Is “feminist” a dirty word?
I recently wrote a blog post about the sexism inherent in the latest Lynx Apollo advertising campaign, which wants to send 22 brave men to space. The post got quite a lot of attention both on social and traditional media, with Forbes, Discovery News and RIA Novosti all picking up on the issue. Tomorrow morning I’m going to be on BBC Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour programme talking about why I think the adverts are damaging.
There have been many comments, some supportive, some questioning why I would be surprised that a male brand is targeting men, some giving personal reasons as to why this sort of campaign could put young women off thinking about astronautics as a career. Then there was one comment stream that really bothered me. Partly because it seemed to miss the central point of my post, partly because it tried to make out that I thought things I didn’t – then labelled me a hypocrite for thinking them, and then because it stated things like “Both men and women seem to be getting quite irritated by cynical privilege seeking from feminists.”
I have to say that this honestly baffled me. There was nothing in my post that asked for any privilege, I was just pointing out I had hoped that in this day and age, advertisers should be above using damaging sexist stereotypes.
The definition of feminism is “The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men”. Equality being a key word here. Calling for equality, is not seeking privilege in my mind. I’m pretty sure I’ve not missed anything there. Equality for women, also equals equality for men. The major clue being the word equality. Right?
Does that make me a feminist? Well on the basis of the definition, yes, of course. So why did I feel strange when someone suggested that I was? It should be something to be proud of. Maybe it was the suggestion that by pointing out an inequality for women, I couldn’t possibly be interested in any other exisiting inequalities. This is not the case.
Another part of the problem revealed itself a little further along in the comment thread. The perception of what a “feminist” actually is doesn’t necessarily match the definition. The same commenter turned to a female friend to ask what she thought of feminists: “Ugly lesbians who want to be treated equally to men by being treated special” was her reply. Aha. I’m not that, and it’s not the start of that sentence that bothers me, but the end. “Want to be treated equally to men by being treated special”, no, that isn’t what feminism is about. Not in my book, and not by the definition. Feminists want equality, right? What’s wrong with that? If they wanted special treatment, then they would be hypocrites, indeed. I totally agree, but the issue is that if people assume that it what feminism is about, it makes it very easy to label things as “feminism” and then ignore them. This is itself dangerous.
If you believe feminism to be something which by definition it isn’t, you are bringing your own prejudices to situations and using the term to excuse you from having to engage with them. That means that important issues can just be trivialised as people making a fuss over nothing, or wanting to be “treated special”.
I’m uncomfortable with this idea. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I paused before posting my original blog in the first place, because I knew that someone would try to belittle my concerns or make out I was making a mountain out of a molehill. But then I decided that if everyone felt too scared to speak out, then nothing would ever change. This was something that I could do, so I did it.
It is a shame that the idea of feminism has been muddied like this, to the point that it makes me feel uncomfortable to label myself a “feminist” because I know that people think of it in the wrong way. What a shame that after all the hard work that has been done by feminists, that the term is now being used as an insult to shut people down. I don’t know what to do about it, can we reclaim it for good and remind people of the true definition, or is it now just associated with extreme militant views?
I genuinely don’t know. What do you think?