Feminism and the societal messages around it.

A couple weeks back, two of my friends and I were having a pretty lengthy discussion about some of the common societal discourses around feminism. Having come straight out of class at the time, we wandered over to the nearest empty room and occupied the place. Over the course of this conversation, we hit just about all of the normal ground for discussions of this type. We talked about how feminism is not a monolithic radical discourse but a series of discourses gradated in a number of different ways. We talked about how, within the larger society, the words “feminist” and “feminism” are seen as dirty words, denoting some hidden radical agenda of man-hating rage. And we talked about how some people who support the main arguments behind feminism choose to disavow the term.

If this discussion sounds like something that you would have just about every week in a Women’s Studies program, you are about right. In fact, this is a discussion that I have had a number of times this year alone. However, this time, my mind went to a very different place than it usually does in these conversations. Usually, I jump in at the point of “I am not a feminist, but..” and start critiquing some of the feminist hate of those who express this line. This time, though, I made some strange connection between the idea of “feminist” as a label and my hatred of modern art. (Don’t get me started.) These may seem very strange things to connect together, but for me it made a lot of sense.

Earlier this semester I was taking a course in which we needed to make a collage to communicate a feminist message to an audience. During this course, I expressed a number of times that I really was having a problem with this assignment. I kept getting stuck on the idea that people can make my piece of art mean just about anything that they wanted. To me, this made art as a medium seem like a very inefficient and ineffective way of communicating with people.

So, when we were talking about how society has this one view of feminism even though feminism is strictly non-monolithic, something clicked. I noticed that feminism was having the exact opposite problem of the one that I have with modern art. That is, feminism, through all of its historical movements and various discourses, has been very good at communicating one particular image to people, despite the fact that the image that it wishes to portray is much broader.

This strange connection, and the large societal disparity that triggered it, started me wondering about just what would happen if the societal understanding of feminism and the feminist movements shifted to more accurately resemble the diversity of these communities. After thinking about it for a while, I figured that a major shift such as this would be something that would be good for the feminist communities. However, I also think that there would be some unintended consequences that many involved with the feminist movements may not like. Not the least of these is the possibility that it could spell the end of feminism as we know it.

Truth be told, that last line is a bit of hyperbole, but not too much. It is very possible that, should the current singular image of feminism dissolve into a number of different images, the meaning behind the label “feminist” could dissolve with it. The way that I figure it is that, once a label or identity stops conjuring a clear mental image in people’s minds, the value these people assign to it decreases dramatically. This means that even though all of the negative attributes currently ascribed to feminism and feminists would disappear, a large swelling in the feminist ranks is unlikely to occur. In fact, the number of people identifying with the term could dry up all together.

For a lot of people in the feminist communities, this is a problem. However, for me, I don’t see it as such. One of the main reasons that I don’t think that this would be a problem is because the core tenet of the feminist ideologies (that women are people) would still hold strong, even if the word we defined to encapsulate it disappeared from common vernacular. This permanence of the main idea of feminism is something that I rarely hear in the numerous discussions that I have seen on the matter. This being said, I should acknowledge that, of the discussions I have seen about the possibility of a time without the feminist label, very few of them provided a positive outlook.

This apparent consensus as to the negativity of a post-feminist period baffles me personally. Then again, I am someone who is reluctant to refer to themself as a feminist at the best of times. For me, I see this period as a time in which people that advocate women’s rights will be able to hold a far more complex position in their personal politics. Instead of being defined as a feminist (someone who advocates women’s rights) this next generation will be able to define themselves based on their complex realities, realities which some of the more recent branches of feminism (which some call third wave) helped to define.

Further, I happen to think that tossing off the historical baggage of the feminist term could be a good thing. In all reality, the term feminist was defined a long time ago by people who would find some (if not most) of the people advocating it today abhorrent. What’s more, in the not too distant past, and up until today in some places, the term feminist holds a justifiably bad name. When talking to many of those who are marginalized in other ways in addition to their role as women, such as those in developing countries, those who are transgender, and/or those who are racialized, you quickly realize that many of those that have flown the flag of feminism before us have used it in such a way that have been severely damaging to a number of these communities.

For me, this recognition of the harmful past of some of the historic feminist movements, and this opening up of the feminist message, are possibilities that would do activism some tangible good. However, whether this overall positive outcome is true or not, it is important to remember that this isn’t going to be happening tomorrow. Social change, including the shifting of a societal definition such as this, is a notoriously slow and unpredictable process. This means that this major shift in the definition of feminism isn’t likely to happen for sometime yet, that is, if it happens at all. So, until it does, those of us that have a vested interest in the outcome of this change will simply have to hold our breath and wait.

For those of you who read this post all of the way through, thank you. I realize that it wasn’t exactly the most readable of my posts thus far. To show my appreciation, please enjoy Bill Bailey’s “What a Feminist Look Like” moment.

[Image: British comedian Bill Bailey, with a pipe in his mouth, wearing a black shirt with white writing that reads "This is what a feminist looks like."]Image by: The Fawcett Society (shirts available here)


2 thoughts on “Feminism and the societal messages around it.

  1. There might be hope for the word yet. However, you probably won’t like it.
    Take “Democracy” for example. “Democracy” has essentially no definition beyond “the people should have some control of their government,” and even then there are places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the word has perhaps lost even that meaning. (Arguably the DRC has an aspirational name, so it may still reflect the desire for self-government.)
    Feminism meaning “belief that women are people” could (eventually) go this way. Into the realm of words that everyone agrees are a good thing. Words like “Freedom” and “Fairness” and “Justice.” Also, words like “Creativity” and “Progress” and “Efficiency.” The downside is that no one really knows what these words actually mean anymore. They have a vague notion, but when it comes to actually making decisions these notions don’t really help all that much.
    We’ve come to the point where no one can deny the personhood of women (and be taken seriously in Western countries). I think that the next steps actually don’t have as much to do with the “female gender” as with human rights in general. Yes, there is a disparity between the power that men and women have, but I think this won’t be fixed by a “women only” focus. Gender roles are changing in this society, men are playing a greater role in the home, as women are working more, but our employers still act like everyone are men of the 1950s, making it very difficult for anyone to take care of their home responsibilities.
    The other concerns of current feminism, (LGTB rights, sexual freedom/rights, sex workers’ rights, human trafficking, etc.) are all very important but aren’t all that gender specific either. The people who need help in these categories are of all genders.
    The lessons learned from feminism (and other civil rights movements) are vital and not restricted to the use of raising the status of women.
    So maybe it is time to dump the name.

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