How the word excludes men, non-binary, and transgender people from the movement, and can cause people to overlook how the situation has changed and new issues that have arisen.
My partner recently picked up the book Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done, by Susan Douglas, as a part of his journey in learning how to be a better ally. Today he finished the book and we had a great discussion over ramen and Japanese curry. He told me how the book’s main message is that, starting in the 1990s, mainstream media has portrayed more empowered female figures giving the appearance that “feminism’s work is done,” but this is false for two main reasons: 1) these powerful female figures in the media create the illusion that all women have actually ascended this far, which overshadows the reality of most women and the inequality that still exist (ex. unequal pay, reproductive rights and health being dictated by a predominantly male government, etc.); and 2) along with these powerful female figures came this message that women can’t be independent, strong, defy gender stereotypes and “still have it all”—you can be “empowered” as long as you still conform to certain gender stereotypes, especially in appearance and the way you act (think: people telling Hillary Clinton she needs to smile more and stop yelling).
We started talking about why a lot of people—young and old, female and male—buy into the idea that “feminism’s work is done” and what it would take regain enough momentum around these issues to start creating change (compared to the 60s and 70s we are going at a freaking snail’s pace…no offense to snails). And through this conversation, I realized that one of the biggest things—if not the biggest thing—holding people back is the word ‘feminism’ itself. It’s a loaded word. Susan Douglas explains it very well in an interview:
For young women today feminism is so vilified. And it’s really hard to think of a social movement in this country that has done so much for so many people—not just women but men too—that has been so demonized in the mass media. So they don’t want to go near feminism. And I think one of the things that has happened is that feminists [have been] stereotyped as strident, humorless, anti-fashion, man-hating, child-loathing, on and on and on. And the exhilaration of the women’s movement – how much fun it was actually to have this struggle. It was fun to take on power structures, it was fun to take on men who were treating you very shabbily. But that has been very much erased from our history. And so the notion of the importance of struggle isn’t there, but there’s also a kind of a fear of that struggle that if women begin to stake their claim to fighting for themselves again they’re either going to be marginalized in the way that feminists are, but also that the struggle is going to be scary instead of, in fact, being gratifying.
On top of being a loaded word, ‘feminism’ also outwardly excludes a lot of people. Men who don’t understand what the point of feminism is feel excluded and that they can’t participate in the movement (the way people who responded to Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter probably felt). Also because the word is a lot like ‘feminine’ or ‘femininity’ it appears to subscribe to the man-woman gender binary. It excludes non-binary and transgender people. Really what I think needs to happen is to dismantle this gender binary and turn it into a spectrum. This would go deeper or farther (choose your comparative) than the goals of the feminism of the 60s-70s. And that is how I and probably a lot of younger people feel—we know that “feminism’s work isn’t done,” but we are also not satisfied with just the goals of the past feminism, we want to go beyond that and address the new oppressions that we feel.
Last year when the teaser trailer for the new Star Wars came out, two co-workers were talking about how Princess Leia was their feminist role model growing up, and in the moment I was surprised. I had watched Episode IV: A New Hope for the first time recently (yes you read that right, I’d never watched Star Wars) and all I could think was, “What, how is Princess Leia a strong female figure? The first time you see her, she’s lying on her side like she’s waiting for a lover to come. Who the hell would lay on a prison bed like that?!” Although, people did tell me that her strongest moments come in later films… (I decided not to watch the rest. Yes I know, blasphemy!) That moment discussing the Star Wars trailer made me realize that the situations (talking about other things now, not the way Leia was lying) that I see as outrageous or urgent or frustratingly oppressive might not seem as big a deal to people of older generations who have seen things that could be considered a lot worse and have seen a lot of change. But “things being worse” in the past doesn’t justify the inequality that still exists today. The last thing I want to hear when I’m frustrated is, “Well, we have come a long way!” Yeah it’s true, but that doesn’t change what I experience.
The sexism that people face and/or participate in today is much different than its form in the 60s and 70s. For example in terms of gender roles, sure that has gotten somewhat better, but I’d say objectification has gotten a lot worse (I don’t think that’s a coincidence, some kind of trade-off happened there). Yes, it’s important to know about what happened in the past, to know about previous fights (which will supposedly teach us about how we’re supposed to approach these new fights?), but couching the things we face today using the language of the past can cause people to overlook the way the situation has changed and new issues that have arisen. It’s also not that productive if you have to undo the baggage before you can move forward. Why not just coin a new term and talk about these issues in language that younger people can identify with? Black communities did it with “Black Lives Matter”, which began as a hashtag and became the uniting words to fight the unfinished battle against systemic racial oppression. I can’t think of a bigger turn off than “Civil Rights Movement,” it makes you think only of history homework in elementary school.
So I’d like to open up the discussion to everyone. This is an invitation to start talking about the things we face in our own words. What do you think would be a good word or phrase to use instead of “feminism”?
Edit: I had originally used the title “Why we need to kill the word ‘feminism’ ” – after a conversation with a couple people, I realized that we don’t necessarily need to replace or stop using the word. We just need a new rallying word/phrase that is more inclusive and adds to the movement.