Time to give yourself a break.
As I sat watching the distastefully hilarious new series Fleabag this weekend, I found myself (alarmingly) resonating with it.
Written and starred in by the exceptional Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the title character is the epitome of a modern antihero. She’s narcissistic, self-obsessed, emotionally defunct but damaged — and painfully aware of it. Much like Lena Dunham’s Hannah in Girls (who she’s being inundated with comparisons to), she’s also a great example of complex and realistic female leads.
The particular moment that caught my attention was when, in the first episode, the feminist lecturer asks “Who would trade five years of their life for the perfect body?” She and her sister shoot up their hands, only to realise they are the only ones in the room to have done so.
“We are BAD feminists.”
In many ways it’s easy to tar her character with this brush. She keeps a boring, sappy boyfriend around; purely to avoid loneliness and tidy the house. She fumbles her way through cringe-worthy sexual encounters by appeasing the man’s desires; because she’s too lazy not to.
However — Fleabag owns her own cafe, is sharply cynical about her sister’s conventionally “perfect” life, and is sexually confident and unapologetic about it. Although her actions are ingrained by regression, her control over and disregard for them are not. Her outlandish apathy and independence feels progressive, even if a little masked.
Although an exaggerated version, it does re-raise the question; what does it mean to be a bad feminist?
We are told to truly believe in something we must be all or nothing. We should commit…be all in. Clean eating? Only if you’re gluten, wheat, dairy, lactose AND soy free. Left-leaning views? Better get behind Corbyn and condemn the Lib Dems for their centrist wishy-washy agenda. Starting to run? Why not try a marathon? Go on, push yourself! The same goes when it comes to women’s rights.
Still shaving your armpits? Bad feminist.
Spend your mornings reading about the latest mascara instead of the political situation in Turkey? Bad feminist.
Occasionally want to be treated to dinner by — (god forbid) — a man. Very, very bad feminist.
The pressure to tick every box when it comes to gender equality is frankly exhausting. It only adds to our predisposition to feel guilty about our thoughts and actions. We’re told we’re too scared of being opinionated, so we latch onto ideals even though we might just want to sit on the fence. We’re reminded that we need to be assertive as women to match the arrogance of men, so we end up being aggressive just to prove a point. It’s not de rigour to admit that we actually might, despite the pain, still want to get a bikini wax. Conversely, I’d shudder if a man ever called me a ‘bird’ non-ironically. I’d get angry and call it out if I saw a woman being verbally harassed in the street. I would never accept getting paid less than a male colleague of the same level.
Gratefully over the last few years the media has stepped up its game. We have more ways than ever to be actively and publicly joining the conversation. Organisations like Everyday Sexism are continuing to digitally spread their message, whilst more and more celebrities — both male and female — escalate ever-present issues. But with that comes the added complexity that social media brings. The spotlight is on us in every facet of our lives. As a result feminism has begun to feel like another thing we need to be perfect at. Something to curate and be seen as doing the“right” way; like the latest exercise or food fad.
It’s a confusing and murky ground, which many of us are still learning to navigate. That same weekend I invited a man who I had been (sort-of) dating over, purely for the purpose of borrowing his tools and getting him to do the gardening (no euphemism intended). My Fleabag-worthy antics suddenly struck a chord. I felt an overriding sense of shame as I messaged my friends to joke about it. Was it a totally anti-feminist thing to do? Whatever happened to finding your own ‘effing tools and doing it yourself?! Or am I empowered for being smart enough to see a shortcut to the chores I can’t be bothered with?
The root of problem for many is inauthenticity. I speak openly about my experiences and opinions of sexism, both in my social and work life. I am lucky to have a wide, progressive set of friends and be employed in an arts organisation where debate is routinely encouraged. Nonetheless, with my afforded luxury of liberalism, I can often feel like a fraud. My background in beauty marketing and occasionally traditional views feel jarring against my desire to help promote equality. It should of course be a completely outdated view that you can’t be feminine and a feminist. We hope to believe we are past that, yet still many of us feel a rising pressure to adhere to behaviours that are not our own to prove our credibility. Despite our best intentions, it can feel there is a critical eye on any action that might discredit or contradict our beliefs.
We are lucky that we exist in an era where there are numerous ways we can help to continue the cause, big or small. Anyone who wants gender equality, as long as it’s without prejudice, should be encouraged. Feeling guilty about not doing enough, or doing it right is only creating factions and exacerbating the problem. We need to recognise the variances in how we experience it are dependent on age, race, gender and sexuality. Whether we are traditionally “girly” or more of a “tomboy”, want to have children or not — we need to embrace the different ways in which we approach the problem. We don’t need to be the next Germaine Greer, join a protest, or be vocal on Twitter. Simply standing up for someone who’s being visibly harassed on a bus on your way into work is enough. Or at least for today.