Roxane Gay is the author of the essay collection “Bad Feminist.”
It’s an amusing idea to some, this feminism thing — this audacious notion that women should be able to move through the world as freely, and enjoy the same inalienable rights and bodily autonomy, as men. At least, that’s the impression given when feminism and feminists are all too often the targets of lazy humor.
Take, for example, a poll posted by Time magazine this past week. It seems like an innocent enough trifle, asking readers which popular word from 2014 should be banned. Nominees include “bossy,” “basic,” “disrupt,” “kale” and “turnt,” among others. The list is supposed to be funny, but it is largely a policing of the vernacular of anyone who isn’t a white, heterosexual man.
The list also includes the word “feminist,” with the explanation: “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? Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade.” As of Friday, feminism was leading the poll — by a lot — spurred in part by an effort from users at 4chan, a largely toxic online bulletin board.
We can, perhaps, ignore the hyperbole of “every celebrity” because celebrities are generally vigorous in their disavowal of feminism. They recognize the scarlet F that comes with publicly embracing it, the taint to professing a desire for gender equality.
What we can’t ignore is the implication that the word “feminist” is somehow a nuisance we must ban because celebrities such as Beyoncé, Emma Watson, Taylor Swift, Aziz Ansari and Lena Dunham have declared themselves feminists this year. These stars have, at the very least, introduced a broader range of people to the idea of feminism. These celebrities cannot be singular representatives of feminism, but they can make some noise. They can lessen some of the stigma surrounding feminism. They can help advance feminist goals.
I keep trying to imagine a universe in which too many public figures declaring themselves feminists would be a bad thing. This would have to be a universe where “the issues,” as the poll vaguely mentions, no longer exist — one where women enjoy unlegislated reproductive freedom and have easy, affordable access to birth control. Women who miscarry wouldn’t be charged with homicide, as was an Iowa woman who fell down the stairs while pregnant. Women would be paid the same as men. They would be free from the threat of violence, harassment and sexual assault while going about their lives. Women would be able to rebuff a man’s advances without getting killed, as 27-year-old Detroit resident Mary Spears was last month. They would be able to participate in intellectual debates without disagreement being couched in terms of their looks or sexuality. In this universe, where women would be free to simply live their lives, “feminist” would become an antiquated term. I’d be tired of hearing it, too.
But we don’t live in that universe. We are nowhere close. And there are worse things than people throwing around the F-word. Of all the words that should be spoken more, “feminist” should be at the top of the list. Why don’t we ban “feminazi”? Better yet: Get rid of “bitch,” “slut” and “whore.” Ban racial and homophobic slurs. Those are actual issues.
This is bigger than simply an amusing online poll. Much of the early ire was directed at the poll’s writer, a woman, in fact. But there is plenty of responsibility to spread around. Did the writer not work with at least one editor who considered the message being sent by including “feminist” in a list of words that should be banned? Or maybe no editors considered the message, or they didn’t care. Perhaps they thought it reasonable to once again make feminism, and in turn the concerns of women, a sacrificial lamb.
When marginalized people talk about wanting more diversity, we are in part talking about wanting publications with the influence and reach of Time — publications that shape our conversations and perceptions — to be run by editors who are ethical, critical thinkers who consider the impact of words and the impressions they give.
To include “feminist” in this poll was irresponsible and lazy. It was a provocation without substance, designed to amuse. Women openly claiming feminism and a desire for equality? That’s just silly.
But it’s never really about the poll, the song, the comedian, the book, the movie. Instead, feminists — those of us who care about equality — are raising hell about a culture in which misogyny is so deeply embedded that we barely notice what it is doing to us, how it is choking us, how it is diminishing us.