Feminism: The Good F-Word (Despite Its Bad Reputation)

November 15th, 2018

Before we explore films from a feminist perspective, we need to synchronize our understanding of what feminism is (and isn’t). I am forever hearing people use and abuse it in ways to suggest that word does not mean what they think it means. It’s time we fix that.

Nigerian Author CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHE, in her must-read book WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS, elegantly explains why so many people recoil from the word feminist, claiming, “…it is so heavy with baggage: you hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture, you think women should always be in charge, you don’t wear makeup, you don’t shave, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humor, you don’t use deodorant.”

For the record, none of these descriptions characterizes feminism. Yet by stigmatizing the word in this manner, advocates for women’s rights only perpetuate the STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE that fuels sexist attitudes in our society.

Perhaps that’s why I myself identified as a humanist in lieu of a feminist in my younger years, back when I mistakenly believed the terms were mutually exclusive. They are not. I now recognize I’m both a feminist as well as a humanist, because humanist is no substitution for feminist any more than fruit is a substitution for apple, orange or pear, or woman is a substitution for mother. The power of the word lies in its specificity.

Specificity is essential.

Adiche writes: “…to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.”

Feminist TUBA SAJJAD at REBELLESOCIETY.COM writes: “To say that feminism should be replaced by humanism, just because the word offends some people simply because of the feminine connotation of it, is to take away another right from women, and to take away their representation in this movement they have worked for endlessly.”

Or if you prefer visual aids, check out Steve Chives’ amusing youtube beer-fueled argument employing a bizarre sexual conduct sign posted in an L.A. metro to illustrate this point:

On the other hand, too much specificity can be detrimental, and herein lies much of the controversy over feminism. For the sake of brevity, I’ll use a highly oversimplified overview of the SUFFRAGETTE MOVEMENT and its aftermath as an example:

The Suffragette Movement was successful in great part because Suffragettes recognized that in order for women to achieve first class citizenship they needed a say in government, i.e. the right to vote. These feminists united to fight for a clearly defined common cause. After women won the right to vote, however, disparate agendas and priorities between various women’s advocacy groups divided us in ways that continue to hold us back. A major bone of contention resulted from the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

Let me repeat — this is a highly oversimplified account of a far more complex issue, which I urge you to research further on your own, but please bear with my incompleteness for the sake of brevity in illustrating a greater point.

Those in favor of the ERA focused, as its name implies, on equality. That is to say, they wanted men and women to be considered “equal”—i.e. equal work for equal pay. In theory, this idea sounds great and would have been were men and women all situated on a level playing field. But women in opposition to the ERA knew firsthand we were not.

Prior to this point, working class and minority women had fought for, and won, reproductive privileges that safeguarded their job security, living wages and other allowances to accommodate their needs in regards to pregnancy and childcare. Men, by virtue that they cannot get pregnant, were not afforded these identical rights. Hence, men and women were not, and will never be entirely equal.

So, when a group of privileged women who wanted but did not necessarily have to work for a living penned the ERA demanding equality, the women who couldn’t afford nannies or run the risk of losing their jobs by missing work during pregnancy were opposed to a “feminism that would strip them of said rights by labeling them “equal” to men.

Consequently, many minorities and working class women broke off from the ERA-driven women’s movements to form their own advocacy groups, and in doing so, many likewise denounced the term feminism, considering it a movement that solely benefited white women of privilege. Over time, as differing agendas about reproductive rights, sexuality and women’s roles in society also got haphazardly lumped under the feminist label, other feminists abandoned the unfairly stigmatized word as well.

While these misgiving are understandable, it’s time for all women to reclaim this word on the road to much needed unity if we hope to make progress. In ROXANE GAY’s must-read book BAD FEMINIST, she says, when younger, “I disavowed feminism because when I was called a feminist, the label felt like an insult. In fact, it was generally intended as such.” I’m sure many women shirk the word for the very same reason. But Gay’s since found power in this identity and so should we all. We must not let the misogynists win.

So, please, let us treat the word “feminist” with the respect it, and we, deserve. We’ve asked far too much of this poor little noun, burdening it with countless agendas beyond its simple, fundamental scope. We need both feminists and feminism more than ever. So, let’s find a definition that will bring us back together:

BITCH MAGAZINE cofounder ANDI ZEISLER says feminism “is about people [specifically women] demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable.”

TUBA SAJJAD writes, “Feminism is not about making men weak or women strong. It’s about giving everyone the power to be strong, ambitious, vulnerable, caring, aggressive, opinionated — based on their personalities and experiences, and regardless of their gender.”

Historian MARLENE LEGATES says that “feminism is a belief that women and men are inherently of equal worth.” She goes on to clarify that she uses “equal worth rather than equality because the latter often assumes that men’s historical experience—whether economic, political, or sexual—is the standard to which women should aspire.” Hopefully we can all agree it is not.

But perhaps CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHE puts it best:

“My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.”

I have to concur. We should all be feminists. So, let us — deal?

In two weeks, I’ll be back with an examination of the detrimental effects of so-called “chick flicks.”  In the meantime, tune in next week to meet BTB’s co-founder AMY AVILA as she explores various films via the feminist gaze.

Next up, why CHICK FLICKS MUST BE STOPPED. Back in 2 weeks.





  • Newsletter