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.

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/junebug75/ June B.

    My last comment was supposed to include a link to an Onion article, “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does,” but it seems to have been automatically removed. I’ll add the link again here and you can google it if it still does not show up.


  • http://feministing.com/members/mercedes/ Mercedes Allen

    The 80s and early 90s saw a permutation of sex-negative feminism become most visible / most vocal (albeit perhaps not truly predominant) which led to a significant amount of alienation. Some — in the name of feminism — took very anti-sex and anti-diversity positions that didn’t ring true for many, and tried to pass that off as what feminism as a movement stood for.

    We saw this in the Janice Raymond / Sheila Jeffreys trans-exclusionary and demonizing rhetoric, and in the Andrea Dworkin / Catharine MacKinnon anti-porn crusades; we still see it in the negative campaigns against sex work and the willing complicity with the far right in conflating it with human trafficking.

    Sometimes we give the impression of sex-negative messaging when we talk about rape culture as well, although that stems more from peoples’ failure to understand the issue, or recognize that it’s a real and urgent concern. Selected visible elements of feminism have been sex-negative for so long, that society has come to expect sex-negativity, and read it into feminism’s messaging. It has overtaken the message of empowerment.

    The underlying implication ends up being that anything sexual harms women. And yet, women are sexual beings, too.

    I, for one, do consider myself a feminist, but am acutely conscious of still being unwelcome in many feminist circles, of still being told on occasion that I have no right to be there (except with, perhaps, male allies), of being thought of as being harmful to women just by my mere existence as a trans-originating, sex work -positive, kink-positive being. So I don’t know that I would identify myself as one on a survey. When you’re regularly accused of co-opting something, of being harmful to it, etc, you don’t tend to be inclined to wear the label visibly.

    So that may be one direction to examine.

  • http://feministing.com/members/georgesands/ justice day

    Feminist is really become a term to people as women who complain but do nothing, like most writers. Saying your a feminist and actually doing something more than writing about it are two different things.
    Feminist are women helping themselves.
    You want to help women then pick a cause like military rape and really go after it. Go to politicians and ask hard questions. Force them to put a warning on commercials that women have a one in three chance of getting raped when they enlist. Writing one article makes no difference.
    Where have feminists been for victims of military rape or rape in general?
    Were you at the Jane Doe trial, NO. But you get on TV and talk about it.

  • http://feministing.com/members/adtree/ Adrienne

    This is really brilliant. Thank you for so clearly synthesizing some of the dynamics of backlash and of moving feminism beyond the binary. I’ve been noticing lately at my university that many professors in the women’s studies department seem to teach feminism in the binary as if students aren’t ready to face the diversity of human identities on their first introduction to feminism. I think if we start people out with a simplified, and false, version of gender (or any other social identity), we’re setting up the future of feminism to continue thinking in the binary that marginalizes so many of us.

    One critique: the word ‘duh’ perpetuates able-ist oppression. The origin of that sound as a way to say “of course” or “don’t be stupid” is from mocking the natural sounds of people who are mentally alter-abled. I know you are loving and supportive of people of all social identities, so I know you would never want to hurt anyone with your language.

  • http://feministing.com/members/gratuitous/ gratuitous

    “There is no neat, simple, and linear model of feminist progression.” I think this is a terrific statement, and would only add that before concluding that one’s interlocutor (first definition) is some kind of anti-feminist pig, please, please, please presume that we are all proceeding in good faith until you have evidence to the contrary. A little grace and a little space can avoid unnecessary antipathy.

    I’m an old, white guy who identifies as a feminist, but it’s a feminism born out of the 1973-1980 era, and I’m not always up on the latest ideas. I appreciate most of all the patience with which some of the younger set have in leading me through some of the developments since those days. It’s not that I’m hostile, just ignorant.

  • honeybee

    The thing is that there is a difference between being a feminist and thinking that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals”.

    There is more to feminism then that. E.g., simply saying they should be equal in those terms doesn’t touch on – at all – critical feminist items such as abortion, rape, beauty expectations or even the gender binary itself since men and women can be different yet still equal in those regards.

    It doesn’t touch on objectification or trans rights or fat shaming or a host of other things are now fundamental to feminism.

    When I talk with people about those types of topics – alot of people don’t agree with me. But if I simply say – do you think men and women should be given equal opportunity to do X – of course almost everyone will say yes.

    Because there is a big difference b/w believing in equal opportunity – which pretty much everyone does – and all the other things feminism now represents.

    So I think it’s disingenuous to say that feminism = men and women should be social, political, and economic equals. That’s clearly not what feminism means to me or everyone on this site.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sex-toy-james/ James

    First, Samhita, you do this all day every day, and you’ve accidentally perpetuated able-ist oppression through your language. Beyond the language and the concepts that you toss around, your brand of feminism is really hard to do. I think that you hook people at “Hey, this woman is getting paid less for doing the same job” or with how hard it is for victims of rape and abuse to get justice. Then you descend into a world of complex terms, rules about how you need to police your language, and people who wish that Pixar would police their movies to make them “less problematic.” Sometimes you lose people who are all “The feminists are angry at Marissa Mayer, I’m gonna have to side with Marissa Mayer because she’s awesome.”
    I think that what you’re getting are a lot of feminist agnostics. They deep down believe in similar fundamental values but reject the dogma passed down by the grand high feminists. They’re like people who were tired of being told that they’re sinners by the church, and decided that they could pray on their own.
    In other words, I think that being open-minded when it comes to gender identity, advocating for more family friendly work policies, and mocking sexist people is way easier than being a feminist.

    • http://feministing.com/members/diablitaratoncita/ Jenny G-B

      I identify as a feminist, but I can definitely feel where James is coming from. Sometimes I feel like there’s these rigid standards, and I don’t know who’s setting them, that are impossible to meet–by me or possibly anyone. I’m maybe too foul-mouthed, or wisecracking, or unstable, I dunno.

      • http://feministing.com/members/sex-toy-james/ James

        Thanks for getting what I wrote; even though you probably deal with way more than I do and could use the understanding more.

  • http://feministing.com/members/renmor/ Renee Morgan

    “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.”
    I have been talking with a few friends recently about the Shulamith Firestone article that was in the New Yorker and you linked to it here last week. There was something so depressing reading how the groups of the second wave self destructed as they turned on each other.
    I think we have far more skills now and can learn from their mistakes and this final sentence speaks to this. Not only is this a message “others” can hear, it is important for us in our communities and groups to remember. Not making one brand of feminism or definition of womanhood be the “right” brand of definition.
    This is really complicated. I saw Girl Rising last night and while it totally embraced this idea of humanity and compassion, there was something missing from it. I dont’ have this all flushed out but somehow coming from a place of humanity and inclusion while also not watering down the problems girls/women face or getting lost in inaccessible academic theory seems important

  • http://feministing.com/members/pomosapien/ AJ

    I tend to think that this problem has more to do with the fact that everyone is willing to say “Yes of course people of all genders should be treated equally and fairly,” but criticizing masculinity and male privilege are much more uncomfortable things to do, because that is simply the nature of privilege is to resist a critical eye, and feminism does not get far without being able to engage these topics.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sam33/ Sam

    “Equality between men and women is the most commonly accepted, mainstream definition of feminism.”

    Actually, doesn’t the data you mention as well as your own statement that this is not the definition you use at feministing (certainly one of the more reasoned feminist sites) support the notion that “equality between men and women” simply is not or no longer what feminism is about? That feminism’s marketing problem isn’t so much a matter or bad PR but of a product that has a much more limited target group than those 82%?

  • http://feministing.com/members/amale/ a male

    There are those, including here, who believe “feminist” does not apply to men, despite some high profile men in the public eye, or members who have actually studied the issues in an academic setting and appear to walk the walk like Marc, whereas most women do not get a degree in Gender Studies, nor do they require one to call themselves feminists. That hurts the cause of feminism.

    It is because of what I see even here, that I do not identify as feminist, despite e.g., some of my views (as on abortion on demand and universal health care) being more progressive than most.

  • http://feministing.com/members/scarlett156/ Scarlett

    “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?”

    … A… “gender binary”…..? O_o (Astrology seems positively rigorous in comparison to today’s popular pseudo-sciences!)

    All gibes aside: This is exactly why, over the last decade or so, I find groups of ungroomed, joke-cracking bikers and surly artist types — quite frankly — more and more appealing.

  • http://feministing.com/members/rael/ Rob

    It isn’t just a bunch of MRAs making up the lesbian/feminist connection.

    There really was a branch of feminism that advocated politically motivated lesbianism:


    “In the late 70s a group of lesbians in Leeds, known as revolutionary feminists (RFs), made a controversial move that resonated loudly for me and many other women. They began calling for all feminists to embrace lesbianism. Appealing to their heterosexual sisters to get rid of men ‘from your beds and your heads’, they started a debate, which reached its height in 1981 with the publication of an infamous booklet, Love Your Enemy? “

  • http://feministing.com/members/zeenacheda/ Dan C

    I’ve been waiting years for this post. Thanks, Samhita!

    The gap between how feminism is understood by women’s studies majors, and how it is understood by most other people, is vast. The best feminists are the ones who really devote themselves to explaining (selling) feminism to the masses. I think Jessica always understood this.