Don’t Fear the F-Word

Crossposted at Amplify

Recently I’ve noticed a fear of the F-word permeating conversations with friends, my high school classmates, and even my boyfriend.  Fuck? Oh no, that one flies around the hallways; the taboo word here is FEMINISM.

A few nights ago, I got into a big fight with my boyfriend– a fight about feminism.  I proudly proclaim that I am a feminist.  He feels reluctant to label himself with the same term.  He is the picture of a caring, respectful boyfriend– he is attuned to uneven power dynamics, social and economic inequalities between men and women, and is a strong advocate of hearing women’s voices and desires.  He knows that his principles align with feminist values, but can’t bring himself to assume the label because of its “negative connotations.”

 What makes youth so reluctant to be considered feminists, and where did the piles of stigma surrounding the word come from?

Let’s start with a definition: most dictionaries define feminism as a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes (check out Wikipedia for a comprehensive overview of feminism).  A feminist believes that women and men should have equal rights.  A feminist is not required to denounce or hate men, be a vocal girl-power activist, or even be a woman.  As feminist theorist bell hooks famously wrote, “Feminism is for everybody.”

So if feminism doesn’t equate to man hating, why do so many students think that it does?  Why do my friends, both male and female, fervently believe in and support feminist values but shy away from labeling themselves with “the F-word”?

As usual, I turned to my friends for answers; who better to ask than the people whose opinions I was trying to decipher?  I send out a mass text message asking “Question: would you consider yourself a feminist?”  First, let me say that I did receive a fair amount of simple “Yes” responses, from both male and female friends.  But more common were vague answers that clung to a positive definition of feminism and attempted to distance themselves from any negative elements possibly associated with feminism. 

Here are a few:

“If a feminist is someone who agrees with a feminist view point then yes I would consider myself a feminist.  But I wouldn’t say I’m an activist for feminism.”
“Yes.  Not in the stereotypical sense but that I believe in female rights.”
“Yes, how could I not be, but to an extent.  One perception of a feminist, not mine, is that feminists are man haters.  Haha, I’m definitely not one of those. ”

“Well if feminism simply means equality among the sexes, then yes I am.  If it’s the scary ‘we hate men’ type, then no, I’m not.”
“I believe in equality among genders, religions, sexualities, classes, professions, and species.  Whatever that means to you.”
“I believe in women’s rights, but I think labeling yourself as a feminist today is just a way to make any complaints you have seem more valid.  So, um. No.”
“On the spectrum, I’m not an extreme, but I share many of the ideals and values that are considered feminist.”
“Yeah, men and women should be equal in terms of wages and life in general, if that’s what you mean by feminist.”
“No. I believe in equality and support feminists for the most part, but I wouldn’t consider myself one.”
“I think that men and women are equal and if that makes me a feminist then yes.”

Some of my friends replied with an outright “No,” to which I then asked, “How would you define feminism?”  These friends laid out the stereotypical descriptions of man-hating angry women.  When I gave them the Wikipedia definition, they uniformly replied that they do agree with feminist ideals, but can’t associate themselves with a concept that seems so negative and aggressive.
It seems to me that my friends have their hearts in the right places: feminism is a loaded concept and, embrace the term or not, they all support equality between genders. I have a lot of respect for the friends I asked, so I couldn’t disregard their ambivalence towards my question. It seems to me that the most common causes of wariness towards feminism are 1) a lack of clarification or understanding of what it means to be a feminist, 2) misled ideas of feminists (man-haters, angry women, etc), and 3) self-consciousness or fear of others’ judgment. In other words, guys are afraid that saying they are feminists will reduce their masculinity and women fear that declaring their feminism will make people think that they’re lesbians. All I have to say about this concern is that, if someone thinks you’re gay, who cares? I don’t think that one word will decide someone’s opinion of you. And guys, at least after talking to my friends, I’m pretty sure that girls will respect you more if you can man up and claim to be a feminist.
Since I have already addressed #1, let me move on to the second misconception, aka feminists want men to die. Many adult women whom I approached with this topic hypothesized that their mother’s generation who had to fight for their rights to equal pay gave feminism an image of desperate, pent up anger that no longer holds true. To make matters worse, the media’s negative portrayal of feminists has encouraged their marginalization ever since feminism’s roots in the mid 19th century. Today’s feminism (not post-feminism, mind you–my beef with that term is fodder for another post), aims to protect the freedom that our mothers and grandmothers secured. Today’s feminism seeks to include people of all genders, classes, races, and religions and recognizes the connection between sexism, racism, colonialism, and class issues. Today’s feminism asserts the rights of women and encourages women to stand up for themselves and feel empowered. None of this comes at the expense of men. Feminism is essentially a humanist outlook, a desire for all humans–men, women, and children– to be treated with dignity, respect, empathy, and equality. Sure, there are some extremists out there who envision a perfect world without men and unleash their anger toward society’s patriarchy at individual men. But there are extremists in every movement. Would you not call yourself an environmentalist because one crazy blew up some SUVs? Would you refrain from identifying with a religious group because one extreme believer acts out inappropriately? Probably not.
So what can we do to reduce the stigma around the F-word?
1.) Use it. No more “F-word.” Feminism, feminism, feminism, feminism! By not shying away from and speaking about feminism, we can reduce the discomfort associated with strange and unknown quantities.
2.) Claim it. Let it be known that you are a feminist. By “outing” yourself, just like the LGBT movement argues, you effectively make the concept of feminism more relatable, common, and accepted. If you’re not someone who has associated yourself with feminism before, don’t be scared. You don’t need to suddenly become a women’s rights activist: by claiming and sharing their feminist beliefs, men and women can do their part to lessen sexist oppression–together.

Crossposted at Amplify

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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