Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Figuring Feminism

I'm continually surprised how many people shy away from the term "feminist."  Many men think that you have to be a woman to be a feminist.  And an alarming number of women are hung up on the bewildering notion that femininity precludes feminism.  Others believe that to be a feminist you must hate men, or at least believe that they are inferior to women.  Still others find the term to be archaic, and that now that women have the right to vote and to file for divorce, that the word has no practical application anymore.

image from
Alice Paul:  Feminist
After one American History course, I decided I was a feminist.  I’d read the stories of women at the turn of the century fighting for equal rights and was inspired by them.  I’d immersed myself in the debate between tradition and equality and which was “better” for women as a population.  I couldn’t have fathomed how far from complete my knowledge of modern feminism was, but I had been undeniably inspired by these feminist historical figures, so surely I was a feminist as well?

When it came time to choose my classes this semester, I wanted to make sure I had enough hours that I could drop any course if things started to go downhill.  I needed three more hours.  I needed a humanities course.  Enter Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, stage left.

As long as I’m holding the honesty stick, I never considered Women’s Studies a “real” major.  I’m a computer science student (as most of you know), following, despite my valiant efforts, in my mother’s footsteps.  And when family and friends would ask me what classes I was taking, Gender Studies was always accompanied by the rider, “I know, but I needed an elective.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t expect to enjoy the course.  If that had been the case, I would have picked something different.  I thought I would just quietly show up every week, enjoy, learn, get a good grade, and get on with college.  But I soon realized that there was no way to leave the class in the classroom return to the (metaphorically) quiet existence I’d been leading.  This information was not only important but also urgent.  I could no longer sit idly by while someone said “man up” to someone else, or while the word “girly” got tossed around like an insult.  These people needed to have their eyes opened!  They needed to be made to realize the implications of the things they were saying! 

Basically, I’d been bit.

image from Wikipedia
I spend about as much time cavorting with fictional characters as I do with real people, so the context in which most of this information really hit home for me was media representations of gender.  For example, Katniss Everdeen (from the Hunger Games) is cited again and again as a strong female protagonist and role model for young women (especially when contrasted with Twilight’s Bella Swan, but if any undead horse has been beaten enough, it’s that one).  But I was (like others) frustrated by the presence of a love triangle in the story.  I thought, Couldn’t we have just one story where the heroine stands on her own without being dragged down by romantic tension?  Don’t we see all sorts of stories where the male hero saves the day without love getting in the way?

Then I realized that “save the world, get the girl” was easily just as common a trope for male protagonists.  So the question I’d been missing was:  Why does a romantic subplot weaken a female protagonist, while it doesn’t have the same effect on a male hero?  If the men and women in fiction were truly equal, there wouldn’t be a difference, but we as a culture are still having trouble separating women from the dependent or inferior role in a relationship.  So when we see a strong woman with a strong man, we groan and roll our eyes and say “not again.”

If we change gears dramatically and look at the show America’s Next Top Model (yes, okay?  I watch it sometimes.  Usually the photo shoots and runway shows outweigh Tyra’s vacuous monologues), we find a gold mine of media messages relating to body image.  And while the show makes an effort to include women of various races and body types, it takes the liberty of labeling “plus size” models as “real women” (or “fiercely real” as I recall the exact phrasing in one season).  

Unfortunately, this trend is not limited to inane avenues as Top Model.  “Large” or “curvy” women being are repeatedly labeled as “real” in an effort to combat the fad of girls starving themselves in pursuit of beauty.  This is taking one step forward and two steps back.  The day we realize that beauty is subjective and that no body type is more “real” than any other will be a beautiful day indeed.

A problem a lot of people have with feminism is that it flies in the face of chivalry.  I would argue that it is, in fact, chivalry that flies in the face of feminism.  And many who feel that chivalry is simply courtesy are misrepresenting the two as synonyms.  They are not.  The World English Dictionary defines “chivalry” in this way: 

  1. the combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, esp courage, honour, justice, and a readiness to help the weak 
  2. courteous behaviour, esp towards women
This draws a troubling parallel between women and weakness.  Why can’t we hold the door open for our fellow human beings?  Why does it have to be a gendered act at all?

I saw this picture a while ago on Facebook:   

Again with the "real"!

The response looked something like this:
I stole the sandwich picture off the Internet.  Sorry if it's yours.  Looks tasty.

At first I was outraged.  It took a long time, but I eventually realized that this rebuttal is entirely fair.  If women are going to hold men to an archaic standard, then those men have the right to remind those women what the equivalent standard is.  The bottom line is that we should hold car doors for people and we should make sandwiches for people, but not because we're expected to because of our gender.  Just because it's a nice thing to do.

I've learned that trying to define feminism is like trying to solve a problem like Maria.  You kind of just have to stand back and let it do its thing.  Because beyond "gender equality," the goals of feminism are fractured and inconsistent.  Because feminism isn't a wave; it's a whirlpool.

Recently, I was again asked about my courses this semester.  Here it was—the chance to redeem myself.  I listed my classes, finished with Gender Studies, and I left off the disclaimer.  But my inquisitor scoffed.  "Let me help you," he said with an dramatic roll of his eyes.  "'Men are bad.'  There.   Done."  The rest of the dinner table looked at him fearfully, knowing that he did not realize what he'd stepped in.  I smiled.  I smiled because I knew that for a long time there would be people like him that were confused.  I smiled and I explained to him how he was mistaken.  

The sigh of relief from everyone else at the table was audible.  It was about that time that a third person jumped into the conversation with a wildly sexist accusation and things descended into chaos and anarchy.  What can I say?  I get worked up.  But the bottom line is this:  if you believe that women are not inferior to men, you are a feminist by definition.  Whether or not you decide to take up the banner and solve the rest of the world's ignorance is up to you.  But it's one of those things that's difficult to un-know.  As corny as it sounds to say that my eyes were opened by my Gender Studies class, there's truth to it.  And even as my understanding of feminism continues to grow, perhaps the greatest understanding is that I can never know all of it.  It's moving too fast.  Growing too quickly.  And it's too late to stop it now.  It's a like a horrific genetic experiment that's escaped the lab and is mowing down every sexist moron in its wake.  But... you know... a good horrific genetic experiment... You get the idea.

"Feminism" continues to be an inflammatory, divisive, controversial word.  Curiously, "equality" doesn't have nearly the capacity for starting arguments that "feminism" does.  This proves that the issue is largely one of vocabulary, not bigotry.  This is our first hurdle as a society.  We need not simply to leap over it as individuals, but pick it up and remove it from the track so that no one trips over it behind us.