Dropping the F-Bomb: The Reluctance Behind the Feminist Label

Time magazine asked Shailene Woodley, star of the 2014 summer blockbuster “The Fault in Our Stars”, if she considered herself a feminist.

Her response was: “No because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.”

Woodley is not the first woman to express that sentiment about feminism.

Paula Chakravartty, a New York University media studies professor, asked her “Media and Global Social Movements” students how many identify themselves feminists.

Three hands rose in a class that was predominantly female.

Both these instances may be considered isolated events that don’t truly reflect how women view feminism, yet according to a 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov poll, only 23% of American women consider themselves feminists.

However, when asked “Do you believe that men and women should be social, political, and economic equals?”, an overwhelming 82% majority of female responders said “Yes.”

In the year 2014, why do so many women consider feminism, a movement created to give them equality in a patriarchal society, a dirty word?

Claire Draper, a junior at NYU who has been heavily involved in the feminist movement, has a few ideas why.

She participated in the 2011 LA Slutwalk, a street march that raises awareness about rape culture and the politicized notion of the term “slut”.

Draper at the “My Lingerie Play” event on September 14th, 2014

More recently, Draper has participated in Diana Oh’s “My Lingerie Play”, a public play performance that addresses the degradation and sexualization of women in American culture.

She emphatically considers herself to be an active feminist both in terms of activism but also starting discussions around gender inequality.

Draper’s answer when asked why fellow women don’t share her enthusiasm for being a part of the feminist movement?

“No one talks about the real definition of feminism,” she said.

Draper says that a huge part of the problem is that the media that interviews celebrities such as Woodley, Kelly Clarkson, and Carrie Underwood (all of whom have said they are not feminists) without any follow up questions about what it means to be a feminist, thereby misrepresenting and sensationalizing the entire movement.

“The media and society act as if feminists are a thing of the past, just suffragists from the 1920's and man-hating extremists who burn bras.

Elon sophomore Sarah Mulnick is a part of the majority of women who do not embrace the feminist label.

Like the 82% of women who said “yes” to the question asking if women should have equal rights, Mulnick says that she does agree with the basic idea of feminism that promotes the idea of gender equality.

Unlike Woodley, Mulnick doesn’t believe that the entire feminist movement is against men, but she finds the few feminists that do actively hate men very off-putting.

She also isn’t willing to handle the stigma that is associated with being a part of the movement nor the perceived backlash she gets when she disagrees with some of their ideas, such as wage gaps and the possibility of being a conservative in the movement.

“There’s a lot of extremes in feminism that turn me off; groups of people who hate on men, massive amounts of women who have looked at me strangely and said that I’m flat out wrong for my opinions or because I’ve voted a certain way or hold a certain belief,” said Mulnick.

“I’m incredibly wary of any one thing that claims to represent one-half of the world’s population and flat-out insults someone who dares to disagree with their ideals. The movement, in my opinion, has become too broad and widespread among too many people for me to be able to identify with it as a whole.”

Another reason for women hesitating to call themselves feminists is rooted to the political climate dating way back to the 1980s, during the rise of the very conservative New Right.

This wave of conservatism was a response to the ubiquitous feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Second-Wave feminists protesting a beauty pageant

“I would say that backlash not only confused people what feminist stood for but also how to define it,” said Professor Marie Cruz Soto, who teaches feminist theory at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

“I think one of the things the New Right did quite well was take the stereotype of the angry, man-hating feminist and make it the widespread perception of the movement.”

However, there are other reasons why some women may not prefer to identify with the feminist movement, including the fact that it is heavily dominated by white, middle-class women.

Cruz Soto believes that such a privileged demographic leads to silencing voices of minorities, such as women of color and queer women, which allows for such minorities to feel alienated from the movement.

Among similar lines, women who face oppression based on class, race, and sexual orientation may also find themselves dealing with more than just one battlefront of sexism.

“A white, middle-class woman may have privilege in terms of class and race, but she feels disenfranchised due to her gender, so then she embraces that struggle,” explained Cruz Soto.

“So the term feminism isn’t a priority for other women because they might acutely feel that struggle but they cannot be reduced to that one thing.”

Yet when Mulnick and other women decide not to identify as feminists, does it truly matter in terms of making change for gender equality?

“Embracing the term may mean nothing, in a way,” said Soto Cruz.

“There are women in the global south that have been pushing for different things and embracing struggles as women, which could be defined from the outside as feminist, even if they would very firmly not embrace the term. It’s more about what you’re doing, how you’re thinking, the way you interact with others and yourself and the world.”

It seems then that female empowerment can go beyond what one chooses to identify themselves as, so long as there is a conversation around that identity at all.

“There is something about having a discussion of the term feminism that can allow for a certain political awakening. Whether or not the discussion may lead to a tangible change, at the very least it will make people think,” said Cruz Soto.

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