What can we do about feminism’s brand problem?

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According to a new study at the Huffington Post (with YouGov) there is a major disparity between people that believe in equality “between the sexes” and identify as feminist. The study found that only 20% of Americans identify as feminist whereas 82% believe that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” Equality between men and women is the most commonly accepted, mainstream definition of feminism. It’s not the only one — and certainly not the one that we adhere to at Feministing (as it relies too wholeheartedly on the gender binary and ignores all the other forms of difference we think are as important as gender oppression) — but it is what most people understand feminism to be about.

When I give lectures, I have one joke I tell (that I think is very funny, ahem) about how the best thing anti-feminists could have done to talk young women out of believing in feminism is convincing them that “boys will think you are icky if you are a feminist” — they will think you are a hairy lesbian and they won’t want to have sex with you. I mean, convince an entire generation that they won’t get laid if they believe in something and an anti-feminist backlash is born!

The thing anti-feminists don’t want to accept is that being a “hairy lesbian” is actually awesome — and feminists of all genders, like, totally have tons of sex. But that’s not really what’s considered a respectable model of femininity or sexuality. And this can be perplexing for a young person navigating the terrain of self-exploration, sex or just being an undergrad.

We also know that feminists, while sometimes include, are definitely not limited to the “hairy lesbian” set, and we are as diverse in identity as we are in analysis. But, I have noted over the years how many inquisitive young people I meet say they love Feministing but don’t identify as feminist — because being a feminist is scary, it’s castrating, it’s complicated, and it’s angry.

The obvious ilk to blame for feminism’s shitty PR is anti-feminists. We can certainly trace the specific lineage of believing women are inferior to men to a conservative line of thinking on gender and power — which ultimately led to the feminist backlash, spreading untrue rumors about bra-burning, rebel rousers that wanted to castrate men (or however it goes).

But maybe there is a less obvious answer as to why people have a hard time relating to feminism. As members of the Advanced Gender Studies Set (AGSS), we have a lot to say about the limitations of feminism and how we talk about gender and power, whether it is looking at how a gender binary limits our possibility for existence or the role that other forms of difference play in how we understand gender identity. But why is this kind of analysis trapped in the AGSS, when it’s merely descriptive of how gender actually works?

What is relegated to the complex is actually a much more simple way to understand gender and sexism, one that gets at the core of how we are labeled and the limits that puts on our personhood. For example, isn’t it better to understand the role gender plays in rape culture rather than suggest that all men inevitably rape? Duh, yes.

A few years ago, I had the honor and privilege of seeing Patricia Hill Collins speak. In talking about the experiences of black working class women, she said something that has stayed with me since. She said, “The theory used to describe the most oppressed of experiences is the furthest locked away in the academy. And it is the root of how we understand everything, so it’s time to take it out of the academy.” (I’m paraphrasing).

And that has been my mantra since, as I wade into the terrain of mainstream advocacy or talk about gender in a world that can’t think past “men” vs. “women.” Because, as much as it is easy to rest on the “equality between the sexes” definition of feminism, if we really want to change the public perception of feminism, we actually have to change feminism itself. We have to both push for a world that demands gender equality, while pushing for a feminism that acknowledges, accepts, and truly incorporates difference.

There is no neat, simple, and linear model of feminist progression — there’s only how we can build a better future knowing what we know now — which is a feminism that is so much more than equality. It’s about humanity, compassion, and understanding across all our differences, and as cheesy as that sounds, I do think it’s a definition more people can get behind.

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