and then goes on to describe how she has worked to make the law fairer for women. She does not deserve to be condescended to. She is not misguided.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

If I were a celebrity and some reporter asked me out of the blue, “Do you love America?” I’d be cautious in my response. The simple answer is “yes”, but I wouldn’t want to be so quick with that, because a question simultaneously so innocuous and loaded feels like a trap. My gut reaction would be: who are you, and what’s your agenda? Now at this particular moment in history “America” is a “right-wing” Shibboleth and “feminism” is a “left-wing” one, so one or the other may get your back up more, but a gotcha is still a gotcha. I don’t actually care about one lousy post or what Carrie Underwood thinks, but I do care about women’s autonomy, and hate to see the ideology that advocates for it reduced to a mere talisman or cudgel. It’s good that women–celebrities and otherwise–should consider their words carefully and bridle at attempts to be backed into a corner. That’s sound feminism by me.

Many thanks to Erin Franzman who directed me to this Jezebel post and has been helping me work through these ideas.

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5 Responses to The Problem with “Feminism”

  1. Interesting post, though no wonder so many celebrities choose to be cagey when the label ‘feminist’ can so easily be used against them. Personally, I think there’s too much introspection around feminism anyway, and in this arena I’d rather be inspired by actions than words.

    • W.P. McNeill says:

      Yes, and an insistence on in-name allegiance to “feminism” emphasizes words over action, and like other faith-over-works ideological slants gives the impression that its primary goal is self-perpetuation.

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    Here’s the short version of this post. Sometimes “feminism” means “the ideology the advocates for women’s dignity” and I’m totally on board with that. Sometimes, however, it is a Shibboleth that means “I identify culturally as a middle-class liberal” and I’m not on board with that because I don’t like Shibboleths, even if I personally do identify culturally as a middle-class liberal.

  3. Pingback: Urquhart-o-reffic! | Corner Cases

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