When you think of feminists, what do you think of? Man-hating Femi-Nazis hunting you down with pitchforks, spitting fire as you (God forbid) label a firefighter as a fireman? Or do you think of Taylor Swift and her #girlsquad, preaching solidarity and girl power? It is undeniable that feminism has come to encompass a variety of meanings, each laden with its own stereotypes.
To start with, what exactly is feminism? Does it prize the success of one gender over another, pitting 50% of the world against the other 50% in a zero-sum game where only 1 gender emerges as the winner? Many people seem to think so, equating feminists to man-haters. Thus, proclaiming yourself as a feminist is akin to proclaiming that you hate all men. This assumption is not entirely unjustified, with certain feminists using online platforms to advocate for personal attacks against men. Some of these unjustified attacks include a penchant for scathing insults against men who take up too much seating space on public transport, culminating in the creation of a tumblr account.
In reality, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a feminist as “an advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women”. This seemingly innocuous word has now drifted far from its origins, with many individuals actively attempting to dissociate themselves from feminism even as they campaign for the same objectives as feminists do. Look at Malala Yousafzai, a noted women’s rights activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. Yousafzai struggled to associate herself with feminism as she felt that it was a “tricky word”, with highly negative connotations attached to it. Another noted individual with similar struggles with feminism is Kelly Clarkson. In a 2015 Huffington Post interview, Clarkson explained her internal dilemma on calling herself a feminist as she feels that “feminist” has now been associated with words such as “bitch” and “man-hater” and that she is “definitely not that girl”. It is unfortunate how the rhetoric of feminists as women detesting men has permeated public consciousness to the extent that calling someone a feminist is almost an insult.
But wait, all hope is not lost! Even as the negative connotations associated with feminism continues to increase, a noticeable pushback from another segment of the community is evident. The reclamation of the meaning of feminism is underway. Yet, this meaning is being contested by numerous diverse individuals ranging from Taylor Swift to Emma Watson.
On one hand, you have what I like to call the Taylor Swift Brand of Feminism. I should start by saying that I really do love Swift’s music and I do browse through her Instagram page from time to time. However, forget issues like the gender pay gap, or inadequate female representation on high level decision making boards. Swift wants you to embrace sisterhood and your #girlsquad. Swift simplifies and almost cheapens the complexity of feminism by equating feminism to having a group of wildly successful female friends who post Instagram shots together. She performs this brand of feminism through music videos such as “Bad Blood” which features her girl squad in conflict with another group of women, and dresses the entire video up as an example of female empowerment. This is despite the fact that championing conflict between women has absolutely nothing to do with advancing equality for women.
Swift’s flawed interpretation of feminism is evident when you consider her Twitter spat with Nicki Minaj. During their now famous 2015 exchange, Swift accused Minaj of “pitting women against each other” even though Minaj’s initial tweet was not specifically aimed at her and she having made millions out of doing the exact same thing in the aforementioned “Bad Blood” music video.
To make it clear, I am definitely not against female friendship as presented in the form of a girl squad. However, what I question is the commodification of feminism to build up the Taylor Swift brand. Swift glams up the issue, accessorizing it with sky high leather boots and blood red lipstick. Its glossy and shiny demeanor does little to hide the cold superficiality of its conception, yet with every #squadgoals Instagram picture, millions of followers are drawn further into her orbit. The seductiveness of it all is understandable as with a single like, you too can participate and be a feminist! (in a total casual and non-committal way of course).
However, some good news to all. Taylor Swift’s brand of feminism is not the only contestation of feminism available. There are alternative contestations such as the brand of feminism advocated by Emma Watson. In her speech to the United Nations, Watson attempts to reclaim feminism by bringing it back to its original roots of promoting gender equality. In a now iconic quote, she proposes “if women are terrified to use the word, how on Earth are men supposed to start using it?”. Thus, reclaiming the word “feminism” can only occur if women everywhere boldly use it as a label to define themselves such that we can create our own definition as opposed to having it fostered on us #girlpoweryo.
Reclaiming the meaning of a single word may seem like a thankless and relatively pointless task so the question that naturally surfaces would be why should we do so? Well, I believe that the fundamental basis of feminism does not lie in the hatred of any particular gender, but rather a movement towards equality for both genders. Perhaps in Singapore we do not experience gender discrimination on a personal level, but in many third world countries, the fight for basic rights for women such as protection from female gender mutilation is still ongoing. Perhaps one way we can show solidarity with these victims and the many activists that fight for their rights is to not dissociate ourselves with this noble movement, but rather embrace our identity as fellow feminists. With equality and not hatred at the root of its origins, perhaps one day being labelled a feminist would not come laden with negative stereotypes but rather a cause for celebration.
About the Author
Michelle is nuts over chocolate and would dance lindy hop whenever she gets the chance. An avid book lover, you can probably find her in a bookstore somewhere.