Having a conversation about feminism with people who don’t know too much about it is actually usually a relatively easy conversation to have. With a few exceptions, most folks you talk to are generally in favor of women having equal social, political, and economic standing in society — and of course, the discussion is rarely ever more in-depth than that.
It’s when you have an in-depth conversation about feminism with other feminists that the conversation can suddenly become an exceptionally tricky ground to navigate. When you factor things like race, class, gender identity, and sexuality — all very important things to include, mind you — the conversation around feminism becomes infinitely more complicated and difficult to have. Difficult conversations, of course, are not necessarily bad conversations, or unimportant ones. But it is when conversation turns into cannibalization, our differences turn into divisions, and the movement starts to splinter at its core that we lose sight of the point of the movement altogether.
This is not exactly surprising — US feminist history has been marked by profound divisions, dissension and exclusion. It’s very much in the DNA of the movement. For example, some prominent early feminists – such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – opposed the 15th Amendment because it gave suffrage to “ignorant” black and immigrant males while excluding educated native-born women like themselves. Later, women of color and gender-queer women felt marginalized or entirely excluded from mainstream feminism, which they saw as a lily-white middle-class movement. Betty Friedan, the founder of the National Organization for Women, lamented the “lavender menace” of lesbians infiltrating the women’s movement, and later “women-born women” did not want to include transgender women into their ranks.
So there is definitely history there to back up, and it’s easy to see why people can be at unease with other feminists’ politics and opinions. Discussion and dissension is important and necessary. But rather than civil discussion, the trend of conversation I’ve seen within millennial feminist circles is what I refer to as callout culture, where feminists will “drag” or “call out” someone publicly for perceived exclusionary or unfeminist behavior — even if the behavior was done by accident or out of sheer ignorance.
Calling people out for obvious, pointed bigotry towards women is fine. But there’s a difference between someone who is actively trying to be bigoted and non-inclusive, and someone who is simply misinformed on the topic, or isn’t aware of the latest feminist minutiae, or doesn’t want to speak on something because they simply don’t know better.
I go back to Emma Watson, who I wrote about a few weeks ago. She is interesting to me, because in a time where most female celebrities still shy away from saying that that they are feminists, she has gone a step further and taken up that very heavy feminist mantle almost singlehandedly. She became a UN Goodwill Ambassador and launched HeForShe back in 2014, a year that I distinctly remember as one where being a feminist still wasn’t “cool”. In fact, in a 2014 Economist/YouGov Poll, just one in four Americans ( and one in three women) called themselves feminists. It takes a lot of courage to become the flagbearer for anything, and she was only 24 when she took on the task of becoming a global face for a movement that most people still weren’t all that comfortable with.
That’s an enormous and difficult burden to carry — but instead of encouragement, the vast majority of what she received and still receives from the online feminist community is accusations of ‘white feminism’, ignorance, and of mediocrity overall. I’m sorry, I’m not even a huge fan of Watson, nor do I follow too much of what she does, but giving a UN speech on gender equality to a standing ovation seems far from mediocre.
And under all of it is the unmistakable undercurrent of vicious glee, of cattiness couched as critique — look, there’s a woman who’s not getting feminism right enough for us. Let’s drag her down, because jealousy or hatred. We’ve internalized misogyny to the point that the only people who hate women more than men…are other women. At the end of the day, we hold women to exponentially higher standards than men. A man can be ignorant, but heaven forbid a woman be ignorant or tone deaf as well. That’s simply not allowed.
Criticism also has to be reasonable. Discussions about ridiculous minutiae that are more a distraction than anything of actual meaning actually takes away from the momentum of the feminist movement. What comes to mind is the outrage a few weeks ago over the live-action Wonder Woman’s armpits. Yes, you heard me — Wonder Woman’s armpits. If you missed it, Wonder Woman’s bare armpits caused nothing short of an inter-feminist crisis, and at the height of the controversy, googling “Wonder Woman armpits” would get you half a dozen think pieces from publications like Mashable, Huffington Post, Forbes, Slate, Telegraph, Independent and Refinery29.com all covering a non story.
As the original author puts it, covering non-stories like this one defeats the point, because “no one loves a faux feminist rage quite like those who are decidedly against equality.” And in the long run, whether or not Wonder Woman has body hair is a very small portion of who she is as a character — and isn’t that what feminism is all about? Not making character assessments of women based on what they look like?
(Also if we’re really going to nitpick Diana Prince’s character, she was also canonically made of out mud and clay. Like, pick a better hill to die on. Seriously.)
Finally, there’s the casual tossing around of words that carry far more weight than the casualness with which they are thrown around in feminist circles. White feminism. Privilege. Intersectionality. Bigotry. Sexuality. Again, important terms with real weight behind them. But those terms get thrown around so loosely, it’s more of a way of shutting up dissidence or generalizing a situation than actually having a meaningful conversation.
And that’s the key there: having a meaningful conversation. Everyone is growing and evolving. But if you’re simply LOOKING for the chance to call someone out, or be offended, or just find faults in someone’s ignorance, you’re putting any chance of a civil conversation to a screeching halt.
Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women. Seriously. Depending on where we come from, I’m pretty certain that at some point or other some of us would have fielded remarks or questions from fellow women about our race, our hair, our weight, our ambition at the workplace, our faith, our politics, our choice of clothes, perhaps even our willingness to openly identify ourselves as “feminists” or carry the feminist mantle.
Only through listening and empathizing and not judging, can the feminist movement thrive and continue to make beneficial inroads relative to our varied circumstances.
So, can feminists be their own worst enemies? Drawing the line between conversation and cannibalization can be hard, but it’s definitely a struggle worth fighting for.