The Problem With Not Liking The Word ‘Feminist’
This, in and of itself, is not news; Lisa Haydon is not the first celeb to say something misguided about feminism, and she won’t be the last. I actually care less that she seems to have missed the essence of the term completely – it means she can learn, if she has a thick skin, from all of the educational if slightly mean-spirited takedowns out there.
But her immediate response – “I don’t like the word feminist” – is part of a growing trend that concerns me. Among the current women of pop culture — East and West — it’s become common to disown feminism, or wrap it in friendlier packaging. We Were Feminists Once, a book by Bitch magazine co-founder Andi Zeisler, explores this trend and The Guardian’s review sums it up: Feminism has gone from being “a movement designed to achieve gender equity to, for large numbers of women, a personal justification for liking (or disliking) various celebrities, buying certain products and consuming various bits of pop culture.”
Why say you’re a feminist when you can just click ‘Like’ on the latest Ariel ad?
There are a bunch of problems with this, but the first is this: It smacks of privilege from women who have stood on the shoulders of feminists in order to be able to reach dizzying career heights. It ignores the massive inequality most women face on a day-to-day basis, and characterizes any remaining instances of inequity or sexism as obscure, trifling details that will disappear with time.
Except those remaining aspects of inequality aren’t that trifling. These industries might not be hostile once you’ve reached the top (debatable; just ask Kesha), but for most women, the opportunities you get, how you get them and how your career unfolds look very different from your male counterparts’. Take pay disparity: While it’s easy to see why a woman in the top 1% of a country’s income bracket might choose not to be bothered by wage disparity, for most women, the pay gap has a real, practical impact on their life choices (or lack thereof).
The second problem is that disowning the word ‘feminist’ is a bit of conversational sleight of hand. These women are narrowing a giant conversation into a tiny word that they can then casually flick away. And I get it: The word feminist is bad for business. God forbid you seem like the uptight, lecture-y man-hater at the next dinner party. Or someone who might actually demand the same salary as your male co-star.
These female celebrities are brands, and as such, it is their professional responsibility to remain ever-accessible. So they identify what they’re not – this terrible/obnoxious/self-righteous/rage-filled/masculine/ridiculous thing – and leave themselves as empty vessels for fans to fill up with what they are. Not feminist, just full of girl power! Not feminist, just kick ass! Not feminist, just successful!
These simpler words are much less threatening than trying to unpack what equality of choice and opportunity means and how it can be achieved. It’s bite-size feminism. Dumbed-down feminism. Likeable feminism. And liking is very important to the generations consuming pop culture. Liking lets you keep from being right or wrong. It’s just an opinion, a feeling, a matter of taste, after all. Something doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. You do you; I’ll do me.
But that ethos doesn’t work when it comes to feminism. There’s no you; there’s no me. There’s only us – equal choices and opportunities for everyone. Quibbling with semantics only separates people who need the word from people who don’t – but doesn’t eliminate the fact that the need exists and doesn’t address how to solve it.
The word feminist isn’t easy social media fodder; it’s neither a status update, nor a photo of a dish from that 4-star restaurant you ate at on vacation. But it’s not so scary or controversial, either. It’s there to help us accomplish something, to achieve equality, or at least to help us talk about how and why we should.
What’s not to like?