The F word never fails to agitate. Women bend over backwards to duck the Feminist brand, whether it’s the celeb du jour who’s disqualified herself on the grounds that she loves men or doesn’t believe in labels, or the everyday women populating the “Women Against Feminism” Tumblr, holding signs bearing rationale like: I don’t need feminism because I enjoy being a homemaker and stay-at-home mom; A child with disabilities is my joy of life not a problem; My husband is my best friend and he treats me like a queen; I am not a victim.
While such testimonies make my heart sink — where do women get the idea that feminism is anti-homemaker, anti-husband-as-BFF, unsympathetic to children with disabilities, or pro-victimhood? — on another level, I get it.
Though I never questioned whether women were deserving of equality in every realm, though I was raised on the spoils of feminism itself — given every opportunity, raised to believe there was no question I was entitled to do my best to seize whichever possibility most did it for me — there were many years when I refused the label. Years when I was one of those “I’m not a feminist, but…” feminists, who chased the “but” with a list of beliefs that, to my understanding now, are the very foundation of my feminism.
But back then, “feminist” conjured a very specific mental image, and it wasn’t one I wanted anything to do with: She was angry, humorless, unattractive, unshaven, unfashionable. She disapproved of sex, of men, of sex with men. She was vigilant. A hardliner. Always on guard. Bearing whistles and red cards, ready to call foul.
Though the caricature of the hairy, humorless, man-hating feminist bears essentially no resemblance to anyone I’ve ever encountered, she’s persistent, pervasive, and universal enough to qualify as an archetype. And she keeps us living in fear — guilt by association — as though aligning ourselves with her would render our joie de vivre mort, our libido limp, our heels flat. I’ve seen Feminism’s boogeywoman; she wears Crocs.
I knew what I believed in terms of women’s equality. What I didn’t know was whether I could be a happy feminist, one with shaved legs, a sense of humor, a bit of an Anthropologie habit. Could I be a feminist, even while I try my best to look helpless when faced with hoisting a stuffed suitcase into the overhead bin in the hopes a man might take pity on my poor damsel self and do it for me? Could I call out misogyny and sexism but like sex, like men, and like sex with men? What about cooking? Was that allowed?
(What about enjoying cooking for a man I liked having sex with and whom I let put my suitcase in the overhead bin for me?!)
How could I reconcile the hardliner image I held with who I knew myself to be? Was there room for that, room for me? What was allowed?
Who was making the rules, anyway?
It’s such questions that are at the heart of acclaimed writer Roxanne Gay’s new essay collection, titled, importantly, “Bad Feminist.” Gay, who too denied the F-word before growing into it, now claims that “Bad” as a preface for reasons varied and relatable—including a fondness for the color pink and a tendency to “play dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.” She describes the common thread in her essays thusly: “How do we question the world we live in and question the popular culture that we consume while also admitting to our humanity and enjoying sometimes inappropriate things? And having inconsistent ideas?”
In other words: can one find “Blurred Lines” catchy and The Bachelorette irresistible while simultaneously understanding why she “should” find them both appalling and offensive?
Why not? Gay’s work asks.
Granted, many of the objections I’ve cited here are silly, having much more to do with that undying caricature of Mean Lady F than what feminism is really about.
But interestingly, it’s been in allowing myself permission to own my contradictions — superficial though they may be — that has freed me to claim my F-card with pride, to acknowledge my anger at the injustices, to examine and voice my feelings on the meatier issues. The ones that define feminism for me: equal opportunity, equal treatment, equal pay, equal representation; the freedom to determine our own reproductive destiny. Structural support for working women and families. And finding a way to grow the tent so that all are welcome.
Does Feminism have an image problem? That much is clear. The caricature of the whistle-blowing killjoy refuses to die, and it’s little wonder: she’s fed by a those who benefit from a status quo that risks being fatally toppled were that cranky man-hater replaced with a more nuanced, relatable, realistic poster woman.
But she’s also fed by us: women are judged, no matter what label they claim. They are judged more harshly than men, and often, they are judged most harshly by other women. Even when it comes to how “good” they are at feminism: She says she’s a feminist, but is she feminist enough? Or: obviously she’s a feminist, why won’t she say so?
Who, exactly, does the us-and-them game serve?
The irony, of course, is that most of us have staked out our positions from the relative comfort that feminism’s legacy has afforded us. Yet the word itself remains divisive — it feels a lot is on the line. Particularly because we believe that there is a line, and one must pick a side.
Being human involves nuance. Quite a bit of it. People are messy; we hold contradictions. Allowing for those contradictions in ourselves — and in others — is where our humanity lives. Indeed, allowing for the “bad” is where we find the good.
Shannon Kelley is a writer and author based in California who writes frequently on the intersection of feminism, pop culture and politics. Follow her on Twitter @Shannon_BKelley.