By Sigrid Edwards and Geoffrey Power-King
It is almost impossible to avoid the word “feminism” on the internet right now. Over the last few years feminist discussions and analyses of popular media and world events have become steadily more prevalent on social media such as Twitter. In response to this constant distribution of pro-feminist discourse, many anti-feminist or otherwise apathetic sentiments have begun to diffuse online. Hashtags and accompanying tumblr page(s) such as #womenagainstfeminism are representative of this. One needs only Google Emma Watson’s recent #HeforShe campaign or UN speech for further examples of anti-feminist, largely misguided perspectives on feminism.
In her speech, Watson asks, “Why has feminism become such an uncomfortable word?” This is a question many people, particularly right now, have an answer for. One feminist response might be, there has been no unified definition of feminism for a very long time, and this sends at least two messages. First, without an explicit unifying solution, feminists are unlikely to be progressing toward the same goal – if any. Second, as an effect of this, feminism’s purpose would seem irrelevant, out-dated, or practically useless to those not invested in its goals. In short, without a structure, the movement is arrested. An anti-feminist response to the same question might be, simply, that women (at least in our Western context) are liberated. Most women we know have agency and most women we know understand the term “agency” and its cultural and individual implications. In short, we don’t need feminism any more, and women don’t need feminism anymore. These are only two answers, one from each opposing side. These are the sorts of opinions and perspectives saturating the Internet at the moment and we would like to explore them to ultimately suggest that feminism should not be an uncomfortable word. There are endless conflicting opinions online on the name and the purpose of the movement, and we would like to attempt to clear up any confusion we can here. We aim to provide as informative an explanation of feminism as is possible within the constraints of this article; to educate anyone reading this that feminism does not denote hatred of men; and to defend the name feminism against the numerous alternatives currently circulating online.
The ostensibly positive movement Men’s Rights Activism, or MRA for short, is a well-known example of a response to feminism, which is popularly associated with vicious anti-feminist sentiment online. Some examples of issues addressed by MRA are parental visitation and custody/family law matters, domestic abuse as experienced by men, and media representations of men that can be analysed as damaging.
MRA sounds like a positive response to feminism. Give men their own movement too, feminism is too narrow, feminism is anti-men, men are not catered for under feminism. This, however, is simply misguided. “To end sexist oppression”, as bell hooks (sic) identifies as the goal of feminism, does not mean the privileging of one gender. It is undeniable that over the course of history, masculinity has undergone difficult cultural revisions. As one example, the Vietnam War triggered a cultural re-evaluation of what constituted masculinity. From the dominant conceptualisation of masculinity as stable, heroic and strong, soldiers returning home after their service forced us to confront the reality that masculinity could be fractured, vulnerable, and ineffective. This is one very simplified example of the cultural revision of male gender roles/attributes. However, what is important to recognise here is that these effects are not the result of any “feminist attack”, or the result of feminism not privileging men’s issues. It is one of many results of a devastating war. Feminism values a dismantling of the societal structures that enable and maintain any sort of disempowerment based on gender, race or class – the aim of feminism is not to cripple men. Feminists, women, do not benefit from this.
Some people might generally say that feminism aims to achieve equality for men and women. While this is a positive and useful sentiment, it is also brief and lacking clarity. If we achieve equality, who are we all then equal to? Are the marginalised women of our society, such as Aboriginal Australian women, equal with their male counterparts, who under our current social and political systems are still themselves marginalised? Aboriginal Australian men are victimised by existing power structures, though perhaps not in some of the same ways as women. Or are these marginalised men and women then elevated to be equal with white, middle class men and women who suffer independent and shared examples of victimisation, and whose narratives of masculinity crisis are the most popular? In short, do we elevate marginalised, victimised citizens to share the victimisation of the upper class? Clearly, we cannot simply talk about equality under current social conditions. Feminism aims not to achieve equality between men and women. It aims to dismantle the power structures in place that maintain all marginalisation and victimisation. So now for the really big question: why then, if it’s not about any one gender, do we still insist on calling it “fem”inism?
The movement, as we have just pointed out, is concerned with the systematic destabilisation of enforced power structures that maintain gender/race/class inequality. So why not call it humanism, as suggested in numerous blogs, as it seems to be more focused on our humanity as opposed to gender? Why not egalitarianism, as it seems to be more focused on social, political and economic equality?
Because the fact of the matter is, gender still drives this discussion. Each of the waves of feminism were inspired by specifically female issues – women’s right to vote, the hyper-sexualisation of women’s bodies, the economic and political underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women in the media. And right now, it is obvious to see a gender-inspired hatred, manifest in the supremely venomous backlash against figures like Emma Watson speaking out in favour of feminism. These are still gender issues. Feminism was originally a movement to draw attention to women’s issues, but it evolved into a movement to draw attention to all forms of oppression, stemming from gender. To change the name of feminism is not a light task. It implies that women’s issues are no longer specifically important issues; however, as the misogynistic backlash against Watson after she spoke out regarding the most recent celebrity nude photo leak demonstrates, this is not the case. Changing the name of feminism implies “we did it, we won, let’s turn our attention to different things now”. It implies that women aren’t the original inspiration for feminism, and that remembering that they are now is somehow offensive. It implies that we are ready to take a broader approach to fixing what’s wrong with our society because we’re not focused on feminism anymore, we’re simply focused on political in/equality. But under what conditions? Against which existing structures? We must focus on the “fem” in feminism because it is clearly still a big, unresolved and negative issue. When it isn’t any more – when gender stops being relevant, when women are no longer disrespected in the same sorts of ways as any of the women whose photos were leaked online, then the “fem” in feminism will be irrelevant. Unfortunately, we don’t see that happening any time soon.
The crisis in masculinity is not a result of feminist work, it’s a result of the same institutions that keep women down, keep them economically unequal, keep them sexual first, and intelligent second. The aim is to break down the system, and #womenagainstfeminism is actually right about something: “we can make more change united rather than against each other”.
The question isn’t “why don’t you just change the name?” The question is “why are you so bothered by the gendered nature of the name?” And the answer is simple: you’re bothered by gender, and that’s the reason we still need feminism.
This is in no way a comprehensive article; it tackles not even a whole percent of the issues relevant to this discussion. The authors’ aim was to inspire a positive discourse on feminism and attempt to clarify why sentiments like “we don’t need feminism any more” are misguided when considering the bigger picture of our culture’s attitude toward women – and men.
Be unified in your mistrust of the power structures you observe that can facilitate and nurture masculinity crisis. Be critical of the power structures that maintain the gender pay gap. Be strong against the sexism faced by all races and classes of women on a daily basis, that, much like the racism in this country, we label as “casual” and forget to care about.
Chances are you are a feminist even if you do not identify as one. Embrace what feminism means. Use the word positively and use it correctly. Read more, educate yourselves. Feminism is not a hate movement, and accepting that doesn’t mean you’ve lost a semantic or an ideological fight – it means you’re ready to put your potentially already feminist beliefs in with the rest of us.
For further reading, we recommend in particular bell hooks’ (sic) From Margin to Center as an accessibly written, sophisticated account of the purposes and functions of feminism. It is especially relevant now, 30 years after its publication.