I have something to apologize for.
In September of 2011, I wrote an article that probably very few people remember. It was about feminism and its flaws. I was just starting to look into the movement in a nuanced way and was struggling with some of what I saw as unacknowledged problems in the feminist world.
I argued that feminism is not self-reflective enough and that it is too strictly policed, intending my piece to be a sincere opening of dialogue. As I’ve continued to examine feminism and the world in which it exists, I’ve realized that most of what I was arguing was a result of my superficial understanding of feminism.
I saw feminism in a way that I think is common among people who haven’t had significant exposure to it: as a monolithic set of ideas that is both hard to discern and dictatorial. A cursory online search will bring up scores of examples of feminist bloggers calling other bloggers out for being bad feminists or for betraying the movement, which only makes the idea of joining the movement more daunting. If so many women who purport to know what they’re doing can fail so spectacularly, what hope do I have?
It took me several months of thinking and reading to realize these were not examples of feminism bringing its full political force to bear on those who had strayed beyond party lines. They were a few isolated cases of individuals within a movement calling out others for doing what they, the first group, considered beyond the pale.
There are some “rules” for feminism, but they are not nearly as confusing or as hardline as outsiders — or those who consider themselves outside feminism — often suspect. Essentially, in order to be a good feminist one must support the rights and equality of women.
If you think women and men are equal human beings and should be treated as such, congratulations! You passed the test, and you are a feminist. Feminism is no more confusing or man-hating than you are.
Of course, that’s the most basic level of feminism. It takes time to understand the enormity of concepts like rape culture and to realize how they impact our lives every day.
If you are a woman who bristles at the idea of giving up traditional beauty standards, realize that you still have space in the world at large — and in feminism! — to be comfortable in your body. Feminism and feminists want women to be able to choose how much or little makeup to wear or body hair to shave, and for any amount on that spectrum to be acceptable. The goal is not to pressure women to wear or not wear makeup.
If you are a man who resents the idea that large parts of our culture are dedicated to normalizing rape and belittling survivors, good news — women don’t like it either. When women and feminists insist on talking about rape culture seemingly ad nauseam, it is not in an effort to target innocent men or to make all men feel shitty for things they didn’t and wouldn’t do. With that in mind, it’s probably a better idea to spend your time fighting the problematic institutions and practices we all dislike than to gripe that some uppity women won’t shut up about how many of them are getting raped.
Last year, I was more upset about the problems I saw in feminism than I was about the problems in the world that feminism is trying to combat. It often takes time to realize that we feel uncomfortable with movements like feminism because we identify with those movements. Taking on the mantle of “feminist” means agreeing to fight inequality, and that can be a tricky, awkward business, which makes even recognizing the issues feminists fight as legitimate can be hard to do. After all, if you think the things feminists are fighting against are legitimately bad, why wouldn’t you also dedicate some time to fighting them?
No matter how difficult, though, it is important to understand the difference between disliking the way some people treat a specific movement and disliking the issues that make that movement relevant.
Photo: Phoenix dark-knight/Flickr