Time Magazine has made a tradition of asking readers which word they feel they would be well-rid of. And on the list this time is the word “feminist,” which poll conductor Katy Steinmetz dismisses in a rather flip fashion. “You have nothing against feminism itself, but when did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party?” she writes. “Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade.”
This is lazy outrage bait. But I am biting anyway, because while Time could have trolled readers by calling a ban for the word on “feminist” any time, the magazine is considering it in a year when the conversation about the meaning of the term is as rich as it has been in some time–even if some of that conversation is being conducted through mass culture.
For Beyoncé Knowles, who released a self-titled album last December and then took it on a tour with her husband that involved her standing behind the word “Feminist” in giant, glowing letters, the meaning of the word seems to be drawn from Chimamanda Adiche’s TED talk, which Knowles quotes extensively in her song “Flawless.”
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man,'” “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important thing. Now, marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support, but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”
That is a useful explication of both the basic principles of feminism and the contradictions women must try to reconcile in pursuit of “social, political, and economic equality.”
Taylor Swift’s declaration of feminist identity in the Guardian this summer hewed to that same basic statement of principles, and dispelled one of the persistent myths that has dogged the movement since its early days.
“As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities,” she explained to Hermione Hoby. “What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means. For so long it’s been made to seem like something where you’d picket against the opposite sex, whereas it’s not about that at all.”
And Emma Watson, speaking at the United Nations, argued that feminism is a men’s issue–and a men’s label–too.
“I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence as a child as much as my mother’s,” she argued. “I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less ‘macho’…I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either. We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.”
The multitudes contained within “feminist” and “feminism” are confounding. And the debates over them, whether between second-wave feminists who find Knowles’ sexual self-presentation disconcerting and her many third-wave adherents, over feminism’s priorities and solidarity or lack thereof with other movements, and over language and inclusivity are rich, sometimes painful, and often productive.
As Roxane Gay wrote in her best-selling essay collection “Bad Feminist,” “I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain . . . interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.”
The meaning of “feminist” is not just debated and dissected among its adherents. The Facebook and Tumblr sites Women Against Feminism have become a place where women who do not ascribe to the movement discuss why, and in the process further try to define what these protean terms mean to them. The Gamergate movement may have been, for some of its participants, about ethics in gaming journalism, but it also staged a high-profile fight over what feminism is and what feminist art criticism consists of.
As plenty of observers have pointed out, the issues that feminism is meant to address are still painfully relevant: Susan B. Anthony could not have imagined online harassment, and she would have been a less than productive participant in conversations about the struggles particular to women of color. But even if we are only measuring the extent to which the words on Time’s list are vibrant and meaningful terms, “feminist” is far too unsettled and contested a word to be tarred with the staidness Steinmetz ascribes to it. Our debates would be poorer for its loss, and for the lost opportunity to grapple with what women’s liberation really looks like.