“Feminist: A person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Feminism is a difficult word to say. It gets stuck in my mouth like some great big gobstopper because I’m afraid of what might happen if I spit it out. It is a loaded word with a complicated history, and a word, that for some reason, really seems to get people’s backs up.
In a recent interview with The Huffington Post – following on from her brilliant TEDx talk – Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie (my favourite female author) refers to the word as having “baggage” and urges young people to set aside preconceived notions of what it is to be feminist:
“The word itself comes with such bad baggage. You’ll have women who if you listed out major ideas of gender equality, they would agree with them, but then if you said, “are you a feminist?,” they’d say “no.” That’s one of the reasons I wanted to use the word feminism. [I wanted to] talk to young people, and say, “forget the history of the word and the baggage it carries, and think about the idea of it.”
I am a feminist – there, I said it – and I don’t think any quote sums up my opinion greater than this gem from the wonderful Ellen Page, “I call myself a feminist when people ask me if I am, and of course I am ’cause its about equality.
Equality – because that’s what it all boils down to. Not a mission to be “better than” or “to exceed” or “control.” It is simply a desire – and a right – to be viewed as equals.
Throughout my teens and early twenties, I struggled with how I felt about the F-Word and its place in my life. I wanted to be independent but I also really wanted to fit in.
If I think back to this time, I’m surprised by the inequality that permeated my young-adulthood (and that – rather depressingly – still affects my adulthood). There are times when I have felt uncomfortable being a woman, or frowned upon for not behaving or looking a certain way.
From being branded “fat” for being a little curvier than the other girls at school, having some men behave towards me in a sexually aggressive manner (I also know plenty of men who will give similar stories of the women they’ve been approached by), being told to “tone myself down” in order to “get a man” as if I’m a too-strong glass of whiskey that needs diluting in order to be palatable, or simply the fact that I am not being paid the same amount as my male colleagues.
All these things begin to add up and I worry for the young generation of today. They have to explore these issues in an amplified environment. The internet, for example, brings with it a shit storm of vile images and opinions that seek to degrade both sexes – revenge-porn websites, trolling, unregulated chat rooms, the bloody side-bar thingy on The Daily Mail website – its corrosive.
I had so many questions at that young age, and, to some extent, I still do:
Am I a feminist? Can you be too much of a feminist? Can I say I’m a feminist and not engage in activism? What is activism? Oh, OK so I am an activist then? No, wait. I’m not? How come? How can other women say they are a feminist and call out other women like they do? And what about the men? Where do they fit into it all? How do they feel?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think men are the sole perpetrators of inequality. Sexism isn’t just about male attitudes and male problems – its a societal thing, a problem that transcends gender, because, lets face it, men get a hard time too.
Remember the last time a girl lamented that the really great guy she just met wasn’t “manly” enough for her? What’s all that about? What does it even mean to be “manly”? Where has this idea come from? Who decided it? And, for that matter, what does it mean to be feminine?
Its a bloody minefield – no wonder we’re all left scratching their heads in confusion.
On one hand, we’re told to be strong women and make up our own minds (I can’t help but sing Can’t Hold Us Down, by Christina Aguilera in my noggin when I type this) but on the other, we’re bombarded with newspapers and magazine images portraying what ideal ‘femininity’ should look like (FYI. It doesn’t exist).
And men? They need to be tough, yet sensitive, with the six-pack of an Adonis. They must always be in control for fear of being henpecked or, to borrow a modern phrase, “pussy-whipped.” They must not show a hint of weakness.
Who are we supposed to be? And why are we supposed to be anything other than who we are?
“It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.”
As I enter my late twenties, “feminist” has become a popular word, literally flashing in great, bold lights. Even if you’re not a loyal subject of Queen Bey, its pretty hard to miss her stance on feminism at this year’s VMAs. It probably cost a small fortune to light up.
No matter what you think of her music – or incredible PR skills – you’ve got to respect the woman. In a sea of bubble-gum pop-princesses, she’s a beacon of light. A mother, a businesswoman, a wife – she did not have to choose.
As Time Magazine put it, “As far as feminist endorsements are concerned, this was the holy grail: A word with a complicated history reclaimed by the most powerful celebrity in the world. And then she projected it — along with its definition, by the Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — into [our] homes.”
…and all over Twitter – with fabulous women folk behind things like Everyday Sexism, No More Page 3, The Vagenda, and For Books’ Sake bringing up these issues and putting them into the forefront of everyone’s mind. Not to mention all the wonderful men getting on board.
If we can only get over our hatred for the word “feminism,” you’ll see that stuff is pretty exciting right now. Despite what the naysayers believe, attitudes are changing.
Take this week for example. I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved or excited by a celebrity giving a speech for such a long time – Or ever, really – then along came the fabulous Emma Watson.
Her talk came as she launched a new UN campaign called “HeForShe”, which aims to enlist the support of as many men as possible to help achieve equality between the sexes.
“I was appointed six months ago and the more I have spoken about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.
“For the record, feminism by definition is: ‘The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.’”
She continued that gender equality has not yet been reached in any country, and it never will be so long as “only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation”, going on to note prejudices that come with being a man.
“Men – I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation,” she said. “Gender equality is your issue too.
“Because to date, 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.
“I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness unable to ask for help for fear it would make them look less ‘macho’ — in fact in the UK suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20-49; eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. 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.”
Unsurprisingly, she’s been targeted by trolls since giving this speech and threatened with the leak of fake ‘nude’ pictures. Rather sickeningly, a website called ‘Emma Watson You’re Next’ – depicting a countdown of when the actress will be ‘targeted’ – has popped up online. Its disgusting to think that, in this day an age, a woman’s body and sexuality are still being used against them.
So what exactly is it that I’m trying to say?
I suppose I’m saying that gender equality is just that – equality between the genders.
Women can be pro-sex and anti-porn, women should not be seen as ‘uptight’ when they rebuff unwelcome advances or not respond well to cat-calls (I don’t really like anyone to shout at me in the street, tbh), or be branded a slut when they do.
Men can be supportive of women and not be chastised for it. Men can be sensitive. Or not. Men should not be vilified for campaigning to have more rights as fathers.
Whatever. Its all fine.
I’m completely with Emma Watson. I agree with every wonderful word she says.
If we care about feminism and equality, its time that all of us – men and women – got involved and spoke up, and what better way to do so than supporting this campaign?
I am supporting this because I don’t want my own (hypothetical) children – or my niece and nephew – to grow up in a world that thinks its OK to put people in boxes.
I don’t want them to call out women and men for not conforming to stereotypes of gender and sexuality.
Call me naïve, but I want them to grow up being whoever the fuck they want to be thankyouverymuch, and not have to worry about the way they dress or act or for having thoughts and opinions and interests outside what is deemed acceptable for their sex.
I want boys to grow up with respect for women, and – just as equally – I want girls to have respect for men.