I’ve occasionally made reference to my feminist leanings on this blog, but today I’d like to address exactly what that means. Feminism is a loaded word nowadays – though truthfully, it’s always been a loaded word. Its literal meaning is fairly simple, but its connotations are enormous and differ widely from person to person. Words are powerful, and feminism has a positively electric effect when it’s spoken, for good or ill. It’s been used as an insult, an accusation, a way to minimize someone’s opinions or actions or mindsets. I’ve found it interesting that many people who espouse what I would consider a feminist mindset would never, ever label themselves as feminist because of what they believe it means or implies. And for some years I felt the same way. Not so now.
So what’s the problem with feminism? Let’s start with some of those highly charged connotations, the images conjured up by the word.
Feminists are frequently perceived as bitter, man-hating, anti-family, fault-finding women who actively seek ways to be offended, who cannot be satisfied with anything, who want to disempower men and weigh all the scales of inequity in favor of females. There may be feminists like that out there; there are bitter and easily offended people in every group and category. But feminism does not require one to be that way, and that sort of contentiousness is directly counter to the sort of feminism I espouse.
My philosophy might be more accurately described as gender studies. I believe that when either men or women attempt to tear the other down, it brings them both down. We’re not on a see-saw. We can lift each other up together. I don’t believe in man-bashing. I certainly don’t believe in woman-bashing. I don’t believe in seeing the world through stereotypes and clichés. I like romantic relationships and lots of other relationships – family, friend, colleague, acquaintance – and I believe those relationships can be much, much stronger if we all treat each other with more respect.
I don’t encounter too much sexism in my own life. I’ve been fortunate for that. Such is not the case for women in countries where they have second-class citizen status, women who are in the workplace and are treated differently than their male counterparts, women who are judged and denigrated for the various choices they’ve made about marriage, motherhood and career. I can’t say I’m an activist; it doesn’t fit with my hermit-like personality. On a day-to-day basis, feminism is kind of just in the backdrop of my life.
Where it really comes into play, for me, is in how I approach stories, what I read and watch and what I write myself. Whatever else happens in my analysis of a story, I always end up examining how it portrays gender. I do understand how this might start to feel obnoxious or the product of a narrow, one-track mind. The fact is, I’d like to live in a world where issues of gender weren’t constantly at the forefront. But we don’t. And these matters need to be examined. It doesn’t mean I hate stories about men or want women to have all the power. I’d just like it if not every story was about men; if there were more of an equal balance. I’d like it if a story with a protagonist whose gender is irrelevant to the plot and characterization could just as likely be a woman as a man. I’d like us to actively examine this tendency to cast men as the default and women as the other, and consider the ways it impedes our perception of reality. I’d like to see stories about women as human beings, and not as objects.
Feminism means so many things for me. It means valuing female friendship. It means valuing women for their intelligence and bravery and creativity, and not just for their relative attractiveness. It means calling women women and not girls; it means honoring women when they’re forty, fifty, sixty, seventy and not considering them irrelevant just because they’re past the age of appearing on the cover of a fashion magazine. It means respecting both mothers and women who aren’t mothers. It means identifying and calling out all those subtle little ways that society can belittle women – calling them overemotional, saying they’re overreacting, referencing menstruation and hormones as if men aren’t just as prone to emotional/physical reactions that override reason and logic. (Not that I approve of belittling men by referencing testosterone and such – it’s just as wrong.)
I believe that men can be feminists just as much as women. Any man who respects his peers, whatever their gender, who doesn’t feel threatened at the thought of women being on equal footing with men, who sees them as more than just potential sex partners – that’s a feminist. I don’t expect every such person to self-label as feminist. That’s semantics. The important thing is not what we do with a single word, but all the words we say, all the things we do and the ways we treat our fellow human beings. Maybe I’m a human-beingist.