I’ve never felt comfortable calling myself a feminist; I know some feminists would say that’s because I’ve been programmed to please the patriarchy and I don’t want to suffer the consequences of speaking out for what’s right, but just for the sake of this post, let’s assume it could be something other than that. I mean, hey, maybe I am brainwashed by the patriarchy and there’s simply no hope for me, but I think we can entertain the possibility that maybe there’s something else going on here.
To be honest though, initially I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t comfortable with the term; part of it was just simple contrariness, I’m sure. The message I got loud and clear when I was younger was that “smart women are feminists,” and I’m very big on saying “I’ll decide on what makes me smart, thank you very much,” even when it’s to my detriment. I still can’t decide if this is a character flaw or not, but that’s another blog post.
As a teen and young adult, I dodged the question by saying “I’m a humanist, so calling myself a feminist is redundant.” With 20/20 hindsight, I think this is the Pascal’s Wager of the gender politics sphere; it (kind of?) wins the argument on a technicality without really engaging the substance of the debate in any meaningful way. It may technically be true — and if I’m inclined to identify with any -ism at all, it’s humanism — but it’s kind of beside the point. So, no more relying on that particular dodge.
Now, feminism is all about gender equality, right? What’s not to like about that? Well, if I’m in favor of gender equality, the way I would choose to express that is “I’m in favor of gender equality.” I wouldn’t want to use a masculine or feminine prefix there; if the cause is truly equality, I don’t want to use the word “feminism” for the same reasons I wouldn’t use the word “masculinism.” Making the word highlight one gender over another undermines the purpose right from the getgo; why would I endorse that?
By the way, the reason why I say “IF I’m in favor of gender equality,” is because I don’t know what that means in practice. “Gender” and “equality” both mean different things to different people at this point, to the extent that there’s as many versions of “gender equality” as there are people with opinions on the matter; some of those opinions I’m inclined to agree with, others not. So I may be in favor of gender equality — depending on what “gender” means, and even more importantly, on what “equality” means. I have to make this clear because many people boil the feminist/not feminist divide down to, “Look, are you in favor of gender equality or not?” and…that’s a super-loaded question. It’s impossible to say no to that without being Literally Worse Than Hitler… but if you say yes, you have no way of knowing what you’re even agreeing to.
Then, there’s the way that feminists tend to frame debates, which I was always skeptical of, but over time I’ve come to find downright odious. Now, I’m not talking about the extremist “All men are evil and should be killed!” feminists; every movement has its lunatic fringe, and feminism is no exception. I am not making the mistake of judging a movement by only it’s dumbest members. I’m talking about the rhetorical tools that most feminists tend to use to process information, at least online. The best example is “rape culture,” or the idea that if anything that might communicate false ideas about consent contributes to the prevalence of rape, and supports rapists themselves.
I have a lot of problems with this idea. The first is that while the concern about the dissemination of false and/or dangerous ideas about consent is valid, all too often, anything that a given feminist doesn’t like for any reason gets lumped under the “rape culture” banner. But even when the term is used in a valid context — in fact, especially when the term is used correctly — it implicitly paints anyone who disagrees as some kind of sick rape apologist. That’s a really disingenuous way to conduct any kind of discussion, and I find it intellectually cowardly.
That’s not to say that these concerns are never valid; sometimes, I too find ideas about consent that are communicated by mass media to be troubling. But my problem isn’t with questioning how sexual consent should be portrayed in media, and in what contexts it may be okay to render consent in shades of gray, if ever; it’s with labeling the argument as “rape culture,” and how that label can’t fail to poison the discussion.
Often, a feminist will accuse a certain piece of media of promoting rape culture, and I often disagree; I think that the way fiction portrays human interaction is not a 1/1 ratio with reality, meaning that a work may depict something without endorsing it in any way — so, I don’t necessarily consider a fictional scene with questionable consent dynamics to be harmful to society. It really depends on what the writers are trying to say with the scene, as far as I can determine, and yes, this is all extremely subjective. But by using the term “rape culture,” when I disagree that a given scene promotes it, the implicit (and sometimes explicit, when dealing with the more irate breed of feminist) assumption is that I’m part of the problem; after all, if you can’t see rape culture, it’s because it’s so insidious that it’s already inside you, right?
What if I just have a legitimately different view of what a scene is communicating — without my mind being polluted by an evil I cannot control? The term “rape culture” doesn’t allow for that. To use another feminist-approved word, the whole idea of rape culture takes away my agency. If I can’t see that the scene promotes rape culture, it’s because my mind has already been affected by the ubiquity of said culture — the prevalence of which is demonstrated by the very scene we’re debating. Of course, I don’t think the scene is an example of rape culture, but my opinion on the matter can’t be trusted…because rape culture. Circular reasoning at its finest.
“Rape culture” is the most egregious example for me, but most terms that pop up commonly in feminist discourse frame the discussion in ways that I think are counter-productive — and the fact that there’s some truth to them doesn’t change that fact. “Patriarchy” is another irritating one, yet I can’t deny there’s truth to it; there are a series of networks made up of mostly (though not exclusively) wealthy males that wields a lot of power; denying that is just being naive. But to then extend that to all males — assuming they’re part of the Patriarchy until proven otherwise, as some feminists do — is disingenuous to the extreme. Is my little brother part of the Patriarchy just because he’s male? I really can’t see it. Is my Dad part of the Patriarchy? Maybe more so than my brother just by virtue of being from an older generation, but still, no; if he has that kind of power, he’s hiding it extraordinarily well. Is my husband part of the, LOL no I can’t even finish that sentence. And if I know that the men in my life aren’t “the Patriarchy,” how can I glibly assume that of other men?
Finally, there’s the feminist habit of making men defensive, then using that defensiveness as proof that feminists are right about everything. Example: feminist writes a piece that points out that a given scene is horrible because rape culture (see above.) Men say, “hey, wait a minute, I think rape is a horrible crime, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t see this scene that way at all.” Feminist says, “The very fact that you’re so defensive about this is all the proof I need that I’M RIGHT!” (bonus points if several others chime in with saying “Yeah, these comments totally prove that you’re right about everything you have ever said.”)
No. The fact that men are defensive isn’t proof that you’re right, it’s proof that you made them defensive through the use of loaded, manipulative language (see above), and it’s actually a kind of entrapment, really. Circular reasoning plus confirmation bias: the one-two punch that undermines most feminist arguments for me.
And yeah; some men are sexist idiots. Some men say dumb things online, and make dumb comments on articles that women have written. That does not make a feminist commenter right about everything she’s saying; that’s nonsense logic. What it means is that some men are sexist idiots, because some people are idiots in general. We knew this already; it’s not proving what it’s often purported to prove.
Now, all that said, does that mean that feminists are all dumb and always wrong? No, of course not! Sometimes their concerns with sexism and/or misogyny are entirely justified, and stem from the genuine, noble desire to work to make the world a better, fairer place for both men and women; I get that. I really do. And the importance of that — the fact that some women call themselves feminists for the right reasons, even if I disagree with some of their logic — is something I need to respect, lest I become myopic and confused myself.
So, just because I can’t call myself a feminist, that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with feminists at times, or that I won’t support people who identify as feminists if it’s warranted. But don’t ask me to call myself one — or else you’re going to have to be able to explain to me what “gender equality” really means in practice, and at what point the status of women will have risen enough in the world that we no longer need the “fem-” prefix affixed to our gender-equality movement name, and by what metric(s) we would measure that progress…and that conversation will never, ever end. I’d like to think we both have better things to do with the limited time on Earth remaining to us; I mean, I certainly hope that I do.