Feminist radicalism isn’t a “brand problem”

There’s been a lot of recent discussion recently about feminism’s supposed public relations problem. Both Hanna Rosin at Double X and Abigail Rine at the Atlantic have suggested we might want to abandon the “f-word” altogether. People like our ideas, they argue, but have negative associations with feminism.

I appreciated Samhita’s recent intervention about creating a movement open to those who feel excluded by the binary-enforcing “gender equality” platform. As absolutely essential as that work is, I don’t think either of us would claim that the startling statistic Samhita was addressing—that 82% of Americans support equality “between the sexes” but only 20% identify as feminist—is primarily the result of a lingering commitment to the binary within the movement. I’d agree with the Rosins and Rines that most people don’t like us because they’re convinced we’re scary radicals.

Bra burners. Literally.

Bra burners. Literally.

But I don’t think feminism’s radicalism is a superficial brand problem. It’s real, and it’s the source of important ideological conflict. We’re not unpopular despite our beliefs, as others have argued, but rather because of them.

The discussion of the movement’s public relations woes is based on the idea that the movement’s mission is innocuous—that it’s the packaging, not the ideology itself, that’s repelling mainstream America. Yet however reluctant we might be to admit it, feminism at its best is a radical movement. Imagine, for a few moments, what a truly feminist world would look like, down to the mundane details of everyday life. I bet your vision differs tremendously from today’s reality (I know mine does). Anti-sexism might seem like a pretty uncontroversial idea, but patriarchy lives at the foundation of our society. Those who combat this insidious force must necessarily be radical in the literal sense of the world: we need to fight the problem at its roots.

Such an effort will transform much we hold dear, including family, work, government, education, romance, and sex. I’m confident feminism will continue to improve all these institutions and relationships, but it is a disrupting force nonetheless. That’s scary. Naturally, then, so too is the first harbinger of this change: the woman in protest, rejecting her assumed docility and with it our entire gendered world in its current form. I’m unsurprised not everyone is on board. I’m unsurprised some people think “feminism” is a bad word.

I don’t think the answer to the movement’s unpopularity, then, is to soften our public image, since to reshape our message into a noncontroversial form we’d have to abandon our core beliefs. Rather than vainly attempting to repackage our controversial convictions in palatable language, let’s unceasingly confront those who have not yet joined our ranks with the reasons they should.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Agreed. I don’t identify as radfem ideologically speaking, but one of the things I find most irritating about contemporary pop feminism is its tendency to treat a social movement as a brand. “You’re a woman? Awesome! You’re a feminist.” It’s nice and all, but it’s not exactly engaging.

  2. Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Extremely well-put. I agree 100%. It’s so incredibly delightful to see thoughts you share so perfectly put in words.

  3. Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I definitely agree that it isn’t a branding problem but rather that alot of people don’t like or agree with alot of what feminism today believes in.

    Sure most people agree with giving equal opportunity to men/women but feminism is so much more then that now. And it is many of these other ideas that alot of people take issue. I know that in my circle most people would never support alot of what is espoused on this site so I think it will take a long time (if ever) to see some of the changes feminists want become reality.

    Having said that I think we can all agree that progress while slow is happening. I sure as heck see it!

    • Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      Lots of feminists disagree about what feminism is and should be. This isn’t about people who disagree, it’s about people who agree on the major principles but don’t want to be associated with the angry bra-burning radical image that many people associate with the word “feminism”.

    • Posted May 3, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      Very well said, as usual. One of the most common arguments people use against feminism is the “moving target” complaint.

  4. Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    There’s actually no flame in the iconic “Freedom Trash Can” pictured here in a photo taken by Alix Kates Shulman at the 1968 Miss America protest, source: http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/missamerica_maddc07063/

    This protest was a flash point for the portrayal of the feminist movement in the media and public perception of the movement and its proponents, so this image is apt, even if not identified in the piece.

  5. Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I love feminism and the label. However there are a myriad of negative connotations associated with it… and I fully agree that it is not a branding problem, but rather the challenge of patriarchy- a bedrock of our society (worldwide). That being said, in my opinion, there are forms of feminism which are not inclusive for women of color, or LGBTQ, or religious women.
    There have been studies done about women in the Middle East, and how many women who act as feminists may choose to forgo or even refuse the title because of main stream feminism’s focus on sexuality or their views of feminism’s association with colonialism as an imposed idea.
    There are interesting (to me) versions of Islamic Feminism and Muslim Feminism (I’m more fond of the latter) which attempt to find women’s views, rights, and equality through religion or a gradual change in religious interpretation on a communal level.
    In short (or is it too late for that) I think the brand is not a problem, but I enjoy seeing it diversify a bit.

  6. Posted May 3, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Here’s the thing, I don’t know what a “truly feminist world” would look like. I kind of figure that it would depend on who you ask. If it’s one where glass ceilings have been removed, women occupy 40%-60% of top management, 40% to 60% of STEM majors are women, and government provides high quality childcare; then I’m good. If it’s one in which you can be fined for using language that oppresses a particular minority group and all movies must pass a board of censors to make sure that no element is “problematic”, then I’m not so fine. Also, are these sex-positive feminists or porn and BDSM banning sex-negative feminists. There are feminists who I’d be fine voting for in a presidential race, but others who I’d rally against.
    What would “a truly feminist world” look like? Can the editors of Feministing even agree on it? How would you translate the fights that feminists currently fight into laws if you could pass anything without having to compromise?

  7. Posted May 3, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I disagree a little bit. I don’t see feminism as some sort of destroyed brand. I don’t think feminism’s failures have much to do with branding at all. However, I do think that the tone used by many feminists is, sometimes, very limiting.

    We’ve heard this story before. Everyone says they’re for equality, but when it comes time to actually sign up and stand together, the majority of people scatter. In my mind, this is the problem in a nutshell. People love feminism as a sort-of distant abstract philosophy. Most people dislike the experience of trying to live by it. Thus, they don’t consider themselves “feminists.” It’s like, I care about the environment, but I’m not an environmentalist. Enacting a new, very idealized philosophy, and using it in your pre-established, privileged life is obviously a tall order, especially for white american males like me. But it can be done. IMO, the most important feminists are the ones who reach out to the masses. There are millions upon millions of people who are having trouble adapting feminists beliefs to their lives. Who are they? What is there background? How can gender equality – feminism, whatever – help improve their lives, their family, their community, the world, etc? This is how it needs to be approached.

    These people shouldn’t be “confronted.” And, most importantly, they shouldn’t be talked down to. The vast, vast majority of people out there are pleasant, reasonable, and smart. However, they’re also a bit insecure. When you start off a conversation by putting them on the defensive, they’re unlikely to go home and start abiding by your prescribed wishes… You rarely bring people into the fold by debating them. Even if you’re right. Us dudes like to pretend to be ultra-rational, but really, in order to change, we need to be handled very gently.

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