You Can Ban “Feminist” But You Can’t Ban Me

2014 may very well be the year America found Feminism. Which is exactly why “Feminist” it is leading the Time magazine poll of words to ban in 2015.* Because it’s happening. Empowerment. Consciousness raising. A culture altering shift in our perception of gender roles, sexuality and what makes each of us valuable as unique beings. Among feminism’s most public 2014 moments:

The title of Sarah Seltzer’s response the to the Time list hits the nail on the head, “The Word “Feminist” Isn’t Overused — It’s Winning.” The winds of change are blowing through the status quo and Time is just the latest perpetrator in an all too familiar response by the media to undermine and erase an ongoing and essential movement. A bit ironic considering this is that same outlet who chose Beyoncé, current pop-cultural Queen of Feminism, as the cover for 2014’s Most Influential Person issue.

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Photo source: Huffington Post

 

The term backlash is nothing new, but the specific backlash by the media in response to women gaining power is a pattern first brought into the mainstream dialogue by Susan Faludi’s 1991 Pulitzer prize winning book, aptly entitled Backlash. Faludi’s thesis, and the book’s subtitle, calls attention to “the undeclared war against women” being fought by mythical media narratives that enforce patriarchal values that serve to dominate and dismiss women. As the overview points out:

Whatever progress feminism has recently made, Faludi’s words today seem prophetic. The media still love stories about stay-at-home moms and the “dangers” of women’s career ambitions; the glass ceiling is still low; women are still punished for wanting to succeed; basic reproductive rights are still hanging by a thread.

Sound familiar?

The specific backlash Faludi named 23 years ago has been present since the first wave of feminism began in the late 1800s, when women began organizing for their right to vote. In her groundbreaking publication The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf explores the consistent historical connection between women’s progress in the world and the media’s responses to women’s roles, specifically in advertising:

Magazines first took over advertisers at the turn of the century. As suffragists were chaining themselves to the gates of the White House and Parliament, the circulation of women’s magazines doubled.

Distracting women with gendered propaganda aimed to keep them vulnerable, submissive, and distracted from real issues is the primary goal of advertising, both then and now. Most people are familiar with the women’s labor movement during World War II in which women filled the gap left by in the workplace while the men were away. Less known is the post-war response by advertisers such as to get working women back into the homes through sexist campaigns that appealed to curating and maintaining their physical appearance and their natural aptitude for domesticity. This trend that has continued for so long that media scholar Jean Kilbourne has made a 40 year career critiquing the industry, noting:

The average American will spend one and one-half years of his or her life watching television commercials. The ads sell a great deal more than products. They sell values, images, and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy. They tell us who we are and who we should be. Scientific studies and the most casual viewing yield the same conclusion: women are shown almost exclusively as housewives or sex objects.

2014, however, was rife with changes in these narratives. A Tide commercial features a father  in the caregiver role with his daughter and responsible for the laundry; stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari discussed and defined feminism on late TV, including admonishing the crowd for their lack of applause after he asked if there were any feminists in the house, and the Internet was ablaze with campaigns like #YesAllWomen calling attention to the commonplace misogyny and violence women experience everyday.

So, it’s no accident that in a year when feminism became, potentially, its most visible would also be the year it was most targeted.

The reason the word feminist is leading this “poll” is not nearly as concerning as Time putting it there to begin with. As Seltzer points out, “Putting ‘feminist’ on the list ignores (or merely fails to perceive) the sea-change in discourse around the word recently.”

The list itself is representative of the insidious nature of patriarchy—the unseen and unspoken rules that apply to us all. Just the suggestion that language is static, not malleable, that a certain cultural moment is not valid or necessary, or that anyone, especially a small group of media conglomerates, can decide who can say what is not only ignorant but unconstitutional. Additionally, many of the words are specific to specific subcultures that have worked their way into the mainstream, making the list not only sexist but racist. The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen calls attention to proliferation of words that come specifically from marginalized communities and argues:

With better curation, Time’s annual word-banishment polls could function as harmless communal exercises in which we collectively laugh at words or phrases that are past their prime. But after four years of these polls, a worrying trend is starting to emerge, one that runs far deeper than this year’s misguided inclusion of the F-word: The polls inordinately target slang and vernacular used by people of color and young white women.

Moreover, every other word on this list is slang, fleeting, and temporary. There is no need to ban those words, because they will become obsolete on their own. They will find their way out of the collective vernacular when a new word that means the same thing is ushered in by cultural trends and in the end, those other words don’t really matter that much. No matter how someone who identifies as “feminist” defines their personal feminism and yes, there are multiple definitions, one thing is certain: To call oneself a feminist means you align yourself with the a human rights movement and the umbrella under which all of these things may fall is in no way shape or form on par with “om nom nom nom.” No matter how you identify, whether you claim the word or not, suggesting it need not exist undermines, devalues and discredits all those who do claim it, who do believe it and who benefit from it’s presence. As Seltzer’s critique suggests:

If you’re getting tired of hearing the, “Is X feminist? Is Y feminist enough?” debate, try actually being a feminist. You will have that debate with yourself and your friends every waking minute of your life. Then see if you get tired of it.

There is no one more frustrated by, in the word’s of Time’s list writer Katy Steinmetz, “throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade” then actual feminists. Feminists who risked, and lost, their lives for women’s right to vote, right to choose, right to say no. Feminists who have advanced degrees in gender studies and teach at a public higher education institution in one of this country’s largest cities yet cannot pay their bills on those wages.

In her blurb suggesting feminist as an option, Steinmetz’s annoyance with feminist is that it became a thing that “every celebrity had to state their position on” and, ironically, cites a Time interview with Shailene Woodley in which the actress rejects the term but the only reason it is even discussed is because she is asked. Choosing to ask someone who clearly has no real understanding about feminism if they are feminist is a clearly a set-up to attack the word. Why not ask Emma Watson or Jennifer Lawrence or any other number of young celebrities who embrace the term not just as a self-identifier but also in their career and life choices?

Because it’s not the word they are trying to ban, it’s the mindset. It’s the spreading of ideas. It’s the right to a self-determined and chosen life for all of us.

Feminist is more than just a word, it is who you are. And that will never be banned.

Photo by Elizabeth McQuern TShirt by Tracers Book Club

Photo by Elizabeth McQuern
TShirt by Tracers Book Club

*Time Magazine has since apologized but it’s my blog so there.

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